Friday, February 24, 2006

Dinosaurs in the desert

Tomorrow is our last winter “hawk stalk” of the season and while the emphasis is usually on the dizzying array of hawks, falcon, eagles and owls that winter with us in the irrigated agricultural fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley, other fierce predators also catch our attention. Loggerhead Shrikes, those bandit-masked assassins, are still common in Arizona and will be the topic of a future blog, but tonight’s post is about that icon of the southwest - the roadrunner.

I once had a visitor express disappointment upon seeing her first roadrunner. “ But, that’s a bird!” she said. I’m not sure what she thought a roadrunner was - maybe too many cartoons had blurred the roadrunner/coyote line for her. But most visitors from afar, be it Europe or just points east of the Mississippi, would rather see a roadrunner than many of our true rarities. I’ve lived with roadrunners all my life, hand-raised a few when I was doing wildlife rehabilitation and enjoyed seeing their antics countless times. But behind the cartoon stereotype is a ferocious hunter. The velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” reminded me, not coincidentally, of a hunting roadrunner as they stalked through the park. The special effects wizards of the studio had obviously paid attention to the paleontologists plotting the convergence of birds and dinosaurs. Trade the long expressive tail feathers of a roadrunner for the scaly tail of the movie beasts, add some teeth and there’s your monster. To a baby quail or a lizard, the Greater Roadrunner is scary enough.

The late Sally Spofford in Portal, Arizona once had a roadrunner who had learned to jump off her roof and snatch a hummingbird from the line of feeders on his way down. At the time, she was also hosting a Lucifer Hummingbird that was attracting birders from near and far, and, fearing a revolt if the roadrunner ate her star attraction, she began feeding the predator. A simple meatball of ground beef with vitamins and calcium powder added would suffice, and within a week or two the roadrunner would come knocking on her sliding glass patio door asking for his daily ration. Like a mafia Don demanding protection money – “Gee, I’d hate to see anything happen to your little birds today. You got anything for me?”- he would take his meatball and then disappear for the day. I’m not sure who trained who.

As I mentioned, in Texas we raised baby roadrunners from tiny black amorphous blobs with an egg tooth and no real feathers to adults. Training them to eat grasshoppers in our bathtub progressed to daily walks where I turned over rocks so they could grab whatever lay beneath. Again, I’m not sure who was being trained. The one to whom we grew most attached eventually was banded and released on the nature center I managed, and several weeks later, in one of those rare triumphant moments for a rehabber, paused along the road long enough for me to see the band on his leg. I cried like a proud parent at a graduation ceremony.

On some of our trips to southern Sonora we see the Lesser Roadrunner, the grackle-sized cousin of our Greater Roadrunner and the only other member of the genus Geococcyx , although there are other “ground cuckoos.” I’m glad there’s not a “Giant Roadrunner” coursing through the southwestern deserts. I might have to stay indoors. --TW

Sunday, February 19, 2006


A post for the week of Valentine's Day...

In the middle of a typical winter morning, the nearly 22,000 Sandhill Cranes that roost in the playa lake at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area are supposed to be feeding in the farm fields, recycling waste corn into nutrient-rich guano, so it was a shock to see two - just two - cranes standing a few yards from the viewing platform. It didn't take long to figure out why these cranes were not breakfasting with their comrades. One was fluffed, its eyes and red forecrown dull. As we watched, its neck folded into a tight "S," its long black bill came to rest to its breast, and its orange eyes closed against the blustery winds.

What could be wrong? There was no obvious sign of injury - no drooping wing, dangling leg, or bloody wound. Could it be toxic lead pellets in its gizzard, mistaken for grit or grain, or embedded in its body from a hunter's wayward shot? Pesticides or aflatoxin in the corn it's been eating? West Nile virus? Or even old age? Cranes can live more than two decades, but few do.

From fall through spring, safety in numbers is the dominant survival strategy for the three migratory subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. A single crane is an easy mark for a hungry eagle, and two are not much safer than one. The second crane could have left around sunrise with the rest of the enormous flock to fill its crop and lay on fat for the migration to come, but on this chilly morning a deeper need took priority over an empty belly and the vulnerability of being left behind. Cranes bond for life, and within the flocks they travel in pairs and small family groups, maintaining a separate identity among the multitudes. The healthy bird remained where it was needed - at its mate's side, vigilant. Feeling helpless and humbled, I turned my heart and mind away from what the future might bring for these two.

That was yesterday. Returning to the crane roost today, I half expected to see a pile of gray feathers where the crane pair had stood, but there was no sign. I'll take this as cause for optimism, as reason to believe that the sickly bird rallied after a night's rest and returned with its devoted mate to the fields this morning to continue preparing for their long journey to the nesting grounds. May they have many more years together and many healthy children and grandchildren that will return to the Sulphur Spring Valley in decades to come. And may future generations of our kind continue to find inspiration in the lives of cranes. --SW

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Last night it rained. Lightning strobed, drops spattered dusty windows, and Tom and I watched as the numbers crept upward on the electronic gauge mounted by the front door. It topped out at 0.12", twelve hundredths of an inch - barely enough to refill the small rain barrel, but we were grateful for every drop.

If you don't live in Arizona, the profound importance of this may elude you. We're in the grip of a devastating decade-long drought, and this is the first time since October that we've been able to measure and record rainfall in our yard in Bisbee. That's right - almost four months without measurable precipitation. Any green thing in our yard that doesn't have its own dripper line is in mortal peril. Even the prickly pear cacti are shriveled and limp. Last night's micro-storm would have been disappointing had we not been waiting so long, had the situation not been so dire. Instead, we celebrated. Standing outside in a February rain might not seem too wise, but it had been just too damned long since I'd felt drops of water on my face that didn't originate from a showerhead.

Living in the desert can and should change your view of the world and its resources, but too often it doesn't. Oblivious humans keep living like there was no tomorrow, building enormous houses, putting in lawns, swimming pools, and golf courses, using hoses instead of brooms on dusty driveways, and holding car washes to fund high school field trips. To sustain the unsustainable, vampire wells overtax fragile and finite aquifers, changing desert streams from ecosystems into drainage ditches.

I'm afraid that for the Arizona I love there really is no tomorrow. I wonder if a decade or two of devastating drought is what we need to motivate that change in world view, or at least to slow the rate of destruction, but this is just too horrible to contemplate. It's been hard enough already, especially watching birds more familiar to me than my human neighbors disappear from their haunts, their empty territories as mute and forlorn as abandoned houses. Rain can't wash away the devastation, but it can ease the burdens of those who have survived (for now). So let it rain...please. --SW

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Back to blogging

It has been a month since my last blog, but as you can see, my editor has been ruthless. This is not as easy as I had hoped and it just reinforces my admiration for Julie Zickefoose, Bill of the Birds , BirdChick and Wildbird on the Fly and their daily updates. I used to think that indecision was my biggest problem, but now I just don't know. Maybe lack of discipline. It has been a busy month with lots of cool sightings so I'm back to cyberspace again.

Weekends find us in the Sulphur Springs Valley on "Hawk Stalks" and valley tours. Rural Arizona is a trip in itself.I grew up in west Texas and out there first you meet the goat, then you pet the goat.........
Oh yeah... birds. The sandhill cranes have been spectacular in the valley this year. With over 20,000 cranes at Whitewater Draw, 30 minutes from Bisbee, I feel like I need to be there as often as possible to soak it all in. They will be leaving in about a month and I miss them when they leave. The valley seems unnaturally quiet without their bugling. Some of our winter cranes have been tracked by radio transmitter from Whitewater Draw all the way to nesting grounds in Siberia.

We've had a couple of really nice groups lately, which always make the trip more enjoyable. The first was a group from Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, a wonderful wildlife rehabilitation facility. These folks spend hundreds of hours volunteering their time to help injured birds of prey and it is really gratifying for us to show them wild, free, healthy raptors doing their jobs. We had Bald Eagles harassing the cranes both days and on Sunday watched two Golden Eagles lock talons and spiral towards the ground in a territorial dispute. Even the common birds can be exciting - we had Red-tailed Hawks of almost every imaginable color morph including a stunning dark morph that drew gasps of appreciation from the group. A couple of the Liberty folks are avid photographers with bazooka-sized lenses so I may be able to share some even better photos of the trip in a later post. We found owls all over the valley, over a dozen birds of three different species by the end of the day. A great weekend with a great bunch of folks.

The next weekend brought another full bus including a returnee from an earlier trip this year. We particularly enjoy birding with Tony because he's a fun guy and about as far from the stereotypical "little old lady in tennis shoes" birder as you can get. As "Tony Pointless", he is lead singer for an anarchist punk rock band (Rambo) that tours the world. He birds all along the way and points out birds to his bandmates. He's even listed as resident "ornithologist" on his band's website. He brought his father this week and we all had a great trip. That's Tony with the dreadlocks standing next to Sheri as they watch 3 Golden Eagles play on the wind. We broke our all-time owl record with 16 even though we didn't visit all our regulars. Many of the owls were paired off, sitting side by side, including a pair of Long-eared Owls at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Love is in the air. --TW