Our first full day in AZ started ridiculously early. We had a 45 minute drive to meet our birding group, so we were up well before the sun… at 3:45 am. Ugh! Our group met at 5:15 and drove south from Tucson towards the Tumacacori Mountains and what was promised as a “secluded canyon birding tour”.
Rock Corral Canyon is fabulously remote. It’s reached via a short, and very rough dirt/boulder-strewn road that leads west from I-19 between Tucson and Nogales. Luckily, we were able to carpool with someone who had a high clearance 4WD vehicle and so were able to enjoy the views along the way. In the middle of the thorny-scrub and ocotillos, we spotted this Antelope Jackrabbit working very hard at being invisible.
Look at those legs! Look at those ears! Look at those eyes! Wowza that’s not any ordinary bunny rabbit… so cool to see this fella.
Not having grown up around mountains or the desert, I had no real idea of what birding in the canyons of Arizona would be like. My first impression was that it was much more green than I had expected, but I guess that even a small change in elevation gives way to a cooler and moister climate for plants to grown in. It being monsoon season meant that there was water flowing in the wash where we had to walk which also meant slow and careful stepping on the rocky trail.
We got one of Jay’s target birds here – can you see it?
I’m not certain that I ever really got a nice look at this Canyon Wren because it was hiding in the shadows of the rock wall, but its song was lovely!
We also saw a couple new tanagers there – Western and Hepatic – and quite a few Varied Buntings and some lifer vireos that I don’t even remember. Yikes! The most difficult thing about that first day was that everything was new – all the plants, animals, birds, sounds, etc. in a new environment were almost overwhelming – so I mostly tried to focus on enjoying myself in the unfamiliar surroundings. We spent a couple hours exploring until the flowing water and necessary climbing made us have to turn back… there was lemonade and cookies before we headed out to our next stop.
I’m not really sure how other people go about planning vacations, but we tend to do it by the seat of our pants. This trip to Southeast Arizona was one that Jay and I had been vaguely talking about for years, but it had never gone beyond mulling it over as something to do “someday”. Out of the blue one Sunday afternoon, we just decided to go, bought the plane tickets, made lodging accommodations, and signed ourselves up for a couple birding field trips. Just like that.
I love this about us, love the spontaneity of it, but it also makes me a little nuts.
I’m not a person who likes surprises really, but the anxiety involved in properly planning and anticipating a trip is almost worse, so I guess the way this trip happened was perfect. In the short time that I had to plan, I researched the Tucson area for things we might do to fill our time when we weren’t out looking for birds.
Arizona: Desert, cacti, mountains, and some canyons, grand and scenic, right?
I dug past the obvious and the first thing I came up with was a visit to the Barrio Viejo: Tucson’s “old neighborhood” – it’s filled with 19th century adobe homes and businesses that preserve the old architectural styles. Sadly, much of the northern parts of the neighborhood were destroyed in the 60’s and 70’s when Mexican-American families were displaced as the area became gentrified.
Those that are left are well-tended and beautiful. So colorful and vibrant. Despite the ridiculous heat that first afternoon, I wanted to keep exploring because at every turn there was something delightful.
I have the sense, too, that the community is as vibrant on the inside as it appears from the outside. It felt like a neighborhood that loves where it lives and engages with its neighbors in (sometimes) surprising ways.
For example, the photo above – the Taco Cristo, one of a cast of saints appearing throughout the barrio. I’d sought this mural out after seeing a photo of it on Instagram. To find it painted on the side of a shed, in a dusty backyard next to a raspado stand, facing an alley, brought me an irreverent sense of joy .
Doesn’t Jesus holding a taco make you giggle, too?
I loved the colors of this neighborhood and the way that each home distinguished itself from the one beside it. The photographer in me delighted in the contrasts of color and texture and the use (or lack) of garden plantings.
Who would think that cacti and other desert plants could be so beautiful and versatile? I learned that cacti take on a range of shapes and colors, and their spines can capture the sunlight to make them glow. They somehow make you want to touch them, despite knowing better!
This street portrait of poet Jim Harrison was another pleasant surprise, also facing an alley for passerby to enjoy. Harrison wintered in nearby Patagonia, Arizona and is something of a model to me of how to enjoy the local culture.
I wish we’d had more time to explore and more tolerance for the heat, but I think someday I’ll find myself back in the barrio, camera in hand.
So I’m feeling pretty guilty about not having appeared here for months (!) after being so gung-ho about blogging regularly again. After a bit of reflection, I realize that I was mostly enthusiastic about others blogging regularly again.
I’ve been busy with the new job, of course, and busy sitting on my butt in the air-conditioning. This knee thing has really thrown me for a loop and I’m just now getting to feel better after a month of physical therapy. Why that dopey doctor I went to didn’t recommend it for me, I don’t know. I’m just glad I decided to be proactive after suffering for 3 months with barely any progress and so grateful to have good health insurance to pay for it. It’s really made all the difference in my ability to function like a regular person again. We’ve planned a camping trip this weekend and I’m looking forward to hopefully being able to hike without pain.
Other than work and physical therapy, I haven’t done much so far this summer other than try to avoid the heat. I still don’t know how people stand it here – I’ve got major cabin-fever! We’re sharing season tickets for the Braves and have been going to a couple of evening games each month. We’re discovering new favorite places to have breakfast on the weekends. We’re eating ice cream more often than is probably healthy. My brother and his family came to visit for a couple days at the beginning of July – it was super great to see them and to show off some of the fun things we do here in the A. I’ve been reunited with my dog Luka from that other life and just last week said goodbye to the senior shelter dog, Sadie, that we adopted only four years ago.
I bought myself a new camera lens – a super wide angle – and look forward to playing with that in the future. J and I went out the weekend that I bought it to take some photos of the tall buildings in midtown Atlanta, but ended up at the High Museum of Art as a way to escape the heat and enjoy some free air conditioning. I’m not much of an art museum type, but I enjoy the High and it’s folk and modern art. The photo that accompanies this post was taken there.
I plan to be back here in a couple days to share some memories of Sadie – once we’re back from camping in the mountains where hopefully it’ll be cool!
I recently prompted our group of Comeback Bloggers (isn’t that a great name?!?) to think about why we each started blogging however many years ago. It’s an interesting question for me to think about because it relates to why I stopped blogging regularly and also to why I’m a bit hesitant to dive back in to it.
I could easily claim that blogging was solely an outlet for self-expression and a way for me to share my thoughts or engage with others. I might also say that writing helped me to understand myself better and that my blog provided a “scrapbook” of sorts to reflect upon. All of those things are true, or mostly so. I’ve certainly learned over the years that I write to find out what I think. Anybody who knows me personally will agree that I’m not usually a big talker; I’m never quick to jump in with my opinion. The process of writing, which I approach fairly methodically, helps me to clarify how I feel about things. Mostly I think that I write to find out what’s true.
Writing comes more easily if you have something to say. ~Sholem Asch
I started blogging on a whim and as a way to occupy myself in the evenings, but quickly found it to be a respite from what was otherwise a good, but disconnected life: a good job, a good husband, and good people that I called friends, but meaningful and thoughtful experiences were few and far between. The daily discipline of dreaming up something to write about or going out and doing something worth writing about ultimately led me to look into many a dark corner and to re-examine the choices I had made in life. As I came more and more to rely on the kindred spirits I had found through blogging, I felt the lack of depth in my real-time relationships even more completely. It’s a strange thing to discover that your blog is your own best source of information about yourself, as well as a catalyst to discussion for your loved ones. I found myself wondering why we all couldn’t just talk to each other without this electronic medium serving as an intermediary. It was also strange and pretty sad to realize that it was easier and safer for me to share my most important and deeply felt parts with strangers.
Blogging changed my life, honestly. Through blogging, I wrote my way out of one life and into another. These first couple years here haven’t been easy and I’ve not had the courage to write about it or the life I left behind. I’m afraid of what writing about it will tell me about what I think and really feel. I’m afraid of the turning inward that writing requires because it means I’ll be turning my back, so to speak, on the people around me, in favor of this anonymous platform. And the truth is, many of us are not so anonymous to one another anymore. I worry, too much sometimes, about who my audience is and what you’ll think about what I might write. I worry that I have nothing left to say. I worry that I take too many words to say nothing of importance…
At any rate, I’m going to give this a go again, with a couple trusted friends for encouragement, and see where the reflection leads. Hopefully I’ll find myself somewhere good.
Do you miss blogging, too? Want to join us? Get in touch!
Peeper the rabbit died today. She was pretty old and quite shabby, but I loved her just as much today as when she was splendid and new. I’d loved most of her whiskers off, the pink linings of her ears had gone gray, and her brown fur was falling out. She even began to lose her shape and scarcely looked like a rabbit to anyone but me. To me she was always beautiful and very, very Real. Love is real and it lasts for always.
If you’ve read The Velveteen Rabbit, you’ll know how happy I was to give her my heart all these years so that she could become Real. I will miss her.
Hide and Seek (beachnesting bird version) is a game where threatened and endangered chicks attempt to conceal their location in order to grow up and survive. It’s pretty basic, but various challenges have arisen throughout the years making the game more difficult. All you need to play are a few beachnesting friends and some hiding and spying skills. This game is a great way for chicks to practice real-world survival skills!
Step one: find a suitable location
An outdoor location near the coast works best and it should have plenty of sand and pebbles or clam shells. It will be necessary to set boundaries for hiding or you will have chicks running off to too many far-off locations. It’s not called Run a Mile and Go Seek!
If you’re playing with your parents around, make sure they know what’s going on. They may not want you hiding in the driftwood at the wrack line, under the lifeguard stand, or too close to the water.
Try to play in different places every time. If you play every game in the same spot, then the birds who play “it” (predators) will remember the good places and search there first.
Step two: select the players and set down the rules
If you have players of different ages, take this into consideration. Younger chicks can fit more places, but they sometimes choose less-than-brilliant places to hide and don’t have the longest of attention spans.
If you do not set down rules, you will have chicks running to places that shouldn’t be hidden in — either unhatched eggs end up breaking or another pair’s territory gets intruded upon — or someone gets eaten by a laughing gull.
Make sure everyone stays safe. You don’t want your friends running out in front of loose dogs or hiding beneath a fish crow’s perch.
Step three: choose someone to be “it”
Working out who is “It” can be done a variety of ways, for instance: the youngest chick might be “It” first; or the chick who is closest to fledging can be “it” first; or use an elimination word game, such as “One Potato, Two Potato” or similar game. Or just pick a number out of a hat, and #1 is “It”.
When playing with chicks, an adult is often a good person to be “it”
If one chick is older than the rest, they might make a natural “It.” Adult birds have longer attention spans and can think outside of the box better than their offspring.
Step four: start counting out loud
Once the bird who will be “It” has been chosen, he or she closes his or her eyes and begins counting out loud to a decided number at a steady pace. Or they could say a rhyme or sing a song. Anything that kills some time so everyone else can go hide!
Make sure there’s no cheating! The bird who is “It” needs to have their eyes closed, wings over their eyes, and preferably facing the water. No peeking!
Step five: start hiding!
All of the chicks who are not “It” should run off and quietly hide from the bird who is counting. The bird who is “It” is not allowed to peek at the birds hiding from him or her. Make sure you’re quiet as you’re hiding or “It” can use his or her ears to tell the general direction you went.
Once you find your hiding spot, be silent and still
You don’t want to give yourself up once you’re hidden! . If you’re noisy, even the best hiding spot won’t conceal you.
Remember the goal is to be invisible!
When a young chick is “it”, don’t hide too well…
or the game can get too frustrating for them
The younger you are, the more frustrated you could get with other chicks who are really good hiders.
Step six: keep your eyes open and start searching!
Once the bird who is “It” has finished counting, he or she yells “Ready or not, here I come!” At this point, they must try to find all of the other chicks who have hidden. Be sure to look with your eyes and listen with your ears!
If you are hiding and “It” is close to discovering you, move deftly. Crawling or slithering are the best options. However, if it is too late, be still and silent. The “It” can actually overlook you and go away.
The chicks who are hiding can move or switch hiding places, if they so choose. It’s a good idea to change positions and go hide in a place the seeker has already looked. That’s called a survival strategy.
Ever felt an angel’s breath in the gentle breeze? A teardrop in the falling rain? Hear a whisper amongst the rustle of leaves? Or been kissed by a lone snowflake? Nature is an angel’s favorite hiding place.
Common Terns didn’t breed at any of my sites this summer, but they visited with the gushing of the tide, shaking themselves and their silvery fish. Angels, I’m sure.
American Oystercatchers were such a heartbreak this summer, I can’t even tell you!
I’ve been struggling with how to write about my beach-nesting bird experience in NJ… I’m not really sure what that’s about, but there’s no question that I enjoyed myself.
Was the season a success? I think so, but there are so many factors that have a hand in the success or failure of these birds and the truth, I think, is that I don’t have enough experience to understand yet how the factors all work together.
We had 8 pairs of AMOYs (American Oystercatchers) who made 14 nest attempts. Nine chicks hatched and 8 fledged. Eight fledges is a good number! Only one pair succeeded on their first nest attempt and one pair didn’t ever succeed, despite three tries. These are just numbers, really, and give no hint of the sweat and tears (mine) or the various struggles involved.
American Oystercatchers are comical birds and shy, as a rule. Each pair had a distinct personality and perspective on life as an Oystercatcher. It was a huge privilege to know these birds as individuals and to watch over them during the season. Unlike Piping Plovers who are so hard to detect on the beach, American Oystercatchers are very visible and were a constant source of entertainment and worry for me.
The 4 pairs that had the easiest (?) breeding success did so on a dredge spoil island. I loved going out there to check on them, despite the nearly impenetrable phragmites that covered much of the island. Aside from the occasional kayaker at low tide, I usually had the place to myself and had to go into full stealth mode to even get a look at the adults or chicks because the birds there were so shy. There were also breeding Killdeer and Yellow Warblers and a couple of Willets that went into such amazing histrionics at the sight of me that it was practically impossible to sneak up on anything…
I remember feeling complete surprise (and then panic!) the first time my boss brought me there and showed me an Oystercatcher nest in its wonderful camouflage along the shoreline of the inlet. In the weeks that followed, I got pretty good at the game of “I Spy” with the Oysercatchers and their eggs, but wisely recorded not only a nearby landmark for each nest, but its GPS coordinates as well, so that I could find it again. All bets were off once the chicks hatched, of course, and the adults did some of their very best hiding and distraction displays once there were chicks running around. Because each of the birds there was banded, I learned to know their individual territories and knew where they were likely to hide their chicks when I came calling to check in on them. I’d set up my scope in likely places looking for chicks and, spotting the adults, would promise, “Just show me your babies and I’ll go away…” thus, I tried to honor their need for privacy by leaving them alone as much as possible. Sad days were those when a nest was inexplicably destroyed or just vanished, or when a healthy chick went missing. Fortunately, I got to watch 5 chicks hatch, fatten up and learn to fly (and hide from me!) there and will never forget the wonder of that or the surprise of coming upon a nest of hatching chicks.
Obviously, pairs that nest on public beaches have many more challenges and most didn’t fare as well as those nesting in seclusion on the dredge spoil island. I came to expect those AMOY nests to fail, sadly. And there’s nothing sadder than a pair of Oystercatchers with a just failed nest. They hang around together in odd corners of the beach, they scrape and mate and posture and call while beach-goers, unaware of their struggles, look on. Some will lay a new nest in an improbable place and do their best to keep it safe, until it, too, fails and the cycle starts all over again. Some just give up and spend the remainder of the summer without purpose, a sad reminder of our failure to be responsible stewards of the habitats these birds need to thrive..
We had just one pair that was successful on a public beach and it took them two tries. Their first nest disappeared just days before it was due to hatch. They moved 50 ft. or so away from their first attempt, laid their eggs right out on the open beach, and hatched and fledged 3 chicks! This despite near constant predation on the Least Tern colony that shared the site, a very active fishing pier and jetty, and a very popular bathing beach just steps away. I was never able to determine what caused their first nest to fail, nor did I figure out what was killing so many Least Terns at the site – I suspected feral cats – but I did trap numerous opossums and, to my great surprise, a red fox. I could easily write a very humorous account of the many ministrations I and my interns went through trying to trap whatever predator was causing such havoc there, but suffice it to say that we were on pins and needles for most of the season. I was away at a baseball game on my day off when I got the text message that the nest had hatched. “I’m so happy for them!” my intern said. It was a huge relief, but really only the beginning of our worries!
The chicks grew up without incident; there were a few days of worry when one of the adults was hooked by a fisherman casting on the jetty, but he did the right thing and untangled the bird and removed his hook from its wing – which was scarily droopy for a few days – and it recovered. The chicks’ official fledge date was only a day or two before I left NJ to come home, but the last I heard all was well there on the beach.
Nice numbers of AMOYs winter in NJ, but many fly south (immature birds may not return to the beach or marsh where they hatched for a couple years) as far as the gulf coast of Florida. I’m hoping to see a couple NJ-banded AMOYs when I visit there during Thanksgiving break – anything to extend my season with Oystercatchers!
Most Octobers find us on Jekyll Island for a week or so, to enjoy the gorgeous weather and the beach at its finest season. The days – and the ocean – are warm enough for swimming and the nights are just cool enough to make you enjoy the breeze.
We always make it a point to visit JIBS – the Jekyll Island Banding Station – for a couple hours during our stay. I enjoy the chance to see birds up close and I also like hanging out with the folks who run the station. Often, it’s the only time I see these friends all year. It feels good to hang out with others who are as nerdy about birds in their own way! Our timing was off somewhat this year, in that most of the days were “slow”, but still the common birds are especially beautiful when you can appreciate the fine details of their feathers (like those of the white-eyed vireo pictured here) up close. I come away from any visit having learned something new.
It might be easy to wonder about the benefits of bird-banding, at least until you find a banded bird in the field yourself. Information on migration, mortality rates and range are some of the things that researchers learn from banding.
Another must-visit-place is Gould’s Inlet on St. Simmons Island; I go there to enjoy the birds at low-tide. I’m always hoping to see a couple Piping Plover. Each year, I look for PIPLs that are banded, as the inlet is a popular place for wintering birds. I’ve found 3 banded birds there, and at least a dozen others in the couple years I’ve visited during the month of October. I report the band combinations and in return find out a little info about the bird. Two of the three banded birds are from the Great Lakes and this year we saw a bird from the Great Plains population. Especially interesting is the PIPL in the photo – I first saw this bird (hatched on the UP of Michigan in 2007) in 2012 and we saw it again this year! It’s 7 years old and apparently spends every winter at Gould’s Inlet. This bird, too, feels like an old friend almost, one that I can only recognize because of the colored bands on its legs. Pretty cool, huh?
Just me rambling about birds, books, bunnies, or whatever!