|Photo by Ruth Anne Kocour|
Monday, April 15, 2013
Unlike wolves, their larger canine cousins, coyotes have a remarkable ability to adapt to human activity. Equally at home in urban areas, agricultural regions and remote wilderness, coyotes are similar to people in many ways. Both clever opportunists and formidable predators, they are omnivorous and will eat almost anything that is made available to them. Like indigenous people of the Sonoran desert, their favorite foods include mesquite beans, cactus fruit, cottontails and quails. Unfortunately, some coyotes in rural areas have, like humans, developed a taste for lamb, beef and venison as well, and are thus perceived as serious competitors for food.
Although there are no official population estimates, urban wildlife specialist Darren Julian of the Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) says that there are more coyotes per square mile in suburban areas of Phoenix than in the surrounding desert regions. “They are especially common near golf courses and lake communities, or in neighborhoods where there are greenbelts. These areas support a lot more prey animals, such as cottontails, doves, and small rodents,” says Julian. “There is no true drought experience in the suburbs, so there is plentiful food year round for all kinds of urban predators, which includes owls, bobcats and foxes, as well as coyotes.”
The abundance of prey near irrigated lands, whether agricultural or suburban, makes these ideal places for coyotes to raise families. April and May is prime time for coyote pups, so both parents are hunting for three or four, rather than just themselves. At about six months of age, pups will be out hunting on their own.
Many people fear coyotes, but the coyote has much more to fear in humans. AZGFD records show that between 30,000 and 40,000 coyotes are killed by hunters each year in Arizona alone, primarily for recreational purposes. This is a sharp contrast with the reverse statistics, with only 2 fatal and fewer than 200 documented non-fatal attacks by coyotes towards humans in the entire United States and Canada over the past 30 years. Although coyotes do occasionally prey on small pets and livestock, those numbers are in the low hundreds each year for Arizona.
The best way to avoid unwanted interactions with any wild animal is to not provide them with food. This means that pet food and small pets should not be left unattended outdoors, and birdseed or other food sources that attract prey species should not be made available near your home.
Otherwise, consider yourself lucky if you see a coyote on the trail or in the neighborhood. They are part of a healthy ecosystem, helping to keep rodent populations in check and providing the bonus of a little night music. If you can’t hear them at night out your window, you can listen to them howling on-line here: Wild Coyote Sounds
Learn more about urban coyotes at these websites:
Friday, February 8, 2013
When it comes to spring wildflowers in the Sonoran desert, timing is everything. There is a common misconception that if we get plenty of rain in the spring, wildflowers will abound. But truly eye-popping displays of desert annuals require a steady dose of winter rains beginning in November and lasting through February in order to germinate and grow a healthy crop of seedlings that will eventually flower. Lots of other factors come into play, but the records show that a cumulative rainfall of over four inches through the winter, preferably not in one giant storm, is the most reliable predictor for the abundance of spring wildflowers. This was the case for our most recent banner years, 2001 (7.07”), 2005 (7.72”) and 2008 (4.35”), when entire hillsides glowed orange with poppies, blue with lupines and valleys blazed hot pink with purple owl clover.
A decent monsoon the previous summer will help, but is less important than a consistent series of winter rains that keep the soil moist. In fact, the same banner years listed above actually had below average (< 2”) monsoon rains the previous summer. Cooler temperatures also help keep the evaporation levels low and tender seedlings from frying in the hot sun. Even if you want wildflowers in your yard, you need to scatter the seed no later than early November and then water them weekly for the next three months if you want to see some action.
So what’s the forecast for this year’s desert wildflowers? I'd say mild to moderately stunning. Records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) show that while the 2012 monsoon season was slightly above the 100+ year average of 2.71 inches, we’ve had a relatively dry winter. The gentle rains in early December and late January only generated a cumulative rainfall of about 2.30 inches for the Phoenix region. More rain in February and March can help, but it’s usually too little, too late. However, we should always be grateful for any amount of rain in the desert!
The good news is that there are always wildflowers somewhere; you just have to know where to look and plug into the wildflower watch networks to learn where the weekly hot spots are. Because rainfall varies a lot across the region, certain hills may be lusher than others, even compared to somewhere only a few miles away. Even a scant quarter inch of rain can make a big difference. In a dry year, north-facing hillsides are good places to scope out, since moisture will hang around a little longer on the shady sides of the hills. Even the north sides of large boulders and the shade of large trees will often be havens for annual wildflowers.
Although annuals may be sparse this year, many shrubs, perennials and cacti will bloom profusely, since they don’t have to start from seed. This is a great year for desert hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum), a delicate perennial plant that harbors a bulb deep below the soil surface. Thousands of slender succulent stems pierced the stony soils in desert hills throughout the region by early February, and will show off lavender blooms by early March. Bright orange globe mallows are another abundant hearty perennial commonly seen along roadsides throughout the desert. Flowering shrubs like brittlebush, wolfberry and ratany will always find energy to bloom, even if there is next to no rainfall.
In the Happy Valley region, you’re likely to find some brilliant patches of wildflowers in the Sonoran Preserve, east of Highway 17, just north of Jomax. Cave Creek Recreation Area north of Carefree Highway at 32nd Street and the Pipeline Trail at Lake Pleasant are also historically floriferous. Wherever you go, be sure to appreciate the miracle of each and every blossom.
Friday, December 7, 2012
|Hermit Warbler photo by Richard Halliburton|
Every year, the human population of the valley dramatically increases with the annual migration of "snowbirds" to southern Arizona, flocks of retirees who winter down here where it is warm and sunny and head back north between May and October to escape the insanely hot summer. Or is it that they are residents in the north during the balmy summers, and flee south to escape the blistering cold winters? Either way you look at it, they are in plenty of good company, because dozens of bird species use the same strategy of seasonal migration to up their chances of finding abundant food year round and good nesting sites when the urge to mate urge arises.
As opposed to the northern or high-altitude bioregions, where avian life is much more diverse during the summers, the Sonoran desert region hosts more winter residents. We are the south that many birds migrate to during the winter, but there are also some heat-loving summer residents that hang around here during the searing hot summer months and migrate further south during our ever so slightly chilly winters.
Some of the most common snowbirds, those that migrate to the desert for the winter, are American goldfinch, Western bluebird, and white-crowned sparrow. Waterfowl are the most abundant migratory species, seeking open water to feed in and be safe from predators, bringing us cormorants, egrets, ibis’s, and all kinds of ducks.
|Quail Eggs photo R. Halliburton|
Although the best places to see birds are natural areas and open water, you need not go further than your own backyard to see dozens of species, both migratory and year-round residents. Over the years I’ve logged over thirty species that have stopped by for a visit. Local resident Richard Halliburton has been backyard birding in Stetson Hill for ten years, and has logged over 50 species, including a green heron and a hermit warbler that were migrating through. Quails love his yard so much that they laid a dozen eggs in his hedge. Richard’s secret? Homemade suet, made from a combination of lard, peanut butter, corn meal, flour and fruit.
What visits your backyard is of great interest to scientists who monitor the abundance and distribution of bird species. The 16th annual Great Backyard Bird Count will be collecting data from citizens all over North America between February 15-18th, and will be expanding to the entire globe for the first time this year. Like the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Bird Count, which has been going on for over 100 years, the GBBC is an important tool to help understand what is going on with bird populations, both urban and wild. All you need to do is pay attention to the birds in your yard, or anywhere else you like, for fifteen minutes and log in your results to the GBBC website at http://www.birdsource.org/gbbc/howto.html.
You might be surprised what you see!
|Green Heron photo by R. Halliburton|
Make your own suet
In a large bowl, blend together 2 cups flour, 2 cups corn meal, 2 cups quick oats and 2 cups wild bird seed mix. In a medium pot, melt together 1 pound of lard and half cup chunky peanut butter over medium heat. Stir in 2 heaping tablespoons of berry preserves and a cup of raisens or dried cranberries. Remove from stove and blend with the dry ingredients. Press the mixture into a greased 9x9 pan and let it cool. Cut the suet into blocks and store in the frig until use.
Get your Deem Hills/Stetson Hills Bird Checklist Here: Tweet!
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Photo by Ken Simms
Anyone who walks at dawn or dusk near Phoenix suburbs will sooner or later be rewarded with the soft, low hoot of a great horned owl. Whether the resonating call of an owl evokes feelings of wild beauty or primeval dread, the sound is always a reminder of something greater than the human world to anyone who pauses to listen. If you're lucky, you may spot the striking silhouette of an owl perched on a saguaro, or see one glide overhead on silent wings.
Among the six species of owl native to the Sonoran Desert (barn, western screech, pygmy, elf and burrowing owls are the others), the hoot of the great horned owl, along with its impressive size, make them easy to identify. Some call them the "5-hooter," since their most common call has five parts, with the second and third hoot more rapid than the rest. With a little imagination, you can hear them say, "Who's awake? Me too!" The female hoots are shorter and higher than the males.
But if you're listening for any of the other desert dwelling owls, don't expect a hoot or even a "who." Listen instead for the "raspy, hissing shriek" of a barn owl, or the "nasal trumpeting" of a burrowing owl. The Western screech owl is reputed for a "spooky wavering tremolo" or "bouncing ball song." An elf owl belts outa duck-like squawk or high barking call. If you hear "monotonous toots, a high rattle or trill," it could be a nearby pygmy owl. Even the great horned owl's repertoire includes a "low, nasal bark," the common response of a female to an amorous male, plus the "high, wheezy bark" of young owlets. (Sibley's Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000)
At this time of year, the tiny elf owls, smaller than a common house sparrow, have fled to warmer climates south of here for the winter. If they are still hanging around though, you may spot one resting in a cavity in a saguaro or perched in a palo verde tree.
Screech owls and pygmy's are also cavity nesters, using saguaros as well as sycamores, cottonwoods, or any other tree that a woodpecker has excavated and abandoned.
It is true that barn owls like barns and attics of buildings, but they will gladly occupy a box of just the right size if you build them one, as has been done by many and Eagle Scout for their wildlife conservation project.
All of these birds are primarily nocturnal, but it is not uncommon to spot a burrowing owl in broad daylight on golf courses, railroad cuts or anywhere else that there are prairie dog or ground squirrel dens. burrowing owls will dig their own burrows, but also take up residence in those of their prey. their long legs and terrestreial habits are unique among owls.
You can listen to calls of all 200 of the world's owls at: www.owlpages.com/sounds.php
Photos of the screech owl, barn owl and burrowing owl were taken at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center in Phoenix, Arizona.