Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bonita (California) Birds

As usual, we spent Christmas in Bonita, California with Randy's family. I got to try out my brand new Papilio binoculars. I really wanted them for my bug excursions because with a minimum focal distance of 1.6 feet they are probably the best ones on the market to watch shy insects without getting too close or to identify those famously tiny 'belly' flowers of the desert without actually lying on my belly. The new glasses turned out to be also quite useful among the rather dense eucalyptus and pine trees around Randy's mother's house.

Red-breasted Nuthatch, Sitta canadensis

So after a rainy Christmas Eve we woke up to beautiful sunshine the next morning and found lots of interesting (that is non-Arizona-desert) birds. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches was running up and down a big pine tree in the front yard. I recognized their nasal voices while I was feeding our dogs.

Western Scrub-Jay, Aphelocoma californica

 On the way from the house to the golfcourse we always hear the scolding calls of Scrubjays, the caws of scores of crows and Cooper's Hawks that are active around their nesting trees even in December. What I really hoped to see were the beautiful, rarely visiting Green Jays, but no such luck.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Against the blue sky, we see three huge white birds slowly cruising towards the golf course ponds: American White Pelicans! They land, and two of them eventually begin their incredibly synchronized fishing ballet. They must be rare visitors, because while I'm trying to film them I get asked over and over whether they are storks, herons, penguins (that's Randy's input). Unfortunately it got all captured on my audio recording.

Ring-billed Gulls, Laurus delawarensis
There was a flock of Tricolored Blackbirds, a few large Western Gulls, a Blue Heron and a Little Egret, Canada Geese, a pair of noisy Brown Chinese Geese (Anser cygnoides), the usual coots and ducks and a group of Ring-billed Gulls, Laurus delawarensis.

White-tailed Kite, Elanus leucurus

A White-tailed Kite was preening on top of a cypress at a very busy intersection. He waited there for me to go home and come back with my camera.These graceful raptors were among my favorites when I lived in Laguna Niguel, CA where they hovered and soared over the canyon behind our house on every sunny morning.

White-Tailed Kites by Stan Keiser
Yesterday our friends Lynn and Frank gave me Stan Keiser's calendar of California Wildlife. Frank and Stan Keiser are birding companions. I hope Stan doesn't mind that I am showing his incredible photo here - it really is the best one of these beautiful birds that I have seen in a long time. Please see more of Stan Keiser's work on his web site.

California Trasher, Toxostoma redivivum
The parts of Rohr Park north of golf course and horseback riding facility are much less crowded but there are mmainly native shrubs, weeds and also great stands of bull rushes and cattails around some ponds. A Red-tail Hawk was perched overlooking the area, and there were White-crowned and Song sparrows in great numbers, vireos and warblers beyond my identification skills, and also a thrasher with a very bright bib.

California Towhee, Pipilo crissalis

Some Towhees seemed to be a dark maroon color through my new binoculars. But I had been warned that the glasses do not have the best color correction capacity, and sure enough, my trusty little camera detected much less of a reddish cast on those birds. Anyway, both  California Trasher and California Towhee are endemics and 'lifers' for me. I might have seen them before, but this is the first time I paid enough attention to identify them. Actually, I just realized that my old National Geographic bird guide still lumps California and Canyon Towhee together: Brown Towhee. Only my newer Sibley guide introduced me to the California species. Defining characters of the pacific species  seems to be the lack of a black spot on his chest and darker chest plumage.

Canyon Towhee, Pipilo fuscus
Here is our Canyon Towhee from the Tucson Mountains for comparison. Really quite a difference.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Who eats my Tomatoes?

After they were just hanging on during the hot summer months, my cherry tomatoes have finally been blooming all through October and November. Right now they are full of promising fruit, with the diameter of a quarter and just showing a slight blush. I will harvest just before we go on our holiday trip to California.

But I am not the only one to harvest. First I saw some wilting leaves, then a lot of dry ones and frass...and even a hole in a tomato.

I found green caterpillars rolled up in the wilted leaves.  I've been in caterpillar and moth mode this summer since I met Dave Wagner who recruited my help to get specimens for his next book, a field guide to the caterpillars of the Southwest. So I brought a leaf with a fat green worm inside to photograph it. Later there was just the shriveled leaf in the white porcelain bowl that serves as my photography stage, and I thought I had lost the caterpillar. It happens.

Yesterday I noticed that a little slip of brown chitin protruding from the dry plant material. I carefully unfolded the leaf and found an empty pupa. Too bad I didn't keep it in a closed container! But I hadn't expected a December emergence and I had no patience or room to have yet another over-winter-diapause-pupa-container sitting on my desk till spring.

This morning I discovered a very strangely posed insect under the bedroom ceiling. It took me a moment to even recognize it as a moth. So I got a step ladder, took some photos, posted them to Bugguide, and

Eggplant Leafroller, Lineodes integra

Voila! Not even an hour later Maury Heiman and Charles Melton had identified it as Lineodes integra (Eggplant Leafroller - Hodges#5107).
Eggplants and tomatoes, both in the Nightshade family (solanaceae), are closely related and share a lot of parasites. So the moth definitely is my escapee from the tomato leaf. I think it's rather pretty, don't you?

Bell pepper plant that volunteered from seeds thrown into the compost bin

I'll let the caterpillars have the tomato leaves but I am glad that they haven't found (or don't like) my bell pepper plants that are producing very nicely and my little chiltepin seedlings that are just a couple of inches tall.     

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The first rain since early October

Finally the seemingly permanent high-pressure system over Arizona weakened and a storm from the Pacific swept in.  Over two days we received not quite an inch of rain. What a relief!

 With falling temps, Hummingbirds, Verdins and Gila Woodpeckers constantly replenished their energy reserves at the feeders.

It didn't get very cold down here, but in the morning the Catalina Mountains sported a nice snow cover and of course Catalina Highway has been closed for the last three days.

Our backyard smells fresh and acrid, the cacti are dust-free and pretty and the sky still holds a very small promise of more rain...

Droplets sparkle on all Creosote Bushes, the best winter decoration I can think of in the desert.

Some droplets even have upside-down dogs in them (Frodo)!

 Other dogs (Cody) prefer to stay right-side up in the sunshine, which has returned and is quite warm. The caged pepper plant behind his head is blooming and fruiting.

In the Creosote Bushes, scores of Lesser Goldfinches are preening and snacking on those silvery, fluffy fruits. The funny thing is that Randy and I were already secretly tired of grey clouds, fog and heavy jackets and we are now happily basking in the sun, just like the birds.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Git along little dogie?

Today my birding trip to the Pinal Airpark Pecan Grove took an unexpected turn. I found the fields of Avra Valley very dry and bare - just some left-over cotton and alfalfa and none of the bird-attracting Sorghum that grew here before. Agricultural subsidies must have been changed since last year.

A very entertaining Road Runner volunteered for a little video. Northern Harriers were cruising, a Say's Phoebe perched on a fence and a Western Phoebe on the Santa Cruz River bank. A hole conspiracy of ravens was riding a thermal updraft...

Driving slowly up a dirt road off Trico Rd, I heard a faint cry. I couldn't tell whether it was a bird call or a frog or even a baby? After a while, it came again, weaker, but clearly close by. There was nothing but a wash with a desert broom bush behind the barbed wire fence of some posted Tucson City property. The fence had those nasty vertical wires that make it difficult to slip through...When I came to the bush, I saw a little animal turn twice and then bed down, the way foals and fawns do. 

A tiny newborn lamb. Although the area is flat and open, there were no ewes or any other sheep in sight anywhere. The little guy showed no fear. When I touched him his eyes opened, but barely. His chest was so thin and narrow, his breastbone felt like a knife. Completely dehydrated and nearly starved. The umbilical cord still attached. Hardly reacting when I picked him up. But as weak as he seemed, he stood like a little wooden horse when I had to set him down  to crawl through the fence again and he even turned to kep me in sight. In the car he collapsed in his fetal position again. Luckily our vet has his clinic on Luckett Rd, only a few miles from where I found the lamb. There the prognosis was better than I had expected - they took him in and hoped he would fully recover. Did I want to get him back? No, not really...but I hope he'll do well and can join the other animals that seem to have a very nice life on the land around the clinic.