Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the Wing in San Carlos

So diverse is the Sonoran Desert that it is divided into 6 subdivisions, only 2 of which are in the U.S.  The other 4 are all in Mexico, on the Baja Peninsula and the state of Sonora.  And another wonderfully unique feature of this desert is the inclusion of the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

San Carlos, and its much larger neighbor, Guaymas, sit at the very southern edge of the Sonoran Desert, in the Central Gulf Coast subdivision, hugging the narrow sea.  I'm of the opinion that anytime you get the chance to be at the ocean, you must take it.   So, that's what we did, again taking advantage of the generous offer of our friends' condo on San Francisco Bay in San Carlos, hauling a turkey bird and all the Thanksgiving paraphernalia, for a lovely week at the beach.

The desert vegetation in this region is fascinating, and perhaps the subject of a future post, but for today, it's all about the birds.  Water, of course, is the magnet for so many species, bringing as it does a plentiful source of food.  But, where the desert meets the sea, you also have the joy of seeing those birds who call the desert home.  The water in the bay was literally alive with tiny, silvery, sardine-like fish, on which the pelicans, herons, egrets, loons, and dolphins feasted from first light until darkness enveloped the bay.

I had as my birding companion my friend Michelle, a relative newbie to birding, who makes up in enthusiasm what she lacks in experience.  Her excitement at each new discovery made me realize just how lucky I am to be able to enjoy such marvelous sights, sounds and places.

At the eastern end of the bay the water enters a mangrove-lined estuary, Estero el Soldado, now being protected by the Municipality of Guaymas, which is also slowly developing visitor facilities, signs and trails.  Currently, the visitor center and all the land around it are fenced off and closed to the public.  On this trip, however, I did see more hopeful indications that progress is being made.  New signs are being erected and scientists were doing studies and placing markers.

In the mangroves, herons, ibises, terns and egrets roosted, and foraged in the shallows.  Most exciting was the discovery of tri-colored herons, roseate spoonbills, yellow- and black-crowned night herons and even a group of white pelicans.  I laughed at the silly antics of the reddish egret as he ran about, danced and jumped, apparently scaring the little fish into submission.

Royal terns cruised endlessly over the shallows of the bay, making their spectacular dives and never coming up empty.  Brown pelicans gathered in huge flocks and went into virtual feeding frenzies, rising from the water surface just a few feet before diving again and quickly swallowing before starting the process again.

American oystercatchers squawked loudly with every disturbance, ospreys soared high above the water, as did the menacing-looking magnificent frigatebird, egrets and willets lined the beach waiting for their prey, and tiny peeps scurried in the surf.

Away from the water, our most thrilling moment came with the discovery of a group of great kiskadees in the tropical trees of the condo complex, foraging for the berries and chasing one another from tree to tree, their distinctive call alerting the observer to their presence.

We watched loggerhead shrikes and ash-throated flycatchers sallying from conspicuous perches, listened to elusive gnatcatchers and sparrows, and got so excited when we spotted the brilliant red of a northern cardinal among the green of a wolfberry bush.  A pair of American kestrels made one appearance, and we spotted a falcon (peregrine, I believe) flying high with a group of black vultures.

My photos don't do these guys justice.  I don't have the camera for really good bird photos.  A choice, at this point, for the incredible convenience of a point-and-shoot over the quality of a DSLR.  But, it's times like this when I reconsider that choice.

Here is the (mostly) complete list.  I'm far from an expert birder and could have some of the gulls and terns wrong.  There were many birds that were just too far away to positively identify, mainly ducks.  I love the birds that flash neon signs telling who they are - like the roseate spoonbill.

Cassin’s kingbird
Reddish egret
Tricolored heron
Great blue heron
Black-crowned night heron
American oystercatcher
Brown pelican
Common loon
Western grebe
Magnificent frigatebird
Double crested cormorant
Great egret
Snowy egret
White ibis
Turkey vulture
Red-tailed hawk
Crested caracara
American coot
Least sandpiper
Royal tern
Snowy plover
Least sandpiper
Common raven
Great kiskadee
Lesser goldfinch
Loggerhead shrike
Eared grebe
Say’s phoebe
Heermann’s gull
Least tern
Rufous hummingbird
Costa’s hummingbird
Gila woodpecker
Chihuahuan raven
Rufous-crowned sparrow
Yellow-rumped warbler
Brown headed cowbird
House sparrow
Roseate spoonbill
Long-billed curlew
Yellow-crowned night heron
Northern mockingbird
White-winged dove
American white pelican
Lesser yellowlegs
Marbled godwit
Ash-throated flycatcher
Western gull
Northern cardinal
Blue-gray gnatcatcher
House wren
Black vulture
Peregrine falcon
Common merganser
California gull
American kestrel
House finch
Common ground dove
Northern rough-winged swallow
Caspian tern
Snow goose
Northern harrier
Rock wren
Redhead duck

I'll have the rest of the photos posted on Picasa soon and I'll post a link here.

May all your birding adventures bring a smile to your face and joy to your heart!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

In Search of Color

The desert has a powerful, fulfilling beauty, spiritual and deep.  But what it does not have is the glory of autumn leaves in the throes of their annual ritual of changing color. For those of us who have lived in parts of the country dominated by deciduous trees, where 'going to see the color' was a rite of fall, where even the drive to work took one's breath away with the stunning brilliance of the colors, there's just something missing when the days shorten and turn cool, pumpkins appear on doorsteps, Halloween arrives, and yet there are no 'colors'.

To fill this small void, I prodded my husband to drive up the Catalina Highway to Mt. Lemmon, in search of oaks, maples, aspens, sumacs in their fall colors.  It is a particularly fascinating ascent, biologically, passing through a number of life zones from saguaros and palo verdes to oaks and junipers, thence to pines, aspens, firs and spruce, from 2500' elevation to over 9000'.  The biological equivalent, they say, of driving from Mexico to Canada, in just 27 miles.

The Halloween day began prophetically with a colorful sunrise,

and a new bloom.

After a stop for breakfast, we made our way through Monday traffic across town, finally to the Catalina Highway, rising quickly above the congested valley, past the mega-houses carved into the granite hillside, and into the saguaro-studded foothills.  Before long, the vegetation became denser, the cactus giving way to yuccas, pines, oaks and grasses.  Massive rock formations and stunning views of Tucson and its surrounding mountain ranges greet the traveler at every turn.  A popular stop is Windy Vista where tourists snap photos and rock climbers test themselves on the granite outcroppings.

Crazy hoodoos look like people (well, kinda)

and I'm glad I'm not driving so I can enjoy this marvelous scenery.  Though I've seen it many times before, it never fails to inspire and entertain.  As we reached the higher elevations, a lookout offered a stark view of the mountaintop community of Summerhaven and its surrounding forests devastated by the Aspen Fire of 2003.

But color?  No there wasn't much yet. Here and there, a tantalizing touch of shining gold or yellow.

But, mainly it seemed we were a week or more too late for any big show.  Summerhaven is slowly rebuilding, and where once stood decades-old family cabins, now enormous new dwellings sit among a blackened forest of ghost trees.  Through the village we passed and on to the Marshall Gulch picnic area.  Several trails lead from this canyon area filled with deciduous hardwoods and dense lower vegetation along a small ephemeral stream.  Finally, here I was in a cathedral of color and silence.  

A carpet of maple leaves crunched under foot as I made my way along the trail.  The hammering of a woodpecker high in the canopy had me searching for the source.  Finally the movement drew my eye to a downy woodpecker, and then I could hear several of them.  Standing still, small bird sounds became louder and soon I saw movement all around.  Juncos, brown creepers and nuthatches were all busily preparing for winter.  

Shafts of sunlight made their way deep into the recesses of the canyon, lighting up the leaves, setting the colors aglow.  Small pools of water remained in the streambed, covered with a palette of orange, yellow, red leaves.

Bear with me if you see more striking colors every day out your window. I was in a momentary heaven and my camera felt the same, it just kept clicking and clicking.  The blue, blue sky above providing a magnificent backdrop to the forest.

The trail led on and I had to force myself to turn around as the light was fading and the mountain chill setting in.  

A handsome Abert's squirrel, with his pointed ears and bushy tail ran up a nearby tree to watch the passerby, carefully eyeing the black object being pointed at him.

Back on the road to Summerhaven, a white-tailed doe and buck strolled out of our way, not too concerned with the car.

At the Cookie Cabin's patio in the village, we gorged on freshly-homemade berry cobbler topped with ice cream, the biggest peanut butter cookie you've ever seen and a delicious cup of coffee.

Then it was back down the mountain.

Here's to days of beauty, peace, nature, and glorious color!

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Friendship - From Virtual to Reality

In the cyberworld, we often meet people and become friends without ever meeting in person.  So when a fellow blogger recently told me she would be in Tucson and would I like to meet, I jumped at the chance.  After all, I already knew I would like her.  She leads an interesting and adventuresome life, which I admire, and she and I have so many interests in common.  Marilyn's stay in Tucson was brief as she was traveling from Texas to northern California and had only one night to stay.  So, we agreed to meet at Catalina State Park where she would be camping.  We could spend a couple of hours birding and then have breakfast before she had to be on the road again.

Before the sun even had an opportunity to rise over the Catalinas, we were on the trail.  Even before the birds, as it turns out!  We were so busy chatting and getting acquainted that we really forgot to notice how few birds were about.  It was a crisp morning, still chilly in the shadow of the mountains, but cloudless and promising to warm up soon.

As the sun rose higher and the trail climbed, it was time to shed sweaters.  Soon we were stopping to investigate bird songs and photograph those fascinating plants, not just the giant saguaros, but also cholla loaded with fruit.

A recently deceased saguaro, possibly the victim of lightning as there were some still-green parts lying among the debris, provided more photos ops.  The boots formed by the cactus to protect itself from the woodpeckers' nesting efforts were still embedded in the wooden ribs and decayed flesh.

Marilyn has great experience and knowledge of Texas flora and fauna and we enjoyed comparing the Sonoran Desert species to those with which she is more familiar.  In some cases, those species which overlap were much smaller in our drier climate.  Hackberry trees, for example, and side-oats grama grass.

Woopeckers called and flew by in their typical dipping, flap-flap-glide pattern, and we were able to recognize Gila and ladderback as well as flickers.  Many sparrows were flitting among the trees and shrubs - white-crowned, black-throated and rufous-sided.  They were joined by canyon  and green-tailed towhees.  A lovely little song made us think we might be hearing a wren, possibly a  rock wren, but we were never able to spot the singer.

Marilyn's road ahead was long and she wanted to be traveling before it got too late.  When we came to a fork in the trail, we could have gone left back to the parking lot, or right to take the 2-mile-or-so Canyon Loop trail.  Well, she said, that won't take long, let's take the loop trail.  Off we went, vowing to move faster and stop for fewer photos.  Ha!  Our intentions were good, but oh! there were just too many cool things to see.  Down by the ephemeral stream where tiny water cachements remained, the butterflies were flitting about - southern dogface, sleepy orange, queen, blues, Empress Leilia and gulf frittilaries.  Yellow composites bloomed, as well as a little purple aster (fleabane?) and some yellow primroses.  The deer grass was beautiful.

Just one more photo!
Oh, there were lizards too, scampering just out of camera view, and dragonflies.  Stop, she said, don't tell me any more.  Shorts and more water would have been in order at this point, but we were almost back to the car, weren't we?

We heard a black-tailed gnatcatcher and some Gambel's quail that refused to show their faces.  Marilyn really wanted to see the quail, and if we'd had more time, we could have found them.  These wonderful little birds are so evocative of the Sonoran Desert.  

The trail came to and end and we were off to breakfast.  Coffee and omelettes with salsa really hit the spot after our walk. It was a great morning and I'm so glad that Marilyn and I could make this connection.

 Here's to Marilyn's new adventure in a northern California wildlife refuge, and here's to friendship!