Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Vermilion Flycatcher Undercount

On this lovely Christmas Day I'm in the process of entering every area's numbers onto a spreadsheet. And I just discovered where I had failed to consider one group's count of Vermilion Flycatchers when quickly counting up what was surely a record high the day after the count. All-time record indeed: we had 190, not 178. Remember, the previous all-time high was "only" 116, set by the Kingsville, TX CBC in 2003; the previous Tucson Valley CBC high was 102 two years ago. We'll be inhaling Vermilion Flycatchers this time next year at this rate.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

CBC Results Take Time

Entering the data from 27 areas will take some time. I expect to have final numbers in a couple weeks. It's looking like our species total will be 153, as a Common Merganser was added after the countdown. And we did have a record high number of Vermilion Flycatchers at 178!

Next year's day will be either Sunday, December 15 or Monday the 16th. I'll be polling people to see how many would be affected by having it on a weekday, but it would be nice to have a day of rest for those who want to do the Santa Catalinas CBC, which has always been on the first Saturday of the period.

The Mount Kimball Hike was a fun challenge and a beautiful hike. I think I already have people lined up to do it next year.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Area Assignments for Sunday, December 16, 2012

Of course, there are always last minute changes – cancelations, friends who were invited but couldn't confirm until the day before. No worries – we'll all have fun.

Here's how it looks as of tonight, a day and a half before the count:

Area Asssignments for Tucson Valley CBC 2012

1. SCR W – Orange Grove to Crossroads
Andrew Core
Julie Michael
Craig Marken
Wanda Wynne
Laura LePere
Brad Paxton

2. Santa Cruz River West – Sunset Road
Philip Kline
Parth Nagarkar
Alexander Baish
John Mitchell
Tim Helentjaris
Ries Lindley
Cathy Rowlette
Gay Gilbert

3. Santa Cruz River West – Columbus Park and Sweetwater Preserve
Rick Taylor
Susan Kozacek
Janine Spencer
Peter Bengtson

4. Santa Cruz River West – Silverbell Recharge Basins to Tucson Mountain Park
Gavin Bieber
Art Schaub
Chris Bedwell
Crystal Bedwell
Kate Reynolds

5. Santa Cruz River – Rio Vista to Starr Pass
Susan Birky
Bill Birky
Judy Edison
Tina Eggert
Sheryl Kistler
Joyce Lebowitz
Robert Payne

6. Santa Cruz River – Sentinel Peak and A Mountain
Janine McCabe
Norma Miller
Lorry Wendland

7. Santa Cruz River East – North of Ina and Arthur Pack
John Williams
Floyd Gray
Mark Cocker
Lois Cocker
Lindsey Chadwick
Margaret Snyder

8. Santa Cruz River East – Mouth of Cañada del Oro
Keith Kamper
Kendal Kroesen

9. Santa Cruz River East – Mouth of Rillito
Larry Norris
Matt Griffiths
Brian Walsh
Pam Baum

10. Santa Cruz River East – Roger Road WRF and Flowing Wells
Roger Tess
Bill Howard
Michael Bissontz

11. Santa Cruz River East – Sweetwater Wetlands to Jacobs Park
Chris Benesh
Deb Finch
Yue Max Li
Kathy Fullin
Jean Clark

12. Omni Golf Course
Lorel Picciurro
Gary Bedore
Mary Bedore
Sharon Long
Kathy Olmstead
Cynthia Pruett
Janet Reue

13. Oro Valley and Pusch Ridge
Alice Farley
Tom Farley
Bob Bowers
Prudy Bowers
Mary Ellen Flynn

Pusch Peak
Greg Greene
Cat Greene
Kimberly Aikins
Vernie Aikins

14. Pima Canyon to La Encantada
Thomas Staudt
Paul Suchanek
Michael S. Smith
John Scheuring

15. Mount Kimball and Upper Finger Rock and Pima Canyons
Rich Hoyer
Andrew Broan

16. Finger Rock and Pontatoc Canyons to La Paloma
Jenise Porter
Deborah Vath
Bev Prentice Robertson
Andy Robertson
Laura Stewart
Scott Olmstead

17. Ventana Canyon
Lynn Hassler
Myrna Beards
Sharon Goldwasser

18. Casas Adobes to Tohono Chul
Jim Hays
Mark Ochs
Barbara Gates
Shirley Piplani

19. Catalina Foothills
Robert Merideth
Liz Payne
Susan Randolph
Linda Stitzer

20. Columbus Rd Weed Patch and Rillito from Craycroft to Alvernon
Karen Nickey
Mary Klinkel
Fred Heath
Sharon Overstreet
Mary Kay Eiermann

21. Evergreen, Holy Hope and Rillito from First to Oracle
Clait Braun
Don Radovich
John Reuland

22. U of A Farm and Rillito from Campbell to First
Thomas Rehm
Carol DeWaard
Kathie Brown
Chris Rohrer

23. Winterhaven and Rillito from Alvernon to Campbell
Larry Liese
Paul Kaestle
Karen Hochgraf
Kathy Mashar

24. University of Arizona to Miramonte
Brett Wilmore
Brian Gibbons
Peg Wilmore
Miriam Weber

25. Reid Park to Downtown
Jake Mohlmann
Peggy Franklin

26. Randolph Golf Course and Reid Park Zoo to Midtown
Will Russell
Beth Russell
Cathy Beck

27. Pantano and Tanque Verde Washes
Reid Freeman
Richard Wilt
Peter Salomon
Richard Carlson
Brian Nicholas

Feeder Watchers
Shirley Davis
Joan Gellatly
Linda Greene
Rowena Matthews
Darlene Smyth
Michael Skinner
Carol Tepper

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tucson Valley's Nine National Highs in 2011

The Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count now almost every year leads the nation in four species: Cooper's Hawk, Gila Woodpecker, Vermilion Flycatcher, and Verdin. The first and the last are growing in numbers every year, and last year's 86 Cooper's Hawks was an all-time national high.
Tucson Valley CBC leads the nation in Cooper's Hawk numbers every year.
Twenty-one years of data from the Tucson Valley CBC. These are raw numbers, not corrected for observer effort.
We've been close to the all-time high for Vermilion Flycatcher: our count reached a high in 2010 with 102 birds, while the record is held by the Kingsville, TX CBC, with 116 tallied in 2003. They've not had numbers anywhere like that since (only 25 last year), and I'm seeing record numbers in my own back yard this winter. I think we'll be tallying over 100 this year. The U of A Farm on Roger Road just 50 yards from my mailboxes had 14 this past month; back in 2000 when I first started birding there, it was a rare bird in the neighborhood. On the Urban CBC Birding Workshops I led earlier this month, we began with a pair by the parking lot, tallied at least two other pairs around the same baseball field, and finished with a pair behind Robison Elementary School. They are everywhere this year. If every area tallies just 5, we'll break the all-time high.
Everyone loves the Vermilion Flycatcher – easy to spot and easy to identify.

The U of A Farm on Roger Road has boasted an increasing, year-round population of Vermilion Flycatcher.

 We're lucky that Gila Woodpecker and Verdin have been able to adapt so readily to our urban environment, so rich in exotic and poor in native plants. I think we'll have no problem garnering first place with those once again.
Gila Woodpeckers are successful colonists of Tucson's urban habitats.
The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher isn't so adaptable and in our circle is found only in the natural desert areas in the northern and western parts. The Salt-Verde River CBC is the nation's leader in this species, hands down. In recent years, several pairs have colonized the Rillito River wash in Tucson. The trend for our circle looks like a decline over the past 20 years, so I'm curious to see how many we'll get this year.
The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher isn't one of Tucson's specialties, but it is a good example of a desert species that has not adapted to the urban environment.

Only CBC counters who have native desert will get numbers of Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
Last year Tucson Valley also garnered the national highs in Violet-crowned Hummingbird, Plumbeous Vireo, Cassin's Vireo, Phainopepla, and Chestnut-sided Warbler, placing it among only 8 other CBCs in the contiguous United States to have 9 or more national highs (Hawaii automatically gets a bunch – unfair competition). We might get three of those this year (the vireos and the warbler), but so far my Violet-crowned Hummingbird hasn't returned this winter, and it doesn't look like a big year for Phainopepla in these parts.
This Violet-crowned Hummingbird returned to Rich Hoyer's Tucson yard for 5 winters; it hasn't appeared yet this winter.

Secret Alleys and Pine Forest Apartments

Birding in an urban landscape isn't most people's idea of fun. But on a CBC you have to do it. And if you learn to recognize microhabitats and how to gain acces to them, you can make more efficient use of your time. Two places many birders don't think about covering are alleys and apartment complexes.

Many Tucson neighborhoods have alleys halfway between the streets, and walking down these can be productive, as they provide access to more and better vegetation than the street fronts. Look for native mesquites, blooming eucalyptus, oaks, and weedy patches. The one drawback is barking dogs, their noise preventing you from hearing the chips of warblers responding to your pishing.

You probably won't find anything rare, but you never know. I found a Chestnut-sided Warbler in someone's yard one winter – it responded to my pishing almost immediatly, nearly flying into my mouth. Alleys might be where we tally the last remaining Inca Doves in Tucson. At the very least you'll add more Yellow-rumped Warblers and Anna's Hummingbirds, and those do count by contributing to the long-term database.

Another unbirded and under-appreciated habitat is the "pine forests" of apartment complexes. I've found many Plumbeous Vireos, Cassin's Vireos, and Black-throated Gray Warblers over the years by walking into the courtyard of such well-watered apartments and pishing into the pine trees for a few seconds. If enough of these are searched, someone is bound to find something rare like a Pine Warbler or Townsend's Warbler.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Three Over-reported Species

Dear Counters,

The following three species probably have been "overcounted" in recent years on the Tucson Valley CBC. These won't pass without thorough documentation:

Chihuahuan Raven

Bendire's Thrasher

Eastern Meadowlark

I personally have seen Chihuahuan Raven once within the circle in all my 18 years of birding here, and neither of the others.

Bendire's Thrasher is a permanent resident here. The closest ones to the circle are in the flats of Marana and on Mile-wide Road. There is a chance that a pair occurs somewhere within Area 7, but there might be too much cholla in that area (which means that Curve-billed Thrashers dominate).

Eastern Meadowlarks in SE Arizona are also permanent residents, staying year-round on their high-elevation native grasslands. There is a very small migratory population from north-central Arizona that could be wintering somewhere around here...but they are outnumbered a million to one by the migratory Western Meadowlarks that infiltrate this part of the state.

The biggest problem is that these are tough IDs. See my blogs at the Atascosa Highlands CBC website for ID tips on these. (Use the search field in the upper left hand corner.)

What's Happened to the Inca Doves?

No one knows why Inca Doves have declined so drastically in Tucson over past 20 years, but it's a shocking, precipitous decline. It's never been missed on the Tucson Valley Christmas Bird Count, which went from a high of 2212 in 1992 to just 8 last year. We might miss it this year, though with 125 birders scouring the circle, we should find a few. 

Inca Dove is actually a recent immigrant, apparently having arrived in the 1870s and rapidly populating much of the southeastern corner of the state after then.

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Tucson

One of the scarce, yet regular semi-hardy winter birds in southeastern Arizona is the charming Black-throated Gray Warbler. They seem virtually limited to two species of trees in the urban environment. By far their favorite is the native Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis velutina. Write your local nursery and tell them to stop stocking those stupid, ugly, thorny, and nearly birdless non-native South American mesquite species and plant only natives.

The other tree they like is oak, and it seems any old oak will do. I'll bet they would prefer native oaks such as Mexican Blue Oak or Emory Oak, but those are shockingly absent from Tucson. Instead we have quite a few of some non-native live oak scattered throughout the city, perhaps Quercus virginiana, and I've seen Black-throated Grays in it frequently.

Once in a while one will be in something else, so be prepared. In any event Black-throated Gray Warbler has been missed four times in the past 20 years (with a maximum of 8 in 2005), though the species is definitely present every year. One year, a week or so after a CBC miss, I biked around Tucson and the University of Arizona and found 3. Recognizing and targeting their habitat was something I focussed on the urban CBC birding workshops I held recently; we found two Black-throated Grays on the first, and one on the second. I think we'll get a few this year. Pish at those mesquites!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Trees for Sapsuckers

Arizona is the number one spot for wintering Red-naped Sapsucker in the country. But we don't have many of them in the Tucson Valley; their preferred winter habitat is oak woodland. The Atascosa Highlands and Prescott CBCs (47 last year) usually contend for the highest count each year.

But we do have some, and knowing how to find them might result in the discovery of something rarer, such as Yellow-bellied or Red-breasted Sapsucker.

There are two species of trees in town that seem to be favored by sapsuckers. One is a species of Eucalyptus, probably E. microtheca, the Coolibah. It's a lot smaller than the huge, white-barked Red River Gum (E. camaduelensis) that is such a prominent tree in the Tucson cityscape. The leaves of the one you're looking for are longer and bluer and the plant more of a weeping character. The bark of the main trunk is more scaled or flaky, rather than white and smooth. A surprisingly large number of these eucs are peppered with the holes of sapsuckers. (Click on the photos for larger images.)

Since it doesn't get so large, it's often planted around townhomes and along edges of parking lots.

The other is another Australian native, Bottle Tree (Brachychiton populneus). I have no idea what sort of sap-sucking creature utilizes this tree in Australia, as they have no woodpeckers – probably a marsupial of some sort. But it's a rare one in Tucson that doesn't have its green trunk ravaged by sapsucker. The tree looks vaguely like an evergreen cottonwood with a pudgy, green bark and odd woody fruit capsules. Check these trees thoroughly as you walk residential neighborhoods and parks.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The CBC Countdown Dinner – What It's All About

Christmas Bird Counts – citizen science? “No,” retorted my friend Dave Irons. “It’s all about the food.” 

Indeed, as we finish a long day in the field, pishing at every bush, scanning every power pole, and quickly counting every flying flock of pigeons and starlings (and some of us hiking 12 miles straight up and down the mountains), we’ll all certainly be looking forward to a hearty meal at the end. But no matter how hungry and tired I might be, my mind is thinking more about what species were seen…and which were missed. How many species of warblers were seen? (There are at least 12 in the circle right now, including two never before seen on the Tucson Valley CBC!) How did our Cooper’s Hawk numbers compare to the average – or the all-time national high, which we broke just last year? Did the mountain groups get Black-chinned Sparrow? Was the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker found? Are Inca Doves still in decline or will we be able to see an increase this year? And finally, how many species total did we get? When you get so many people birding in one area on the same day, covering patches that never get birded otherwise, all kinds of surprising things are discovered.
Black-chinned Sparrow – if found on the Tucson Valley CBC it will be in the steep canyons of the Santa Catalina Mountains in small numbers. It's been missed twice in the past 10 years.

For me, any day spent birding is a good day, but on a CBC, the Countdown Dinner, where many of these questions are answered, is half the fun.

Here’s how it works: First, everyone arrives on time (by 5:45), bringing their field notes, tally sheets, and their salad, side dish, and dessert (meat and veggie chili, clam chowder and non-alcoholic beverages are provided on the Tucson Valley CBC this year). As you refuel, someone in you area makes sure the final species list for your area is filled out – tally marks all totaled up, miles and hours entered, and that kind of stuff. Then the Count Compiler interrupts your repast to begin the Countdown Tally.
Alan Contreras has conducted many CBC Countdowns in Oregon over the past 40 years.

The Compiler begins by simply reading off a list of bird names, pausing after each one. Everyone (not just area leaders) responds by calling out “YES!” if they saw that species, and remains silent if they didn’t.  For example:

Compiler: “Redhead!”

Three counters call out: “Yes!”

Compiler: “Ring-necked Duck!”

Thirty-eight counters respond: “Yes!”

Compiler: “Greater Scaup!”

Silence. An expected miss.

Compiler:  “Lesser Scaup!”


Compiler: “What? No Lesser Scaup??!”

One meek counter, who had been remaining silent the entire time and thought his area leader was calling out (but didn’t because she had her mouth full of salad) blurts suddenly: “Yes! We had 13!”

OK, your first warning: don’t scare the Compiler like that.

At the end of the reading, we have a preliminary total, as the Compiler has only read down a list of the expected to moderately rare species. Now there's an opportunity for a representative from each team to share with everyone any additional species that weren’t called out, some of them known, staked-out rarities, some perhaps with a surprise or two tucked up their sleeves. Any other unusual or memorable experiences can be shared at this time as well.

After all 27 teams have had a chance to chime in, we’ll have our semi-official total (barring the unthinkable faux pause of a team not delivering their list to the countdown), and then everyone can go home and get some rest. The compiler, on the other had must now take every team’s list, enter it into a spreadsheet and upload the data to the National Audubon CBC website. The veracity of the rarities must also be judged and details sorted out. That part isn’t so fun, but that’s where we start to see trend data. Stay tuned for all that.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A New Incarnation of CBC Areas

I've tweaked them a bunch more, subdivided, renumbered. So here's the latest version of The Truth. Area assignments are coming soon.

Areas for Tucson Valley CBC

1. Santa Cruz River West – Orange Grove to Crossroads
2. Santa Cruz River West – Sunset Road
3. Santa Cruz River West – Columbus Park and Sweetwater Preserve
4. Santa Cruz River West – Silverbell Recharge Basins to Tucson Mountain Park
5. Santa Cruz River – Rio Vista to Starr Pass
6. Santa Cruz River – Sentinel Peak and A Mountain
7. Santa Cruz River East – North of Ina and Arthur Pack
8. Santa Cruz River East – Mouth of Cañada del Oro
9. Santa Cruz River East – Mouth of Rillito
10. Santa Cruz River East – Roger Road WRF and Flowing Wells
11. Santa Cruz River East – Sweetwater Wetlands
12. Omni Golf Course
13. Oro Valley and Pusch Ridge
14. Pima Canyon to La Encantada
15. Mount Kimball
16. Finger Rock and Pontatoc Canyons to La Paloma
17. Ventana Canyon
18. Casas Adobes to Tohono Chul
19. Catalina Foothills
20. Columbus Rd Weed Patch and Rillito from Craycroft to Alvernon
21. Evergreen, Holy Hope and Rillito from First to Oracle
22. U of A Farm and Rillito from Campbell to First
23. Winterhaven and Rillito from Alvernon to Campbell
24. University of Arizona to South Tucson
25. Reid Park to Blenman Elm
26. Randolph Golf Course and Reid Park Zoo to Midtown
27. Pantano and Tanque Verde Washes