Archive for the ‘Field Notes’ Category
This piece was written on the stolen lands and waters of the Tohono O’odham and Yaqui/Yoeme.
Imagine yourself standing in the Sonoran Desert on a caliente summer day. Let’s paint the landscape by adding deep blue for the mountains that emerge in every cardinal direction and strokes of brown that create texture on the ground, the structural limbs of plants, and fill every crevice on this landscape.
You may feel the dusty, sturdy earth beneath your feet, the same sweeping surface that clouded the vision of indigenous ancestors’ eyes as they navigated through these desert lands. You may observe the occasional desert breeze that moves through your body, swaying nearby palo verde trees and breaking up the lull of the endless heat.
As you take a step, you might have a gentle creosote bush tapping you on your shoulder with its branch. It is full of waxy leaves and fuzzy globes from its flowers resembling planets in an out-of-focus telescope. Down in the wash, a catclaw acacia may have pulled on some fibers from your backpack, leaving a mark from its thorns that will remind you to watch out for it next time. You may see the sprinkles of desert confetti left behind from the blooming party that was hosted by the yellow petals of brittlebush, the red torches of the ocotillo, the pale-orange drapes of the globemallow, and the pink rays of starlight from the fairy duster. You make eye contact with a broad-billed hummingbird darting across- maybe spotting a flash of vibrant blue-green and blue-turquoise hues on its’ body and neck.
You may notice with only your ears the sounds of the desert spiny lizards scrambling through rocks and fallen mesquite tree branches. The cooing of the white-winged dove becomes your steady metronome, giving you the tempo, rhythm and heartbeat of the desert as the day unfolds. White-winged doves, you see, are warm and feathered fragments of saguaro flying in the desert- as the white-winged doves synchronize their migration with the reproductive cycle of the saguaro and maintain an asymmetrical ecological interaction.
The sweat beading up on the back of your neck feels cool, despite the powerful Sonoran Sun, beating down on your head. You may decide to seek refuge by stepping into the long and narrow shadow of an elder saguaro.
By Ken Lamberton
On day 218 of the Pandemic, my daughter Jessica and I hike in black masks south along Speeden Wash to her wildlife cameras under the I-10 culverts in the 3000-acre Empire Ranch. She is here for her research project documenting the migrations of bear and mountain lion, bobcat, badger, and coati by using her tracking skills, roadkill surveys, and 36 cameras and 14 volunteers. I’m here for the birds.
Last summer, I listed two dozen species, including several raptors and the tiny, gray desert-riparian warbler with the rufous rump and crown named for the daughter of a nineteenth-century ornithologist and the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution. Lucy Hunter Baird, an expert naturalist and scientist in her own right, came from a family and history of strong, independent, and intellectually curious women. Which isn’t surprising to me. I’m surrounded by such women.
This morning, trailing behind Jessica, I count the birds on one hand. A pair of cactus wrens rattles somewhere unseen. A curve-billed thrasher becomes mesquite shadow. The desert is cool and quiet—quiet, at least, until we reach the freeway. While Jessica pulls the memory cards and changes batteries on cameras we previously glued to the concrete culverts, I search for Lucy’s warblers in the usual places but find none. Despite the one in my yard last week—a first-ever and number 129 on my Bisbee yard list—I imagine most have already made the fall journey back to southwestern Mexico.
When she finishes and we hoist our packs, a small sparrow lands in the sand in front of us. I see a rusty crown and think juvenile white-crown sparrow, another common bird, but snap four pictures anyway. Species number five for the day.
Then I’m off to Willcox and the Twin Lakes Golf Course to check out the shorebirds and a recent rare bird report of a greater white-fronted goose while Jessica heads for home in the opposite direction.
This evening, as usual, I download the day’s photos and begin deleting them—mostly scores of images either out of focus or of something I don’t recognize or remember. Why did I take a fuzzy picture of this white-thorn thicket? The joys of digital technology. When I come to the sparrow at Speeden Wash, my finger pauses over the delete key. I enlarge the image and see that it’s not a white-crown. Maybe a chipping or Brewer’s sparrow? But the lores—the tiny spaces between the eye and beak—are pale. And the cheek patch looks well defined above a dark “mustache.” The breast feathers seem buffy, almost the color of clay…
With rising excitement, I post two blown-up pictures of the sparrow to my birding friends on social media and get an immediate response: Clay-colored Sparrow! A rare transient in Arizona and a species I’ve never seen before: Life Bird #437.
By Janine Spencer-Glasson, Friends of El Rio Preserve
The Santa Cruz River serves as an important resource for migrating birds in the southwestern United States. Migrating birds depend upon riparian habitat more than any other type of habitat in Arizona. There are several links along the chain of stopovers for migrating birds on the Santa Cruz River. One of them is the El Rio Preserve in Marana. To date, over 240 species of birds have been identified at the Preserve (go to ebird.org and search in Hotspots for El Rio Open Space Preserve to view the complete list of birds).
El Rio Preserve is a 104-acre property located along the western bank of the Santa Cruz River. The site has a long history of human use; it is located at the northern end of the Los Morteros Archaeological site and was occupied from approximately 850-1,300 AD. In the 1960’s, a gravel pit was created there to provide material to build Interstate-10. Later, it was used as a disc golf course. In addition to the Preserve’s role in providing bird habitat, the Preserve also serves as a link between the Tortolita Mountains and the Tucson Mountains, allowing wildlife to access water and move about.
This site has flooded periodically over the years, and water tends to remain ponded for six months or more, with periods where it is completely dry. This has created intermittent habitat for birds that need a site with surface water. Throughout this time, birders knew the spot as the “Coachline Gravel Pit.” Occasionally some interesting avian species would appear, including blue grosbeak, grey hawk, peregrine falcon, white-faced ibis, osprey, belted kingfisher, Bell’s vireo, Inca dove, and hooded orioles, to name a few.
During a major rainstorm in 2014, the soil berm was breached between the gravel pit and the Santa Cruz River, and water filled the property almost completely, creating a beautiful lake and much buzz among people familiar with the area. Rare birds showed up, like the white-fronted goose, a white pelican, and plenty of ducks. Birders flocked to see the new lake’s avian inhabitants, and the parking area often hosted out-of-state vehicles. This prompted the Town of Marana to take a new look at what was now called the El Rio Preserve.
There were many problems at the Preserve, however. During storm events, invasive weed seeds and huge patches of trash would flow in and settle in the basin. Mosquitoes would breed where water remained under spots of dense vegetation. Much planning and work was needed to create a riparian site that would be an amenity to the neighborhood, while maintaining a natural state for birds, wildlife, and nature-lovers.
Improvements at El Rio Preserve have been a collaborative effort. The Town of Marana dedicated funding for design and implementation of riparian restoration. The Arizona State Forestry Department researched the area and wrote a comprehensive Forestry Management Plan that focuses on invasive species. Pima County and Marana extended the Loop Trail and constructed a parking lot with a ramada. Marana worked with a University of Arizona student, Alex Stoicof, to create a community survey, which identified riparian restoration as the top priority for the Preserve. She then designed a preliminary landscape plan. Marana has constructed a viewing deck, a water fountain, toilet, and interpretive signs, and planted native landscaping
Environmental education is an important element of the El Rio Preserve. Michael Bogan, Professor at the University of Arizona, has led a damselfly and dragonfly viewing and provided information and photos for an interpretive sign at the Preserve. The Town is coordinating with the Marana Unified School District and classes of students have toured the site and focused on science relevant to their studies. Boy Scouts have volunteered, putting up bee boards and bird boxes for kestrels and brown-crested flycatchers.
Tucson Audubon Society supplied plants and members helped plant a pollinator garden at the entrance to the Preserve. Bat Conservation International provided agaves and helped volunteers plant them. This spring, the pollinator garden was in full bloom, with butterflies, hummingbirds, and bees enjoying the gaillardia, penstemon, native salvias, desert marigolds, and other flowers.
The Friends of El Rio Preserve group has been formed to include neighbors and a diverse group of members from other environmental organizations. Friends of El Rio Preserve’s mission is “to promote wildlife habitat and connectivity in this beautiful, diverse natural area, so residents of all ages and interests can enjoy this urban oasis,” and we have planted pollinators, helped with weeding, and provided input on design elements and on interpretive signs. If you would like to learn more about Friends of El Rio Preserve, you can find us on Facebook or Instagram. You can become a Friend if you are willing to roll up your sleeves, join the team, and make a vital contribution to enhancing and protecting El Rio Preserve; contact Kathy at firstname.lastname@example.org or Janine at email@example.com.
It has been wonderful to see so many organizations and volunteers work to create a beautiful spot for people and birds!
Currently, more improvements are underway. Pima County Flood Control is in the early stages of constructing bank protection which will cost nearly $1.9 M (nesting bird and archaeological surveys have been completed prior to ground disturbance). The bank protection is designed to allow overflow connectivity with the Santa Cruz River during large rain events. Bank protection should be completed by this fall. There is currently no water flowing into the Preserve while bank protection is being constructed.
This fall, Marana will construct a connection to purchase water from the Cortaro-Marana Irrigation District and create a permanent pond approximately 5 acres in size. The Town is currently in the process of building an island to provide a safe place for birds to wade and rest once the pond is filled. The Friends of El Rio Preserve looks forward to assisting with pole planting native trees such as cottonwoods and willows and seeding other native annuals and perennials on the island.
Come visit El Rio Preserve once construction work is completed – you will be surprised at this lush natural site in the heart of the Sonoran Desert.
Did you know that there are now five wildlife underpasses under Tangerine Road?
As part of a larger project to improve Tangerine Road, five existing drainage structures were enhanced and improved to better accommodate safe wildlife movement across this popular roadway. This is a cost-effective way to increase connectivity across roadways that is less visible to the general public (as compared to a wildlife bridge) but still very important. Construction was completed on these wildlife underpasses in Spring 2018 with the cooperation of the Town of Marana, Pima County, the Regional Transportation Authority (RTA), Arizona Game and Fish Department (AGFD), the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and other members of the RTA’s Wildlife Linkages Sub-Committee.
Starting in 2010, the AGFD completed pre-construction monitoring using roadkill surveys. After the underpasses were completed in Spring 2018, the AGFD started a 3-year post-construction monitoring project, including roadkill surveys and monitoring wildlife use of the crossings using wildlife cameras. According to an April 2019 progress report from AGFD:
Between May and September 2010 5,152 road mortalities representing 88 species were documented, helping to identify hot spots for future implementation of fencing and wildlife crossing structures.
[Using this data], the objectives of this construction project were to:
- Increase the size of five drainage structures and modify inlets/outlets to accommodate medium-sized mammals.
- Add funnel fencing at the crossings.
- Conduct habitat establishment evaluations, for three seasons, beginning one year after project completion, to determine whether any adaptive management measures are necessary to improve the effectiveness of the wildlife crossing structures.
Post-construction roadkill surveys began in Spring 2019. An April 2019 progress report primarily includes data from wildlife cameras installed on the underpasses and can be found HERE. A few data points and photos from the report are highlighted below:
Data has been analyzed to January 7th, 2019, this represents two full months of monitoring data for all five structures. A combined total of 1049 crossings by 17 wildlife species have been documented across all 5 structures to date. Coyote, javelina, and bobcat constitute the most commonly recorded species with 475, 365, and 130 crossings respectively, representing 93% of all documented crossings.
This is exciting news for wildlife in the Tortolita Fan and motorists along Tangerine Road. With the inclusion of wildlife fencing on either side of these five underpasses, wildlife are now being funneled to cross Tangerine Road under the roadway, leading to increased safety for wildlife and motorists.** We will share new monitoring results from AGFD when they release their next progress report on this project sometime in the next year.
Thank you for supporting connected wildlife linkages and wildlife habitat!
**Some observant community members have noted that this wildlife fencing is shorter than the wildlife fencing along Oracle Road. Why is this? The Tangerine Road wildlife fencing was designed for the medium-sized mammals that are most likely to use these smaller culvert wildlife crossings.
For 10 years we have had wildlife cameras on the landscape monitoring important linkages. We first captured photos of badgers in 2012, and they have made consistent, if rare, appearances since. Badgers are an understudied animal in Arizona and we know very little about their status in Pima County. We now have a total of 40 images of badgers across 19 camera sites, with a 27% occupancy rate (the number of cameras that detected badgers versus the total number of cameras out there). We have seen badgers at two sites in the Tucson Mountains study area, and at 8 and 9 sites West and East, respectively, of Oracle Road in Oro Valley. Our partners at Arizona Game and Fish Department confirm that one of the badgers we photographed crossed the wildlife bridge, moving east to west, earlier this year. We are diving into the data to learn more about them in our Sonoran Desert landscape, including a fun look at identifying individuals!
We thought you would enjoy these photo highlights, and a neat look at our preliminary results showing more badger activity during new moon nights than full moon nights. Why do you think badgers might be more active on new moon nights than full moon nights, when it is darkest? Badgers are nocturnal, although females may come out in the day with her young in Spring. They are also fossorial carnivores, meaning they live most of the time underground and are very good diggers. Most of their prey live in burrows as well, including ground squirrels, pocket gophers, packrats, kangaroo rats, and rattlesnakes. Badgers may be appearing on our cameras more often during the new moon for a variety of reasons. One possibility is that badger activity is correlated with prey activity, and conditions that increase hunt success. Are rodents are more active during the dark new moon than the brighter full moon, too? Can badgers, adapted to hunting at night and underground, sense their prey better on dark nights? In science, the best answers lead to more questions!
Many thanks to Pat and Henry Miller for contributing three badger photos from their own camera to our study.
If you haven’t heard it, you may enjoy Petey Mesquitey’s song “The Coyote and the Badger” on KXCI radio!
by Jessica Moreno
Calypso is a healthy desert tortoise of about 25-30 years and a tortoise on a mission. He was named by a caring, bright 7-year old, whose family found him on their front doorstep no less than three times – after several kindly reminders to return to Big Wash and to stay on his side of the street. When they called us, I was eager to meet them. Arizona Game and Fish biologists joined me and placed a tracker on his shell using special putty, offered him a drink, and we returned him with ceremony once again to Big Wash, carrying him low as we crossed back over the street. Calypso was trying doggedly to travel east, but instead of using the very accessible wildlife underpass, he was taking the open high road: climbing up a rocky embankment, crossing the busy neighborhood street, and wandering just yards from the highway. (His tracker confirms he is now finally snuggled in for hibernation over winter, southwest of the wildlife bridge.)
Calypso may live to reach the ripe age of 80. But his story almost ended differently, and there are still animals getting killed on Oracle Road by moving through openings in nearby neighborhood streets, where either cattle guards couldn’t be installed at the highway entrance or the sound wall ends. We have identified the last remaining areas like this where animals like Calypso are accessing the street – and the highway – near the wildlife underpass in the Vista Mirabella and Vistoso Vistas neighborhoods. Arizona Game and Fish Department’s roadkill surveys confirm a growing hotspot of animals being killed on the highway south of the underpass crossing, where these gaps in the wildlife funnel-fence begin. The Regional Transportation Authority, the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, and your Rancho Vistoso HOA have joined together with neighbors to solve this problem. We’ve been communicating closely with residents living next to these openings to find the best fencing solutions.
Thanks to residents’ help and feedback, the first of these gaps have been closed to wildlife at the end of N. Big Wash Overlook Place. A pedestrian gate was included for trail access to Big Wash. The wildlife fence has been a critical part of the effectiveness of the wildlife crossings, and we look forward to working with residents to close the remaining few gaps so wildlife like Calypso can continue to travel between Big Wash and Catalina State Park without risk of traffic accidents or casualty.
The promise of that remains. Recently, a young desert bighorn ram trotted down a small desert wash east of Oracle Road – the wildlife underpass directly before him, and the Catalina mountains behind him. This rare and memorable wildlife camera photo out of hundreds collected that morning caused us all to cheer! The potential is there for the Big Wash Wildlife Corridor to become a path for Tortolita-bound bighorns.
The importance of this effort lies still in my heart. It comes with the wonder, excitement, and hope that a bighorn and a tortoise bring. For all of us desert dwellers, what better gift is there than that?
For more information:
Visit www.sonoranwildlifecorridors.org for local wildlife monitoring results and wildlife crossing info, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Coalition will provide brief updates at the Rancho Vistoso HOA Board Meetings.
The new Big Wash Multi-Use Trail has been in Pima County’s planning books for decades. However, with wildlife funnel-fencing guiding animals into the area near the wildlife crossings, and surrounding development constraining open space, Big Wash has gone from an important wildlife movement area to a wilderness-style traffic jam of animals moving and living in this natural corridor. The Coalition successfully worked with Pima County to move the multi-use trail further west, away from the crossing structures. And, by asking people to stay on the trail, we can give people the chance to enjoy the desert without disturbing the larger area and the needs of the critters that rely more than ever on Big Wash. We are also working with Pima County after some erosion-control work in Big Wash resulted in re-vegetation needs near the wildlife underpass. Wildlife are moving around with a bit more frequency before the cold of winter sets in, and we’ve seen quite a few other surprises.
June 7, 2017
By Kathleen Kennedy, CSDP Associate Director
Did you know that mule deer, pronghorn antelope, and elk migrate hundreds of miles each year in Wyoming? Fairly recently, scientists discovered that various herds of these ungulates migrate every summer and winter. Many of them summer in Yellowstone National Park, then fan out to the north, south, east, and west as they migrate to their winter ranges. Intermingling in Yellowstone in the summer leads to increased genetic diversity as the different herds meet up. Roads, however, threaten these migrations when thousands of animals cross certain sections of roadway in a short amount of time. Pronghorn antelope, for instance, cross Highway 191 near Pinedale, WY by the thousands, leading to safety risks for both the pronghorn and motorists.
A few weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the International Conference on Ecology and Transportation (ICOET) in Salt Lake City, UT. Together with Coalition Director, Carolyn Campbell, we presented on the Oracle Road wildlife crossings project (in collaboration with Arizona Game and Fish Department) and on how wildlife crossing infrastructure is funded in Pima County. We were also able to attend a wide variety of presentations by academics, other non-profits, state and federal agencies, and private consultants on the latest and best science around the intersection of ecology and transportation. Presentation topics included research on wildlife fencing, wildlife crossings, different wildlife species in various ecosystems, funding mechanisms for crossings, and a host of other topics.
On Day Three of the conference, I woke up at 5am and hopped on the 5:45am lightrail train to get to the conference center by 6am. This was our departure time for a long day-trip into southwest Wyoming to learn first-hand about ungulate migrations and see the different wildlife crossings that Wyoming has built to preserve these migratory patterns. Our first stop was in Nugget Canyon on Highway 30. This is the location of a large mule deer migration. From late April to late May, thousands of mule deer migrate from south of Nugget Canyon north to Yellowstone over 150 miles. Once this migration was discovered in the 1990s, the state began by installing wildlife fencing. This reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions where the fencing was located but collisions continued in the un-fenced area (hundreds each year). By 2012, the Wyoming Department of Transportation had installed 7 wildlife underpasses and installed more wildlife fencing to connect them. This dramatically reduced wildlife-vehicle collisions, with thousands of mule deer using the crossings safely each year.
Our second stop of the day, after winding through the Wyoming Range through intermittent snowstorms and following the Snake River for a ways south of Grand Teton National Park, was Trappers Point. Trappers Point is home to two wildlife overpasses over Highway 191 built for pronghorn antelope and six wildlife underpasses primarily used by mule deer, but also elk and moose. These wildlife overpasses were finished in 2012 and are now used by thousands of pronghorn as they migrate from their winter range east of Big Piney, WY to their summer range near Grand Teton National Park. As we arrived at the wildlife overpass and stepped off the bus, four pronghorn could be seen running towards the overpass – it was quite a welcome to this important project site.
Wyoming is a rugged and sparsely populated state. But like anywhere, it is not immune to the pressures of more roads, oil & gas development, and growing population centers. It was inspiring to see first-hand what the Wyoming Department of Transportation is doing and has done to mitigate the impacts of habitat fragmentation through the construction of wildlife crossings and fencing. Their wildlife crossings are preserving migratory patterns that are older than we know and that are passed down each year from mother to young. We can all be grateful for that.
Note: I found it interesting that in Wyoming, mule deer prefer wildlife underpasses while here in the Sonoran Desert, at least on the Oracle Road wildlife crossings project, they vastly prefer wildlife overpasses. To me, this points to the need for a variety of crossing types and continued research in different ecosystems. What works in one place won’t necessarily work in another place. We must always be in tune to the nuances of the ecosystem we’re working in.