Birders On The Border

If you've seen one life bird, you've seen 'em all.

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Names: Tom & Sheri Location: Bisbee, Arizona, United States
We're a husband-and-wife naturalist team living and working on the Mexican border. If it walks, crawls, swims, flies, or photosynthesizes, chances are it'll get our attention, but birds are our main focus both personally and professionally. We lead walks, workshops, and tours, give presentations, write articles and books, band and count birds, scrounge for funding for our tiny nonprofit organization, and spend way too much time stuck in the office...
This blog maxed out the personal Web space allotted to us by Earthlink, so we moved it to Blogger. Please visit us at our new location.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hello, Bird Banding Laboratory?...

I'd like to report a banded bird. It was a male dark-morph South Polar Skua, and the band was on his right leg. The band was yellow plastic with a ratchet-type closure and was marked with "A54" in black. No, there was no metal band on either leg. Where was the bird? Well, I'm not exactly sure. Somewhere in Antarctica near an Emperor Penguin nesting colony. I think it must have been some distance from the location where the skua was banded, because the penguins didn't have any experience with humans. Oh, and in case it might be helpful in matching it to the right banding project, the researchers collected a blood sample during the banding process. How would I know that? Well, there was no mistaking the bird's description of it, even though he obviously didn't understand that it was a blood sample. Pardon? Of course he didn't talk to me! I overhead him telling a juvenile Emperor Penguin who asked him about the band to distract him from his predatory intentions...

Okay, I didn't really report this band to the Bird Banding Lab, but it's tempting. The banded skua had a small but pivotal role in Happy Feet, an animated film released this weekend. Bird research is a pretty rare plot device for feature films, and the inclusion of avian in-jokes (the central character, Mumble, sounds at times like a real Emperor Penguin while his conspecifics all sing like pop stars) made me wonder if the skua's band might be an homage to a real banded bird.

While it's not in the same league as March of the Penguins, Happy Feet is well worth seeing if only for the exquisitely rendered birds and land/ice/seascapes. The creators took quite a few artistic liberties, mostly to help distinguish the characters from one another, but the textures of the feathers and their interactions with the environment are simply amazing. A word of warning, though: This is not your average kiddie fare, with themes that very young viewers might find at least puzzling (courting penguins belting out the sexy lyrics of Prince's "Kiss") if not disturbing (terrifying Leopard Seal and Orca attacks, an abandoned whaling station strewn with skeletons, penguins rendered catatonic by life in captivity).

And speaking of animated wildlife and environmental fables, a few months back we watched a Japanese feature film called Pom Poko. Though Tom's not at all interested in anime, he couldn't resist the plot description involving raccoons fighting the destruction of their forest home by human development. Japan doesn't have raccoons, but it does have the raccoon-dog, a.k.a. tanuki, which figures prominently in Japanese folklore. (We occasionally eat at a Japanese restaurant in Sierra Vista named after this critter.)

One thing we noticed a few minutes into the film was that the male tanuki were often drawn with rather prominent testicles, something you seldom see on Western cartoon mammals, with the obvious exception of Fritz the Cat (but maybe that's why Mickey Mouse wears pants and Donald Duck doesn't). Later, the soundtrack referred to the "raccoons" using their magical "pouches" as weapons. It finally hit us that the English translation was neither taxonomically nor anatomically correct. It seems that the tanuki of myth and legend is renowned for its oversized testicles, which it uses in a variety of inventive ways (even as a percussion instrument - ow!). The mating season also enters into the plot, one more reason that many Western parents probably would not consider this appropriate fare for the very young.

The shifting visual representations, from realism to traditional caricature to goofy minimalism, may be confusing for viewers not steeped in the conventions of Japanese animation, but the plot is engaging and the message compelling. I recommend it for an entertaining peek into Japanese mythology, culture, and environmentalism as well as an introduction to modern Japanese animation - see it if you have the chance. --SW

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Cousin Slim comes to visit

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.

-- D.H. Lawrence

It was one of those hot, hot days, and when a breeze kicked up at midday I began to worry about a few tender young plants still in starter pots. Pepper seedlings can handle temperatures in the 90s, but single-digit humidities combined with a breeze can turn them into shriveled little mummies in a matter of minutes.

Out on the patio, I did a double take. It looked like the gardening fairy had beat me to it and placed a thin gray hose into the tub that partially protected the tiny chilitos from the elements.

A quick peek over the side of the tub confirmed that it was not a hose at all, but the rear third of a Sonoran Whipsnake (Masticophis bilineatus). I dashed back into the house to grab a camera and returned to capture the event in pixels. But this was hardly the snake's best side, so I lightly touched it near its tail, outside the box. Up popped a foxy snout and brilliant amber eyes.

A Sonoran Whipsnake
A couple of quick flicks of the tongue, a couple of clicks of the shutter, and the snake's head disappeared into the tub again. Dang...

In "Snake," the poem quoted above, D.H. Lawrence owns up to struggling with the "education" of his childhood:

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

Ultimately, "those voices" won out over Lawrence's fascination with the snake (a venomous species), and he picked up a log and chucked it at the poor creature. I always managed to resist my family's efforts at "education," so harming this whipsnake never entered my mind. But in the quest for a better photo, I stroked its hindparts again. This was too much for it, and it shot out of the tub, nailing me on the hand with its needle teeth before vanishing under the house.

And immediately I regretted it...
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

I had been a boorish host, groping my guest for the sake of a photo opp. If he honors us with another visit, I'll treat him with deference befitting "one of the lords of life." --SW

It's the time of year, I suppose - Julie Zickefoose just blogged on a similar visitor, though not welcomed quite as wholeheartedly as ours. --SW

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

She scares me sometimes...

The last two days have had us on edge. A little moist air and temperatures in the 80s combined to cook up some thunderclouds, which could bring much-needed rain, dangerous wind gusts, fire-starting lightning, or all three. Yesterday as I worked in the garden, I watched a nice storm developing over the southern Sulphur Springs Valley. Lightning flashed, thunder rumbled, but - big surprise - no rain fell on our half acre.

Today we got the same setup, but I resolved not to get my hopes up even when it looked like a burly slate-gray thunderhead was moving our way. In between butt-numbing stints at the computer dealing with a couple of weeks' worth of e-mail backlog, I popped into the kitchen for a drink. From the living room I heard Jesse say, "It's sprinkling." I replied, "Yeah, right - it's sprinkling. No such luck, my dear." I returned to the computer for another half hour, until I noticed a lovely moist fragrance wafting into the study on the AC. Torn between skepticism and hope, I peeked outside and found the patio drying from a recent shower. Jesse was right - it had been sprinkling.

Jesse is a 19-year-old, captive-bred, hand-raised African Grey Parrot. Until today, I didn't even know that she'd added "It's sprinkling" to her already prodigious vocabulary. Her cage sits by a window overlooking the patio, where she could see the rain falling. Did she really understand what she was saying? I don't know, but she does things like this all the time. In our house, "bird-brained" is a compliment. One of these days, I'll take dictation from her and transcribe a few minutes' worth of her more intelligible utterances into her very own blog entry. --SW

Monday, May 15, 2006

May in Arizona

Well, here’s my monthly blog entry. This is HARD! I have even more admiration for Amy, Julie, Bill, Sharon and others that blog every day. It has been a busy month with a few milestones. Our community radio station KBRP is back to streaming on the web so you can catch my Wed. night music mix 7-9 MST from anywhere. The new edition of the Southeastern Arizona Birding Trail Map is finally done and available, and it looks great.

I just finished helping with my second five day birding Elderhostel class in the Chiricahuas. This is a great time to be out and about in the “sky islands” with a few winter birds still hanging around and new arrivals every day. Elderhostel groups are fun; most folks are beginning or moderate level birders so there’s none of the pressure of the white-knuckle lister who HAS to see that 700th bird. The groups are large (we had 19) but easy to handle.

We had to work hard for the Elegant Trogon but persistence finally paid off. We did amazingly well with most of the other southwestern birds and ended with over 150 species. Highlights included Barn, Whiskered-screech and Elf Owls, a well seen Whip-poor-will and dozens of warblers and tanagers at what little water is available in the mountain canyons.. I’ve often thought that the total list at the end of the day should be weighted with extra points for especially charismatic (Painted Redstart), colorful (Lazuli Bunting), or rare (trogon) species as well as cool behavior (young redtails fighting over an unfortunate Scaled Quail). Mammals (javelina, Apache Fox Squirrel) and reptiles (Whipsnake) should count a little extra since they are so seldom seen. As usual, the total number of birds seen is a poor measure of a good week in the field.

I rarely see a life bird in Arizona anymore - I can’t remember the last one I saw. But I’ve adopted the hockey players system of counting points; one point for a new bird and one point for an assist with a new bird. By that measure, I scored big time with these Elderhostel groups. They probably averaged 40 or so life birds each and we had a grand time showing them.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

Back From the Argentine

Spring is upon us in southeastern Arizona, a season announced not with wildflowers but by the arrival of our summer birds. The drought here continues and it has been the driest winter on record in our area. We have had three little sprinkles, totaling .43 inch in our rain gauge since, last October. That’s right, less than half an inch of rain in the last 6 months. We are a desert, but even for a desert that’s too dry. It is going to be a traumatic year for the wildlife, with no snowpack in the mountains, springs will soon be dry and the spring breeding season will be very difficult. But in the midst of all this brown, dessicated landscape, spring is arriving on warbler wings. Swainson’s Hawks are back from Argentina and Great Horned Owls and Golden Eagles have already downy young.

I’ve done a couple of Elderhostel birding classes in the Chiricahuas in the last two weeks and leave tomorrow for another one. In between, the bird observatory has begun our regular walks on the river and in the Huachucas and hummingbird banding along the San Pedro River. This week the river was alive with birds, part of the estimated 6 million songbirds that use the San Pedro as a migratory corridor. The stretch of river where we do our walks has been transformed by the restoration of beaver to the river. What used to be shallow riffles and tiny channels is now a series of wide deep pools. This may not qualify as a river in your part of the country, but in southern Arizona, in a drought year (decade?) this is a treasure. At one point we had 19 Lucy’s Warblers in one binocular view in one bush. Wilson's, Yellow, MacGillivray's and Yellow-rumped Warblers all cavorted in the willows along the river while we got warblerneck. Easier to view Scotts’ Orioles are all over the feeders at the field station and Black- headed Grosbeaks went from non-existent to abundant overnight. Hummingbird banding today on the river produced 15 birds, eight of whom were recaptures - including one banded last year on April 16 recaptured April 15 this year.

Owl Prowls this week were a mixed bag. A trip to Miller Canyon found a nest cavity with 3 (?) Elf Owls displaying around the tree and a touching food exchange from a pair of Whiskered Screech Owls. Apparently a large moth is an appropriate first date meal for a new couple. Closer to home in the Mule Mountains, our resident Elf Owls have yet to settle into their old nest cavity - making our job of showing off our neighbors much more difficult. Hopefully they will return next week.

We are still waiting for our first trogon, Red-faced Warblers and Western Tanagers but they should arrive soon. One of the scariest aspects of this drought is that we are now entering a time of year we EXPECT to be rainless. It may be July before we see any relief and it will be hard to watch the plants and animals suffer. We’ll keep the water features full at home and at the field station and water our wildlife-friendly landscaping and hope for the best.

Climate change? What climate change? tw

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Mardi Gras!

Who says there's no culture down here on the border? How about a Mardi Gras parade in Naco, Sonora? O.K., so it's not New Orleans, but the costumes are cuter. We stopped for the elementary school parade on our way through Naco yesterday as we scouted a cool new birding spot just across the border. The rancher is very interested in hosting birders, so we're setting up some day trips and overnights. Should be a great new spot - we will report more on this site as we explore the possibilities. In the meantime "L'aissez les bon temp rollez!" or "Deje el buen tiempo rodar". TW

Friday, February 24, 2006

Dinosaurs in the desert

Tomorrow is our last winter “hawk stalk” of the season and while the emphasis is usually on the dizzying array of hawks, falcon, eagles and owls that winter with us in the irrigated agricultural fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley, other fierce predators also catch our attention. Loggerhead Shrikes, those bandit-masked assassins, are still common in Arizona and will be the topic of a future blog, but tonight’s post is about that icon of the southwest - the roadrunner.

I once had a visitor express disappointment upon seeing her first roadrunner. “ But, that’s a bird!” she said. I’m not sure what she thought a roadrunner was - maybe too many cartoons had blurred the roadrunner/coyote line for her. But most visitors from afar, be it Europe or just points east of the Mississippi, would rather see a roadrunner than many of our true rarities. I’ve lived with roadrunners all my life, hand-raised a few when I was doing wildlife rehabilitation and enjoyed seeing their antics countless times. But behind the cartoon stereotype is a ferocious hunter. The velociraptors in “Jurassic Park” reminded me, not coincidentally, of a hunting roadrunner as they stalked through the park. The special effects wizards of the studio had obviously paid attention to the paleontologists plotting the convergence of birds and dinosaurs. Trade the long expressive tail feathers of a roadrunner for the scaly tail of the movie beasts, add some teeth and there’s your monster. To a baby quail or a lizard, the Greater Roadrunner is scary enough.

The late Sally Spofford in Portal, Arizona once had a roadrunner who had learned to jump off her roof and snatch a hummingbird from the line of feeders on his way down. At the time, she was also hosting a Lucifer Hummingbird that was attracting birders from near and far, and, fearing a revolt if the roadrunner ate her star attraction, she began feeding the predator. A simple meatball of ground beef with vitamins and calcium powder added would suffice, and within a week or two the roadrunner would come knocking on her sliding glass patio door asking for his daily ration. Like a mafia Don demanding protection money – “Gee, I’d hate to see anything happen to your little birds today. You got anything for me?”- he would take his meatball and then disappear for the day. I’m not sure who trained who.

As I mentioned, in Texas we raised baby roadrunners from tiny black amorphous blobs with an egg tooth and no real feathers to adults. Training them to eat grasshoppers in our bathtub progressed to daily walks where I turned over rocks so they could grab whatever lay beneath. Again, I’m not sure who was being trained. The one to whom we grew most attached eventually was banded and released on the nature center I managed, and several weeks later, in one of those rare triumphant moments for a rehabber, paused along the road long enough for me to see the band on his leg. I cried like a proud parent at a graduation ceremony.

On some of our trips to southern Sonora we see the Lesser Roadrunner, the grackle-sized cousin of our Greater Roadrunner and the only other member of the genus Geococcyx , although there are other “ground cuckoos.” I’m glad there’s not a “Giant Roadrunner” coursing through the southwestern deserts. I might have to stay indoors. --TW

Sunday, February 19, 2006


A post for the week of Valentine's Day...

In the middle of a typical winter morning, the nearly 22,000 Sandhill Cranes that roost in the playa lake at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area are supposed to be feeding in the farm fields, recycling waste corn into nutrient-rich guano, so it was a shock to see two - just two - cranes standing a few yards from the viewing platform. It didn't take long to figure out why these cranes were not breakfasting with their comrades. One was fluffed, its eyes and red forecrown dull. As we watched, its neck folded into a tight "S," its long black bill came to rest to its breast, and its orange eyes closed against the blustery winds.

What could be wrong? There was no obvious sign of injury - no drooping wing, dangling leg, or bloody wound. Could it be toxic lead pellets in its gizzard, mistaken for grit or grain, or embedded in its body from a hunter's wayward shot? Pesticides or aflatoxin in the corn it's been eating? West Nile virus? Or even old age? Cranes can live more than two decades, but few do.

From fall through spring, safety in numbers is the dominant survival strategy for the three migratory subspecies of Sandhill Cranes. A single crane is an easy mark for a hungry eagle, and two are not much safer than one. The second crane could have left around sunrise with the rest of the enormous flock to fill its crop and lay on fat for the migration to come, but on this chilly morning a deeper need took priority over an empty belly and the vulnerability of being left behind. Cranes bond for life, and within the flocks they travel in pairs and small family groups, maintaining a separate identity among the multitudes. The healthy bird remained where it was needed - at its mate's side, vigilant. Feeling helpless and humbled, I turned my heart and mind away from what the future might bring for these two.

That was yesterday. Returning to the crane roost today, I half expected to see a pile of gray feathers where the crane pair had stood, but there was no sign. I'll take this as cause for optimism, as reason to believe that the sickly bird rallied after a night's rest and returned with its devoted mate to the fields this morning to continue preparing for their long journey to the nesting grounds. May they have many more years together and many healthy children and grandchildren that will return to the Sulphur Spring Valley in decades to come. And may future generations of our kind continue to find inspiration in the lives of cranes. --SW

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Last night it rained. Lightning strobed, drops spattered dusty windows, and Tom and I watched as the numbers crept upward on the electronic gauge mounted by the front door. It topped out at 0.12", twelve hundredths of an inch - barely enough to refill the small rain barrel, but we were grateful for every drop.

If you don't live in Arizona, the profound importance of this may elude you. We're in the grip of a devastating decade-long drought, and this is the first time since October that we've been able to measure and record rainfall in our yard in Bisbee. That's right - almost four months without measurable precipitation. Any green thing in our yard that doesn't have its own dripper line is in mortal peril. Even the prickly pear cacti are shriveled and limp. Last night's micro-storm would have been disappointing had we not been waiting so long, had the situation not been so dire. Instead, we celebrated. Standing outside in a February rain might not seem too wise, but it had been just too damned long since I'd felt drops of water on my face that didn't originate from a showerhead.

Living in the desert can and should change your view of the world and its resources, but too often it doesn't. Oblivious humans keep living like there was no tomorrow, building enormous houses, putting in lawns, swimming pools, and golf courses, using hoses instead of brooms on dusty driveways, and holding car washes to fund high school field trips. To sustain the unsustainable, vampire wells overtax fragile and finite aquifers, changing desert streams from ecosystems into drainage ditches.

I'm afraid that for the Arizona I love there really is no tomorrow. I wonder if a decade or two of devastating drought is what we need to motivate that change in world view, or at least to slow the rate of destruction, but this is just too horrible to contemplate. It's been hard enough already, especially watching birds more familiar to me than my human neighbors disappear from their haunts, their empty territories as mute and forlorn as abandoned houses. Rain can't wash away the devastation, but it can ease the burdens of those who have survived (for now). So let it rain...please. --SW

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Back to blogging

It has been a month since my last blog, but as you can see, my editor has been ruthless. This is not as easy as I had hoped and it just reinforces my admiration for Julie Zickefoose, Bill of the Birds , BirdChick and Wildbird on the Fly and their daily updates. I used to think that indecision was my biggest problem, but now I just don't know. Maybe lack of discipline. It has been a busy month with lots of cool sightings so I'm back to cyberspace again.

Weekends find us in the Sulphur Springs Valley on "Hawk Stalks" and valley tours. Rural Arizona is a trip in itself.I grew up in west Texas and out there first you meet the goat, then you pet the goat.........
Oh yeah... birds. The sandhill cranes have been spectacular in the valley this year. With over 20,000 cranes at Whitewater Draw, 30 minutes from Bisbee, I feel like I need to be there as often as possible to soak it all in. They will be leaving in about a month and I miss them when they leave. The valley seems unnaturally quiet without their bugling. Some of our winter cranes have been tracked by radio transmitter from Whitewater Draw all the way to nesting grounds in Siberia.

We've had a couple of really nice groups lately, which always make the trip more enjoyable. The first was a group from Liberty Wildlife in Phoenix, a wonderful wildlife rehabilitation facility. These folks spend hundreds of hours volunteering their time to help injured birds of prey and it is really gratifying for us to show them wild, free, healthy raptors doing their jobs. We had Bald Eagles harassing the cranes both days and on Sunday watched two Golden Eagles lock talons and spiral towards the ground in a territorial dispute. Even the common birds can be exciting - we had Red-tailed Hawks of almost every imaginable color morph including a stunning dark morph that drew gasps of appreciation from the group. A couple of the Liberty folks are avid photographers with bazooka-sized lenses so I may be able to share some even better photos of the trip in a later post. We found owls all over the valley, over a dozen birds of three different species by the end of the day. A great weekend with a great bunch of folks.

The next weekend brought another full bus including a returnee from an earlier trip this year. We particularly enjoy birding with Tony because he's a fun guy and about as far from the stereotypical "little old lady in tennis shoes" birder as you can get. As "Tony Pointless", he is lead singer for an anarchist punk rock band (Rambo) that tours the world. He birds all along the way and points out birds to his bandmates. He's even listed as resident "ornithologist" on his band's website. He brought his father this week and we all had a great trip. That's Tony with the dreadlocks standing next to Sheri as they watch 3 Golden Eagles play on the wind. We broke our all-time owl record with 16 even though we didn't visit all our regulars. Many of the owls were paired off, sitting side by side, includinga pair of Long-eared Owls at Whitewater. Love is in the air. --TW