Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Grail Quail

After 20 years, that most excellent of quail –– the Montezuma –– has finally deigned to visit our Roundhouse. Grasses around and above us are now very thick, giving them plenty of protective cover.

A pair of Montezuma Quail, venturing onto new ground
(All photos by Narca)

For a couple of months, usually in the evening, I've been hearing their short, infrequent whistles, which manage to be resonant, burry, and descending, all within about a second's time. But hearing a Montezuma and seeing one are two very different propositions.

Finally! A pair has discovered the water dishes out by the bird feeders. Quietly and unpredictably, they slip in and out.

A demure female Montezuma Quail...

...and her harlequin mate

Montezuma Quail key their breeding to the rains. After dry winters, they wait till well after the summer monsoon has begun, unlike the Gambel's and Scaled quail, which nest in spring and early summer. This year, our winter rains were good enough that the Montezumas could breed early, though so far the three glimpses we've had of our new residents have been of pairs, so we're assuming that the females aren't yet on nests.

If you're searching for Montezuma Quail (not an uncommon situation for birders), they are easiest to see during breeding season when they are calling and after the young hatch, when the family groups are giving little contact calls.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Open Wide, Diamondback!

Among the delights of living in the southwest borderlands is the opportunity to watch interesting reptiles going about their lives. Western Diamondbacks are the most frequent rattlesnakes to visit our yard –– sometimes to drink, sometimes to battle each other for dominance, sometimes to mate, and often to ambush prey. They are nonaggressive towards us, but we do have to fine-tune our snake radar during the warmer months! Awareness of where we walk or reach quickly becomes second nature.

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, has captured 
an adult Gambel's Quail (All photos by Narca)

Yesterday a medium-sized Diamondback (about 4 1/2 feet long) caught an unwary male Gambel's Quail. We have a big surplus of unmated male Gambel's in the neighborhood, right now all of them giving their plaintive come-hither calls, in the effort to find a mate. Any step outside immerses us in a quailey surround-sound. So this Diamondback found a meal in an abundant species; and we were glad he hadn't caught one of our much scarcer Scaled or Montezuma quail. Diamondbacks often eat rodents, like woodrats, and even full-grown cottontails. Western Diamondbacks reputedly can go for two years without food in the wild!

Are you sure you can manage that??

A snake in the neighborhood gets noticed. In fact, one can stay coiled for days near water or seed, before a strike is finally successful. We've seen many more misses than strikes. When a snake does catch inattentive prey, the long process of swallowing attracts spectators –– here, a Canyon Towhee, among the most curious of birds.

Western Diamondback, watched by a Canyon Towhee 
(and by me, from our balcony!)

Bit by bit, the quail disappears

Black-tailed Rattlesnakes also wander through the yard, but they are more active hunters, and don't set up shop by the water dishes. Mojave Rattlesnakes are much more frequent down in the valley below us, at a slightly lower elevation.

For years, a very large rattlesnake, which we dubbed "Old Scarsides", visited us, but he disappeared several years ago. 

Nearly gone...

The most memorable email I ever received from a house-sitter reached us in Bolivia, from Dave Utterback, the noted bird artist who died in 2009. While house-sitting, he had left our front door open, and a woodrat got in. He managed to trap the woodrat, and put her in the freezer. Next day, a rattlesnake coiled in ambush by the seed feeder, and Dave tried to feed the woodrat to the snake, which showed no interest in the cold carcass. "So I warmed her up in your microwave, and then the snake ate her." Thanks, Dave.

If you're afraid of snakes, and would like to get past that, the next time you see one, just watch from a safe, respectful distance. Soon you may find yourself more intrigued than afraid! 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rufous-backed Robins Visit Portal!

My glimpse of an interesting bird at dusk was confirmed soon after when Dave Jasper called to tell us that he had just seen Rufous-backed Robins by the post office in Portal that morning.

Rufous-backed Robin in Arizona Sycamore
(Photos by Narca)

Normally at home further south in Mexico, Rufous-backs most often frequent dry deciduous forest. Their behavior and diet are similar to those of their cousin, the familiar American Robin, though they are often shyer than ours –– a trait you'd never guess by the way this Rufous-back cooperated!

You can just make out the warm rufous tones 
on this bird's back and wing coverts.

The streaks on the throat are stronger and extend farther down
 on Rufous-backs than on American Robins, 
and they sport no white marks around the eye.

Isn't Portal grand in the spring?!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Treeswifts––Pure Elegance!

Among many highlights of our recent trip to Cambodia and Borneo were treeswifts––the ultimate in avian elegance!

Related to swifts and hummingbirds, treeswifts comprise one small family of only four species. For a long time they confounded ornithologists, who placed them with swallows. Even their scientific name reflects the confusion: Hemiprocne, or "half-swallow". 

On this recent trek to Asia, we were delighted to see three of the four treeswifts: Crested, Whiskered, and Gray-rumped. 

Crested Treeswifts grace the skies of Tmatboey, Cambodia
(Photos by Narca)

Most treeswifts live in more open, edge habitats, where they swoop through the air like especially acrobatic swallows to catch their insect prey, but the lovely Whiskered Treeswift is a species of primary evergreen forest, where it works a different kind of edge. It soars in the spaces around the canopies of emergent trees, acrobatically scouring the upper edge of the tall forests for its food. Only rarely does it venture into second-growth forest.

Male Whiskered Treeswifts sport deep rufous cheeks...

while the female's cheeks are blackish. 
This pair was in the Danum Valley, Borneo.

Pairs of Whiskered Treeswifts stay in their year-round territories, where they nest at the tips of slender branches (probably as a defense against predation by snakes). Their small nests are built of bits of bark, leaves and feathers, cemented by their saliva. They lay a single egg, which completely fills the tiny cup.

I never tire of watching the graceful flight of treeswifts!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Community Meeting with Forest Service

Just a quick update: I don't have time right now to do justice to the subject.

Kevin Warner, the Douglas District Ranger, told a gathering (which filled the Portal Fire Station classroom) that walkers and cyclists can now enter Cave Creek Canyon. Most cars are not allowed in at this time.

Crews working on the Cave Creek Canyon Road, FR 42, have repaired a number of washed-out places already, but the entire job will take a long time. Kevin mentioned his hope that repairs will be finished in time for the 2015 birding season, beginning in March.

At this time, the Forest Service has begun to send a pilot car up the canyon twice a day, to guide workers to and from the Southwest Research Station, so that they don't have to make the long trip around through Paradise. Dawn is trying to get more flexibility in that arrangement.

Although Howard couldn't be present, we volunteered him to be the person who will collect updates from the Forest Service as repairs are made and roads are reopened, and post them to the Portal-Rodeo website. That website address is given here in my sidebar under "Links".

Portal after Odile: Bob Rodrigues' Story

Bob Rodgrigues (who owns the property still familiar to some of you as "Jasper's feeders"), sent this account of the changes to the flow of Cave Creek where it crosses his land, below the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon. In Bob's words:

"I could not have imagined our flood scenario if I had not seen it. Water has receded, probably about 5 ft, and I took a walk up the creek yesterday (19 Sept.). The original channel had very little flow and was mostly dry higher up. I reached a point up channel where the creek had jumped the bank and changed course, moving south of the existing or original channel.

Figure 1 (Photos by Bob Rodrigues)

"In Fig. 1, I am standing in the original channel shooting upstream at the breach. I think that the huge volume of water quickly wore away the old bank and that the land below was a bit lower resulting in the new creek course to the south. The old creek channel resembles an oxbow.

Figure 2

"Fig. 2 was taken above the point at which the creek breached the old channel. At the peak of flooding a huge volume of water, perhaps a foot or two deep, was flowing over land both to the left and right of the breach.

Figure 3

Figure 4

"The new channel widened below this point (Figs. 3 and 4).

Figure 5

"The flooding resulted in significant bank erosion on the north bank of the creek on my property (Fig. 5). The three sycamores in Fig. 5 had been attached to land at or very near the creek bank. The telephone line along Foothills Road is visible in the photo.

Figure 6

"Figure 6 was taken from Foothills Road on the (more or less) north side of the creek. All of the rock and debris on the far side was under water and not visible 2 days ago.

Figure 7

"Water rose to the top of the bank in the bird-feeder area but did not quite flow to the picnic table (Fig. 7).

"So that's my story and I'm sticking to it."


Monday, September 22, 2014

SWRS Survives the Flood, But Can It Survive the Road Closure?

The Southwest Research Station finds itself in a difficult position, caught between the financial demands of its parent company, the American Museum of Natural History, and the US Forest Service, which is enforcing a road closure that will likely exclude the station's workers and guests from access into Cave Creek Canyon via the damaged road.

I should wait until after Wednesday's meeting to report on the USFS closure policy: it should be clarified then. Right now I'm getting conflicting information about who will be allowed to travel on the main canyon road.

Dining room at the Southwest Research Station yesterday, completely intact after the flood (Photos by Narca)

The research station's big problem is loss of revenue. They are having to cancel some groups, and are trying to maintain others due to come through October. The big fire hit in 2011, and now the big flood. Their fear is that the American Museum of Natural History will decide that the research station isn't worth the trouble, particularly if the station fails to break even financially.

Not only the flood, but also the road closure, will most definitely impact the station's bottom line. It appears that the Forest Service will insist that the station's workers and guests travel an alternative route through Paradise and up East Turkey Creek, then back into Cave Creek Canyon from the top. Not only does this route add an extra 45 minutes of travel in each direction, but the small cars of a number of the station's workers can't ford the stream crossings along that route. Today and tomorrow, the SWRS van is meeting its workers in Portal, and ferrying them to work via the Turkey Creek route. However, this is not a viable solution. It imposes too great a hardship. In addition, East Turkey Creek itself is prone to wash-outs, and people staying at the research station could easily become stranded by the closure. In an emergency, that would be disastrous. The proposed alternative could be more dangerous than the damaged road. And then there are the station's guests to consider....

SWRS is vital to Portal's well-being. The station is also important to researchers and students from around the world. It may be time to tell our representative, Ron Barber, and the Arizona Senators that we need help here. After Wednesday's meeting, we'll be in a better position to know exactly what help to request from them!

Cabins at the Southwest Research Station

How does SWRS look after the flood? Fantastic.

The main  problems have been lack of electricity, which Columbus Electric handled as soon as they could, and the continuing lack of phone and fiber optic cable for communications.

Boiled water from the swimming pool was used for drinking.

When the flood happened, 35 people were staying at SWRS. Electricity went out, and the supply of bottled water for drinking only lasted a day and a half. After that, the station boiled water taken from the swimming pool for drinking. Very soon, Dawn Wilson, the station's director, was able to traverse the road with Ray Mendez, and she brought back the needed generator and most essential supplies. The station's guests were evacuated as soon as it was possible to do so safely.

The footbridge from the dining area looks unaffected.

The buildings and grounds are in great shape. Indeed the only small bit of damage that I saw was to the lower footbridge, where a portion of the planking is gone, but which is mostly intact.

The lower footbridge across Cave Creek

And the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frogs? They are still here, as they are in the ponds at Paul and Linda's house and Cave Creek Ranch.

Leopard Frog (Pen-and-ink drawing by Narca)