Friday, January 28, 2011

Water Issues

Birding constantly segues into conservation, it's inevitable.  Here on the LCRV, it's difficult to stand on the shores of Lake Havasu and imagine the river that used to run there, flanked by a forest of willow and cottonwood.  Those forests are gone, the river has been altered forever, and both people and wildlife have had to adapt to these changes and more to come.  Restoration projects such as the 'Ahakhav Preserve are a major step forward, providing benefits for people as well as habitat for wildlife.  A steady water supply is important to the wildlife in so many ways, not only for irrigating these restoration areas, but providing habitat for threatened species with marshes and forest stands, flooding to propagate native vegetation, and hosting huge concentrations of migrant shorebirds, waterfowl, and others at the river's delta.

I followed a link this evening to this article on water shortages on the Colorado River.  Nothing in the article is a big surprise; essentially, drought means less water in the river, while more people are drawing out more water.  Reading the article got me to thinking about Phoenix, a (relatively) lush, verdant city in the desert, which draws most of its water from Lake Havasu.  Fountains, lush plantings, abundant golf courses, and a lawn for nearly every home is the norm in Phoenix (more and more of these areas are using reclaimed water, which is wonderful).  On the other hand, when I was scouting for a home in Lake Havasu City, I noticed quickly that there are very few lawns here.  There are a few turfed city parks and rows of trees here and there, but for the most part, this city could be a brochure for xeriscaping.

I decided to finally find out why it is that LHC is so unusually not green for a desert city.  I assumed it must be a city ordinance banning turf in residential areas.  Reading the city's Water Conservation Plan, it turns out I was right, at least in part.  City landscape requirements forbid turf in commercial, multi-family, and industrial uses.  That means that Wal Mart and my apartment complex aren't allowed to have lawns.  However, single-family homes are excluded.  Homeowners are allowed to have lawns here, but the city provides rebates and education programs, and even landscape planting guides (here and here) to encourage xeriscaping.  In the end, homeowners choose to skip the turf.

I believe that many of the desert cities drawing water from the Colorado could take a page out of LHC's book.  With water restrictions a very real possibility in the near future, we should all stop and think about steps we could take to use less of the water we share.

'Ahakhav Tribal Preserve

The 'Ahakhav Tribal Preserve lies just outside of Parker, AZ.  The preserve was established in 1995 by the Colorado River Indian Tribes as a place to restore the natural and cultural heritage of the Colorado River.  Now it stands as a bright green patch among the agricultural fields of the Parker Valley and the River's invasive tamarisk sprawl.

David and I visited the preserve two days ago, on January 26, to see what birds were about.  We didn't even have to leave the picnic area!  There were plenty of the expected species, like this Phainopepla.

Bell's Vireos are a declining riparian breeding species, and they respond very well to restoration projects like this.  Still, it was quite a surprise to see this Bell's Vireo at 'Ahakhav, since there are only a few winter records for the entire state!

 We went to the preserve hoping to see a certain sapsucker, first reported by Paul Lehman on November 26 last year, and recently seen by Henry Detwiler et al.  This guy turned out to be very confiding, and had no problem with me snapping photos.

This is a hybrid between the expected Red-naped Sapsucker and the rare Red-breasted Sapsucker.  The black mottling in the breast and the relatively limited red in the face pattern give this away as a hybrid, as a pure Red-breasted would have a solid red breast and much more red on the head.  Red-naped Sapsuckers shouldn't have any red in the breast, and have more limited red in the face pattern.  Even though this bird isn't "countable" as either species, it was an interesting individual to study.  These hybrids are probably more regular in Arizona than pure Red-breasted Sapsuckers, so it is important to be able to recognize hybrid characteristics when a possible Red-breasted is seen.

This point was illustrated the same day, when David spotted a different sapsucker, this one with an apparently solid red breast!  Unfortunately the bird was extremely skittish and did not allow us to get good looks or decent photos.  While the bird looked good in the field, my one photograph shows a bit too much white in the face pattern for Red-breasted Sapsucker, so this was probably another hybrid.  We're hoping to see the bird again and study it more.

Of course, these birds were considered conspecific until the 1980s, and this may not have been a good split.  Extensive hybridization in a broad area of range overlap is an indication of subspecies within a single species, which seems to be the case with these sapsuckers.  Many ornithologists believe that these taxa should be "re-lumped" as one species.  Read more about sapsuckers and hybridization here and here.  No matter what happens with these taxa, I will continue to look for unusual individuals and try to understand variation within this complex!

Departing from 'Ahakhav, we checked some agricultural fields around the Parker Valley and drove back to Lake Havasu City along the California side of the river, searching for the Yellow-billed Loon.  After a group of us found it just north of Parker on January 15, it has been giving birders a hard time, moving miles up and down the river within a single day.  David and I finally spotted it from Empire Landing, on the California side of the Parker Strip, on a section of river with little more than coots.  Just goes to show that rare birds can be found anywhere, not just our hotspots!

(click the link above for much better photos)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mohave County Big Year

Big years will be getting a lot of attention soon, with the film "The Big Year" to be released sometime this year.  Usually when we hear about a big year, it's for the ABA area (the U.S. and Canada).  This is an endeavor that requires a lot of time and money to chase the megas that turn up in all corners, plus all the regularly occurring species in a huge geographic area.  Last year, we ran into Bob Ake in the field a few times, at the Salton Sea Bean Goose, then in Phoenix where a Baikal Teal was seen.  Bob ended up with an impressive total of 731 species for the year!

Other times, big years have a more restricted area - state or county.  Before moving to Lake Havasu City, I had decided to do a Mohave County big year in 2011.  I was largely inspired by my friend Tommy DeBardeleben, who did a Maricopa County big year for 2010, and I've set the same goal: 300 species.  This will be a challenge for a number of reasons.  Mohave is the fifth largest county in the United States (excluding Alaska's boroughs), slightly larger in area than Maryland.  The Grand Canyon lies between me and the northern part of the county.  Also, as I mentioned in my last post, there just aren't many birders out here.  That means I can't rely much on the benefit of chasing reported rarities.  Almost a month in, it's been a lot of fun, and I'm up to 124 species.  There have been some nice highlights so far, like Rufous-backed Robin, Black and White-winged Scoters, Tundra Swan.

Yesterday, David and I spent the morning at Pintail Slough, where our target was a Red-shouldered Hawk.  John West found this bird in December and pointed it out to us on the Havasu CBC, but I had yet to see it this year.  Fortunately, it was one of the first birds we saw upon arriving.  A few hours of exploring ponds, canals, fields, and cottonwood groves turned up seven more year birds, including Cinnamon Teal, Lincoln's and Vesper Sparrows, Horned Lark.  Although the hawk eluded photographs, I snapped a few shots of a Barn Owl, a common species in the LCRV but nevertheless a county bird for me.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Welcome to the LCRV

The Lower Colorado River Valley (LCRV) is legendary among birders of Arizona and California for its history of attracting unusual birds to its shores.  A chain of reservoirs maintain diving ducks, loons, grebes, and gulls.  The riparian habitats that remain are a magnet for migrants, while supporting breeding populations of birds like Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Indigo Bunting, and Summer Tanager.  In short, it's a good place to find birds that would otherwise not frequent the deserts of eastern California and western Arizona.  And that's not to mention the more widespread southwestern specialties that are common in the mesquite and ocotillo.

That's what brought David and I out here, just over a month ago.  It has been a favorite birding destination of ours for years.  I especially enjoy birding here because (for the most part) it's so underbirded, that is, seldom visited for a region as rich in its avifauna as this.  During the short time I've been here I've enjoyed meeting the other local birders, exploring the desert canyons and the shores of the Colorado, and marveling at the birds - the rare ones, the common ones, the flocks in the thousands that appear suddenly but are all but gone in a few days.  The area has raised so many questions for me and taught me so much already, so I look forward to getting to know it better.