Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Hints of Springtime In Sabino Canyon

The alarm rang in the pitch black of a moonless morning at 4:30 a.m. One of the cats jumped up on the bed to investigate if I was really going to get up. It jumped down as I rolled out of bed and headed for the bathroom. Today is the day I volunteer to at Sabino Canyon for Tucson Audubon’s Important Bird Area, or IBA Survey. Sabino Canyon is about an hour north of me and we have to start the survey within a half an hour of sunrise. Since we hike a mile into the canyon and then do the survey on the hike back, I have to get up this early to arrive on time. I hurry about making my tea and some oatmeal. I feed the cats and move laundry around. Bonnie decides she needs to barf on the tile floor in the hallway, so I hurry to clean that up. Since today is trash day I take the bag outside into a black silk night. It’s so dark I have to turn a light on so I can see my way back to the front door, but once around the corner of the garage a light breeze caresses my face and I pause in all this hectic hurry to gaze upwards at the star-studded sky.

The drive to Sabino canyon is long. Though I am early the traffic is already thick on the roads. As I pull into the parking lot the sky is turning to gray. A desert cotton tail nibbles on greenery near the visitor center where I wait for Jean and Peggy. Any day that starts off with a cute little bunny will be a good day.
We start our hike up the tram road. Already we are seeing cactus wrens, curved-billed thrashers, and phainopeplas. The sun starts to rise between the canyon walls. Saguaros are silhouetted along the ridgeline. Then a sunbeam breaks through flooding the canyon with light.

Down in a gully three white-tailed deer grazed without fear.

Along the roadway we see cardinals and a canyon towhee. Usually shy and secretive, this one hopped up on a twig and posed for me.

So did this male and female cardinal!

I can hear the roar of the creek below me in the canyon. Up here on the road the sunlight is hitting and the birds are starting to sing, but when we get down into the canyon it’s still in shadow.
We count no birds at all at our first stop for a point count. Usually we do a Transect Survey which for us is a one mile walk in one direction counting all the birds within 100 meters of our trail. But, every now and then we have to do Point Count Surveys. This involves five stops along the way where we stand at one point and count birds for 10 minutes. Then we move down the trail to the next point and do it again. In between we don’t count birds, though I do my own personal count for eBrid.

We climb over rocks and we trek through sand. We duck through brush as we head downstream. Peggy finds a raccoon track in the soft creek sand. I keep hoping to see a coati but so far, no luck. Then we find an ant lion trap, a conical indent in the sand where, if an insect wanders in it has a hard time getting out and usually the ant lion gobbles up the victim before it can escape. Along the creek the willows drop their shaggy bark. Some branches have fine green leaves and yellow catkins in flower and along with the cottonwoods’ new lime green leaves it gives the impression of a green mist along the treetops. One willow is such bloom the branches were humming with drunken bees. A Morning Cloak butterfly joins them sipping nectar far at the top out of reach of my camera. I gaze at its dark brown wings edged in cream through my binoculars. Its head is buried deep in the tree’s flowers, hidden from sight.

A ruby-crowned kinglet comes to check us out, then, uncharacteristically deices it needs to preen right in front of us. These busy little birds are often so hard to photograph simply because they are in constant motion, but today I was able to snap of 10 to 12 good shots!

We finish out point counts just south of the Sabino creek dam. I see the old road washed out from previous flooding. The creek cascades over the cracked cement and meanders on its way in a gentle fashion today. At our last stop we see the most birds, including a broad-billed hummingbird and a ladder-backed woodpecker, but it is on our walk back to the parking lot that we make our best discovery. I am constantly scanning the trees, brush, cacti and skies for motion. Suddenly I see something gray moving in the thick tangle of a mesquite. Gazing through my binoculars I’m delighted to discover a nesting pair of phainopeplas! The male flies out to a tree near a saguaro, but the female sits on the nest rearranging the twigs to better suit her taste. Her silky gray body blends perfectly with the mesquite bark. If it weren’t for her red eyes, she would disappear completely with her camouflage.

Jean has taught me an interesting thing about phainopeplas. One of their favorite foods is mistletoe berries. The phainopeplas eat the sticky red berries and excrete them onto the trees they use as perches. Since the birds tend to go back to the same perches frequently and since the seeds are still sticky when they are excreted, they stick to the tree branches in clumps until the mistletoe can take root on the branch and start its parasitic cycle all over again!

While I had seen the clumps of mistletoe hanging from trees in the desert I had never yet seen the ripe berries. Today we finally found some, as well as the seed clumps clinging to a branch.

All along the trail we see spring wildflowers blooming. Miniature lupine pokes up its blue spikes no more than 10 inches high. After having lived in Maine where the lupine can top five feet tall, this new variety amazes me. I suppose it doesn’t have time to get that tall here. It’s never wet enough or cold enough! Still, the bluish-purple blossoms have a delicate beauty.

We see yellow primrose along the trail, globe mallow and Mexican poppies, but it is not warm enough yet for them to be open. A few more hours of sun will coax their petal wide, but for now we only see their tightly wrapped buds pointing skyward. We see other flowers in bloom that we don’t know the name of, but we enjoy their beauty nonetheless.

An antelope ground squirrel gazes at us from atop a rock, then hurries away as we pass by. We stop to check out the Cooper’s hawk nest in a tall cottonwood tree a bit off the trail, and then continue on our way to the parking lot. It’s almost noontime and I’m tired and hungry as I drive back home to Sycamore canyon. As I head up the road with my head full of today’s birding expedition I suddenly notice a large black bird with its wings held in a “V” gliding over the desert. I was wondering when they would return! It’s my first sighting of a turkey vulture here in Sycamore Canyon this year. Now I know that spring is almost upon us! And then, as I round the bend onto my road I see a patch of bright orange on the side of the road. I pull over and park the car and clamber out with my camera to capture the beauty of Mexican poppies growing wild right here in Sycamore Canyon. As if that is not enough to finish off my day, a lovely jewel green insect flies right into the orange cup just in time for me to snap this picture!


Beth said...

Oh Kathie, what a fantastic post--I feel like I was there. The pictures were wonderful and that last one of the poppy made me gasp. That was very interesting about the mistletoe berries and how they complete their cycle. Thank you for sharing much good information!

Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

This is a beauiful post Kathie! Like Beth, I felt like I was walking along wth you. Your photos tell the story too.

Kathie Brown said...

Beth, I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I was so pleased with that last photo, especially when the green bug flew in! Thank you!

Lynne, I felt like you with your goldfinch post. I have so many good photos, it was hard to choose. There are still so many that I may do another post tomorrow just to get them all in! Thank you for your commnets

Aunt "B's" Backyard said...

Hi Kathie...I am so glad you are a survey volunteer!! It's just incredible to observe all of the differences from one part of the country to another. Funny, we have some of the same birds, though. The cacti are just beautiful. I only grow them in small pots in the house, hehe. Your shots are just breathtaking. I loved the post, thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your point count experience. Some of the birds, animals and plants you name and/or picture are familiar here in PA others so foriegn. I have always wanted to take part in a point count. Maybe soon.

Pappy said...

Nice post. Almost thou persuadist me to be a birder. Great photos - What camera are you using?

Doug Taron said...

I loved this post. WHere you live is one of my favorite places in the world, and your words and pictures made me feel like I was back there.

The little green insect in the poppy is a halictid bee. It's the same family that sweat bees are in. Many species are beautiful metallic green.

Mary said...

Really great pics and story! I love that canyon towhee and the pics of the nesting pair! Wow! Is the Sabino Canyon tram ride opened back up? Last year when I was there, there was a lot of wash-out damage. I'm headed that way in a couple of weeks. It is such a beautiful place.

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

I felt like I was walking along with you. These pictures and all of your sightings are fantastic! It would be hard to choose a favorite, but I do love the cactus silhouettes against the golden sky, the red eye of the Phainopepla, the flowers, and that adorable little ground squirrel.

Mary said...

Kathie, I am envious of your day, from doing trash duty, your drive, the sightings of Cardinals (which I am familiar with), phainopeplas - incredibly unique, and the ruby-crowned kinglet that I have seen only once, in a flash. This is a wonderful post. Wow.

Pappy said...

I've tagged you with a task --- read my blog to get instructions. Tag, your're it! Don't feel obligated to play, but I'm sure you would do a good job with it.

Kathie Brown said...

Aunt B, I'm new to the surveying but I feel glad to be doing something to help the birds since they give me so much pleasure! Thank you for your comments.

Vern, I'm sure Audubon would be happy to have you! Isn't it amazing how we share the same species and then have such differnt ones! That's what makes it fun to travel to new places! (and fun to read other's blogs!)

Texican, I'm using a Nikon D80. It's new to Gus and I. We just got it this year. BTW, we'd love to have you join us birders! It doesn't take much, just some binoculars and a field guide. start small, in your own back yard. That's how almost all birders get started. At least you know where to go to get advice! (Smile!)

Doug, So glad you chimed in! I was hoping you would tell me what I was seeing. I suppose I should get a field guide for the insects next. I have one for mammals right now. I also will need a wildflower guide. Oh, there is so much to learn in this world! I'm glad my writing and photos bring you back. Will you be visiting this area again any time soon?

Mary, as far as I know the tram ride is open again but it only goes up to stop 4. They are still working on repairing the trail, and for some reason the restrooms at the visitor's center were all closed this Wednesday. They had a row of porta potties set up in the parking lot. Yuk! Give me a tree in the woods instead!

Sandpiper, thank you so much for your compliment! I was glad I brought my camera. It was an extrodinary day. I have so many good photos that I may do another post! I was so surprised the first time I saw an antelope ground squirrel. They are so cute! Phainopeplas are amazing birds. When they fly you can see white wing patches!

Stacey Olson said...

Beautiful, Thanks for sharing

Kathryn and Ari said...

Your pictures are gorgeous: they make me pine for Santa Rita! Thanks for the wonderful post, which let me live your wonderful day vicariously. And now I know a new species, too: phainopeplas! (I'm going to have to look them up in my bird book.)

Anonymous said...

Wow, great post and wonderful photos too! I haven't been to Tuscon, but I love Sedona:) I'll have to take a closer look at the painting when I go upstairs later. There are drips in the sky, I just let the paint go and do its thing, it always kind of looked the sky was crying to me:)

Larry said...

Really nice post.-I have to admit I'm a little envious of the cool birds you see over there.-Slow down a little bit! It's not fair!

Kathie Brown said...

Stacy, thanks for visiting my Blog. Nice photos on your page but it wouldn't let me back up! Like Mary View always says, Grrr!

Hi Kathryn! Perhaps Ari, the Caninaturalist would like to come see one for herself! (The Santa Ritas are calling you! Come back! come back Kathryn!)

Bookabie, I've been to Sedona. Beautiful! but oh, so expensive! Did you go for a visit or to sell some of your art? Thanks for visiting my Blog.

Larry, thank you! but, I can't slow down. There's too much to see down here! I love writing, and sharing it with all of you is just like nectar to a hummingbird!

Ocean, what a nice thing to say! Thank you! Your towhee is probably a western or spotted towhee. We have them here also. In fact,there were 3 hanging around Sabino Canyon for the last few months, but they are gone now.

Patrice said...

All I can say is Wow! That was a wonderful post, Kathi. Great photos and excellent writing to go with. I felt as if I were right there with you. And I envy your climate right about now. Thanks so much for taking us along.

Kathie Brown said...

Patrice, thanks for the compliment! From a word lover like you, that means a lot!

Unknown said...

Superb photos! You live in a lovely location! I've never been out west to see the beauty of the desert- but that trip is on my list of goals in life. Especially to see the stars at night! :)