Friday, May 2, 2008

Virga Sky Over Sabino on Tuesday's Bird Survey

It is survey time again in Sabino Canyon. On Tuesday, April 29th, I arrive at 6:30 a.m. under blue skies with clouds that look like wispy kites. The weather man tells me these are virga, or rain that doesn’t reach the ground. I just enjoy them for the ephemeral beauty they offer. It’s a kite flying sort of day, with light winds and sunny skies.
White-winged doves are everywhere in the canyon today. As we start up the trail I see one perched atop a blooming saguaro alongside the tram road. Jean, Pam and I hike the mile and a quarter in to our starting point. We pass people already heading out of the canyon from their morning walk. Many people arrive at 5 a.m. to hike before work. Sabino is such a beautiful place to be.
We stop alongside the road when we see a Cooper’s hawk perched in a mesquite tree. As we creep closer we realize it is eating prey. Whatever the hawk clutches in its talons is already too ripped up to identify, but this Coopers is certainly enjoying a hearty breakfast today. This is good as Jean informs me they have 2 nesting pairs of Cooper’s hawks here at this end of the canyon. Well, this bird doesn’t appear to be sharing as it gulps down bit after bit of torn flesh. It is undisturbed by our presence as we stand and watch, and I snap of shot after shot of the feeding bird.
We finally arrive at our starting point for our survey. Here under the tree canopy a few Sacred Daturas are blooming with huge white bell-shaped flowers. I am told these flowers are hallucinogenic if I were to eat one. No chance of that happening with me! I’ll just enjoy looking at them, thank you! Since it is peak migration we hope to see some new birds today. It hasn’t rained in quite awhile and I can tell the creek level has definitely fallen since the last time we were here. It is rattlesnake season, however, and we keep a close lookout for where we place our feet as we head down the transect route along the riparian area. While we don't find any rattlesnakes, we do find this cone shaped depression in the sand which indicates the presence of an antlion larva's den.
We hear and see lesser goldfinches everywhere. Hummingbirds whizz by our heads, sometimes landing in the trees long enough for us to identify them. We count broad-bills, black-chins and one Costa’s. To our surprise we spot a black-headed grosbeak, though it is well hidden in the thick of the trees and I am unable to get a good shot of it. White-winged doves call out from both side of the creek and wing their way over our heads. The Gamble’s quail are calling to us also, first from one side of the canyon, then the other. Jean identifies the tumbling notes of a Canyon Wren. We never get to see it, but we do hear another farther down the survey route.

As we scramble over rocks and boulders Jean points out a beautiful rock that is indicative of the geology of Sabino Canyon. This rock is called gneiss and is composed of feldspar, quartz, garnet, mica, and magnetite.

We round a corner in the creek and discover a male mallard in a quiet pool of the creek. Then we spot the female up on a sand bar blending in perfectly with the sand and rock backdrop. As we look through our binoculars at the ducks a discussion develops about whether these are Mexican mallard hybrids. Here in the southwest the two species interbreed frequently and most mallards are hybridized. The male Mexican mallard looks similar to female mallards but according to Sibley’s Bird Guide they are 10% smaller and darker overall. This male has an olive colored bill as compared to the true yellow bills of pure northern mallards. The female we see has an olive-orange bill and it is decided that these two are Mexican-mallard crosses.

Since the water in the creek is frequently too high for us to follow its course along the bank we walk as far as we can, then backtrack to the road where we hike down to the bluff trail and take up the survey again. At the point where we reconnect with the road is a restroom where we often take a rest stop. It is in this restroom that I have had frogs fall out of the toilet paper roll or leap out of the sink on suction toes that cling to the side of the sink only to crawl back in to the wet center once I am done washing my hands. Today there are no frogs but right outside the rest room Jean and Pam call me over quickly to see a Gila Monster that is slowly lumbering across the ground. Finally I have my camera with me! I hastily start snapping photos as the creature crawls off into the cacti and scrub. I want to get a good picture of him of course, but he is heading away from me and most shots are of its backside!
With such a thick tail, it’s almost hard to tell which end is which, but you can clearly see the eyes in this head shot. I have been told that seeing a Gila monster in the wild is a rare occurrence but though I have only lived here a year, I have seen three of them in the wild!
As we head down the dusty Bluff Trail we pass a graythorn bush ripe with its blue berries. The berries are eaten by white-winged doves, Gamble's quail and other bird species. The bush also provides nesting sites for birds.

Farther down the trail we spot a yellow warbler in the top of an ash tree. It performs feats of high acrobatics in the top of the tree as it gleans insects from the new green leaves. Once down along the creek again we find more hummingbirds and some Wilson’s Warblers. A female black-chinned hummingbird alights briefly on her spider-web woven nest beneath a large tree that holds a Cooper’s Hawk nest. Research by the hummingbird survey group has revealed that Black-chinned hummingbirds are 50% more successful in raising their broods when they nest beneath a Cooper’s hawk nest. The interplay of species never ceases to amaze me.

It was still a bit cool when we first started our survey, but the rising sun has raised the temperature considerably. I shed my light sweater and sip water from my camel pack on a regular basis. Our dew points have been running in the single digits lately with a few dips in the negative category. Yes, I have seen dew points of -9 degrees posted on the local evening news. This means our air is extremely dry which makes the fire danger extreme also. According to the news, we are experiencing the highest fire danger in 26 years!

By the time we finish the survey we have counted 29 species of bird, though my personal count is higher since I count birds all the way into and out of the canyon. I end up with 31 species of birds on this day. As we walk out of the canyon Jean takes us by a thrasher’s nest deep in a cholla cactus. The bird and nest blend in so well that most people would never notice them. We pass a couple of women as we near the parking lot. They excitedly tell us that they have seen a Gila monster today in the canyon. One woman has lived here for 15 years and has never seen one in the wild before. As we stand there talking I notice some movement alongside the path. A little round-tailed ground squirrel gazes cautiously up at us from behind a bush, its dark eyes questioning and liquid soft.


Anonymous said...

Miss Katie, please, could you give me back me kite? Oh please ... it's that one looking like a cloud!

Great photos you have here.
Very good blog.

imac said...

Beautiful Skies and the bird photos are great too.

Come see my Blue...

Anne said...

Wow !!! I just love the photos of the hawk, the most besutiful and georgious bird in the world i think. Just love them and what they ca do in the sky.

Nice weekend to you.

Kathie Brown said...

quintarantino, you are welcome to come and try to catch it yourself. You won't regret the trip!

imac, your blue is really blue. Nice photos on your blog.

anemone, thank you for dropping by. Hawks are awesome. They are the masters of the skies!

Chrissy said...

Beauuuuutiful photos. I love sabino canyon.

Daniel J Santos said...

Excellent post, beautiful images.

Carole said...

I love the desert and saquaros. Very nice pictures.

Larry said...

It sounds like you and the Gila Monsters have a special relationship. You have seen three in a year compared to a woman who has seen her first after fifteen years. It seems to me you're seeing
more like 100 species because so many of them are ones I don't get to see.-Great photos presented with an entertaining journal to go along with it.

Tom said...

Hello Kathie
I'm going to do my Sky Watching then come back tomorrow to vioew more of this post and look at others as well..

The cloud is a stunner, reminds me of a wee ghosty..

Thanks for joining in with Sky Watch and I do hope you come back for more.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, most interesting post, and your photos are great. That cloud does look like a kite!

Stacey Olson said...

to many people think that the desert lands are dead and baron.. thanks for showing everyone that it is beautiful and full of life..

Pappy said...

Great shots as usual. It took two readings, but you said virga not viagra.:) They do look like kites. I caught many antlions in their little cone shaped traps when I was a kid. I didn't realize they were a larva. I'm impressed that they become a flying creature. I've learned something new.

FO - 2 said...

I love all the shots here! :)
You have a nice blog. Very good pictures. :)


Kathryn and Ari said...

The detail and perspective of your photos is just wonderful, and I really love the narrative, too. You know how to tell a great story!

bobbie said...

What a wonderful walk you took us on. The "wispy kite" was a great start. I loved the rest as well. Would love to see the hummers.

Kathie Brown said...

Chrisss, are you part snake? Cute way to sssspell your name! Thanks for dropping by!

Daniel, glad you enjoyed your visit. Come back anytime!

Carole, the saguaros make it easy to fall in love with the desert. Thanks!

Larry, I am beginning to think the same thing! I'm always happy to see that you read my blog.

Marie, thank you.

Old Wom Tigley, Thank you for coming to see me and commenting on my blog. No worries if time doesn't allow further reading. I incorporated 2 posts into one for efficiancy. I have grand kids visiting right now. I enjoy being part of Skywatch Friday and hope to participate again. Thanks for hosting it!

Ocean, you are always so kind and thoughtful. Glad to see you again. I do try to do my very best job with my blog. Thanks for noticing.

Sherry, welcome! Thanks for stopping by.

Stacey, I use to be one of those people until I moved here!

Texican, you made me laugh! It would take a man to make that mental leap. Thanks for owning up to it! LOL!

Ida, Welcome and thank you!

Kathryn and Ari, you're making me blush! Thank you for such a nice observation!

bobbie, I did try to get some hummers but they don't stay still for very long. I almost got a shot of a female black-chinned on the nest but just as I was focusing, she flew away! Oh well, another day, another photo op!

JP said...

Wow, fantastic pix! Looks like the wildlife cooperated, too -- what an all-star day. What type of camera do you use, if I may ask? Your photos on this blog are consistently great.

Petunia said...

Love your pictures:) So great!


Ed Mahony said...

The cloud in top photo looks like a big, white kite.
Did you take the photo of the bird on the cactus? I love it. Great photo.

Doug Taron said...

Three gila monsters? In all my time wandering out in the desert over the past 20 years, I have yet to see one. I'm counting on you to work you magic again when I'm out in Tucson this July.

John Theberge said...

Loved those photos of the hawk having a meal. You certainly show how diversified life in the desert is.

Kathryn said...


Loved the sky watch photo! Really enjoyed your post.

Kathie Brown said...

jp, Thank you. We use a Nikon D80 that we just purchased for Christmas this past year and are still learning how to use. We previously used a Nikon FG that we've had for 20 years. It is very simple to just point and shoot but we still haven't tried out all the settings. For me it was hard to make the leap to digital but Gus loves it. After some time I have to say I do too, but sometimes I miss film. I took all of today's photos but my husband, Gus, is responsible for the photography on other posts.

Petunia, thank you for visiting my blog and thank you for commenting.

Eamon, I thought the same thing about the cloud looking like a kite and, yes, I took all the photos on today's post. Thank you.

Doug, I'll do my best! 2 were seen in Sabino Canyon but the first Gila Monster I ever saw was in the wash of Sycamore Canyon across the street from my house!

Thank you John! As you can probably guess, I took many more photos of the feeding hawk but tried to pick the best ones to show.

Katnell, thank you. Wish you could've been here!

Larry said...

Your blog is one of my favorites. Lately I haven't been keeping up with reading some of the blogs that I used to.

Anonymous said...

Great Hawk P's!

Sandpiper (Lin) said...

Fascinating post. The lead picture of the sky is beautiful. That cloud! Wow! I love the picture of the dove on the cactus. How cute! Great shots of the hawk. All of your pictures are great!

Kathie Brown said...

Larry, well, I'm glad you still come to mine. You were my very first visitor that I didn't know. I always apprieciate your blog. I hope you keep at it! I love checking in on CT and you are giving me all kinds of ideas about where to go birding next time I visit!

forthepeople, thank you.

Sandpiper, you are too kind! Thank you! You would go crazy out here with your camera. I hope you get to visit someday!