Thursday, April 14, 2011


The cienega and a majestic cottonwood near Arivaca
One of the wonderful perks of being a docent at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is the monthly "birding" trip arranged by the Friday docent captains, Martha Mount and Buzz Hoffmann.  Actually "birding" trip is insufficient -- it should be "birding, mammaling, entomologying, botanying, herpetologying, geologying, etcetera'ing".  It's a grab bag of indulgences for those with a passion for nature, and the chance to experience these rambles with folks with loads of Sonoran Desert knowledge makes it not only a real pleasure, but a real learning experience.

Male Vermillion Flycatcher between snagging flying insects
Male Summer Tanager, just looking red 
Cattail lined nest
A few days ago we headed to Arivaca, well south of Tucson, to visit the cienega in the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.  Here the rare southern Arizona experience of surface water draws in incredible birds, some permanent, some migrating, and not a little wildlife.  We saw everything from a coyote pouncing again and again in the tall grasses, probably hunting mice, to three Gray Hawks circling overhead.  To give you an idea of the range of birds and other animals, insects, and plants (and poop) we saw, here's Martha's list of the day's sightings:

Great Blue Heron
Black Vulture
Turkey Vulture
Cooper’s Hawk
Gray Hawk
Swainson’s Hawk
Zone-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Mourning Dove
White-winged Dove
Great Horned Owl
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Ladder-backed Woodpecker (heard)
Gila Woodpecker
Small flycatcher (not identified)
Black Phoebe
Says Phoebe
Vermillion Flycatcher
Cassin’s Kingbird
Western Kingbird
Bell’s Vireo (heard)
Plumbeous Vireo
Common Raven
Violet-green Swallow
Barn Swallow
Bewick’s Wren
Northern Mockingbird
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
MacGillivray’s Warbler
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson’s Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat
Summer Tanager
Song Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Red-winged Blackbird
House Finch
House Sparrow
Sow Bug
Pinacate Beetle
Pepsis Wasp
Pipevine Swalowtail
Fatal Metal Mark
Golden-headed Scallopwing
Ornate Tree Lizard
Elegant Earless Lizard
Mosquito Fish
Fat Herp (you’ll have to ask Glen about this one)
Willows w/Catkins
Mexicn Elderberry
Lots of grasses
Other Cool Stuff:
Hearing the Gray Hawks and Red-winged Blackbirds
Watching the coyote hunting
Coyote Scat
Javelina Scat
An extraordinary list for a day's outing, which only goes to show the incredible diversity that is the Sonoran Desert.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cactus in the Fog

Saguaro, Ocotillo, and Palo Verde

This is guest-blogger Bob.  The Sonoran Desert is also my passion.  I volunteer on my day off in the botany department at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and also get involved with cactus rescues for the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.  I propagate many of my own cacti, and generally spend much of my free time moving dirt from one place to another.  I look forward to having more time for it when I retire.

The aftermath of yesterday’s daylong slow rain, plus an overnight low in the ‘30s, was heavy fog this morning.  I was inspired to take the following pictures from Debbie’s and my yard:

Dripping wet mesquite
Cholla, small Organ Pipe cactus
(note long green snake, possibly a Boomslang)
Small Senita (2 types), Sonoran galloping cactus
Barrel cacti
Cholla Forest

Saturday, April 9, 2011


In the kitchen happily looking out through the rain glazed window to the barrio garden.

A rare, and cold (in the 40's at 10 Am in mid-April with several 90+ days behind us), rain.  But oh-so-welcome.  One last day for books and hot tea and using the oven for dinner tonight, but the rain is the best part.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What a Difference a Day Makes

I know that the Eagle Cam is all the rage, but this is the Dove Update and will have to do.

As of this morning:

One facing me, one facing away
This morning when I looked into the courtyard from the front gate it was clear mom wasn't on the nest.  These chicks were aware enough to be less than pleased about my taking their picture from six feet away.

When my husband got home from work he brought in the  "Nesting doves -- please use side gate" sign and I thought "uh-oh."  Sure enough, he reported the chicks were gone.  We went out for a look around as they didn't look ready to fly away and found them on the ground about 15 feet away from the nest on the ground near the wall of the house and under the Tombstone rose.  Mourning doves incubate their eggs for 14 days and nest after hatching for 12-15 days, so these chicks were right on schedule.  Having watched a semi-fledged dove before, it takes only a couple of days before they start looking like a regular dove, and after a week or so it's impossible to distinguish them from the adults.

This is the first fledging of three nests we know of around the house.  The second nest is on the support beam under the back porch, and we just discovered a third on the spool (spa/pool) heater.  There was a Cooper's hawk trying to flush birds into my big window under the porch this afternoon and for some time the nest on the porch beam was without a parent -- we know the chicks have hatched as I saw one of the parents feeding them yesterday.  Tonight there is a dove on the nest with the chicks, so I'll sleep better.  It's a little too much dove drama, but that's spring in the Sonoran Desert.  The white winged doves are beginning to show up and I saw breeding behavior with some of them today, so we'll have a second dove breeding cycle here soon.

Early this evening:

It that a glare?
All in all, not bad for a mated pair's month's work, though most chicks will not survive their first year.  The grim reality, but there is no shortage of doves, and we're all, in the end, somebody else's lunch.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sunday Morning in Spring

Our favorite mesquite has leafed out this past week,
returning shade to the barrio garden

The weather has been unseasonably warm this weekend -- yesterday it was 95, today a little cooler.  Moving on towards noon it might make you retreat to a cool house, open all night and closed up early to keep from having to turn on the A/C (something we resist as long as possible).  But it is finally spring after the hardest, most damaging winter we've experienced here in Tucson, and it is so wonderful to see things flowering, leafing out, and taking off.

With warmer weather comes the return of outdoor eating.  The back porch is the morning destination of choice with coffee, binoculars, camera, and bird books in hand.  We hold court there for a couple of hours, watching the bird circus, having breakfast, taking pictures, and generally congratulating ourselves for living in the gorgeous Sonoran Desert.

Some of our breakfast companions:

Me and my shadow

Ocotillos make the best perches for birders ever!

This Abert's towhee sang to us during breakfast

After a while we decided to get a few things done, and took a tour of the yard, checking for signs of life in plants badly damaged by the Big February Freeze.  Most things survived (a moment of silence for the galloping cactus please) and some are clearly thriving.  We won't be throwing in the gardening towel any time soon, though we might fine tune our native plants to those that can take temps in the teens and still bounce back.

This hedgehog cactus came through the chill just fine

Cactus wren nest, extra padding

I had gotten a new bottle of meds for my dog with a huge wad of cotton under the cap (why on earth do they do that?).  Rather than throw it in the trash I pulled it apart and took it out to the garden last week, hanging bits on several of the plants around the yard.  Sure enough, it was salvaged by a cactus wren to use in at least one of his several nests in our chain fruit cholla cactus just outside the garden wall.  Maybe now he'll quit stealing stuffing from one of my outdoor pillows!

Happy Sunday!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Dream of Docenting

Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of my first trip to Tucson. Restless after 11 years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which I strongly suspected was just a way point on my journey, a casual suggestion from a good friend led to four hours on the Internet, resulting in my "deciding" I was moving to Tucson.   Shortly after this momentous decision I brought my daughter here on a post-college graduation trip.  I suspected I might be crazy to give up my well paid, if terminally boring job, my passive solar home on an acre of forested land, and leave all my good friends to make this huge leap of faith move.  I trusted my daughter to help me figure out if I was having a mid-life crisis, or if my gut instinct to shake my life up with a whole new exciting landscape was worth the risk.  She told me she had never seen me so excited and alive and insisted I make the move.

One of our first adventures in Tucson was a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, a well known, internationally respected, and much loved zoo and botanic gardens that features animals and plants found in the Sonoran desert in which it  is located.  It was late May and the saguaros were in bloom.  Strings of Gambel's quail chicks scurried after their parents.  It was warm verging on hot under the intense late spring sun.  We hadn't gotten off the entrance patio before I noticed people in white shirts and beige pants with official looking patches indicating they were docents.  I wasn't quite sure what a docent was, but I was sure that I wanted to be one.

Interpreting a magnificent raptor, the barn owl
It took me over nine years to fulfill the Desert Museum docent dream, mainly because I was working most of that time.  When I retired late in 2008, thanks to my wonderful husband (who just happened to have been my first Tucson neighbor -- another "meant to be" sign), I was dismayed to discover that the Desert Museum wouldn't hold their next docent class until the fall of 2010.  Rather than wait to become involved with docenting at the museum, I volunteered there, working as a keeper's assistant with the Interpretive Animal Collection, the animals that are used on and off the grounds (often by the docents) for education.  I spent a happy year and a half handling many of the animals in the collection -- snakes and salamanders, falcons and owls, parrots, porcupines, and pelicans -- cleaning pens and perches, preparing diets, hand feeding, and helping with the Running Wild shows.  My husband, who is still working full time, volunteers with the botany department one day a week.  There are so many fascinating volunteer opportunities at the Desert Museum.

A botanic garden
Docent classes started late in August of last year and ran to near Christmas.  We were in class two days a week, all morning and sometimes into the afternoon, being instructed by curators and other Sonoran Desert experts on staff.  Our presence was required at other times each week, researching information available on the grounds and observing the docents at work interpreting the Sonoran Desert for visitors.  There were take home quizzes that took many hours, writing our own interpretations, thousands of pages of material to absorb, a midterm and a final exam.  It was demanding and an incredible gift to learn from such experts.  Forty new docents graduated early in January, joining the ranks of nearly 200 experienced docents, many of whom had inspired me on that first visit to the Desert Museum almost a decade earlier.

A zoo
I knew that becoming a docent at one of my favorite places on Earth would be wonderful, but I didn't expect it to be as extraordinary as it is.  The docents are a fascinating group of people from all walks of life, but we have the common thread of having an almost insatiable interest in our desert environment and a desire to share what we have learned and experienced with others, hoping to influence them to value and protect this and other natural places.

The mission of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is to inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran Desert.

For docents, the learning never stops.  Advanced Docent Classes are held one morning each month, nine months of the year, and all docents are expected to attend.  Docents are updated on relevant Desert Museum business and on animal and plant collections and exhibits, followed by expert presentations on everything from wild flowers to the Mexican Grey Wolf program.  There are birding (and whatever else crops up) trips once a month, and special organized docent trips to such places as The Living Desert in Palm Desert, California (more about that in a separate post) and the Galapagos Islands.  Lunch time is lively as docents consult with one another and pull down reference books to identify the wild birds, reptiles, and insects seen on the grounds.  And docents with special experiences or expertise often hold trainings for other docents.

Docent training docents
Docent sharing a passion for moths

Birding trip to southeastern Arizona to see the Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw
Sometimes the socializing is taken off the grounds.  Most docents volunteer one day a week, and those groups get to know each other quite well.  Last weekend one of the Friday docents invited all the other Friday docents (and their spouses) to a barbecue and wagon ride at his ranch south of Tucson.  A huge group showed up at his place, potluck sides in hand, and had a great afternoon visiting and eating and riding in the mule pulled wagon.

Wagon ride after the BBQ
Some of these volunteers have been docents at the Desert Museum for 30 years, racking up over 20,000 hours of donated time.  It is clear that many important relationships have bridged those years, and the support system for docents, especially by docents, is enormously significant to those with many years invested.  The existing docents have been so welcoming to the new docents, mentoring us formally or informally since we first became docents in training.  Docenting is an act of generosity is so many ways, to the Desert Museum itself, to its visitors, its staff, and to other docents, but the biggest gift is undoubtedly to yourself.


Momma dove, still sitting pretty in her "resort" nursery

We're not using the front door these days.  The front courtyard is mostly off limits due to the fearless dove that insisted on laying her eggs amongst the dove-deterrent chopsticks and balls of foil.  Any mother that determined deserves every chance to fledge her two chicks.  Here they are about six days after hatching.

There is still much that could go awry -- failure to thrive, a hungry snake or roadrunner -- but I'll keep you posted.