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.

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

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!

You Never Know Where You Will Find a Bird

I saw a bird! Bird-watching is all about keeping our ears and eyes open all the time. Birds are around and sometimes we can be pleasantly surprised to see one. Here was a colorful, male vermilion flycatcher sitting on a fence.

Or we hear a pecking sound of a woodpecker, not a squawking Gila woodpecker, and discover it is a young ladder-backed woodpecker.

Where there is water, a bird may stop by. A hermit thrush was drinking treated water from a treatment plant. I happened to be walking in the otherwise dry creek bed, saw the flow of water and the bird.

Recently I was driving a road and noticed a creek bed. I had time to stop and check it out. In time a song sparrow flew in. I was lucky! So many times I check out creek beds and see no birds.

Who would have thought I would see a bird while pumping gas into my car! A western meadowlark was walking around like he owned the place!

Under bridges, especially those with water flowing underneath them, is a great place to look for birds. I saw a belted kingfisher sitting on a concrete pillar and a green heron in the midst of the river’s water flow!

Or you notice on a “bird alert”list, a bird at a local pond which if you see it would add to your life list. My track record in finding/seeing the bird alerted to other birders is dismal, but I go and check the location when I have the time. Wow, this time a common goldeneye! I was lucky and glad to have zoom lens with teleconverter on it to capture a photo.

When we keep all our senses attuned and noticing what is around us each day, we’ll see birds.  Hawks, doves, crows, pigeons and various other birds visit our area too. There is no need to know the name of each bird, only recognize the life they bring to our environment. The balance between wildlife and humans is important. 

On a final note, let me share a quote from Albert Einstein: “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” I most certainly agree! Do you?

Visiting Patagonia … Arizona This Time!

To be clear within this blog post, I am referring to Arizona’s southern town of Patagonia. In 2013, I did visit the Patagonian region on the Argentinian side of the tip of South America. Whenever I think of Patagonia here, I have great memories of that travel and look forward to visiting the Patagonian region on the Chilean side someday! (Isn’t it said, anticipation of travel brings happiness to one!?!)

My recent visit to the Sonoita Creek State Natural Area which includes the Patagonia Lake dam/spillway was an adventure. While driving the mile-long dirt road to the parking lot, a coyote ran across with its fresh kill followed by another coyote. I could only grab my camera fast enough to get the second coyote. Further down the road was a coral and a cow lounging around. I’ll see more of these creatures later in my visit.

From the parking lot to the spillway is a dirt trail for a short distance and then a steep, concrete road to the spillway. As you are on your way down, do take a look at the lake. At the spillway, you can walk across even when there are a couple of inches of water flowing over it. Be careful though as the mud and algae do make it slick.

Some birds lazily swim along, while others fly in and out to snag insects in the air and never seem to stop flying! That was my challenge with the swallows and it was not till I arrived home to discover I had observed 2 different swallows. Here are some of the birds I photographed:

I hiked further along and parallel to the creek which joins the Black Hawk trail. About .6 mile from the spillway was my turn-around point. This photo shows the depth the trail goes down to the creek’s edge again, so I will save that for another day.

So, I need to go down & then back up … saved for another day!

On my way back to the spillway, I stopped at Jen’s vista for a snack and water. There is a bench to sit and enjoy the vista. Here are photos looking both directions from there.

It is an open range so cattle are all over as obvious by the observed cow dung and cows grazing near and on the hiking trail. I worked my way past a few cows to discover around a corner another one was staring at me. They seem to be comfortable with humans, yet all day I only saw 3 people on the trail. I talked to them as I walked by, and while they took notice they seemed unimpressed … maybe with what I was saying!

Back at the spillway I spent more time trying to figure out which type of sandpiper I was observing. There were 10 of these birds! I was challenged and apparently so was the Merlin Bird ID app I use for help with bird identification. Here is the bird. If you know what it is, let me know. Thanks.

Know what it is? Let me know. Thanks.

I then noticed a bird with a longer bill and different colored body nearby and knew it was no sandpiper. A much longer bill and stripes on its body compared to a sandpiper. Wilson’s snipe has now been added to my life list! Here is a Wilson’s snipe:

There are other trails in this area, but this is the only direct trail to the spillway. The Black Hawk trail continues for miles and can link with other trails to make for a long hiking day. I limit my hiking miles since carrying my camera backpack, tripod, lunch and water are a weight, plus I like to spend at least 45 minutes at a spot with birds so they get used to me being around. The spillway was a great place to spend time with the birds. In the future I would continue along the trail, about 1 mile I guess, to get down to the creek’s edge. Thankfully we have these protected areas for our adventures and safe places for wildlife to roam/fly in and out. Anyway you can support these efforts is greatly appreciated.

Never Know What You Will Discover…

I was searching for a particular grebe. While I did not find the bird I was looking for, I did get to visit Sahuarita Lake Park in Sahuarita, Arizona, so I guess that was a plus. This manmade 10 acre lake opened in 2001 is enjoyed by many people. You’ll see people walking, fishing ….need a license… boating (no motor, and only sunrise to sunset) and enjoying the outdoor space. There are restrooms, ramadas and an outdoor amphitheater most likely used frequently when we are not in a pandemic. The lake is slightly more than a mile in length and 12 feet deep at the max, yet the fisherman are catching catfish, trout, bass and sunfish. Be sure to check what the fishing regulations are so you are not reported.

I did observe pied-billed grebe, ruddy duck, American coot and rock pigeon. In researching rock pigeon, I added a new word to my vocabulary: cere. Rock pigeons have this off-white deposit of calcified keratin protein above their nostrils where the cere meets the feathers of their face. I did not find the bird I wanted, but I learned something new today and know I will return to this area another time.

Often, I never know what I will discover when I go on some of my wanderings. I do ask myself if there is anything in particular I am searching for. And it is not always about birds, but life in general. Have you recently asked yourself what you are searching for? The start of a new year is a good time to do so, but not a necessity. Ask yourself, what are you searching for, and then go for it! Even if you do not find it, you may discover something else … and that is not really so bad, most the time! A new year can have some new looks! Take joy in the newness. Keep your life fresh!

I only took one photo of the park since I had a zoom lens on my camera for bird photography. But here’s a nice look while I stood along the walking trail about halfway down the side of the lake. If you are in the area of Sahuarita, Arizona, stop in. I wish you a safe and healthy new year

What is that bird on the pole?

Lakeside Park, Tucson, Arizona is a popular local fishing place and I discovered a particular bird thinks so also! I did not know this at first. My attention was on the the vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe and yellow-dumped warbler. Then a snowy egret (notice its black bill) at water’s edge.

This urban lake is part of the Tucson Municipal Fishing Program. The lake is about 14 acres and fairly shallow at about 15 feet, yet 35 feet at its deepest places. An urban fishing license is required, no gas-powered boats, no swimming or wading, and no feeding the birds. This park is very popular especially with people fishing for bass, catfish and rainbow trout.

Once I decided to leave the park, I packed up my gear and drove away from the park. After rounding a street corner, I noticed a bird sitting on the bank of lights for the baseball field. I pulled into the parking lot and grabbed my camera, hoping the bird would not be spooked by the children playing below or me trying to move into position for a photo. Photo taken and then it flew! It is rare to see osprey here, but it made sense as these birds love fish too! In doing more research about this bird, I read it will position their catch with the fish head forward to to have an aerodynamic flight. Now I know to hang out and see if the bird returns with fish. That would be interesting to see since any osprey I have seen I did not take time to notice that detail. Learning something new every day!

It’ll Take a Lifetime!

How many things do we put our mind and body into wanting to accomplish even if the “thing” would take a lifetime? Continued education on many subjects has always been of interest to me, just as my dedication to the many thousand tennis strokes, hundred pickleball strokes and other activities I wanted and needed to learn. In college I thought my basketball and field hockey skills would be fantastic if only I took a lifetime working on them! Instead, we pick and choose what and where we wish to put our energies. For me, at the moment, it is to learn about birds and bird photography. (To this day my basketball and field hockey skills are not good.)

I was thinking about things that seem to take forever to actually happen … does everything require a lifetime!?! I had been on the trail and people would always ask, did you see that bird or did you see this bird? No wonder it is a life list to record the birds you see … it’ll take a lifetime! Are my birding skills getting better? Am I at the best locations and at the best time to see certain birds? My very early morning hours where when I was younger and needing to be at work. Now do I really need to be up with the birds? I guess I need to dedicate myself to the process and get up early too! Or may be not.

Thank goodness I discovered the other day that an early morning rise was not necessary to see a bird I have been looking for the last few weeks. It was 3:30pm, late afternoon in my book. Besides enjoying the birds I saw few human beings, another plus! A cinnamon teal made an appearance.

Cinnamon teal

A bird usually heard from the cattails and never seen was now dipping its head into the stream’s water. The bird is a sora!

sora

But the bird everyone else observed the last few weeks and I had never seen in my lifetime was the wood duck. I visit Sweetwater Wetlands whenever I am on this side of town and I look for these birds. I could only envision their beautiful look from what I had seen on postcards and field guide books. With each person asking if I saw the bird, I was determined that my sighting will come. It did and it was late in the day, not like 7:30am as others mentioned was the time they had seen the ducks.

Wood ducks swim away.

Black-crowned night heron flew in so the wood ducks swam away. What a fortunate sighting for me and it did not take a lifetime!

Black-crowned night heron.

I think the Audubon bird life list is about 9,000 birds. There are some people who travel the world looking for specific birds to add to their list. I remember one woman wanting to see a California condor while she was on a hiking trip I was guiding at Grand Canyon National Park. The following week she was flying to the west coast of Africa to see some of the 150 birds not yet on her life list. (She did see the condor.)

I saw 100 birds along the Amazon River in Peru in 2017. I wonder where I have the list of them; maybe in my travel journal? And what about the birds seen before I started my current life list? I understand I can add historical sightings… hmmmm…maybe I will. I have to be sure to add in the Eastern USA common loon I saw in the late 1970’s. I hiked in 4 miles to an Adirondack lake just to find and to see that bird. It took a few times before I did see the bird, but it was worth it. All the other times I had only heard the loon’s haunting call while I was tenting on an island in another lake. And now I see some loons do winter in Arizona, yet they do not have the call of the loon as the one on the east coast. Interesting. With all the birding done in my lifetime so far, I may be lucky to record 300 birds? Who knows, but when I read about people viewing thousands of birds, wow! I have a lifetime yet to fill, so I best get going!

In Search of a … oh, It’s a Scaup!

I am actually searching for an elegant trogon and a wood duck, yet I enjoy seeing and photographing new birds for my life list. It is not my life list that motivates me. It is seeing a new bird and photographing it because it is such a challenge for me to accomplish getting a good or very good photo of the bird! During this pandemic it has been my goal to learn as much as I can and to practice bird photography. Thanks to on-line courses, books and gear I am putting all together along with patience to search for birds. And then, are they in the right light? Can I capture some unusual pose? What will today’s search result in?

I found a new pond, Hardesty Pond in Tucson, Arizona. There is nothing picturesque about the area, but it is a quiet place where some birds and many turtles like to relax. I stood by the fence, a short section allowing me to peek in, and decided to photograph the birds I could see. Every bird was a distance away even with my 200-500mm lens, but what the heck, I will check it out!

Way across on the other side I see this small bird, a spotted sandpiper. Not to far away is a black phoebe and, easy to see, a great egret, along with many turtles!

In the pond water are northern shovelers, ruddy ducks and others, but then I notice some ducks that look a bit different from any others I have seen. Are they scaups? The lighting is not best, the angle is wrong, the fence limits my movement, could they swim closer to me? I think they may be scaups! I have listed the pond and the birds in eBird to see what the professionals think about the identification I made of these birds. Time will tell if I am correct, but I know I have never seen this bird before and I believe they are scaups. What do you think?

If I had better photographs we would be able to determine if they are lesser or greater scaups. What would make the difference? I need a better look at shape of head and the glossiness of it. Maybe another day!

White Chinese Geese?

What are these geese doing at a pond? Did they once belong to someone as a pet? I was surprised to see the geese swimming along with ducks in a local park pond. White Chinese Geese, domesticated for hundreds of years, are often pets if tamed and handled often. These birds were obviously comfortable at this pond!

I noticed a knob on the upper side of its bill and some teeth when the goose started honking. I learned it is a basal knob which is more prominent on males and given time it is used in determining the sex of the bird. The “teeth” are not true teeth, instead cartilage on their beak and tongue! The hard, spiky cartilage allows them to tear through vegetation and to hold onto insects and rodents. No doubt not a bird to mess with, but to enjoy looking at instead!