Friday, July 12, 2019

Birds of the Sierra: Spotted Sandpiper

Last summer, somewhere between buying a house and ripping out the entire kitchen and most of the bathroom within days of getting the keys, I managed to squeeze in a trip or two to one of my favorite places in the world, the mid-elevation mixed conifer forests of the Sierra Nevada, and wrote up a quick series about a few of the more common birds encountered in that habitat, birds whose songs contribute to the voice of the forest: flame-colored Western Tanagers, melodious Black-headed Grosbeaks, whistling Western Wood-pewees, and diminutive Red-breasted Nuthatches.


This summer, between trips to the deserts and sky islands of Arizona in May and a visit to the swamps of South Carolina coming up in August, I plan to make a little more time for the mountains and forests closer to home!  We spent the weekend of the 4th of July far from the madding crowds and fireworks of the valley, taking refuge in the quiet woods high in the Sierra.  (But of course... so did thousands of other campers, hikers, fishers, boaters, etc. etc.)  As always though, the farther from the roads, campgrounds and parking lots that you hike, the thinner the crowds become.  And so we hiked off through the woods, losing the trail more than once under eighteen inches of snow, until we found ourselves in utter solitude at the top of Lake Alpine's Inspiration Point, overlooking a smattering of blue lakes far below.


The woods echoed with the raucous call of the Steller's Jay and the occasional nasal yank-yank-yank of the Red-breasted Nuthatch.  We wandered into a flock of Mountain Chickadees and later, a foraging party of Golden-crowned Kinglets.  Warblers called softly to each other high in the treetops, while woodpeckers drummed on tree trunks and Canada Geese, Mallards, Buffleheads and Common Mergansers bobbed on the lake.  A brilliant male Mountain Bluebird flew in front of us at the top of Inspiration Point, perching momentarily on a snag, the bluest blue, shining like a piece of the sky itself.

One resident bird of the Sierra that we encountered along the lakeshore might come as a surprise to some.  The Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius) is a member of a family of birds (the sandpipers) more often associated with sandy beaches, mud flats and wave-crashed coasts than with quiet mountain lakes.  We came across this Spotted Sandpiper calling frantically from a fallen log while we bumbled through the forest looking for the trail (lost under snow).


The Spotted Sandpiper is unusual also in that it is one of the only sandpipers to breed this far south.  Nearly all of our sandpipers, like the Sanderlings, Least and Western Sandpipers, Surfbirds and turnstones we know from their winter visits to our coast, breed far to the north in Canada, Alaska and the Arctic.  The "Spotty," however, breeds across the northern two-thirds of the United States, as well as in Canada and Alaska.  Breeding habitat includes an assortment of freshwater habitats, such as lakeshores, pond edges and streamsides, often in a wooded or forested setting.  Nests are typically within 100 yards of the water.


Like the other sandpipers that reside part-time in California, Spotted Sandpipers also pass through the Great Central Valley during migration and winter along our coast.  I've spotted them (pun fully intended) around Elkhorn Slough in the winter and spring, and even in my own home town during migration, but discovering these sandpipers on their breeding grounds high in the Sierra Nevada mountains is a real treat!

We quickly realized why the adult sandpiper was making such a to-do: he was protecting three fluffy, downy young!  I say "he" because male and female Spotted Sandpipers switch roles; the females defend their territory and perform courtship displays while the males incubate the eggs and care for the young.


Not wanting to disturb these precious little birds any more than we already inadvertently had, I snapped a couple of less-than-stellar-quality photos as the tiny balls of fluff scurried off into the undergrowth, and we turned around to look elsewhere for the missing trail!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Birding in Southeastern Arizona: Saguaro Forests and Sonoran Desert Scrub

Continuing on our birding adventure through southeastern Arizona, we headed north from the Huachucas, leaving the Sky Islands behind us to travel across a sea of saguaros.

We spent a night at Saguaro National Park and the next at Lost Dutchman State Park, solely because I wanted to truly experience the Sonoran Desert.  This, of course, can't be done from inside an air conditioned vehicle on paved roads.  To really experience this magnificent desert, one must feel sun on the skin and smell the creosote bush in the heat; one must hear the crunch of gravel underfoot, the soft tremolo of the Lesser Nighthawk rise as darkness falls, the mournful cries of a pack of coyotes breaking the utter stillness of a desert night.

And so, as the sun began to sink low over the western hills (and the temperature began to become tolerable) we rolled out our tent beneath the vast desert sky and prepared to experience the desert.

Sunset over our camp near Saguaro National Park

Earlier in the day, while the sun was still high and hot, we set out to drive the scenic unpaved loop road not far from the visitor center at Saguaro West.  We noted a few short nature trails we could manage in the 100 degree afternoon heat, and I kept a mental list of the bird species I was targeting in this area: the bizarre Pyrrhuloxia, the yellow-faced Verdin, the unique Sonoran Purple Martin, the yellow-tinged Gilded Flicker.

A Curve-billed Thrasher, coping with the heat by panting

We stopped at Signal Hill to hike to the petroglyphs, created by the prehistoric Hohokam people upwards of a thousand years ago.

Petroglyphs at Signal Hill

While Eric soaked in the historical significance of this special place... I looked for birds.

Birding in the saguaros

And I was not disappointed!  A flash of movement caught my eye, and in an instant I had my binoculars trained on a small flock of three Pyrrhuloxias moving through the brush!

My first Pyrrhuloxia!!

Pyrrhuloxia are effectively desert cardinals, closely related to their more familiar and brighter-colored cousin.  They are beautiful, bizarre, and perfectly adapted to the harshness of life in the Southwestern desert scrub.  And they were at the top of my list of "Must See" species!  (I saw them twice, but these are the best photos I could manage.)

Pyrrhuloxia in the thorny desert scrub of Saguaro National Park

On our way to the campground, we stopped to walk another short nature trail, searching for the flickers I had heard earlier.  Our search paid off and we spotted several Gilded Flickers, their yellow wings flashing brilliantly in the golden sunlight as they flew from saguaro to saguaro.  Another lifer!  

Female Gilded Flicker

We rolled into the nearly-deserted campground as the sun began to set and the mild temperatures of dusk made setting up the tent and preparing our evening meal more enjoyable.  This, I know, is why so many desert animals are nocturnal; it's the perfect strategy.  But it's something that you can only really appreciate if you're living it!  We stayed up just long enough to hear the evening's first Lesser Nighthawks begin to call from somewhere in the dense desert scrub, then went to sleep on top of our sleeping bags.  

Sunset on the saguaros

The gray predawn and rosy pink dawn hour is my favorite time in the desert.  The world is quiet, still and cool.  Nocturnal creatures are returning home from their nighttime forays and diurnal animals are just waking up to begin a new day.  It's a magical time, as the first birdsong breaks the quiet of the night and the world begins to fade from inky black to the gentle gray of dawn to the soft pinks and dazzling golds of sunrise.

A male Gambel's Quail, just outside our tent in the gray light of dawn

A stone's throw from our tent, perched on the very top of a tall saguaro, I spotted a pair of birds in the still-gray predawn light.  It was too dark to tell what they were for certain, but I had a hunch I was looking at a special bird, a pair of Sonoran Purple Martins.  While Purple Martins are well-known cavity nesters across the eastern United States and parts of the Pacific Northwest (you would probably recognize the popular multi-hole martin houses a lot of folks put up for decoration in their gardens), the population in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona is unique in that it nests in cavities in saguaro cacti.

Male and female Sonoran Purple Martins

Cavities in saguaros are made by woodpeckers and flickers, but are used by a host of other species as well, including Purple Martins, Elf Owls, Screech Owls and finches.  The insulated hollows inside saguaro cacti provide a comfortable home that can be 15 degrees cooler than the surrounding outside air temperature.

Gila Woodpecker, architect of the saguaro wildlife condos!

Cactus Wrens, on the other hand (or cactus), build their twiggy nests in the sheltering arms of spiny cholla cacti.  It's an excellent defensive strategy, and amazing that they avoid injuring themselves on the spines!  Across the desert Southwest, the harsh call of the Cactus Wren can be heard as the large wrens perch on prominent high points (like the tops of the saguaros) to defend their territory.  To me, the call of the Cactus Wren is one of the distinct voices of the desert.

Cactus Wren

Another sound of the desert is the tremulous "purring" call of the Lesser Nighthawk.   During the early morning and late evening hours, these nifty nightjars can be seen flying low over the desert scrub, long wings flapping in their bouncy, buoyant flight.  We saw them a couple of times, at the campground near Saguaro National Park and again flying over our tent at Lost Dutchman State Park.  They are really fun to watch in flight, as they hunt the skies for flying insects.

Lesser Nighthawks over our camp at Lost Dutchman

By the end of our week in Southeastern Arizona, I had seen over 100 species of birds and tallied 44 new "lifers" - numbers I was quite happy with!  But there were still plenty of birds I missed!  Since this was just my first introduction to such a wide and beautiful region bursting with fascinating birds and other wildlife, we really just scratched the surface.

The desert certainly deserves its tough reputation as a barren, harsh, desolate, even dangerous place.  The creatures that live here must be perfectly adapted to this extreme environment, and travelers passing through must take heed!  But there is so much more to the desert than meets the eye at first glance, so much more than unrelenting heat and rock and spiny plants.  There is beauty, and fragility, and such an incredible abundance of life!  There is so much to see and experience and appreciate.

For me, the desert has an undeniable, if not inexplicable, appeal.  Maybe it's the wide open spaces, the quiet, the solitude.  Maybe it's the sunrises, the wildflowers, the unusual birds.  Or maybe, for a girl named after a snow-capped mountain range and raised roaming across the fertile prairies and rocky beaches of Central California, it's just a novelty.  Whatever the reason, I am convinced that the desert southwest is a special place that deserves special consideration.  And I know I will be back!

Our home for the night at Lost Dutchman State Park

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Birding in Southeastern Arizona: The Huachuca Mountains And Other Islands In An Arid Sea

After visiting Madera Canyon and a few of southeastern Arizona's riparian areas along the Santa Cruz River, Sonoita Creek and the San Pedro River, Eric and I spent a couple days of our birding expedition exploring the sky island that is the Huachuca Mountains.

When most of us picture the natural landscape of Arizona, I'm sure we think of two things: the Grand Canyon in the northern part of the state, and the vast deserts of cacti dominated by the Saguaro cactus of the Sonoran desert.  But there is much more to Arizona, particularly the southeastern part, than one might realize!  This is because southeastern Arizona is a region of transition, where four major ecosystems come together, the lines defining and separating them far less rigid than on a map.  Here we find the southern reaches of the Rocky Mountains, the influences of which we see most strongly in the plant life at higher elevations, which includes familiar conifers like douglas fir, white fir and ponderosa pine.  Here too is the northern extent of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains of Mexico, the western reach of the Chihuahuan Desert's influence, and the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert.

Here, tucked away in the bottom right corner of the state are a handful of ecologically significant "sky islands," pockets of forested habitat, rich in species diversity, rising above the surrounding dry scrublands, deserts and grasslands.

The Huachuca Mountains rise as a Sky Island, a hotbed of biodiversity, in an arid sea of desert scrubland

The plant community that blankets these mountains from about 4,000 feet in elevation to around 7,000 feet is the Sierra Madrean Occidental Pine-oak Forest, subtropical woodlands of the Madrean Sky Islands.  Arizona's main sky islands include the Santa Rita, Santa Catalina, Huachuca, Rincon and Chiricahua mountains.  (We visited the Santa Rita mountains at Madera Canyon, the Santa Catalinas when we drove up Mount Lemmon in search of warblers, and the Huachucas at Ramsey and Miller Canyons.)

In addition to pines and oaks (including Emory, Arizona white and Mexican blue oaks), other notable trees of this plant community include Douglas fir, white fir and alligator bark juniper.  Between the trees grows a mosaic of grasses, shrubs and succulents, and stately Arizona sycamores line the creeks.  This region receives around 16 inches of precipitation annually, with half of that falling from May through August; snow is not uncommon at high elevations.

These islands of desirable habitat are separated from each other by "seas" of arid habitat which create impassible barriers for many species.  As a result, while habitats are nearly identical at similar elevations across these mountain ranges, species of birds are not found uniformly across all of the sky islands.  The Mexican Chickadee, for example, is found in the Chiricahuas, but is absent from the Pinaleno Mountains 35 mile northwest, and the Huachucas 60 miles west.  Pine-oak forest sits between live oak woodlands below and pine forests above, making up the core habitat of the Madrean Sky Islands.  This habitat is home to several of Arizona's most important "priority" species, like the Mexican Spotted Owl and the Buff-breasted Flycatcher.

Columbine, another plant with Rocky Mountain associations.

Eric and I spent two days (more or less) exploring a couple of the most well-known canyons in the Huachuca Mountains.  Minutes out of the town of Sierra Vista, a handful of these canyons are beloved by birders for the relatively easy access they provide to a wide selection of incredible birds, some of which are found in only a few other locations in North America.  With our limited time, we chose to explore Miller Canyon, known for its hummingbirds and "cooperative" Mexican spotted owls, and Ramsey Canyon, which is protected by the Nature Conservancy's Ramsey Canyon Preserve and home to some very special, colorful and tropical birds every North American birder hopes to see: Elegant Trogons.

With a little more time, we would have loved to explore the birdy and beautiful canyons accessed through Fort Huachuca, which include Huachuca, Garden, Scheelite and Sawmill canyons.  South of the fort and the town of Sierra Vista, birders can access Carr Canyon, Hunter Canyon and Ash Canyon, in addition to Miller and Ramsey Canyon, quite easily from highway 92.

Hiking up and up the Miller Canyon trail

Our experience at Miller Canyon began with a short drive up a paved road, and a longer drive (only 2 miles or so) up an unpaved road to the parking area just below Beatty's Guest Ranch.  The guest ranch doesn't own the entire canyon, but their property must be crossed to access the upper canyon trail or view their hummingbird feeders.  To enter costs $5 per person, regardless of whether you are hiking or birding; deposit your fee, on the honor system, in the marked boxes.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The hummingbird feeder viewing area provides shaded bleacher seating and a good view of a dozen or more feeders.  While birders at this location have been known to see up to 14 species in one day (!!) we saw just three: Black-chinned, Broad-billed and Rivoli's.  Another birder reported seeing a Broad-tailed Hummingbird as well, but we missed it.  Such is the way with birding.

Male and female Rivoli's Hummingbird

After some time at the feeders, we headed up the trail in search of the canyon's famous Mexican Spotted Owls.  This is supposedly one of the most reliable places to see them, so we ventured up the somewhat steep trail optimistically.  But... no luck.  Maybe we didn't go far enough up the trail.

The only owl we saw in Miller Canyon that day!

We returned to the hummingbird feeders, where a Painted Redstart joined the party.  We talked with some other birders that confirmed that no, in fact we had not apparently gone far enough up the canyon to see the owls.

Painted Redstart

So, we marched down to our car, ate lunch on a rock next to the parking lot, reapplied sunscreen and headed back up the canyon a second time.  I would love to share a great story about an incredible encounter with a Spotted Owl, but once again, it was not to be.

We reached the "big rock on the right" and the "black pipe about so big" that the owner had given us as land marks, and stopped to search the trees.  And search, and search, and search.  We scanned every tree twice, particularly branches near the trunks of conifers (often favorite perches).  For all we knew, the owl(s) could be on the backside of the tree just above us on the cliff, just at the wrong angle and out of sight... or three ridges away.  If an owl chooses to stay hidden, most often he will stay absolutely hidden.  And so our Mexican Spotted Owls eluded us.

So, here's another hummingbird photo instead!

Broad-billed Hummingbird

The next day, we participated in a guided nature walk at the Ramsey Canyon Preserve, where I was able to ask our leader many of the burning questions I'd been saving up while exploring a new region.  ("What's that lizard called?"  "What type of tree is this?"  "What is that butterfly?"  "What type of grass is this?  Is it native or introduced?"  You get the idea.)  She was a fount of knowledge from which I drank greedily as she talked about the geology, hydrology, ecology, botany, herpetology, entomology, and ornithology of the region.  We spent three hours walking half a mile up the canyon and I wasn't bored for a second!

Ramsey Canyon creek

The trail up Ramsey Canyon follows a spring-fed creek, along the banks of which grow sycamores and, surprisingly (at least to me), maples.  The canyon and stream create a moist, cool environment that is home to a number of neat plants and animals, from hummingbirds to threatened Chiricahua leopard frogs.

Sulfur-bellied Flycatcher

A couple of the canyon's signature birds are the Sulfur-bellied Flycatchers (which sound just like a dog's squeaky toy) and Elegant Trogons.

Elegant Trogon

Acorn Woodpeckers called raucously from the oaks, Black-headed Grosbeaks serenaded from above, Bridled Titmice chirped and chipped in excited flocks, and Painted Redstarts sang their cheerful song. 

Painted Redstart

The nesting season was well underway, and we discovered a hummingbird nest, a Western Wood-pewee nest, and a Plumbeous Vireo nest.  An exciting time indeed!

Plumbeous Vireo

Plumbeous Vireo

Arizona's Sky Islands are goldmines for birders and other naturalists. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit to these somewhat hidden gems, and look forward to a return trip!

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Birding in Southeastern Arizona: Riparian Woodlands along the Santa Cruz and San Pedro Rivers

Riparian forests are invaluable in all climates and regions around the world, but as one might imagine, they are especially critical in arid regions like Arizona.  While a plethora of bird species cluster along the rivers, breeding in the complex, multi-level gallery forests, even more incorporate these riparian corridors into their migratory pathways.  With this in mind, I knew that a good portion of our time birding in southeastern Arizona would need to be spent along such rivers, and we found a few spots that lived up to their reputations as particularly good spots to find neat birds.

The San Pedro River, near Sierra Vista

The Santa Cruz River, which we visited near Tubac, has its headwaters in high grasslands to the east of the town of Patagonia.  From there, it flows south into Mexico before changing its course to flow north past Tucson where it eventually joins the Gila River.  The Gila River flows west toward Yuma to join the Colorado River, which drains into the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez.)  The Santa Cruz river is around 185 miles in length and is naturally an intermittent stream.  During the dry season, water in intermittent streams flows only below the sandy surface.  In certain places, underlying impermeable bedrock forces water to the surface, creating a more reliable source of water year-round.  It is along these sections of the stream that settlements like Tumacacori and Tubac have been able to survive and persist.

The riparian forest of cottonwood and willows along the Santa Cruz River represents one of the most endangered ecosystems in the United States.  Ground water pumping has lowered the level of the hidden subsurface water, so today the surface water that we see in the river between Rio Rico and Tubac is almost entirely treated effluent from the Nogales International Wastewater Treatment Facility.  While this is more or less adequate to maintain the riparian forest ecosystem for wildlife, visitors are advised to avoid any and all contact with the water.

To learn more about the value and critical status of the Santa Cruz River, I recommend exploring the informative website put together by the Friends of the Santa Cruz River.

The De Anza Trail along the Santa Cruz River, near Tubac

Eric and I only explored a very small section of the Santa Cruz River along the de Anza trail, a four mile segment of which links historic Tumacacori and Tubac.  But even our short sojourn along this historic trail produced an impressive array of birds, including Gray Hawks, Gila Woodpeckers, Vermillion Flycatchers, Yellow-breasted Chats, Brown-crested Flycatchers and Summer Tanagers.

Vermillion Flycatcher

Brown-crested Flycatcher

Summer Tanager

From Tubac and the Santa Cruz River, it is a short drive southeast to another cluster of world-class birding destinations.  Together, Patagonia Lake State Park, The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and Tucson Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds provide some of southeastern Arizona's finest birding opportunities.


We spent a short time at Patagonia Lake, where we spotted several Lucy's Warblers and a small flock of Neotropic Cormorants (along with an assortment of flycatchers, warblers and grosbeaks, among others.)  Unfortunately, the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, which is exactly when we visited.  But it is definitely a place to come back to!

Practically next door to the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve and just off the main road through Patagonia is The Paton Center for Hummingbirds, set on a large, wooded residential property.  When the Patons began gardening here in the 1970's, it wasn't long before they took notice of the astounding diversity of feathered friends showing up in their yard.  In their generosity, they invited birders into their yard to watch the birds.  The tradition continued as the vision grew, and today the property is run by the Tucson Audubon Society and welcomes birders year-round, free of charge, from dawn to dusk.

The little feathered mascot of the Paton Center is their resident Violet-crowned Hummingbird.

Violet-crowned Hummingbird

Feeders in the gardens that surround a covered seating area attract hummingbirds, finches, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, doves and so much more!  The Paton's yard is a quiet, green oasis filled with birds; watching them is mesmerizing. 

Gila Woodpecker

Much of the yard is planted with native plants and includes a native wildflower meadow (particularly attractive to butterflies), a pond and a small stream, along with a variety of feeders.  The Paton's garden and the diversity of birdlife it attracts is a wonderful testament to the effectiveness of using native plants and landscaping with wildlife in mind.  Though this yard is bordered by forest, near the Sonoita Creek and in the middle of one of North America's greatest birding hotspots, and my yard at home is... not any of those things... it still inspired me to put a little more effort into making our property attractive to the birds in our area.  (And this morning, I was rewarded by the opportunity to watch three Nuttall's Woodpeckers chirp and flit and chase each other around our yard, from tree to tree!  No yard that is home to woodpeckers can ever be accused of being boring!)

Wildlife pond in the Patons' garden

The next day, we paid a visit to another birding hotspot that came highly recommended: the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and the San Pedro House, just east of Sierra Vista.

A Western Screech Owl at the San Pedro House

With its headwaters in Mexico, the San Pedro River flows north past the Arizona towns of Sierra Vista and Benson before joining the Gila River as one of the last free flowing rivers in the southwest.  As you might imagine, a riparian corridor such as this has had immense value in this otherwise dry landscape for thousands of years as first the Clovis Paleo-Indian people hunted and lived here, followed by several Native American tribes.  The Spanish and Mexicans arrived on the scene here in the late 1700's.  In addition to providing a vital source of water and resources for humans, the riparian forest provides a critically important migratory pathway and home for over 300 species of birds.

Mexican Duck along the San Pedro River

In 1995, the San Pedro River became the American Bird Conservancy's first "globally important bird area" in the United States, dubbed the "largest and best example of riparian woodland remaining" in the desert Southwest.  One of the the Southwest's few remaining gallery forests of Fremont cottonwood and Gooding willow is found along this protected forty-mile riparian corridor, providing invaluable habitat for birds such as the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Green Kingfisher and Gray Hawk. 

Vermillion Flycatcher

The grounds around the San Pedro House (which functions as a visitor center and bookstore) have been landscaped beautifully with pathways meandering through gardens of native plants.  Scattered throughout the gardens are bird feeders and bird baths, attracting a delightful array of species.

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeaks (above) and Yellow-breasted Chats (below) were fairly abundant here; they occur closer to home in California's Central Valley as well, but are difficult to find and never very common!

Yellow-breasted Chat

Once again, these gardens are an excellent example of how we can better integrate our homes into the surrounding landscape, making our yards attractive to beneficial wildlife while saving resources at the same time!  Everyone wins!

The gardens at the San Pedro House
Cholla flowers


House Finch

Say's Phoebe

Inca Dove

Western Screech Owl