Posts Tagged ‘southwest’

Elegant Trogon

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Tuesday, August 9th, 2011


No other sound is as evocative of the mountain canyons of our “sky islands” in southeastern Arizona as the “Kwaa Kwaa Kwaa” of the Elegant Trogon. Even if you are not a birder or have never heard of a trogon you would know that this sound comes from something big and exotic. The bright red and green bird that makes the call looks like it belongs in the jungles of Costa Rica rather than an Arizona canyon and indeed most trogon species are restricted to the tropics. But we are thrilled to have this representative, along with its much rarer cousin the Eared Quetzal, in our part of the world.

We recently participated in an Elegant Trogon census in the nearby Huachuca Mountains. It didn’t take any arm-twisting to convince us to spend a beautiful summer morning hiking in the Miller Peak Wilderness Area quietly listening for trogons. We only found three males, all noisily advertising for mates and staking out their territories in the sycamore lined canyon bottoms. Hopefully they are better at locating female trogons than we proved to be. Despite being large and colorful (the females are less so), trogons can be very difficult to locate when they are silent. Perhaps there were female admirers perched quietly watching the proceedings.

The long drought in the southwest is taking its toll. The many species of evergreen oaks are showing the stress of a record freeze in late winter and no winter rains. Insect numbers are extremely low and some of our insectivorous birds appear to have deferred nesting this year. Fires in the nearby Chiricahua Mountains displaced some mountain species, including trogons to marginal habitat including our neighborhood in Bisbee. The Huachuca Mountains had a large fire in mid-June, although firefighters were able to save the sheltered canyons in the northern part of the mountains, including the one we surveyed.

Maybe we will go back to Sunnyside canyon to see if our trogons found a mate. The summer rains have begun and hope is in the air.

Birding Tip Series #2: From Tom Wood

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Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Tip#1: To a beginning birder, the sight of a field guide with over 800 species of North American birds must look intimidating. Don’t worry; your task is not really to sort through all those birds one by one to find the one you’re looking at. Bird i.d. is really a process of elimination. Most beginners already know the general types of birds. Is it a hawk? A duck? A wading bird? Songbird? You’ve already narrowed it down to a smaller subset. With experience you will get a feel for the different look and behavior of warblers, flycatchers, wrens and such. Look at the range maps or checklists and see which of the remaining birds occur in your area at this particular time of year. Another group eliminated. Now, from the remaining birds look at size, color, shape, behavior and whittle the list down some more.

The Audubon Bird Guide makes it easy to work through the process of elimination. The advanced search feature allows you to pick the state, month, habitat, size and color of your mystery bird. This shortcut should get the choices down to a manageable level in a hurry and is simply the method that good birders have used for decades to arrive at an i.d. computerized for your convenience. Birding has never been so easy. A caveat – birds don’t always read the range maps and sometimes show up in places they should not occur. That’s part of the fun.

Tip # 2 Imagine that an alien life form met you on one of your birding trips far from town. Once he/she categorized your appearance as the typical “human”, a field guide to life on earth is circulated to all the other aliens. Will they recognize Tom Cruise, Oprah Winfrey, Danny DeVito and Lady Gaga as human too? Well maybe not Lady Gaga. My point is, as great as the photos on Audubon Guides or the illustration in a field guide are, not every bird is going to look like the picture in the book. Birds that are molting or in immature or aberrant plumage may appear very different from the one shown. Sometimes birds are just having a “bad feather day” and appear disheveled or dirty. Some birds molt in new feathers with tips that mask their bright colors. As those tips wear away with time the bird becomes brighter and more colorful. Other go into a dull “eclipse” plumage, losing some of their showy field marks. Learning behavior and body language of familiar birds can help you see through their disguises.

Saguaro

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Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

Arizona is probably the only state whose state wildflower can be fifty feet tall, weigh over two tons and live 150 years. The iconic Saguaro cactus was designated the official state flower in 1931. Pronounced SA-waar-row (the quickest way to label yourself as a dude is to say Sa-gwaar-ow), this iconic cactus is permanently implanted in our minds as the symbol of the southwest deserts. It is so emblematic of the west that I have seen tee shirts commemorating Houston emblazoned with saguaros. Houston is closer to the Florida Keys than it is to the nearest saguaro but the image persists.

These huge cactus are found only in the Sonoran desert of Arizona and the Mexican State of Sonora. Transplants to Palm Springs, California never seem too happy, but may take a decade to completely die. Our particular corner of southeastern Arizona is gets too cold for saguaros, on drives to Tucson I always mark my progress by the first saguaros. Among their adaptations to life in the desert is the ability to store hundreds of gallons of water in the brief rainy season. The pleated sides of the columns expand like an accordion to hoard water for the dry months ahead. The soft pulpy center of the saguaro forms a tough coating if damaged by wind or woodpeckers. The coated cavities, called “saguaro boots”, not only provide nesting cavities for the woodpecker that does the original excavation, but also may eventually provide a home for an Elf Owl, Western Screech Owl or our desert Purple Martins.

A Saguaro begins life as a tiny pincushion under the protective shade of a “nurse tree”. As it grows, it eventually overshadows its “nurse tree” and, at age 35 or so, it begins to blossom. The creamy white flowers that bloom in the spring are a source of nectar for hummingbirds, White-winged Doves and orioles as well as two species of nectar feeding bats. Butterflies, bees and wasps also visit the flowers and, like all the others, help to pollinate the giant cactus. Later in the season the pulpy purple fruits also provide food for a variety of desert creatures including the native peoples of the Sonoran Desert.

Two of the best places to see these giant marvels are the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Saguaro National Park around Tucson.

Desert Chipmunk

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Tuesday, April 5th, 2011


The high deserts of southeastern Arizona are a little short on chipmunks. Even the tough little Cliff Chipmunk seldom strays far from the forests of the Chiricahua Mountains (except for a few pioneers that somehow made it to the Huachuca Mountains, but that’s a topic for another post). So what’s a tiny squirrel with racing stripes doing in our desert garden? It’s the chipmunk’s doppelganger, Harris’s Antelope Squirrel. They’re a bit larger and rounder than true chipmunks and lack facial stripes, but their behavior is strikingly similar.

This is a very special neighbor, unique to the Sonoran Desert region. Their genus name, Ammospermophilus, means “sand seed lover,” but Harris’s Antelope Squirrels are as comfortable in rocky deserts as sandy ones. Sure, they stuff their cheek pouches with high-priced seed intended for the birds, but you can get away with some petty theft when you’re that cute. Anyway, they don’t take nearly as much as the relatively enormous Rock Squirrels, and they tuck their plunder safely away in their burrows instead of burying it in our flower beds. (When it finally does rain, sprout volcanoes erupting in our hummingbird garden mark “Rocky’s” forgotten seed caches.)

The three other antelope squirrels are just as adorable: Nelson’s (an endangered resident of California’s San Joaquin Valley), Texas (western Texas, eastern New Mexico, and north-central Mexico), and White-tailed (western New Mexico west to southeastern California and southern Baja California north to southeastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho). Keep an eye peeled for them on your next desert camping trip.

Return of the Vultures

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Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011


It’s not exactly the swallows returning to Capistrano, but in our little mountain town in southern Arizona, we await the return of the Turkey Vultures to their roost above the historic downtown district. Something about the up-canyon winds and the tall cottonwood trees makes the parking lot of the former ice cream parlor “The Arctic Circle” irresistible to the big birds. Once, at a program at our local library, I mentioned that vultures roost above the Arctic Circle and no one batted an eye. With the arrival of the first vultures this week spring has officially arrived.

I’m not sure why the vultures leave southern Arizona in the winter. There are still plenty of road-killed jackrabbits on the roads and highways, although the competition for carrion might be increased with our influx of wintering Bald and Golden Eagles. Although the Bald Eagle is a fish eagle, the ones who visit Arizona in the winter have to be considerably more opportunistic in their diet. Sandhill Cranes, ducks and carrion make up most of their diet in the absence of fish. Golden Eagles are made for catching Jackrabbits but are not above taking a free meal on the road if available. So maybe the vultures feel the need to go south of the border for the winter. They don’t go far, in fact we’ve seen them just across the border in northern Sonora.

The weather should not be a factor in their migration. I’ve seen large winter roosts in the Fort Worth area where the winter weather is similar to ours. I’d love to know where our summer residents go, studies indicate that some of North America’s Turkey Vultures go all the way to South America each winter.

They may not have a very glamorous lifestyle or stylish plumage, but they are supremely adapted for their life as a scavenger. Watching them wheel and soar effortlessly on the invisible wind currents makes me think if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I would settle for a lifetime as a Turkey Vulture. A winter in Mexico or points south and summer spent in Tombstone Canyon in Bisbee sounds like a life well lived.

Hasta La Vista, Cranes

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Thursday, March 17th, 2011

It’s that bittersweet season when we welcome incoming migrants and say goodbye to many of our winter residents. None of our “snowbirds” are missed more than the Sandhill Cranes. Over 20,000 spent this winter at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, a state-owned refuge in the Sulphur Springs Valley.

Over this very dry winter, the playa lake where the cranes roost gradually disappeared. Roosting in water offers some protection from nocturnal predators such as Coyotes, Bobcats, and even domestic dogs and cats. The shrinking lake left the cranes more vulnerable, and with the departure of most of the flock the laggards can no longer count on safety in numbers for protection from Golden and Bald Eagles in the daytime.

All around the lake are piles of gray feathers. You’d have to perform a forensic examination of each pile to determine cause of death, but one accessible cluster included wing feathers that looked as though they had been snipped off with pruning shears. The bill of an eagle doesn’t have edges sharp enough for that, but a Coyote’s shearing carnassial teeth do.

In the pile were feathers stained brown from the “body painting” they do during the nesting season. Family bonds in cranes are strong. I mourned for the loss to this bird’s mate and offspring, but somewhere there’s a Coyote and probably some smaller scavengers who were celebrating with full bellies.

A Skunk by Any Other Name

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Friday, March 11th, 2011

Southeastern Arizona is often called the “Hummingbird Capital of America” by boosters and chambers of commerce. I’m not entirely sure what that is supposed to mean, their legislature doesn’t meet here, but I suppose any recognition of biodiversity is to be celebrated. But how about recognizing the “Skunk Capital of America”? Once again ignoring the fact that America doesn’t end at the Mexican border, shouldn’t we celebrate that fully one third of the skunk species on earth occur in Cochise County? With four species of skunks (Striped, Hooded, Hog-nosed and Western Spotted) we have representatives of all genera except the odd Asian Stink Badgers (Stink Badgers? We don’t need any Stink Badgers!). In all there are thirteen members of the family Mephitidae, eleven of them in the new world, nearly 40% of them in my neighborhood.

When I studied mammalogy back in the Pleistocene, we learned that skunks were just the stinky branch of the weasel family tree, related to otters, weasels and ferrets. But in 1997, research showed genetic evidence that they were distinct and separate from the Mustelidae. Thus the family Mephitidae was born.

Over the next few months, I’ll introduce you to each of our four skunks of the southwest, but suffice it to say they each possess that special bouquet that instantly identifies a skunk to even the urban schoolchild. It is a defense so effective that skunks are practically fearless, a confidence that betrays them on the highway. My wife was on a mammology field trip where one young man announced that a skunk couldn’t spray if you grabbed it by the tail and held the tail down. He was proved wrong and rode alone back to the campus.

So celebrate the wonderful skunk. I appreciate them all (except for the ones under our house).

What the Hidden Eye Sees

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Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Some good friends of ours recently bought a piece of property in the nearby Sulphur Springs Valley. They live in Minnesota and visit occasionally but asked me to keep an eye on the place and begin some simple restoration to a habitat that shows signs of past abuse. Most of the native grasses are gone and the remaining mesquite is the dominant plant species. In some areas the topsoil has been eroded and so I began constructing small check dams to slow the sheet erosion. I have to admit, even to a confirmed Desert Rat, the place looks pretty bleak.

But we had seen tracks along several of the washes that traverse the property and I decided as part of my monitoring, I would install a couple of motion sensitive cameras to see what was moving when I was not visiting. The results were surprising. Every week I would check the cameras and bring home the chip that stores the images for a glimpse into the unseen world on this patch of desert. I will admit I also left a little cat food as an enticement to any passing predator to stick around long enough to have its picture taken. In just a few weeks I had assembled an album of residents and visitors that include the neighbor’s dogs, several coyotes (one photo had three Coyotes in view), Grey Fox, Hooded Skunk, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, Desert Cottontails, Javelina, Mule Deer, Ord’s Kangaroo Rat and the real prize, a nice Bobcat. We even caught an image of the bobcat returning from a hunt dragging a jackrabbit. A small water basin and some birdseed brought a variety of birds from Black-throated Sparrow to Red-tailed hawk, Chihuahuan Raven and a Greater Roadrunner.

Most of the activity is at night, although the javelinas have become regular daytime visitors to the water basin. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to remotely monitor the activity on this property and the diversity present makes me even more pleased to be a part of its restoration. Now I know there are many residents awaiting our improvements.

Sanctuary

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Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

At my Sunday sanctuary the sermons are long and loud and the choir numbers in the thousands. Each Sunday we visit nearby Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, winter home to over 20,000 Sandhill Cranes, to watch the cranes and answer the public’s questions about them. The cranes leave the shallow playa lake at first light each morning and fly fifteen to twenty miles to the valley’s corn fields. The corn has been long since harvested but the mechanical harvesters leave plenty behind for the cranes and they spend the morning gleaning the farmer’s fields, fertilizing as they go. I must admit, I am rarely there for the morning flight, but I know that by noon the cranes will have filled their crops and begin winging back to the playa lake. And I will be there waiting for the mid-day flight.

From the observation platforms at the wildlife area we scan the skies for what looks like distant puffs of smoke on the northern horizon. Gradually these dark clouds resolve into dots recognizable as flock after flock of returning cranes. Eventually we hear the distinctive bugling call ringing through the cold winter air and soon the air is full of cranes as these graceful four foot tall birds begin to wheel and drop to the edge of the shallow water. They drop their long legs and raise their heads to slow their airspeed until they reach stall speed and begin to slowly parachute to the ground.

Within the flocks of thousands it is easy to discern the fundamental unit of crane society, the family. Little groups of two to four cranes, the adults and last year’s young, fly together. Sometimes we can hear the high cheeping of the youngsters that haven’t yet grown the long trombone-shaped syrinx required to make the bugle. The cranes spend the rest of the day relaxing, digesting their corn and just loafing.

Next month the cranes will begin to head north. Several years ago we were lucky enough to spot a crane wearing satellite transmitter. We noted the number on the transmitter and, with a little detective work, we were soon in touch with the researcher who had tagged the bird. He sent us a map that showed our bird’s travels and we were delighted to see that the bird we had spotted was one of the approximately 10% of the Lesser Sandhill Cranes that travel across the Bering Strait to Siberia to nest, a flight of over four thousand miles. The departing of the Sandhill Cranes is bittersweet. I miss our Sundays together but if the cranes are headed north, can the arriving Swainson’s Hawks, warblers and hummingbirds be far behind?

Attack of the Cactus

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Friday, January 14th, 2011

Visitors to the desert worry about encountering rattlesnakes, scorpions, killer bees, and other formidable creatures, but in my experience it’s the plants that’ll get you. The defensive arsenal employed by much of our perennial and woody flora includes a wide variety of spines, thorns, and chemical defenses. Though these are aimed mostly at discouraging herbivores, they don’t discriminate between the mouth of a Mule Deer or Javelina and the skin of a human being.

I recently had the most painful encounter of my life with one of my prickly desert neighbors, and (not surprisingly) it was entirely my fault. One night at about 11 p.m., our dog started giving her Javelina bark. Usually I ignore these alerts, but this one was followed by the clatter of pig-like snouts tipping the metal trash can where we store our bird seed.

A short burst from the garden hose scattered the nearest members of the herd, but in the dim light from the porch I could see several other Javelinas snuffling obliviously around the feeder area. I charged down the steps, grabbing a leaf rake on the way, and rushed the marauders. Most bolted away, grunting and squealing in alarm, but one found itself trapped behind a bush and tried to butt its way through the picket fence. Hoping to give the critter good reason to avoid our yard in the future, I swung the leaf rake toward its hindquarters. The rake missed, but my hands connected with a Tree Cholla (Opuntia [Cylindropuntia] imbricata).

Chollas are cousins of the prickly pears, but with narrow cylindrical stems instead of broad, flat pads. They’re among the prickliest of all our cacti, with dense clusters of long spines protecting their succulent flesh. The impact drove a number of these spines deep into my hands.

I dropped the rake and hurried back into the house for first aid. The right hand took the worst of it and was positively bristling along its pinky side. Let me tell you, the spines hurt much worse coming out than going in. Their surfaces are covered with backward-pointing scales, making them more like porcupine quills than rose thorns. It takes some force (plus pain and blood loss) to extract the larger ones from the skin. This tenacity enhances the secondary function of the spines, which is to aid vegetative reproduction by attaching stem sections, or joints, to passing animals. Once separated from the mother plant, each cholla joint can take root and form a whole new clone. I suppose I was lucky not to come away with big chunks of cholla attached to my hand instead of a few dozen spines.

This particular cholla was a tiny seedling when we moved into our house 15 years ago, and the only member of its species inside the fenced portion of our property. Chollas are popular nesting sites for Curve-billed Thrashers and Cactus Wrens and produce gorgeous flowers, so I kept putting off moving it to a safer location outside the fence. No more. As soon as my hands heal, I’ll carefully transport the mother plant and all its loose joints to a new home where we won’t cross paths in the dark of night. —SW