Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Welcoming the Cranes

Despite the fact that my birding buddy was still working her way back from Cape May, I headed out to Whitewater Draw to welcome the cranes back to Arizona. Only a couple of weeks ago the skies were full of Swainson’s Hawks headed for Argentina. We saw over 200 one day and the next morning before the thermals began cooking it seemed like every fencepost and utility pole had a hawk awaiting liftoff.

This one was disappointed that he was not allowed to eat before leaving.

As the last of the Swainson’s Hawks (and Turkey Vultures) left, the first few cranes began arriving. I like to think that Siberian-hatched Sandhill Cranes share the same field with Argentine-bound Swainson’s Hawks for a few days in October each year.

At Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, all the usual suspects were there, including this Barn Owl peeking out from the willows.

I ran into the Wildlife Area manager and he said that there were about 9000 cranes at the roost earlier in the week, about a third of the total expected to arrive. I got to the viewing platform as the first groups began arriving in noisy squadrons from the corn fields where they spent the morning and sat quietly taking photographs. I probably have 2000 crane pictures but they are just too damn photogenic to resist. Actually, I’m still learning a new camera and enjoyed the practice. I can probably put all those boxes of slides in storage and just stick to digital images from now on.

The cranes were so close that along with the constant bugling of the adults and chirping of juveniles, I could hear the flapping of their big wings as they moved about the playa. Suddenly I heard a whoosh like a jet plane overhead and an entire flight of cranes dropped out of the sky as fast as gravity could pull them. I love watching them drop their legs and cup their wings to parachute in, but this was a panic drop down to the water.

So I glance directly overhead and there was the first Golden Eagle of the season, an immature bird hang over my (and the cranes’) head.

Winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley is a wonderful birding experience. Although I miss the hummingbirds and other tropical migrants that brighten our summers, the hawks, eagles, cranes and other birds make up for their absence.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bells and whistles, Scales and Gambels

Well, I finally broke down and updated our blog format. It took some work because the new version of this nice antique-looking template wouldn't display our title and header image properly, so I had to do a little work on Photoshop. The new features are worth it, especially the Topics sidebar. Now you can filter out all those posts that lack bird content and cut straight to the core material.

About those birds: Our yard's been crowded with quail this week--mostly Gambel's, but there was a lone Scaled in the bunch a couple of days ago. Here's the cottontop bellying up to the bar with a trio of male question marks:

Scaled were the common quail in our yard ten years ago, and we adored them. They were lovely, charming, and relatively tame, coming inside our picket fence for food and water. One day as I was talking on the phone, I looked out the kitchen door to see one perched on the porch rail less than eight feet away. There was a bit of a lull in the conversation as I picked my jaw up off the floor.

Sadly, the drought soon took its toll on these grassland lovers, and the more aggressive and desert-adapted Gambel's filled in the gap, eventually becoming brave (or desperate) enough to venture inside the fence. Now they dominate even when a few Scaled come around, often chasing them away from the food and water. Having a single Scaled in this winter flock is a prime setup for hybridization, which produces what we call "Scrambled" Quail. It's a common enough combo that it's illustrated in Sibzilla

Harbingers of winter in our yard this week were both "Gambel's" and "Mountain" White-crowned Sparrows, a small flock of Pine Siskins, and a lone Brewer's Sparrow. The first few Sandhill Cranes are back in the Sulphur Springs Valley along with flocks of Lark Buntings already in their drab off-season plumage, and a pair of Lawrence's Goldfinches visited the water feature at Banning Creek Field Station two weeks ago. Still, the migration is far from over. A sad little Rufous Hummingbird is still hanging around our flowers and feeders, a lone Turkey Vulture cruised overhead this afternoon, and I caught sight of a female Hooded Oriole skulking through the shrubbery. Though nights are decidedly chilly now, and the flowers are fading, I'm sure we'll see a few more of our summer friends before the seasons fully turn.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Border Fence Boondoggle

There's breaking news on the southeastern Arizona section of the international border fence. Yesterday afternoon U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle temporarily halted work already in progress on the part of the fence that passes through the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. The judge based her ruling in part on the unprecedented speed with which the federal agencies had rushed the approval through to allow construction to begin "before anyone would wake up."

The Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife filed the suit over the San Pedro portion of the fence out of concern that the barrier will alter the river's natural drainage patterns, increase erosion, destroy riparian vegetation, and disrupt archaeological sites. As designed, the San Pedro portion of the barrier would simply funnel foot traffic from the surrounding desert through the fragile riparian zone, magnifying its impact on the landscape and wildlife. The Bureau of Land Management's own assessment acknowledged these issues, yet the agency issued a permit to the Department of Homeland Security without a full environmental assessment or opportunities for public comment.

Birders have a more vested interest than many Americans in this particular border issue. The 700 miles of double-layered fence mandated by Congress and President Bush would cut a wide swath through the Lower Rio Grande Valley and southeastern Arizona, two of North America's top birding destinations. This contentious barrier would run through some of our most scenic and biologically diverse wildlife habitats, including national monuments, wildlife refuges, and forests, state parks, wilderness areas, and other public lands. We'll be laying waste to tens of thousands of acres of American soil, most of it wilderness. Migration corridors for earth-bound wildlife such as jaguars, ocelots, coatis, pronghorns, and desert bighorn sheep would be blocked. People, on the other hand, will readily find ways over, under, around, and through the fence, as they already do at our existing border barriers.

Many experts on national security, economics, and the environment believe that this border fence is a wretched, misbegotten boondoggle that's not going to protect us from terrorists and is little more than a finger in the dike to hold back immigration. Even those who don't give two hoots about wildlife and wilderness question the economics. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that the final construction cost of the 14-mile fence at San Diego will be $129 million, or $9 million per mile [source]. Multiply this times 700 to 1950 miles of our southern border, and you get $6.3 to $17.6 billion out of our pockets. And that's not counting monitoring and maintenance into perpetuity. Is our economy so healthy and immigration such a dire threat that we can divert enormous amounts of money from programs that provide for the needs of our own citizens?

There's no doubt that we have to do something about illegal immigration. Its impact on our economy and health care system may be debatable, but there's no doubt that it's damaging public lands and wildlife habitat along the Mexican border. But ruining tens of thousands of acres of our own lands and straining our own struggling economy in a vain attempt to halt it amounts to cutting off our own nose to spite the illegal immigrants' faces. And I won't even get into the message it sends to our neighbors and the world.

The 10-day reprieve granted by Judge Huvelle is a small victory for American taxpayers, our public lands, Arizona's wildlife and habitats, and the birding community, but the battle for a sane, environmentally responsible approach to border security is far from over. Judge Huvelle's decision could be overturned by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who has been granted authority to waive any and all environmental laws to build the border fence.

If this one small part of the fence can be halted temporarily, there's a chance that the whole project can be delayed long enough for the country to come to its senses. Our precious borderlands and their wildlife need your support. Please call and/or write your representatives in Congress to let them know that you support a more environmentally responsible approach to controlling immigration. --SW

Sunday, October 07, 2007

On the Wings of the Night

Though most hummingbirds have departed southeastern Arizona in the last two weeks, we're keeping our feeders full for the nectar bats. Even their numbers are down as they join the hummingbirds in Mexico, but visits have been frequent enough the last two nights that we've been able to get a few photos. Here's one of the best so far:

This fox-faced creature is a Lesser Long-nosed Bat, Leptonycteris curasoae. In spring, they migrate northward into the deserts and sky island mountains of southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and the Big Bend of far western Texas. They're important pollinators of the mighty Saguaro and also feed on the juicy red pulp of its fruits and spread its seeds. Here in the high deserts and mountains, at elevations too cool for the giant cacti, their main fare is the nectar and pollen of agaves, a.k.a. century plants. Agaves are the source of tequila, so the next time you enjoy a margarita raise a toast to the velvety night fliers who make it possible.

It took over 100 tries to get a handful of good photos. Last night, I parked myself in a patio chair and waited for the soft flupflupflupflupflupflup of leathery wings to signal a bat's arrival. Only a few photos out of dozens had bats in them, and the angle was bad, so this evening we set up inside at the living room window. After a frustrating false start with several badly focused shots, we finally seem to have gotten the system down. Eight out of the last thirty images were good enough to keep, and two others were almost as good as this one.

Tom's at the camera now, waiting for the bats to digest their last drink and come back for another round. If we get anything more compelling, we'll post some new photos later.

Update: Tom got another great photo:

Note the yellow agave pollen on its face.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Ee-ew, that smell!

Nocturnal creature that I am, I finally crawled off to bed about 12:30 this morning only to be dragged from dreamland an hour later by a skunk. It's been a big summer for the little stinkers in southern Arizona, rabid ones included, but it had been a couple of weeks since the last uncomfortably close spray incident. I tried to ignore this one, hoping every moment that the worst was over and the stench would begin to fade, but over about thirty minutes the miasma thickened to choking intensity. This time the odor wasn't coming from across the wash or over at the neighbors' or even in our own yard - it was directly under our bedroom floor.

I finally threw open all the windows, cranked up the ceiling fans to "typhoon," sprayed the air liberally with a product that's supposed to neutralize odors, and took refuge on the couch. It wasn't easy getting back to sleep, between the stubborn smell and the over-revved ceiling fan letting out a sharp groan every few minutes as though it was about to come crashing down on me. By morning the reek had dissipated, and we could breathe again. Comparing notes on the ordeal, Tom and I discovered that we both had incorporated skunks into the dreams we had just before awakening to the odor.

So how do we evict our unwelcome neighbor? Blocking the skunk's access points isn't an immediate fix. It's an old frame house whose narrow subfloor crawlspace is enclosed by flimsy lattice, and claustrophobia is hard enough to deal with without the prospect of encountering scorpions and black widows. Though trapping might be the reasonable choice given the rabies issue, it's a last resort. Instead, we'll try beating the skunk at its own chemical-weapons game. When a woodrat (packrat) moved in and kept us awake by chewing on the floor joists, we drilled a hole in the floor as close to the sound as possible and poured vinegar down it. End of problem, until the next rat moved in a few months later. Another bottle of vinegar, another eviction. With luck, the skunk will get the idea and move on before we have to take more drastic measures. --SW

Monday, September 10, 2007

Farewell, Alex

I'm writing today with a heavy, heavy heart, friends. Alex, the African Grey Parrot who, with his human mentor Dr. Irene Pepperberg, revolutionized scientific thinking about avian intelligence and communication, has died suddenly at the age of 31. Any bird lover should mourn Alex's passing, but this tragedy hits particularly close to home for us because, though we never met him, we know his best friend Irene, and our own family includes an African Grey, 21-year-old Jesse, who is very dear to us. Had we harbored any scientific skepticism about Irene's conclusions from her work with Alex, living with Jesse would have vanquished it.

Until Irene began her studies with Alex in the late 1970s, scientists and laypeople alike vastly underestimated the capacity of parrots and other birds to think and feel (we wouldn't want to be anthropomorphic now, would we?). Neuroanatomists went so far as to dismiss the avian brain as too anatomically simple to perform the higher functions once ascribed exclusively to humans but grudgingly extended to our fellow primates and cetaceans. Predictably, reports of Alex's accomplishments were pooh-poohed by insecure scientists and philosophers who rush to their ivory battlements any time another species appears to be encroaching on exclusively human turf (language, tool use, culture, music, etc.). The same crowd has denied the significance of the accomplishments of Washoe the chimpanzee and Koko the lowland gorilla, who learned to communicate in American Sign Language. Wearing down such substantial opposition took unconventional thinking, rigorous methodology, meticulous documentation, and selfless dedication to uncovering the long-ignored truths about the minds of birds.

By scientifically documenting Alex's ability to communicate using human language and to grasp abstract concepts, Irene fostered a broader awareness that parrots are not merely amusing mimics but sensitive creatures with complex emotional and intellectual needs. These revelations have helped to change our traditionally exploitive and abusive relationships with parrots. Alex may have lived his entire life in human company, but he was a charismatic ambassador for all his kin, wild as well as captive. Today it's unacceptable to treat captive parrots as home decor or amusing novelties, and wild parrots have been promoted from colorful tropical icons to sentient beings. Not that we don't still have a long way to go, but more parrots are living better lives now thanks to Irene and Alex.

Not surprisingly, given Alex's worldwide fame, there has been a huge outpouring of sympathy from around the world. Sadly, amidst the public sharing of grief in various online communities some puerile bottom-feeders masquerading as animal rights activists have posted vile, defamatory, and completely ignorant remarks about Alex and Irene. Know this, friends: Alex was never a "lab animal" in the traditional sense, he lived a far better life than the vast majority of pet parrots, and he significantly raised the standards for care of captive parrots.

Irene was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered, and she was amazingly self-composed considering the pain I know she's in. Thinking back to what an emotional wreck I've been for weeks after losing a dear creature, I'm in awe.

Be strong, Irene - Alex may be gone, but his life's work and our love and respect for him and you live on. --SW

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Toad Love

We're off to Chihuahua in the morning (the Mexican state, not the dog), and I'm supposed to be printing out all the checklists and stuff we'll need for our group, but I just had to post about this. This afternoon and evening we finally got some serious precip - an inch and a half, accompanied by lots of flash and boom - and now the Couch's Spadefoot Toads are having an orgy in the wash in front of our house. Sounds like a flock of anguished sheep with bad head colds.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Fire and Rain

Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain...
- James Taylor

It's been a fire-and-rain week, with some wind thrown in for good measure. On Thursday, I noticed a couple of good-sized burned areas by the highway that runs parallel to the Huachuca Mountains. Cigarette, I thought, Damned smoking litterbugs. But no, it looks like another case of alcohol + testosterone = insanity. Seems that a couple of idiots, described by witnesses as one young and one middle-aged male, were cruising down the highway tossing lit fireworks out of their car every few yards. No structures were lost despite at least seven different sources of ignition, and the wildlife habitat will be the better for it, but I shudder to think of all the what-ifs.

And rain and wind, too. We're in the middle of a storm right now, and Tom's standing by our electronic rain monitor calling out the upward-creeping increments: "Eight hundredths...twelve hundredths...." A little storm yesterday dropped a trace of rain at our house (while we were gone, dammit!), but fearsome downbursts from far bigger tormentas put an early end to Friday's hummingbird banding session and almost kept us from getting into the theater to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (after seeing it, we wish it had - we'd have saved $13).

Today may be retroactively declared the first official day of the monsoon. Meterologists backdate to the first of three consecutive days when the dew point is 55° F. or higher. We're running a few days behind average, but it'll be okay if the storms don't fizzle out again, as they often have in recent years.

We're still riding pretty high off last summer's and winter's moisture. Most of the hummingbirds we caught at our two banding stations this week were juvies, and several showed good "baby fat," suggesting that they were well fed in the nest. But these babes and the southbound migrants already beginning to arrive will need more food, and that's going to take rain and plenty of it. Think wet thoughts...

Eight Random Facts

Ack! Amy Hooper of WildBird On The Fly has tagged us (and seven other bloggers) for the Eight Random Facts meme/pyramid scheme. Bloggers who accept the challenge must:

  • write a post with eight random facts/habits about themselves and the rules of the meme
  • at the end of that post, list eight other bloggers that they tag to write similar posts, likewise including the rules)
  • leave comments on the "tagees" blogs to warn them about the meme.
Coming up with eight facts is a piece of cake, but finding eight other bloggers we read who have yet to be tagged is going to be HARD! Of course these things can never really be random, but here goes:

1. A Northern Bobwhite protested at our wedding - not the "if anyone can show just cause why these two should not be joined" part (which we omitted from our self-administered vows), but just the fact that there was a crowd of people in his territory.

2. Our honeymoon was an intimate, romantic, five-week tropical biology field course to Belize with fifteen other people.

3. Tom found the first Siberian Tit nest in the U.S. in 1996 on a float trip down the Canning River with Pete and Linda Dunne, Clay and Pat Sutton, and Bob Dittrick and Lisa Moorehead of Wilderness Birding Adventures.

4. One of Sheri's favorite books of all time is One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss, and she can recite it from memory on command.

5. Tom once had a pet otter named Gus (short for Augustus).

6. Sheri once headed up the North Texas Herpetological Society's Reptile Rescue program, intervening on behalf of such imperiled herps as a "7-foot python" that turned out to be a 5-foot Western Coachwhip and a real Ball Python abandoned in a condo.

7. Tom's high school garage band, The Guild, reunited for their 35th high school reunion and has played several gigs since, despite the fact that the members live in four states.

8. Sheri's first book, "published" at age 4, was a work of speculative natural history entitled Turtles of Tomorrow.

Now, we "tag" the following bloggers, hoping desperately that none of them get tagged by someone else before they moderate our blog comments:

  1. Bill of the Birds
  2. Scientist, Interrupted
  3. Nuthatch
  4. Don and Lillian Stokes
  5. Birds Etcetera
  6. NaturalVisions
  7. Born Again Bird Watcher
  8. Rhubarb

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Very Bisbee Fourth

Bisbee may be a small town, but it puts on one heck of a fireworks display for the Fourth. The Bisbee Fire Department is in charge of the event, and every year they choreograph a spectacular show with lots of old favorites and some new effects.

This year's show featured "chrysanthemums" that changed colors three times and shot single or double red "stars" out of their hearts; double rings of different colors both perpendicular to each other and in the same plane; half-and-half spheres with a globe of a third color inside; seemingly typical bursts whose trails expanded into thick, sinuous dreadlocks of shimmering champagne-colored sparks; and "serpentines" composed of a dozen or more red fireballs that zigzag off into the night like characters from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Way kewl!

And fireworks manufacturers are working with an increasingly sophisticated color palette these days. Turquoise, periwinkle, lemon, and marigold have joined the basic red, white, blue, green, and gold of my childhood memories. In between the patriotic red/white/blue shells came beauties that made it hard not to think of other seasons. A chrysanthemum terminating in multicolored pastel "stars" would have been perfect for Easter, a half green, half yellow globe looked like a celebration of spring (or an ad for Sprite), and of course there were plenty of red/green combos.

For southern Arizona, Independence Day often comes at the worst possible time to be shooting off sparks. Our summer "monsoon" begins sometime between late June and early July, so when the rains are late the Fourth falls during the hottest, driest week of the year (today's highs were 110° F in Tucson and 102 in Sierra Vista, though "only" 98 in Bisbee). But the firefighters have a virtually fireproof platform from which to launch the display, thanks to Bisbee's legacy as a mining town: the top of the Number 7 ore dump, conveniently located at the upper end of Vista Park. Nothing grows on the ore, so there's nothing up there to catch fire should a shell go astray (as some do every year). There are a few old wooden houses around the base of the ore pile, and I wouldn't be surprised if the occupants watch the show from their yards with a garden hose close at hand, charged and ready to go.

So the professional show is pretty safe for spectators and neighbors, but the same can't be said of the amateurs. Personal fireworks are illegal in Arizona, but that doesn't stop people from crossing the border into New Mexico to buy their own dangerous toys. One early July day shortly after we moved into our house, I heard a crackling sound and looked out the window to see six-foot flames crisping our newly planted desert willow tree. Some wayward bottle rocket had set a wildfire in our very own yard!

You might wonder, as I have, how all the noise and light of a fireworks display affects the local wildlife. I suspect that they take it in stride. After all, nature regularly puts on far scarier shows. Though our electronic rain gauge registered a inch of rain while we were away last week in Colorado, the "monsoon" hasn't officially started. Nevertheless, this evening the sky south and east of our neighborhood flashed with its own awesome fireworks.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Approval for Disapproving Rabbits

Our blogger buddy BirdChick's disapproving rabbits were touted in the "Weird Web" section of the latest Earthlink eLink newsletter! Maybe a few nonbirders that come for the bunnies will stay for the birdies.

Here, in honor of this new level of acclaim, is a disapproving lagomorph we encountered at a private home in southwestern Colombia, where we were teaching the field portion of a hummingbird banding workshop.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cool! (and wet)

I know this is going to be hard to believe, but yesterday's official high temperature here in Bisbee, Arizona was 69 degrees F. That's 21 degrees cooler than Minneapolis and just four degrees higher than Seattle and Anchorage. And it's wet, too! In 24 hours over an inch of rain fell at our house, mostly slow and gentle like winter rains but garnished with pea-sized hail from one intense afternoon storm. June is usually our hottest, driest month, with little hope of moisture until the last week or so, if then. Yesterday's precipitation was almost double the June average.

The rains started in the middle of the night. It was lovely listening to the the rumble of thunder and the murmur of raindrops on the roof, until the sploit sploit sploit of water hitting the bedroom carpet sent me lunging for a wastebasket to catch the drips. Tom's replaced I don't know how many shingles ripped away by the howling winds of spring and early summer, but guess it's time to splurge on the services of a roofing expert.

Needless to say, there are some happy critters in our neighborhood today. We've been hearing a lot from the Crissal Thrashers who make their home in our neighbors' dense conifer trees and a male Lucy's Warbler who's having trouble dealing with all the recently fledged House Finches invading his domain. The first Cloudless Sulphurs of the season, a male courting a female as she dodged among the branches of our plum tree, made an early appearance. Normally these beauties are harbingers of the rainy season as it moves north. Their early arrival, along with the appearance of a Plain-capped Starthroat at Agua Caliente Park in Tucson and a Berylline Hummingbird at Ramsey Canyon Inn, are encouraging signs for the season to come.

Bisbee will be back up in the high 80's by Thursday, but in another couple of weeks we should see signs of the typical "monsoon" weather pattern that gives us storms like yesterday's almost every afternoon. We hope, anyway.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Kids say the darndest things

There were quite a few young 'uns at yesterday's hummingbird banding session, especially for a Friday. Two boys, the younger barely chest-high to the table and the older not much bigger, were peppering scribe Phyllis and me with questions. As I pulled a female Black-chinned out of a bag, I told them in a kind but firm way that we needed to concentrate on this bird now so that we would get her on her way back to her nest, and so we couldn't answer any questions for a little while. There was a moment of thoughtful silence from that corner of the table, followed by that classic query of the extremely young, "Why?" Phyllis and I kept right on working. A couple more "whys" from both boys, also ignored. Then, just to show that these were not just random "whys," the older one asked, "Why can't you answer any questions?" It was beginning to sound like a Bush administration press conference. --SW

All too familiar

Someone at The Onion, that hip, edgy, and often outrageous send-up of newspaper journalism, is a casual birder or knows a birder pretty well. Those are the only two possible explanations for this:

The Sibley Guide To Birds Has Clearly Misidentified The Dark-Eyed Junco

The urge to open our Sibzilla to page 488 is almost irresistible...