Friday, April 25, 2014

April- A Time of Transition

Here we are:

Where are we? The first 3 weeks of April have been busy and a time of transition. Since the beginning of the month we have moved the trailer from our wonderful spot in Arizona to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, sold our house in Ashland, sold our Toyota Rav4 , sold all of the contents of our house, moved personal items and documents into storage, brought the trailer to the manufacturer for annual service, and even done a little birding along the way.

We could not have accomplished all of this without the help of our friends. We had many earlier discussions about how we were going to get all of this done. In the end we simply had to ask for help. This was an important life lesson for us- we typically try to take care of everything ourselves. The outcomes were beyond our expectations because of the wonderful people who made it all possible. We want to thank Joyce, our amazing neighbor who kept a constant eye on our house for us and was one of our best friends throughout the 7 years that we lived there. We want to thank our realtor from heaven, Patie Millen, who somehow manifested the sale of our house in 4 days and got us more than we asked for!! We want to thank Wendy, who somehow organized all of our household stuff and got it sold in 3 days. These are just a few of the folks that have helped us to make this lifestyle change.

How we got here:

How did we come to this point of living in an RV full time and selling our house and personal belongings?

The decision to move into an RV full-time and volunteer for conservation organizations did not happen over night. The process has been unfolding for at least the last 3-4 years. Both of us had major challenges with our health which we overcame but caused us to re-prioritize what we wanted to do with our lives. We became laser focused on what was really important to us.

In 2010 we started spending winters in Stinson Beach because of work. Many shorebirds hang out on the coast during the winter and we quickly fell in love with them. We discovered a group of Snowy Plovers on the beach where we walked. When we noticed some of the plovers had colored bands on their legs, we contacted Point Reyes Bird Observatory to ask if our observations would be of interest to them. Low and behold, they requested that we begin sending them regular plover observations. Again, many of the plovers were banded so it was so interesting to be able to learn some of the birds' history. We even got to see the nest and eggs of the Snowy Plover below.  The nest was not successful but it was the first recorded nest on that beach since the 1980s. This is important because the population of Snowy Plovers that successfully nest on the coast is in sharp decline due to the increase in human and predator activity.

Who can't love these little birds, they are only ~6"

A little bling:)- we call this bird GOGO (that stands for the color bands Green Orange:Green Orange)

Taking a break from sitting on the nest

We have been blessed with being able to spend quite a bit of time birding on the Big Island of Hawaii.  The number of birds may be limited since it is an island but we were able to become familiar with amazing endemic birds and see some interesting vagrants from time to time. One of the lessons learned from birding and living on the Big Island is that we live in such a fragile environment. There are more extinct and/or endangered birds per square foot in Hawaii than anywhere else in world! One of the most shocking facts to learn was of the Hawaiian Crow- who would ever think of a crow going extinct in the wild? It has definitely caused me to never take a bird for granted.

The bird below is one of our favorites: the Akiapolaau. It is a member of the Hawaiian honeycreeper family that has evolved to fill the niche occupied by woodpeckers in other parts of the world. This bird is endangered due to loss of habitat and is only found on the Island of Hawaii. Its population is less than 1,000!

During the spring of 2011, Bob planned a spur of the moment trip to SE Arizona that opened our eyes to the challenges that face many of the neotropical birds that migrate up from South America and other areas in the Southern Hemisphere. The San Pedro River has over two-thirds of North Americas songbirds migrating through it and the river is only a trickle in places due to the increase in agricultural use and development. This sparked a desire to want to help......what could we do to make a difference?

The bird below blew me away when I first saw it- a Blue-headed Grosbeak!

In July of 2011, Bob & I found this 1987 VW Vanagon that began nurturing the nomad in us both:) The photo below was taken in Hart Springs on Hart Mountain,  OR not that far from where we are in Malheur NWR. We were actually on our way to Malheur Field Station for the first time!

Instrumental in our learning and growth as birders were two very dear people: Vince Zausky and Otis Swisher. We were so fortunate to become friends and fellow birders. We are always learning whenever we bird with Vince & Otis. They have a way of nurturing the desire and spirit to enjoy each bird. In August 2011 Otis invited us to a very special birding spot near the base of Mt. McLoughlin, OR that we soon called Otis's Pond. This became our favorite place to bird instantly. Not only do you get to see all different types of birds but you get to see them bathing and drinking at the water's edge of this little spring fed pond. Where would you ever get these types of views? This experience provided us with a peek of what was possible if the right environment was provided where birds could not just survive but thrive.......

Black-capped Chickadee

Hybrid Red-breasted & Red-naped Sapsucker bathing

Western Tanager at the water's edge

Townsend's Warbler bathing- they typically hang out on the tree tops of the tall pines

Male Evening Grosbeak drinking and bathing

Black-headed Grosbeak female

Nashville Warbler bathing

Hermit Warbler- another tree top warbler

Clark's Nutcracker

Isn't Otis's Pond amazing???!!

The following photos were taken on a recent trip up to Howard Prairie Lake with Vince, Candace & Otis. We will miss these regular outings with our Ashland friends but we will be back to Ashland for a visit to Otis's Pond at the end of the summer:)

Tree Swallow-everyone was protecting their nesting spots

Female Mountain Bluebird protecting her nest box

The male Mountain Bluebird watching from above

It began to be apparent that we really enjoyed visiting wildlife refuges when Bob planned a trip to the Olympic Peninsula. As a part of the trip, Bob planned stops at refuges along the way. We loved the Olympic Peninsula but the highlights of the trip were the refuges:  William Finlay NWR, Gray's Harbor NWR, Crooked River National Grasslands, Ridgefield NWR. Up until that point, we had talked about visiting all of the National Parks but ended up changing that plan because we felt much more connected to the wildlife refuges.

In May of 2012, we took a birding trip to Panama. It was an incredible experience but we realized we wanted to be more involved in learning about the birds and their habitats and challenges than simply listing sightings. It was that winter that we took our first trip Midway to volunteer for U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service counting Albatross nests. This trip convinced us that volunteering full time was what we wanted to do going forward. We saw the tremendous need and loved being involved in helping the wildlife and the conservation organizations dedicated to their well-being.

Here we are now living our dream. We are so excited about our new path but will definitely miss our friends in Ashland: Joyce, Vince, Candace, Otis, Debbie & Ken, Genna & David and the gang at North Mountain Park! We will be back and send you nothing but love.

Up, Up & Away,

Turtle & Hawk

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Secret pockets along I-5

Our trip from Huachuca City, Arizona to Ashland, Oregon included stops in Gila Bend, AZ- Lake Havasu City,AZ-Newberry Springs, CA-Lost Hills, CA-Lodi, CA - Red Bluff, CA.  For us, it is a grueling drive when we have to travel everyday. We normally try to limit our daily drives between 150-200 miles/day and include some kind of nature walk to ground ourselves. There was not much to see in Gila Bend due to high winds that day. In Lake Havasu City, we did get down to the Bill Williams River NWR to say hi to our friends. Newberry Springs on Highway 40 is one of those ghost towns on the old Rte 66 with not much in the way of accessible nature. 

When we hit I-5 in the Bakersfield area, there was little in the way of opportunities to explore nature due to the expansion of mass agricultural practices in this region. I try and check on ebird hotspots when we are going to be visiting a new area to see if there are any interesting places we can explore. (ebird is an incredibly powerful tool). When we checked out areas around Lost Hills (north of Bakersfield) , Kern National Wildlife Refuge caught our attention. We did not know there was a wildlife refuge in this area. So, we went to check it once we got ourselves situated at the campground. (By the way the campground was next door to water treatment ponds so there were quite a few birds around our campground. We saw our first Bullock's Oriole and Western Kingbird of the year there!)

Kern National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)- (some of the information is from the Kern NWR website) For thousands of years, California's Central Valley has provided habitat for millions of waterfowl, shorebirds and other wetland dependent species. The southern portion of the the Central Valley, known as the San Joaquin Valley, once contained numerous lakes and marshes comprising over 800,000 acres of natural wetlands, the largest freshwater marsh in the western U.S. Today, as a result of agricultural and oil extraction practices, there is less than one tenth of one percent of this remaining habitat left.  

Kern NWR was established in 1960 and consists of approximately 11,000 acres of natural desert uplands, a relict riparian corridor, and developed marsh. Through restoration and maintenance of native habitat diversity, the refuge also provides suitable habitat for several endangered species (San Joaquin kit fox, Tipton kangaroo rat, & the blunt-nosed leopard lizard) as well as preserving a remnant example of the historic valley uplands in the San Joaquin Desert.

The following are a few photos from Kern NWR:

Savannah Sparrow- it was nice to see our familiar Savannah Sparrow with the yellow in front of the eye

Male & female Cinnamon Teal-what long bills they have

Western Kingbirds were everywhere!! Neither of us had ever seen so many Western Kingbirds in one place- I think Bob's count was 25 but I think that was conservative:)

American Avocet

Common Gallinule

Northern Mockingbird

Cosumnes River Preserve-We camped in a great RV Park in Lodi, CA. We had checked ebird and found a local wildlife refuge listed. We were actually looking for another wildlife refuge when we stumbled on the Cosumnes River Preserve.  The Cosumnes River is 80 miles long. Its headwaters in the El Dorado National Forest rise to only 8,000' above sea level.  From mostly rain, but also snow melt, the river's water meanders from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Central Valley, just south of Sacramento.

Yet the Cosumnes River is far more important than its size would indicate. It is the only remaining unregulated river on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. In its lower reaches, it flows through one of the biologically richest regions in California's Central Valley, before merging with the Mokelumne River to then flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and eventually the Pacific Ocean. The Cosumnes River Preserve was created to safeguard much of this unique landscape.

The free-flowing nature of the river allows frequent and regular winter and spring over bank flooding that fosters the growth of native vegetation and the wildlife that depends on those habitats. More than 250 bird species, more than 40 fish species, and some 230 plant species have been identified on the Preserve!

In 1984, the Nature Conservancy purchased 85 acres of old-growth riparian forest approximately 20 miles south of Sacramento, establishing the Cosumnes River Preserve. While building a partnership of what is now a consortium of nine private and public entities, TNC acquired lands and conservations easements that now protect 46,000 acres, that include blue and valley oak woodlands, freshwater wetlands, vernal pool grasslands.

Below are photos from Cosumnes River Preserve:

These Tree Swallows were defending territories

Black-necked Stilt feeding

Blue-winged Teal- always a treat

Ring-necked Duck


Western Meadowlark singing from a tree top

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Black Phoebe looking for insects

House Wren

Red Bluff Recreation Area-Red Bluff, CA. When we first pulled into the Red Bluff RV Park, we were blown away.....  it was perfect: beautiful trees, lawns, away from the road noise and an incredible family Mexican Restaurant next door:) We checked out ebird to see what types of birding hotspots were in the area and found Red Bluff Recreation Area- someone had recently seen Lawrence's Goldfinches ( a new bird for us) and it was only 6 miles down the road! 

Red Bluff Recreation Area is located on the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River. The area bisects 488 acres of riparian forest, flowering grasslands, wetlands, and oak woodlands providing very diverse habitats attracting a wide variety of species. The Forest Service claims a bird list of over 125 species. This recreation area exists as a result of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act that was signed by President Bush in 1992. This act modified the Central Valley Project that was authorized in 1935 by including fish and wildlife mitigation as a project function. What a gem- there are 14 miles of beautiful trails, campgrounds and day use areas. 

Photos from Red Bluff Recreation Area:

Male Western Bluebirds

Male Anna's Hummingbird

Everything was blooming

What a view

Lawrence's Goldfinch-
This was a new bird for us. They exhibited very different behavior from Lesser or American Goldfinches. They were hanging out singing at eye level in the trees off of the walking path. They were also congregating on and feeding in the dirt patches. We located them by their unique call.


Back shot of the Lawrence's Goldfinch on the ground.

Acorn Woodpecker protecting its nest. There were European Starlings surrounding this poor Acorn Woodpecker that looked like it was trying to protect its nest. The Starlings compete for nesting cavities.

Yellow-billed Magpie is another new bird for me. Bob has seen them before. Apparently the only place they live is in the Sacramento Valley.

This bird was exhibiting something that might be mating behavior- it was flapping its wings and calling incessantly.

What a mountain view

Next stop Ashland Oregon where Bob & I are shedding much of our worldly possessions. More to come in next blog.

In Joy,

Turtle and Hawk

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Part 2- The Mountains & Grasslands of SE Arizona

We're back with Part 2. I apologize for the length of the previous blog. Our intention going forward is to blog more often.

It is probably obvious but we fell in love with the expansive wide open spaces and mountain views of SE Arizona. The weather is also pretty amazing - cool nights & warm days:)

We visited canyons, grasslands and agricultural areas. We even had great birds right in our RV park.

The canyons are amazing- we visited Ft. Huachuca which contains both Huachuca & Garden Canyons. In addition we visited nearby Ramsey, Miller, Carr & Hunter Canyons. The mountain peaks of these canyons comprise the sky islands of SE Arizona. Each canyon has a different feel.

Fort Huachuca is an active U.S. Army post that is open to birders, though you must present a U.S. driver's license or passport at the main gate to gain entry.

Huachuca Canyon

Huachuca Canyon has a sycamore-lined stream with juniper, oak and pine. The dirt road travels from 4,900 to 6,500 feet in elevation.

We found this pair of Hepatic Tanagers at the lower picnic area. This bird is an uncommon summer resident of pine-oak forest of the southwest. They rarely stay the winter in Arizona. It would appear that this pair were one of those rarities that over wintered.

Very successful at feeding

Female Hepatic Tanager: the female and male Hepatic Tanager seem to stay in close contact while feeding with continuous low key calls.

We found this Rufous-crowned Sparrow in the hills around the lower picnic area singing away--- notice the eye ring- this is resident.

The Northern Pygmy Owl was our nemesis bird until we met these amazing people on the trail, Terry & Denuta from Irvine Ca. We met at the lower canyon picnic area at the beginning of the day. They later left to go up the canyon to find the Montezuma's Quail. On their way back down to their next destination they stopped to let us know they had heard and seen a pair of Northern Pygmy Owls!!! When we told them that was our nemesis bird they said  follow us & took us up to the spot where the owls had a nest in a Sycamore tree. Our hearts were beating so fast- there they were calling!! We even got to see them mating- the photo is a bit blurry but worth sharing.

This little owl is only 7"- described as tiny but tough, they are active by day.

Here they are mating.

After the deed is done:)

The Dusky Flycatcher is another empidonax flycatcher. We think this is a Dusky Flycatcher because of the bill and tail lengths. The range maps indicate it is migrating north to breed in the Pacific Northwest.

Another first- this Buff-breasted Flycatcher was calling from a low branch of a Sycamore tree in upper Huachuca Canyon. It just hung around and provided us with amazing views. This is another one of the empidonax flycatchers, but, unlike its Dusky & Hammond's cousins there is no doubt about its identification. It is usually scarce in the summer in southeast Arizona, so we were very lucky to get such great views:)

Look at that bill!

We found this Dusky-capped Flycatcher in the Huachuca Canyon upper canyon area- it is very identifiable by its mournful call. The call and the crest help to make the identification a bit easier than other flycatchers. It is similar in appearance to the Ash-throated Flycatcher.

We even had some great views of Pronghorn Antelope that live on the Fort.

Ramsey Canyon

Ramsey Canyon is a Nature Conservancy Property. The high canyon walls of Ramsey Canyon, with its east-west orientation and perennial stream create a cool environment supporting more than a dozen rare species. There have been 14 species of hummingbirds recorded in Ramsey. Unfortunately, we were too early for the majority of migrating hummingbirds but had a wonderful time:)

We saw a little House Wren outside the TNC visitor center in Ramsey Canyon. It definitely wanted us to know it owned the place. This species is typically a summer visitor.

We encountered this singing Canyon Wren on our stroll up the canyon. These wrens have a beautiful song and are residence of the area.

We were thrilled to get great views of this male Arizona Woodpecker- they have beautiful chocolate brown backs. They are considered uncommon residents of oak and pine-oak woods in canyons near the Mexican border.

Blue skies heading up Ramsey Canyon. 

We could hear the call of the Townsend's Solitaire before we finally located it sitting in the trees. Their whistle can sometimes sound like a Northern Pygmy Owl to me. They are common in juniper woods and winter where it can find a good supply of berries. They can be either a resident or winter visitor. Many will head north to Canada to breed.

Painted Redstarts are one of the early warblers to show up in the region to breed. We saw quite a few Painted Redstarts in a number of different locations flitting about and fanning their tails.  According to my Kaufman book they nest on the ground!!! The male and female look the same- flashy:)

Miller Canyon

Miller Canyon road and trail take you from 5,000 to 6,800 feet up a deep, steep-sided canyon of pine-oak woodland. It still bears the scars of the 2011 wildfire. Attractions include the forested canyon, trails and Beatty's hummingbird feeding stations.

We parked and walked into the woods near the parking area and startled this Sharp-shinned Hawk-immature. Notice the streaking on the chest which indicates an immature bird. The range map indicates that this bird is probably going to be heading north to breed....but I am not sure if an immature might simply hang out and skip breeding?

Spotted Towhee- we heard but rarely saw them. The range map indicates they are residents of the area. If that is the case they sure are skulkers.

Montezuma's Pass

We visited Montezuma's Pass located near the border of Mexico. It is part of the Coronado National Monument, in reference to the travels of the Spanish explorer Coronado. The pass provides amazing views of the San Pedro Valley, San Rafael Valley and south into Mexico. You can see the border wall in the photo below.

This Rock Wren sat on top of the picnic tables at the top of Montezuma's Pass. They have the greatest little dance "bobbing" up & down as they call. They nest inside rock crevises.

Female Black-chinned Sparrow was a new bird for us! Notice no black on the chin indicates a female- the black chin is typically seen on summer males. It appears they winter is this area and will be heading north and west to breed.

Carr Canyon

Carr Canyon- this canyon is served by a winding narrow road that provides auto access to high-elevation birds at 7,400 feet. The road starts at 5,000 feet and climbs along single-lane sharp switch-backs. We had no idea what a wild ride we were in for....but we made it!!

Our first stop was the Reef Townsite Campground. Mexican Jays were there to greet us. They were very gregarious and seemed to follow us around. The Mexican Jays are residents.

We think we heard a pair of Northern Pygmy Owls but did not find them. We did hear and see a Cooper's Hawk calling from the pine trees.

What a treat- these Yellow-eyed Junco were new birds for us. Look at that yellow eye! They are residents of mountain forests and very skulky.

Las Cienegas

Las Cienegas National Recreation Area was created by the BLM in 1988 by the acquisition of several large ranches. In 2010 the BLM started working to restore the grasslands to their original condition by removing much of the mesquite that invaded the arroyos during the cattle boom years. Several areas are being used to reintroduce the endangered black-tailed prairie dogs. Varied habitats include a perennial stream with cottonwood-willow riparian strips, cienegas (small marshlands), juniper-oak woodlands, native bunch grasses and mesquite bosques. 

Side note- we learned that the San Pedro River was originally a series of cienegas or small marshlands that would fill and drain with the seasonal rains until man began to divert the water and channelize the river....learn something new everyday.

The Black-throated Sparrow is a resident and one of our favorites. Such a striking bird.

Lark Sparrows were sprinkled along-side the roadside. They are in the region to breed.

We took a walk down Empire Gulch where we found lots of birds & butterflies:

Red-naped Sapsuckers winter in area and migrate north to breed.

Swallow-tailed Butterfly

White-breasted Nuthatch,  a common resident, with a Vermillion Flycatcher male in the background

The identification of this Eastern Phoebe had us stumped.... we knew it was a flycatcher but we were not familiar with the exact species.....we ended up calling it a juvenile Black Phoebe (we could not figure out why there would be a juvenile at this time of year but we could not figure it out). Later that week Bob was paging through his bird identification book looking at some other flycatchers and came across the Eastern Phoebe......There it was... that was the bird we had seen in Empire Gulch! That is one of the many reasons I love birding..... sometimes you might not find the right answer but with time and experience, answers and hints keep appearing:) This is a bird of the eastern part of the continent.

This Bewick's Wren came out to investigate. It is a resident of the region.

We found this Great Horned Owl in the Oak Canyon portion of Las Cienegas because the Ruby-crowned Kinglets and other birds were mobbing it:) He is a resident of the continent.

Sierra Vista EOP

Sierra Vista Environmental Operations Park (aka Waste Water Treatment Plant) - The City of Sierra Vista overhauled its large wastewater treatment facility and attempted to make it environmentally friendly welcoming birds and birders alike. The day we visited we experienced marginal conditions due to high winds but we did see a number of species. As a result of the wind I did not take many photos.

There were a number of Horned Larks. These beautiful birds are residents.

This Peregrine Falcon is a regular- apparently the falcon has learned that when the birding groups have their bird walks they stir up lots of birds so when he sees people he comes out to hunt:) Pretty smart!

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area (formerly Hyannis Cattle Company)- this 1,400 acre site was purchased by the Arizona Game & Fish Department in 1997, primarily to protect the major Sandhill Crane roost. The pond size varies with runoff. In addition to the roosting Sandhill Cranes in the winter  the area attracts wintering owls and migrants.

This Great Egret was a rarity for the area. It usually winters south of the border. Egret populations were decimated in the early 1900s by feather hunters. Their recovery has been in large part due to the efforts of the National Audubon Society, which had been newly formed around the early 1900s.

There were so many sparrows! This a a view of the southwestern variety of a Savannah Sparrow. The southwestern variety may not have any yellow on their face; whereas the Savannah Sparrows we are accustomed to seeing have yellow. This sparrow typically winters in this area and south of the boarder. The range maps show that they could also be a summer visitor as well in a small pocket in SE Arizona.

We caught the end of the winter roosting of the Sandhill Cranes- what a treat! They have a substantial winter population here at Whitewater Draw. The community of Willcox has an annual birding festival in January to celebrate their presence.

It was a warm afternoon and many of the cranes were enjoying a bath:)

Northern Shovelers- look at the mud on his bill from scooping his bill in the mud to feed:) They should be getting ready to head north to breed.

Northern Harrier female hunting- they are winter residents.

The distinguishing white band aids in identification as can be seen below.

Great Horned Owl is hiding in the rafters of the barn

Quail Ridge RV Resort

We had great birds surrounding us at our temporary home at Quail Ridge RV Resort.

A pair of Cactus Wren were living outside our trailer. These residents seem to have adapted to human presence by feeding on the insects on the front ends of the visiting cars and trailers. 

This stunning Pyrrhuloxia male was living around us as well. Most of the birds around the RV park are residents of the region.

Lark Sparrows were living all around us- they are summer visitors here to breed.

This Ocotillo blooming in the hills and washes was one of our favorite sights:)

All and all - an amazing trip!!! We met wonderful folks and immersed ourselves in the incredible beauty all around us:)

We do have a wish list for our next visit: Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Grace's Warbler, Rufous-capped Warbler, Goshawks nesting in Miller Canyon............

Caio for now,

Turtle & Hawk

PS- Bob ended up coming down with a terrible flu & was in bed for 10 days. He hung in there and came out in one piece:)