By Rex Graham
I attended the Tucson Audubon Bird and Wildlife Festival August 13-17, and here is my video appreciation of the event’s organizers, participants and, of course, the 200-plus species of birds we saw.
Sunday, Aug. 17
Saturday, Aug. 16
To add to the unique beauty of the Sonoran Desert in August is the sudden explosion of greenery brought on by the summer rains. A significant chunk of the 12 inches of annual rainfall arrives in summer.
I’d never seen Ocotillo this way. Their thorns were covered with a lush layer of leaves.
Birds, butterflies and other insects, reptiles and other animals were on the move, taking advantage of the diverse bounty of plant life.
We didn’t actually see a javelina, a type of wild pig, but we saw fresh leftovers from a recent meal of prickly pear cactus.
Andy Bennett, a habitat restoration specialist with the Tucson Audubon Society, was our guide. He pointed out endemic species such as the Pyrrhuloxia, which reminds me of the Northern Cardinal, Rufous-winged and Black-throated Sparrows, and many other endemic species.
“I guess the coolest part was whenever anyone sees a new species and they get really excited, and they get great view of it,” Bennett said. “It’s great to see people satisfied and happy and appreciative of nature.”
Rob Modica, a retired college professor and Tucson resident, pointed out the Mistletoe. The plants penetrate the branches of Palo Verde trees. The Mistletoe was blossoming. These flowers mature into the abundant berries that Phainopeplas eat during the much drier months of the year.
In August, the Phainopeplas, which are silky flycatchers, were feasting on insects.
Bird & Wildlife Festival hotspots
Saguaro National Park was established more than 50 years ago to preserve and protect Palo Verde trees and the magnificent Saguaro Cacti. The lushness and diversity of plant and animal life in the desert are surprising to new visitors.
It’s easy to observe birds on your own or with a guide.
The Sonoran Desert is home to Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flicker, Harris’ Hawk, many species of flycatchers and gnatcatchers, owls, quail, sparrows, Verdins, warblers, phoebes, towhees, wrens, White-winged Doves, and many other birds.
The 2014 Tucson Audubon Bird and Wildlife Festival is an annual mid-August event. Hotel rates are low, the local birding community is friendly, and the Mexican food is delicious.
Wildlife Festival – Friday, Aug. 15
My first field trip was a three-hour stroll around the Sweetwater Wetlands with Steve Howell, the keynote speaker of the festival. He has a wonderfully engaging style, and he offered his wealth of knowledge on bird identification and field guide use. Howell leads birding trips for Wings.
A Cooper’s Hawk flew close in, perched on a nearby limb and watched us watching it. The local Mallards were in full molt, busily nabbing food at the water’s surface. Cormorants gorged on minnows and warblers, fly-catchers and kingbirds were everywhere.
Even the Gila Woodpecker made a cameo appearance for a quick snack.
I met Irene and Dan Weinman, from Niles, IL. They boarded a train at Union Station in downtown Chicago, and two days later arrived at Flagstaff, Ariz. From there, they drove south to Tucson. On the train ride they socialized with other birders en route to other destinations. There are about 50 million birders in the U.S.
Irene said she hoped to add 100 species to her life list. During our Friday morning walk she added the Western Tanager, Tropical Kingbird, Verdin, Ladder-backed Woodpekcer and Gila Woodpecker.
Sharon West and her husband Richard traveled to the festival from Holmes, PA. “We only have the Ruby-throated Hummingbird,” she said. There are about 15 Hummingbird species viewable during the annual Tucsaon festival.
The beautiful Sonoran Desert has received more than an inch of rain in the past few days. Vegetation has responded and so, too, have the birds. Some local species double-clutch when the August monsoons arrive.
Actually, August is a great time for birding in Tucson. The temperatures are in the 80s, although a bit more humid than usual.
“The weather is very similar to what we have in North Carolina right now, so it’s no change for me,” said Michaela Burgess, of Hunterville, N.C. She is a sales representative for Opticron, a binocular manufacturer. Other manufacturers with displays at the festival include Zeiss, Swarovski, Celestron and Leica.
Bird festival superstars
The late-summer monsoons, seasonal afternoon showers, transform the Sonoran Desert into a greener shade of its typical beauty. Many local bird species wait for this “second spring” to sing and nest.
Some say southern Arizona offers the best late-summer birding in the U.S. and I will update this page with the evidence that proves it.
The arrival of fall migrants adds to the already spectacular variety of specialty birds to be seen during this festival.
Wildlife Festival Hummingbirds
Hummingbird numbers and diversity peak with as many as 15 species possible. This festival featuring the beautiful Sonoran Desert and Sky Islands offers birders a chance to see birds found nowhere else in the U.S.
There are terrific speakers, friendly local birders and conservationist, and an array of watchable wildlife experiences accessible from Tucson.
Ruddy Ground Dove
Wildlife Festival Sponsors and Partners
Other sponsors include Victor Emanuel Tours and the City of Tucson. Festival partners include Arizona Riverfront Inn, Visit Tucson, and Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.
According to a 2006 survey compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “Of all the wildlife in the United States, birds attracted the biggest following. Approximately 47.7 million people observed birds around the home and on trips in 2006.”