Friday, September 22, 2017

The Riparian Underworld

I parked at the Camino del Cerro bridge, over the Santa Cruz River in Tucson, at about 7:15 a.m. I didn’t have much time but I wanted to connect with the river. It’s a funny underworld sitting below usual Tucson birding and daily life.

Walking off the bridge at Camino del Cerro onto The Loop Trail, I wondered what I would find along the Santa Cruz River. I could hear almost nothing in the river because of the cars rushing by. Three lesser goldfinches had perched on a snag for a moment, and I heard one Abert’s towhee tooting a call. Some rock pigeons flew by.

I descended under the bridge on the paved bicycle and pedestrian trail, where it reached only feet from the river’s sandy bottom. I leaned down and passed between the bars of the dull red-painted railing, and dropped the last 4 feet down the steep embankment. I was in the shade of the bridge on the sand, with the river’s weak flow about 10 yards away.

Whenever I get down to the river I feel like I’ve gone below the city’s surface. It’s like being injected into a major artery, below the skin. The bright morning sun and the sounds of the street are dulled and the sound of slowly passing fluid becomes dominant.

There were no owls perched in the bridge supports, something I had wondered about. Still no barn owl on my year list.

But there was abundant evidence of recently departed cliff swallows on the sides of the bridge’s understructure. Mud nests were plastered to the upper part while upward pointing cones of bird poop lined the ledge below the nests.

Down here I heard a few more birds, but less than I would have heard a couple of weeks ago while fall migration was more vigorous. A warbler chipped softly. I chased it but couldn’t get more than a fleeting shadow of it among willow leaves. Then a zippy little call made me think of lazuli bunting. I began to rethink the earlier chip and the grayish shadow I had seen, but the shadow flew across the river and out of sight.

All in all, on this morning there was more evidence of people than birds. The metal girders creaked above me as people passed over on their way to work. There was trash, quite a bit of trash. Some of it was fresh, left by people passing by or homeless sleeping under the bridge. On this morning there was somebody camped under the east end of the bridge on a high ledge, near where the bridge meets the east bank of the river. There was a makeshift curtain at one end made of a white sheet, letting people know that spot was taken. I could just see him, or her, wrapped in something and sleeping near a backpack.

Below the sleeping perch were plastic bottles, food wrappers, shoes, and assorted bits of clothing. It looked like evidence of far more than just one person on one night. Like a lot of people, homeless don't "take only pictures, leave only footprints."

Other trash had come from upstream, like a green plastic chair I found wedged into the trunks of a willow. Perhaps it had been cast into the river by some frustrated soul. Or maybe it was brought down to the river somewhere upstream by other homeless people, hiding their temporary camps in the tamarisks. It could also have washed out of a yard in one of the heavy downpours in July, floating along a street, down a storm drain and into a momentarily frothing river.

A shushing house wren call caught my attention. It momentarily appeared in the leaves of a tamarisk before going back out of sight. A mourning dove passed over low and fast, as they often do.

Other people, besides the homeless, had spent time under the bridge as well. The gray concrete pillars holding up the bridge had been decorated according to somebody’s—multiple people’s—ideas of color and identity.

As I emerged again to street level, a dot on a tall transmission line tower turned out to be a peregrine falcon. I was back in the bleak and dry historic floodplain, full of predatory activity, human and aerial. The falcon was rubbing his bill on the tower, or perhaps on its own feet, rubbing off the remains of an early bird special.

Monday, November 30, 2015

New Yard Bird: Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Bird nerds rejoice at a variety of things. They might be dorky bird-counting milestones or they may be things that have larger consequences.

Yesterday I celebrated "yard bird" number 35. This milestone may qualify on both counts. I had not seen a ruby-crowned kinglet in my yard in the 6 1/2 years we have lived here, so it was fun to see it. Birders on their local "patches" keep track of such things. It's just a birder thing.

But where did I see it? It was on a blue palo verde (Parkinsonia florida) and a desert hackberry (Celtis pallida) that I planted about 1 1/2 years ago. This native tree and large shrub, respectively, have grown a bit since I planted them.

Apparently they have matured to the point where they provide places for native insects to live. Many of our native birds eat insects. I have seen verdins hopping around in these plants several times. Verdins eat insects almost exclusively. The time that verdins now spend foraging in these plants suggests they are finding something to eat.

Ruby-crowned kinglets, which spend the winter in our region, also eat insects. The one in my yard spent enough time in these plants to suggest that the native plants I planted were supplying it, too, with food.

The kinglet also spent enough time there for me to get some photos. Enjoy.

Ruby-crowned kinglet. Note gray-green color overall with yellow highlights on the wings, white wingbar, a dark bar behind the white wingbar, and, just slightly visible, a little white just in front and behind the eye. This bird is only about 4 1/4 inches long. The plant is a desert hackberry.

This photo of the kinglet is blurry but it shows the white in front and behind the eye.

Here is a verdin for comparison. It is only slightly longer, at 4 1/2 inches on average. It too is in the desert hackberry. Verdins are common visitors to our yard. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Back to Flog the Blog

I've taken a couple months off from the blog. I traveled to Colorado and then briefly to California, and handled some family responsibilities. The trips boosted the overall total number birds seen over the year a bit (see numbers to the right).

But now I'm ready to get back to exploring Tucson metro birds. So it's back to work--and good timing too. This morning I saw a western kingbird from my back yard. First time I've seen it in the neighborhood, let along from the yard. That's a "twofer"--yard list and neighborhood list!

Western kingbird on the wire over the alley this morning. (Watch those wires folks!)

There are some rarities being seen about the area, including a tricolor heron at Reid Park. But as usual I'm more interested in more common stuff. Though that's not to say I won't go off looking for the heron!

Next time a post about how the lesser goldfinches seem to be enjoying my back yard, in spite of the fact I don't have a feeder for them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

At My "Whits" End

I haven't been able to meet the challenge of writing at least one blog post per week, so I am a few weeks behind in the news. Around the beginning of May I started to hear brown-crested flycatchers in my Tucson neighborhood (Palo Verde neighborhood). You typically hear their "whit" calls plus other "gurgles" (as I, idiosyncratically, call them).

Brown-crested flycatcher in the Palo Verde Neighborhood, Tucson, AZ
I set out one morning with a camera and the dogs in tow to see if I could get a photo. This is the best I could do--it's as much a photo of mesquite as it is flycatcher. I'll keep trying, but at least you can see the darker, brownish crest, the gray throat and breast, the yellow belly and the warm, orangish-brown color in the wings. Here is more information about brown-crested flycatchers.

What's in your neighborhood? Just go out and look!

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Yard Birds

Once you are paying attention to birds, you recognize when something new shows up. According to my records on, before Saturday May 10 I had seen 30 bird species in, or from, my yard.

Again, I'm not out to set records. I don't have time to sit around the yard every morning and observe every bird that comes by. This is the effort of a reasonably good birder that pays attention some of the time--an effort I think many people can identify with.

Green-tailed towhee
Well, I had been trying to get some yard work done, little by little, in the cool of the morning. I was in the back yard when I heard what I thought I might have heard the buzzing call of a lazuli bunting. That definitely would have been a new yard bird. Plenty of them come through town in spring migration but never had I seen one from my yard.

I went inside to get a camera just in case. But after a few minutes it was clear there was no lazuli bunting. Maybe it was just one of those house sparrow sounds I had heard, or maybe it was "the bunting that got away." But as I walked back toward the house a bird flew into the yard that was shaped like a towhee--kind of like a sparrow but larger, lanky, and with a long tail. As it foraged on the ground for treats, including below the bird feeders, I saw the reddish cap, the gray underside, white throat and the greenish hue, especially on the tail.

Green-tailed towhee is an attractive bird that is found around the Tucson basin in the winter--though usually tangles of native trees and shrubs and usually not back yards. By some time in may they leave for nesting sites in the mountains or much farther north. It was nice to host one in the yard, if only for a few minutes.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Recent Sightings

Wilson's warbler on the cover of the April-
June 2014 Vermilion Flycatcher magazine
In April Wilson's warbler's stop in our yards and our natural areas. All they want is some bugs. Our native trees and plants, especially flowering mesquites, provide all they need.

Dr. Charles van Riper has studied Wilson's warbler migration. He found that once having found a bountiful area the warblers may stay in that area--maybe in the very same tree--for two or three days eating insects before moving on. You can find more on this in the April-June 2014 issue of Tucson Audubon's Vermilion Flycatcher magazine.

Watch your blooming mesquites in April and early May!

My back yard has a large mesquite and in late April it was in bloom. But I had never seen a Wilson's warbler there. On Sunday April 27 I slept in. It was the day after my birdathon (see previous blog entry) and I had been awake for about 22 hours on Saturday. But by 10:30 a.m. I was up and sitting in the back yard, reading the paper and eating breakfast.

Well, when you have been watching and counting birds for around 19 hours the day before, you can't just turn it off. I made mental notes of the birds I was seeing and hearing in the back yard. Then I brought out the laptop and began entering a checklist what I was seeing into eBird. By 11:30 a.m. I had seen 14 species--pretty good for having just sat there for an hour. One of the last birds to show up was a Wilson's warbler. True to form, it was foraging for insects among the mesquite flowers.

What's in your neighborhood?

Thursday, May 15, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

The Christmas song is wrong. The most wonderful time of the year is spring!

Janine McCabe took this photo of Brian Nicholas and me
near Gordon Hirabayashi Camp during our Birdathon
In southeast Arizona migration is wonderfully drawn out, with some migrants appearing very early in the year. Many of the other early migrants are in place looking for nesting opportunities by mid March. More continue to arrive in April, some arriving to nest and others just passing through. By the end of April we've reached one of the two points of the year with the most avian diversity.

I've neglected my blog posts. Work and birding take up a lot of time this time of year.

Pine siskin in Sumerhaven
On April 26 my Team did our Birdathon fundraiser for Tucson Audubon Society. In this fundraiser, sponsors pledge per bird species and teams try to see as many species as possible within 24 hours. The end of April is a nice time for it, not only because of the available bird diversity, but because the weather is usually very nice. In comparison to August, the other height of bird diversity, birds are more vocal in spring--singing to define their territory and attract a mate. This makes them easier to find.

We decided to limit the area where we could go birding to Tucson and its immediate vicinity. This would make it an opportunity to show people Tucson's avian riches. It would also mean that we
Black-crowned night-heron at Reid Park
would be driving less and birding more--more species per gallon of gas! We decided we would stay within a 20-mile radius of Reid Park. This still gave us a lot of latitude--the top of Mt. Lemmon, the east, south and west sides of Tucson, Catalina State Park were all inside the circle.

We met at 1 a.m. to look, or rather listen, for owls in northeast Tucson. We moved up the Mt. Lemmon highway to find higher elevation owls and other night birds like Mexican Whip-Poor-Wills. It got windy and it was hard to hear anything but dawn came and we birded for hours in the
Neotropic cormorants at Reid Park
mountains seeing many, though not all, of the species that can be seen up there.

We came down the mountain and visited an area along Tanque Verde Wash, getting lucky and finding the gray hawk that has been in that area. Other stops were Reid Park, University of Arizona Farm, Sweetwater Wetlands and Crossroads Park in Marana.

When all was said and done we had seen 134 species. We feel we've set the baseline for the number of species that can be seen in 24 hours in
Common yellowthroat at Sweetwater Wetlands
this area. We hope others will take us up on a big day competition in this circle.

What a glorious town! There are so many kinds of birds just a short drive away. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

More species--some of the late migrants--show up in our region in May. I'll be watching for those in the days to come.
White-winged doves at sundown, Crossroads Park