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.