Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Party-Miles and Party-Hours

I know it's a pain, but keeping track of party-miles and party-hours is one way we can at least partially control for one of the factors that makes CBC data so unreliable – observer effort. If you have a watch, a GPS, and an odometer on your car, you can come up with pretty exact numbers. If all you have is a watch, you can at least estimate the miles.

For miles and hours driven by car, set your odometer to zero when you enter your area (not when you leave home). Anywhere you drive within your area counts, as you are theoretically able to spot birds and count them as you drive between birding spots. Keep a note of the time you enter your area of the CBC circle. Then write down the time every time you hop into your car and the moment you hop out of your car. At the end of the day, you can add up these times to get your party-hours by car. The odometer reading when you leave your area is the party-miles by car. Let's say you entered your area of the circle at 7:30 a.m. and departed for the countdown at 5:00. That's a total of 9.5 hours. If you add up the times you spent in the car and it comes to 1.5 hours total, then you have 1.5 hours by car.

Hours and miles on foot are a bit more difficult, because this is when groups split up into multiple parties. If you never split up, then using the example above, you logged 8 party-hours on foot. But if you split up into different groups (parties), then you have more. If you were apart for just an hour of the day, you'd have 9 party-hours. It's that simple. And a party is one to several people birding together within earshot.

As another example, say your group is 4 people. You split up, with one person hiking up one canyon, another person hiking up another, and two people hiking down yet a third. You all meet back up 2 hours later. Using the example above, the base is 8 party-hours, You have to add two more hours for each of the extra parties, so that makes a total of 12 party-hours by foot for the day.

All clear?

Keeping an Eye on the Weather

It's looking good for Sunday, January 3. The morning low will be right around freezing and the high from the upper 60's to the low 70's.

My favorite source of weather info is the NOAA Western Regional Headquarters site. This link HERE will take you to the exact center of the AZAH Circle forecast.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Tips On Finding Montezuma Quail

Last year we made no special efforts to get Montezuma Quail, but we still set an all-time national high with 268. It must have been a year of spectacular breeding success.

I think Sara and I were the only team to not actually see a live Montezuma Quail, though we did hear a covey early in the morning in Peck Canyon. But in Pine Canyon a Cooper's Hawk dropped this at our feet as it flew right by us, startled at the first humans it must have seen in weeks.

There have been reports from birders in recent weeks to indicate that the population is still pretty high, but I'd be surprised if we saw as many as last year. The monsoon was not very good in most of Southeastern Arizona and plants (and the animals that eat them) have suffered.

So I thought a couple tips on finding them might be in order. Their preferred microhabitat seems to be open oak woodland with a grassy understory, especially on the slopes within 50-100 yards of the canyon bottoms. So walking along the slope parallel with a wash, but a 25-50 yards upslope will increase your chances of flushing a group.

Better yet, when you are near such likely looking habitat, whistle for them. The whistle to use is a series of 4-8 pure, downslurred whistles, which is the female's call. Interestingly, the males will respond to this with their single downslurred, buzzy whistle better than to their own song. A recording of this female call can be heard on the Keller SE Arizona CD. It's the first sound on the cut, the first time simultaneously with a male's song, the second time on its own. I usually hear the individual notes more spaced out, rather than in a stuttered pattern as on the CD.

We may do a quick count of numbers at the countdown of this and other target species to see if we've come close to previous highs.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Finding those Cassin's Sparrows

We missed Cassin's Sparrow last year. That was something of a surprise, given that we had a large number of prepared participants thoroughly birding areas known to have Cassin's Sparrows in the winter. Even with so many years of suboptimal coverage and weather, the species was seen on just over half of all Atascosa Highlands CBC's. This circle even had 108 one year, which was the all-time national high until Ramsey Canyon got 193 in 1982.

Well, one reason we missed it was that it was just a bad year for many sparrows. We also missed Grasshopper Sparrow and had only 7 Brewer's Sparrows, after all. But there was one thing we didn't do.

In the wake of last year's CBC, I had some interesting e-mail conversations with Scott Mills, who was the compiler of this count through the late 70's, 80's, and early 90's.

Says Scott, "They respond really well to playbacks of taped songs in winter - they apparently hold territories and chip like crazy (and often come to the tape) when a song is played. The first year I tried it I got something like 45 birds with tape in an area where I had flushed only two simply by walking through the grass."

He mentions Wise Mesa and the steep upper edge of Atascosa Canyon (in area 10. Bear Valley Ranch) as being especially good areas. One winter I flushed a few in the open, scrubby mesquite slopes on the east side of Arivaca Lake. I suspect there are some in every area of the circle in the right habitats. The grassiest areas with very scattered mesquite are the best. And although I'd like to have a calm, warm, sunny day, he reminded me that in snow, many of the skulking sparrows (including Grasshopper and Baird's) are seen perched in shrubs.

So, now in addition to your GPS and digital camera, don't forget your iPod and external speaker.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Document Those Rarities

On last year's CBC, Andrew Core was able to get these simple and more-than-adequate shots of a Greater Scaup that he and Jeff Gilligan flushed from Papago Tanks, a pair of obscure ponds north of Ruby.

So, along with your binoculars, food and water, don't forget your point-and-shoot digital camera.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

January 3, 2010 Area Assignments

These are not set in stone and will be updated as needed. This information is intended to be helpful in case neighboring area leaders would like to work out logistics in transportation. If you need contact information for anyone, please let me know.

1. Bear Grass Tank and Murphy Canyon
Brian McKnight
Jim Hays
Sally Johnsen

2. Jalisco and Apache Canyons
Dennis Wall
Marley Wall
Brooks Hart

3. Arivaca Lake
Paul Sheppard
Will Russell
Mark Sharon
Farrish Sharon

4. Oro Blanco Wash
Roger Tess
Eng Li Green
Paul Green

5. Warsaw and Holden Canyons
Ethan Beasley
Malcolm Chesworth
Robert Payne

6. Bartolo Canyon
Tim Helentjaris
Leah Latura

7. Ruby and Papago Tanks
Greg Greene
Andrew Core
Mary Klinkel
Fred Heath

8. California Gulch
Dick Palmer
Reid Freeman
Richard Wilt

9. Corral Nuevo
Rob Klotz
Bob Beatson
Suzy Ehret

10. Upper Sycamore and Yanks Canyons
Richard Fray
Alan Mueller
Karen Holliday
Jenise Porter

11. Middle Sycamore and Peñasco Canyons
Dave Stejskal
Parth Nagarkar
Grant Loomis
Tyler Loomis

12. Lower Sycamore and Tonto Canyons
Jherime Kellermann
Philip Kline
Nigel Crook

13. Pine Canyon to Hells Gate
Rich Hoyer
Art Schaub

14. Atascosa Lookout and Upper Ramanote Canyon
Laurens Halsey
Janine McCabe

15. Bear Valley Ranch
Denny Hodsdon
Paul Kaestle
Larry Liese

16. Rock Corral and Tinaja Canyons
John Yerger
Greg Corman
Richard Peterson

17. Peck Canyon Complex
Jake Mohlmann
Lucy Snyder
Steven Foldi
Tom Hildebrandt
Kristan Hildebrandt

18. Wise Mesa and Lower Ramanote Canyon
Matt Brown
Josh Stewart

19. Bellota Canyon
Matt Brooks
Erika Wilson

20. Peña Blanca Lake and Canyon
Ken Kertell
Pamela Elia

21. Ruby Road East
Mark Stevenson
Molly Pollock

Kathe Anderson
Lois Lorenz

22. Alamo Canyon
Rick Romea
Joe Woodley
Bob Behrstock

Monday, December 21, 2009

Where to Stay Near the Atascosa Highlands Circle

If you are coming from out of town, you may want to find lodging near the circle. If your area is in the eastern half of the circle, staying near Tubac, Rio Rico, or in Nogales would be the best bet. If your area is in the western half of the circle, staying in Amado or even Green Valley would be closer – you'd then access the circle via Arivaca Road.

Of course, there is camping possible all over in the circle. Any flat spot on USFS property is fair game unless it's marked otherwise.

Here are some suggestions for lodging in the area. Feel free to add to this in the comments section.

Rex Ranch
P.O. Box 636, Amado, Arizona 85645

(520) 398-2914


Amado Territory Inn
P.O. Box 81, 3001 E. Frontage Road, Amado, AZ 85645

Toll Free: (888) 398-8684

Local: (520) 398-8684

Fax: (520) 398-8186


Rio Rico Esplendor Resort
1069 Camino Caralampi, Rio Rico, AZ 85648

Toll Free: 1-800-288-4746

Local: 520-281-1901

Fax: 520-377-7400


Best Western Sonora Inn and Suites
750 West Shell Road, Nogales, AZ 85621


Holiday Inn Express
850 West Shell Road, Nogales, AZ 85621


Candlewood Suites Nogales
875 North Frank Reed Road, Nogales, AZ 85621


Best Western Siesta Motel
673 North Grand Avenue, Nogales, AZ 85621


Super 8
547 West Mariposa Road, Nogales, AZ US 85621

Highlights To Remember From 2008

Montezuma Quail photographed by Laurens Halsey in Upper Ramanote Canyon.

On December 15, 2008, 56 participants in 21 teams found an all-time high of 139 species. It was a great day that will be hard to beat.

Of special note were the addition of eight new species to the all-time list. They were:

Greater Scaup

Hooded Merganser

Brown Pelican

Whiskered Screech-Owl (long overdue)

Short-eared Owl

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Olive Warbler

Western Tanager

Also, we broke all-time national record high counts for five species, more than any other CBC in 2008. They were Montezuma Quail, Elegant Trogon, Painted Redstart, Hepatic Tanager, and Scott's Oriole. For the numbers, see the list below. Of special note was Hepatic Tanager – the count had recorded four in three different years, and that was previous all-time national high. So our 27 was simply amazing. The Green Valley CBC was the next closest count, breaking three all-time national highs, including Painted Redstart, edging us out with 17 of them.

We hold the all-time national highs for six additional species. They are:

Mexican Jay – 1110

Bridled Titmouse – 574

Rock Wren – 300

Canyon Wren – 213

Rufous-crowned Sparrow – 460

Five-striped Sparrow – 6

In 2008 we had the annual national high count for Arizona Woodpecker, Hammond's Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Rock Wren, Canyon Wren, Black-throated Gray Warbler, Rufous-crowned Sparrow, and Five-striped Sparrow.

In comparing counts made on this CBC since 1960, we broke or set new high counts for 45 species, listed below.

New high species counts set in 2008

Northern Shoveler – 28

Canvasback – 10

Greater Scaup – 1

Hooded Merganser – 3

Montezuma Quail – 268

Brown Pelican – 1

Black Vulture – 24

Northern Harrier – 37

Sharp-shinned Hawk – 11

Red-tailed Hawk – 98

American Kestrel – 29

Barn Owl – 1

Western Screech-Owl – 25

Whiskered Screech-Owl – 6

Short-eared Owl – 1

Common Poorwill – 1

Elegant Trogon – 4

Red-breasted Sapsucker – 1

Arizona Woodpecker – 37

Hammond's Flycatcher – 26

Gray Flycatcher – 59

Dusky Flycatcher – 8

Black Phoebe – 97

Eastern Phoebe – 1

Ash-throated Flycatcher – 16

Cassin's Kingbird – 19

Plumbeous Vireo – 2

Hutton's Vireo – 81

Western Scrub-Jay – 7

Common Raven – 103

Bewick's Wren – 263

House Wren – 46

Black-capped Gnatcatcher – 3

Olive Warbler – 1

Orange-crowned Warbler – 4

Black-throated Gray Warbler – 31

Townsend's Warbler – 16

Common Yellowthroat – 4

Painted Redstart – 14

Hepatic Tanager – 27

Western Tanager – 1

Abert's Towhee – 5

Rufous-winged Sparrow – 12

Scott's Oriole – 29

Lesser Goldfinch – 216

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Strategies for Christmas Count Birding

Read this great article by David Fix on the BirdFellow blog HERE.

One bit of info I would tweak to fit the Atascosa Highlands CBC is which species of owls to imitate (or play tape/iPod of, if you don't whistle). Our Northern "Mountain" Pygmy-Owl toots 100 times per minute, not the 20-25 of the Pacific Northwest birds; often the notes are paired into double-toots, but not always, and still average out to 100/minute. Furthermore, screech-owl imitations are just as effective, if not more so in much of our area. Both Western and Whiskered Screech-Owls are common in the circle, and in addition to stirring up mixed flocks of Bridle Titmice, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and the occasional Hepatic Tanger pair, you may also get a daytime response from a real owl. Keep in mind that Whiskered Screech-Owls tend to be in larger, denser stands of oaks, and Western Screech-Owls are usually in more scattered, open woodland with lots of open area between the trees.

The Countdown Compilation

The Countdown Compilation is considered by many to be half the fun of a Christmas Bird Count. All participants are highly encouraged to attend, as we will all be excited to hear what great birds other teams found and to share our own finds. I have again made reservations for a large group at the Longhorn Grill in Amado, and people can start showing up any time after 5:00. Just order your dinner on your own, and we'll commence the countdown as soon as we have all groups reporting in. This should be no later than 6:30.

The countdown is simply a reading of the list of expected species to find out what birds were seen during the day. Everyone present simply calls out "yes" if they have seen the bird mentioned. After a preliminary species total, each group will then have a chance to mention their highlights and add any species not called out. Then after that, we'll have a total species count for the day.

Longhorn Grill
28851 South Nogales Highway
Amado, AZ

This is the restaurant with the façade shaped like a giant cow skull. The entrance to the restaurant is around to the left, on the north side of the building. Please let me know if you are having dinner here so I can warn them how many people to expect.

Please keep in mind that it takes a while to get out of the circle. Google Maps says that from the Sycamore Canyon trailhead to Amado is 1 hour 11 minutes.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Area Boundaries Fine-tuned

I've been fine tuning the area boundaries and maps on both Google Earth and the USGS 7.5-minute maps the past few days, and now I'm ready to start putting together the information packets which everyone will be able to download off the web.

Below is an image saved from Google Earth showing the circle and areas. Clicking on the map will open a browser window with a larger image.
If you have Google Earth on your computer, I've also saved a KMZ file on my Google sites webpage, which you can download by clicking HERE. Google Earth is a program you have to install on your computer, and it's an amazing resource. You download the program to your computer from the Internet – and it's free and safe. To read more about it and see if your computer is compatible, go to Once you have it and download the KML file, you can zoom into your area, tilt the angle, and move over the landscape with three-dimensional effects that make it appear that you're flying over the land. It's a fantastic way to study the topography of your area.

A Google Maps version (for which you just need a web browser, like Firefox) can be found by clicking on the map below.

This is an example of one of the maps I created using the 7.5-minute USGS quadrangles.