Thursday, January 3, 2008

Buenos Aries NWR Part One: Arivaca Cienega

One of the last things we did last year was visit the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. We waited until we were sure Gus’ new SLR digital camera he ordered for Christmas wasn’t coming. We had hoped it would be here so he could take pictures and I could watch birds, but alas, it didn’t arrive in time, and we went anyways. My little Nikon Coolpix7600 would just have to do. All the photos seen in this Blog so far have been taken with it. I like to take it birding because it fits neatly in my pants pocket, though I hate the delay when taking pictures and it really isn’t powerful enough to zoom in on distant birds.

However, I did have my new Vortex 8x42 Diamondback Binoculars to try out. We bought these on Friday from the Tucson Audubon. I had brought Gus there to see some Leupold’s compact binoculars I have my eyes on, but at half the price and nearly as good optics, I chose these for now. Perhaps later I will but the Leupold’s. I am gradually working my way up in quality of binoculars. Until now I have had 2 pairs of Bushnell binoculars, my most recent being 8x40, but with a focal length of only 15 ft I couldn’t watch birds that were closer than that, and frequently they are! My new Diamondbacks focus at only 4.5 feet!

On Sunday, December 30, 2007 we loaded up the car with food, water and clothing. Gus filled the gas tank the day before. While we had never been to the wildlife refuge before, I read enough about it on the internet to know I needed to be prepared for everything. This is a remote area of the country and the chances of finding food or fuel were even more remote!

After days of what for Tucson was cold, this day was not only sunny, but warm. Gus wore shorts and a t-shirt while I opted for layers with light-weight pants, a t-shirt, and a long-sleeved thermal over that. As the day wore on it proved to be a good choice.

We drove south on I-19 through Green Valley and exited at the Arivaca and Amado exit. A right turn off the exit and a right at the T brought us between the Longhorn Grille and the Cow Palace. We’ve eaten at the Cow Palace before where many famous people are suppose to have eaten, including that most famous cowboy, John Wayne. A left turn here gets you onto Arivaca road and on your way to the refuge.

Arivaca road is a winding two-lane road through desert scrub and mesquite bosque. Old ranches hide in the scrub lands. Sometimes we see horses and cattle, sometimes nothing more than scrub and birds. One of the first birds we see is a roadrunner as it scurries across the road. On numerous phone poles throughout the day we see red-tailed hawks. As the road winds along the contours of the land change. Suddenly over the hill a great peak like some chiseled stone monument appears over the rolling slopes of a grassy hill. It spikes into the blue vault above, then disappears as we descend into another dip in the road. Eventually it appears for good towering over what we soon learn is the Alter Valley. The peak is called Baboquivari Peak and is sacred to the Tohono O’odom people.

We finally round a corner at the edge of Arivaca and see the first sign of the Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge. We decide to pull into the parking lot of a place known as the Arivaca Cienega. It’s only later that we discover this is a good choice. Though only a small part of the refuge, it is one of the best places to go birding since it has grasslands, mesquite bosque, Arivaca creek, which actually has water in it, and a marshland, complete with cattails and rushes! A few tall cottonwoods tower over the grasslands, but the first bird we see is a ladder-back woodpecker pounding away at a mesquite tree right near the parking lot. I pull my little camera out to take a picture, but the photo doesn’t come out very well and I discard it. While we are standing there looking at the bird another person comes up with the exact camera and lens that Gus is eagerly waiting for, so he gets to see what it will look like. I think he got a good shot of the bird!

We wander down the cement sidewalk as it winds through the bosque. In the shade of the thicket a barrel cactus is growing, leaning towards the sun. In the twisted twigs of some scrub I hear a sound and focus in on a Bewick's wren! The next bird I see in the same area is a white-crowned sparrow. We are nearing the edge of the trees and the sun is beating down. I remove my thermal shirt and tie it around my waist. Overhead a red-tailed hawk circles lazily in the sky.

We continue down the path to a fork. We decide to take the right fork for we see someone looking into the crown of a towering cottonwood. From high in the tree we hear the squeaking scolding of a flicker, but which kind? The flash of red under its wings identifies it as a northern flicker. What’s it so upset about? A great-horned owl roosting on a cross branch. Gus really wishes he had his camera now!

Then we hear another raucous noise from atop the tree. To my great surprise there is a lone starling chortling away. Is he mad at the owl or the flicker, or is he just singing his joy to the world? Perhaps he is calling for his buddies, but no one is showing up. We left him squawking away and continued down the trail.

The path here crosses a marshy meadow. A boardwalk has been built across it to prevent damage to habitat as well as shoes. We stop almost immediately when we see a bird silhouetted on a weed. A quick look reveals a loggerhead shrike with his bandit-like mask watching over the field. Though he is quite near the boardwalk he doesn’t fly away as we pass silently by.

At the far side of the meadow we turn right up a small hill to an observation platform. A meadowlark flies up before us and disappears into the tall grasses over the hill. At the top of this knoll the platform looks out over the marshland. Though I don’t see any birds at first, I soon hear a coot which enables me to find it. In the brush near my feet some bird is scratching about in the debris but all I see are olive-green sides and yellow undertail coverts. I never get a glimpse of the head, but wonder if it is a common yellowthroat. As I turn to look back over the meadow I see a raptor perched on a fence post. I am hoping for a gray hawk, which would be a new life bird for me. They are suppose to be in this area, but this bird is big and brown and when it flies up I see the white rump patch of a northern harrier. We watch its beautiful flight over the meadow where it disappears beyond the treeline.

Glancing back over the meadow I see another hawk perched at the very top of the tall cotton wood tree where the owl roosts. This hawk is different than any I’ve seen before, yet it’s not gray. It’s brown with a patterned face, streaky breast and white at the base of its tail. It appears to be smaller than a red-tail or a harrier. I don’t have my bird guide with me, but I write down notes in my note book and take a mental picture.

We head back down the path to continue around the loop trail. Now the path enters a shady forested area with a marshy area to the left and a wooded and brushy hillside to the right. This spot is bursting with birdlife. I can barely count fast enough as a red-winged blackbird, white-crowned sparrows, green-tailed towhees, and cardinals appear. A Pyrrhuloxia flies across the path. Then, a covey of Gambel’s quail startle up before us. In the leaves on the hillside I hear a sound and watch as twigs and weeds move. I focus in and laugh when some rodent’s head pokes out a burrow. It has the end of a dried weedstalk in its mouth and it is trying desperately to pull the thing into its hole, but the weed is still firmly rooted to the ground, and for the moment the plant is winning over the animal! I have no idea what creature I am seeing. If I was in New England I would guess at a small woodchuck, but this is the desert southwest and it must be something else: a ground squirrel perhaps? Or maybe a muskrat. We are still close to the water, but most muskrats I know build lodges like beaver. I realize I still have so much to learn.

As we continue down around the loop Gus comments on how quiet and peaceful it is here. The path wanders in and out of the trees and alongside the creek. Eventually I do see what looks like a beaver lodge, only smaller. There is no dam and no ponding, so it must be something else that built the lodge. Farther around the bend we cross a couple of wooden bridges where song sparrows pick along the muddy creek bank. We stop just as we are about to emerge from the trees for there before us stand six mule deer. There appears to be two does with four fawns. They watch us casually, then three cross the boardwalk and pass into the meadow we just looped around and three head off in the other direction. Who can explain the thinking of a deer? We are just pleased to see them on this sunny day in late December.

I am keeping a lookout for a green kingfisher, which I have been told has been seen in this area, but all I see is a kestrel in another tall cottonwood tree. This tree stands near the creek where the water has collected in a deep pool. Other trees surround this spot and all have dropped their leaves on the banks and in the water. The damp smell of moist earth and rotting plant life drifts up and scents the air. It is a pleasant, familiar scent, reminding me of New England and streams in the forest there. A rustle in the nearby grasses causes me to turn. Here we see canyon towhees flitting in and out of the brush. More white-crowned sparrows fly up and back into cover again.

As we round another corner we walk into sunlight once again. He we meet a couple who warn us of a rattlesnake ahead on the trail. We walk cautiously forward and sure enough, a menacing rattle is heard. We pause and watch as the snake slithers out onto he warm cement sidewalk which starts up again at this very point. The snake is brown and tan and about 3 to 4 feet long. Its tail kinks upwards into bands of black and gray rattles, which the animal is vigorously shaking to warn us to keep our distance. We stay at least 15 feet away as it slithers across the path, but when I move to get a better angle for a photograph it stops and coils up as if to strike. Though I am quite far away, I pause until the snake no longer feels threatened. Gus and I watch as it finally slithers off into the grass and brush beside the path. We hurry by with pounding hearts back to the parking lot. It has been a thrilling day so far and we have yet to drive through Arivaca to the main part of the refuge.

When we return to our vehicle, I consult my bird guides—Sibley’s and Kaufman and find that the hawk I saw atop the tall cottonwood may have been a juvenile Gray Hawk. The color, location, habitat and behavior all fit. I’m fairly sure I have a new life bird. As we leave the parking lot and head west I see another hawk perched atop another tree. I make Gus pullover so I can identify it, but once the car stops it flies off before I can be sure of what I’m looking at. Time to get back on the road again.

In all I recorded 26 species at this segment of the refuge, though I know there were many more birds that I could not identify. These are the ones I am sure of with 2 questionable:

1. American Kestrel
2. Bewick’s wren
3. Black Phoebe
4. Canyon towhee
5. Cardinal
6.Common yellowthroat(?)
7. Coot
8. European Starling
9. Gambel’s quail
10. Gray hawk (?)
11. Gila Woodpecker
12. Great-horned owl
13. Green-tailed towhee
14.Ladder-backed woodpecker
15. Loggerhead shrike
16. Mourning dove
17. Northern flicker
18. Northern harrier
19. Pyrrhuloxia
20. Red-tailed hawk
21. Red-winged blackbird
22. Ruby-crowned kinglet
23. Says’ Phoebe
24. Song sparrow
25. Western meadowlark
26.White-crowned sparrow

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