What’s In Your Backyard?

Often we live in an area and do not spend time discovering what is nearby. We hear people talk about living in a town for years and not realizing an interesting or beautiful place is just down the road. I always find this tragic as people miss opportunities to learn or enjoy places right in their backyard!

Catalina State Park was one of those places for me so I took time to visit it and actually will return in a few weeks to camp there. This state park is located within a national forest: Coronado, where we had a horrific wildfire burning here a couple of years ago. Many acres of land were burned, forcing wildlife to flee, and still some trails are closed due to the potential of flood waters carrying forest debris down the streams causing mudslides onto trails and roads. But the hiking I did was on three one-mile open trails: an interpretive trail, birding trail and nature trail and fortunately all accomplished with few rain drops.

The Romero Ruin interpretive trail is a loop through the site where a historic ranch and Hohokam village once stood. The signage along the trail helped one understand the advantages of the site’s location, the housing, ball court and trash mound so all the fallen rock walls we saw made sense as we walked the trail.

On the birding trail you see many remaining charred trees with grasses and shrubs growing back. Few birds were seen, yet I did get a chance to photograph one, a northern cardinal.

On our way out of the park we spotted a red-tailed hawk.

I’m Late; Blame the Bobcat!

I was birding at a quiet location and time of day. I loved it! While most birders are up early with the birds, there is some ease at birding hotspots midday; less stress on mask-wearing or maintaining physical-distancing since few people are on the trail. I may not see all the birds others see, but I like to search for birds and enjoy the quiet, if only interrupted by a bird call. As a naturalist, I am also curious about the plants and other animals in the local environment.

It is exciting to discover a nest with a bird in it or discover a new bird for my life list. I can get caught up in numerous wildlife observations. It is true, time really does fly when you enjoy what you are doing! And since I have no sense of time, it is best for me to set an alarm on my watch if I need to be elsewhere by a particular time. (Watches capable of numerous alarms were made for me!) My typical goal is to be home for cocktail time and then have dinner. It’s a retiree’s life I am fortunate to enjoy!

I had a good birding day so when my alarm went off, I began my walk back to my car. Perfect timing; I will be home for all as I hoped. I was walking the trail when I noticed a bobcat staring back at me. Okay, I got the message, I’ll give you some space. I continued to follow with a healthy distance between us, but also wondered where the bobcat could exit the area. The bobcat obviously passed the easiest exit back where we first met. Time passed as I watched the bobcat slowly walk the trail ahead of me. I noticed its retractable claws and knew they would extend if the bobcat decided to climb a tree or defend itself. I was not going to give it any reason to do that! Usually bobcats do not attack people and any I have seen in this area are used to birders walking the area too. It did finally find a place to exit, and so did I!

My plan to be home on time was squashed by this bobcat encounter, but it was definitely worth having!  Here are some photos: the bobcat and some birds seen that day.

Those Verdins Are Busy Today!

Author and ordained interfaith minister, Katrina Mayer once wrote: “Time amongst the trees is never wasted”. The statement was so true one day a couple of weeks ago while I was on a trail simply looking for wildlife. I’m rarely a sunrise birder, unless I must. So by what birders would consider late morning, I had to search the ground and trees for activity. I know the rainbow grasshopper, gila monster or whatever it is will not be inactive all day; I just have to keep my eyes open! I have not found a rainbow grasshopper yet, but I noticed a verdin flying in and out of a tree. Perfect! My opportunity to set my camera and watch what happens.

Verdins are residents here and easy for me to identify with their yellow heads and small chestnut patch at the bend of the wing. These birds build nests year-round. A male usually builds a few nests with the female choosing the one to raise young. Here two verdins were working together on this nest.

I was relaxed watching the birds and I know they knew I was there. I was a good distance away from them using a zoom lens. For about 15 minutes I watched them work until other people on the trail were walking closer. Time for me to leave and let the birds be on their own.

I loved the bird looking at me and it feeling safe to continue doing what needed to be done. I was happy to have spent the time watching their activity. Clearly time not wasted for any of us!

I wished this nest was closer to my home so I could participate in NestWatch where one observes nest activity a couple of times per week and reports the activity. If you are interested or do not know about this citizen scientist activity, then check out nestwatch.org

Historic Canoa Ranch Improving!

Recently I visited Canoa Ranch Conservation Park to search for a particular bird and noticed more trails and plants at the ranch. The best part was access to the Juan Bautista De Anza Trail, north and south from the ranch. It is part of a 1,210 mile national historic trail and a wonderful way to move away from other park visitors while birding.

While walking around the park to get to the trail, I saw various water birds and others in the trees.

The bird I was looking for was reported to have been seen along the De Anza Trail; so off I went looking for it! Another birder was out looking too. All of a sudden I saw a bird fly in. At first glance it looked like a sage thrasher, not that I had ever seen one before! With binoculars and then sighted through my camera, I knew it was the bird!

Mission accomplished in sighting the bird. Eventually to return and walk more of the trail from this trailhead. Beautiful work being accomplished at this ranch!

Agua Caliente Park

It had been awhile since visiting Agua Caliente Park. When I did, I arrived on a day workers were black-topping spots of the parking lot! I think the birds decided to be elsewhere while the project was completed. I walked all of the trails in the park. When some people asked me if I saw anything, I said, “No, it’s quiet, not even the coyote are passing through”. Little did I know then, as I was walking the last distance back to my car, a coyote looked at me and then took a turn. There were 2 coyotes walking across the park road to leave the park!

Plenty of mallard ducks and ring-necked ducks in the water. Ruby crowned kinglet, phainopepla and gila woodpecker were seen. Flying overhead was a northern harrier which I unfortunately did not get a photograph.

Overnight in Honda & With Cranes!

I did it! My overnight adventure at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area was an interesting 26 hours. I saw the sandhill cranes fly in during the late afternoon, sleep during the night and fly off in the morning. I slept in my recently converted Honda Element, detailed in a previous post: conversion of my Honda Element to a camper. I talked with various people on the trail and at the overnight camping area. Weather was a sunny 70 something degrees during the day and a very cold 28 degrees at night, as observed in a slushy-water bottle! Many people visited the wildlife area both days I was at Whitewater Draw and at least 15 campers, tents to class b motorhomes, stayed overnight.

First, let’s talk about my “camper”. I built a bed platform in the rear area of my Honda Element and left space for a bicycle, but on this first try-out I did not bring my bicycle. My milk carts were under the platform and worked well when I opened my folding kitchen shelf. At night I had my winter sleeping bag and absolutely needed it since by 3am it was very, very cold! I slept on my bed platform on an ensolite pad and thermarest, unfortunately bringing back memories of sleeping on very hard beds when I visited China. So, I need to improve that concern so I sleep more comfortably. Just as I have organized my gear for solo backpacking and bicycling adventures, I need to arrange items in the car and be sure all fits when I also have a bicycle and that gear in the car. The other need is the importance of how and where to pee and poop. We all do it and as I watched people hesitate to use the available port-a-potties, I was glad I had my supplies. (To be discussed in a future blog post.) Overall, I was happy with my set-up.

With travel I love talking with people who are also viewing wildlife and, in this case, the birds. The majority of people were wearing facial masks and maintaining physical distancing since we are still in the throes of the coronavirus. One couple from Idaho camped right next to me. A solo bicyclist camped across the way. Others on the trail were visiting for their first-time to see the cranes. Each person I spoke with has a love for the outdoors and birds which is so important as we need to understand the importance of providing habitats for all wildlife. We are losing riparian habitats too quickly, and when wildlife goes, so do we … remember the canary in the coal mine? I want to have clean water and clean air in a natural environment for generations to come.

And now for the birds, specifically the sandhill cranes. It was a challenge to estimate the number of birds there but during late afternoon maybe 3,000 sandhill cranes and by nightfall or the next morning as they were taking off it looked like 5,000. I will admit my numbers could very well be low. There were other birds too: northern pintails, northern shovelers, western meadowlarks, killdeer, Greater roadrunner, black phoebe, green-winged teal, red-winged blackbird, Lincoln’s sparrow, curve-billed thrasher, red-tailed hawk which looked on as the sandhill cranes took off in the morning.

Here are some of the other birds:

Photos of the sandhill cranes as they flew in at night and also as they took off in the morning. Their loud gurgling bugle was always heard. It almost felt weird when for a few seconds you did not hear a sound from all of them! A second or two of silence!

I have many more photos, but I want to finish with one photo. I saw this sticker on the back of the van I camped near …

and immediately knew these are people I want to meet! And we did! They are snowbirds from Idaho enjoying SE Arizona for a few months. I enjoyed their company. Plus, they were most kind when I needed fresh matches to start my stove in the morning! I look forward to seeing them and the sandhill cranes again next year!

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes!

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is where you will find sandhill cranes roosting. Yes! and between November till March it is possible to see thousands of them! Let’s not forget though, other birds winter here too. This property was once a cattle ranch; however, since 1997 the Arizona Game and Fish Department has maintained the wetland habitat.

My future goal is to visit when I can capture the birds at sunrise and sunset. It is more a photography goal than birding one, and I hope I am up to the challenge. Results will be shared in a future blog! For now, here are some of the birds I saw on a recent visit:

And of course, sandhill cranes:

San Pedro House & Trails, Sierra Vista, AZ

Nine miles east of downtown Sierra Vista is the San Pedro River. It is a northward-flowing, 143 mile undammed river in the southwest, from Mexico into the USA; however, parts of the San Pedro are no longer perennially flowing. The river basin is home to many species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, but with the water table lowered due to irrigation and human/domestic use there is huge concern for this riparian area. Nature Conservancy is one organization working to protect tracts along the river.

On my recent visit to the San Pedro Riparian Conservation Area, we parked near the historic ranch house, now a gift shop unfortunately closed due to Covid-19. We walked at least 2 miles of the trail network viewing birds, huge cottonwood and willow trees, and noticing the trail is also available to mountain bikers and equestrians.

We walked along the river most of our time during this visit and also in what once was agricultural land. There was a time when alfalfa and other feed for cattle grew there. But the shady river bed was our favorite area.

We saw a variety of birds and many, many white-crowned sparrows! Fortunately we became aware of a great horned owl sitting in a tree so we spent time observing him as he slept.

There once was a sand and gravel quarry a short distance from the ranch house. It is now referred to as Kingfisher Pond; despite reports, I saw no kingfisher in the area. It is a large hole filled with ground and flood water with no surface inlets or outlets. We did see an American coot, a pied-billed grebe and once again more white-crowned sparrows hiding under the reeds along the pond’s edge.

Eventually there will be a 30 mile trail and hopefully have more environmental protections for this wildlife area. It is necessary to protect areas such as here. The area provides a passage/greenway for wildlife from one area to another, especially between mountain ranges. If you are interested in conservation and restoration of the area, look into Friends of the San Pedro River, a non-profit organization assisting the Bureau of Land management, or The Nature Conservancy with its goal of creating a world where people and nature can thrive. We need rivers with water flow and a variety of habitats for wildlife to survive while we also build our communities. It does require thought, planning and recognition of the importance of nature in our world. We can do it!

What to Know About Burrowing Owls

Once upon a time there were more burrowing owls in the Marana, Arizona area than now. Typically the burrowing owl, one of the smallest owls in North America, would live in burrows dug out by other animals, such as ground squirrels. With continued habitat destruction, declining numbers of ground squirrels, and land use change, there was a noticeable decline of these owls. So with local effort, “artificial burrows” were created with mounds of dirt, rock, buckets and pipe entrances to the underground with hopes of enticing burrowing owls back to the area. The owls may line the burrow with grass, feathers or other objects and enlarge the burrow as they need.

Man-made created burrows for the burrowing owls.

I have been watching for these birds and when I finally saw one it was not the best time for a photograph, but I took the photo since this was the first burrowing owl I had ever seen. Look closely at the photo above, toward the right side, to see the rear view of a burrowing owl!

In researching information about these birds, I was surprised to read of an adaptation found in them and other burrowing animals – they have a higher tolerance for carbon dioxide than other birds. The gas accumulates to higher levels there than found above ground. Since burrowing animals spend long periods underground, they have adapted to the situation.

They live in grasslands, deserts and open habitat and feed on insects, small birds and rodents. The breeding season begins in early March. Before laying eggs, they may carpet the entrance to the home with animal dung which attracts dung beetles and other insects that the owls catch and eat. The female lays 7 – 9 eggs. Male and female will sit on the eggs for 3 – 4 weeks. The parents feed, care and teach the young to hunt and kill. By end of summer the young have grown their adult feathers, know how to hunt on their own and are ready to leave their parents.

In my quest to get a better photograph of a burrowing owl, I was birding again in Marana and never quite sure what I will see. However, I was lucky to be talking with a person about my first sighting of a burrowing owl when he told me of a burrowing owl just .25 miles down a local road, hanging out near an irrigation ditch … at least he saw it there 2 days ago. I thought, what are the chances?

I decided to drive to the spot when I was done birding. Can you believe it!?! A burrowing owl was standing there! I used the side of my car as a blind so I would not cause it any stress. I watched it turn its head around and loved looking into its eyes. I could not imagine it standing out here in the open, especially since great horned owls, coyotes, foxes and raccoons prey on burrowing owls. What a stroke of luck for me!

Here are my photos:

The neck and head only moved.
Nice back of the head!
That is one serious look saying, stop destroying my habitat. I live here too!

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona

Two weeks ago I finally walked the birding trail at Patagonia Lake State Park. I was searching for an elegant trogon and while not successful in seeing one there were plenty of other birds!

A canyon towhee was one bird I thought, now you look a bit different from others so let me photograph you! It was wonderful for the bird to sit on the branch and allow me to photograph it. Other birds like the bridled titmouse were all over the place before I could get a decent photo. But the verdin won the movement contest! With all of its moving around I could only capture a photo while the bird hung upside down! I almost missed one bird. I saw some action at a spot. I took a photo even though it was the back end of what I guessed to be a wren. Fortunately its eyebrow is in the photo to know it is a Bewick’s wren!

Canyon towhee
Bridled titmouse
Verdin
Bewick’s wren

Plenty of woodpeckers were in the woods. I felt like it was practice in determining is it a Gila woodpecker or a ladder-backed woodpecker?

I saw this next bird and was not sure what it was till I arrived home to enter it into Merlin Bird ID, love that app! I captured a photo of an Eastern phoebe!

Eastern phoebe

Another little bird I have not seen in awhile is the next photo: ruby crowned kinglet.

Ruby crowned kinglet

And finally a bird I knew as soon as I saw it…hermit thrush! Always wonderful when I can actually identify a bird on the spot of observing them!

So many birds on that birding trail and the creek near it, along with an entire lake to check out. I saw 15 different bird species during the 2.5 hours on the trail. It is a great day trip for any time of the year! I’ll be back!