Pick of the Week

Desert Ecology

Now that we have turned the calendar to November, we can breathe a little easier knowing the long, hot summer is behind us. We can explore the outdoors and beauty of the area without breaking into a 10-second sweat. It's even OK to venture into the backyard again.

And when you do, you may find yourself rife with questions. What bird was that? What animal made that hole? Is desert mistletoe bad?

The naturalists at the Mason Audubon Center have answers.

From 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4, "Plant and Animal Inter-relationships" will be discussed at the center, located at 8751 N. Thornydale Road. Space is limited for the free event. Call 744-0004 for a reservation. From 8 to 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 8, and Saturday, Nov. 18, a free beginning bird-watching walk will be offered. No reservation needed. Bring water, a hat and sunscreen for all events. Field guides will be on sale at bird walks. Parking is located along Hardy Road. For more information, visit www.tucsonaudubon.org.

The Mason Audubon Center is named after Mrs. Orpha Snyder Mason. Mason owned the 20-acre property with her husband until 1998 when she donated it to the Tucson Audubon Society.

Mason moved to Tucson in 1934 from Illinois to live out a six-month life expectancy due to illness. She beat the odds and went on to study at the UA. She received a secondary teaching certificate and got a graduate degree in library sciences.

"She was a unique woman," says facility coordinator Lia Sansom. "She got married in her late 40s, because she said she was already independent. She and her husband moved to a piece of property out in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Mason built a 1,700-square-foot house on the property. They lived there 40 years. Mr. Mason passed when he was 76. Mrs. Mason continued to live there.

"In the 1980s, she got involved with the Audubon Society by hosting education programs on her property. She loved having kids there. She was dedicated to preserving the habitat. In her 90s, she decided to deed the property to the Tucson Audubon Society upon her death. She passed a week shy of her 106th birthday in 1999."

The Audubon Center is not open to the public other than when tours and walks are offered. Sansom says they would like to make improvements to the infrastructure so they can accommodate larger groups. Restrooms and handicapped parking spaces are in the works. The center does have a small classroom and a half-mile trail.

On the first Saturday of every month, volunteer naturalists lead a public tour, starting with a 30-minute classroom session. Participants learn about various topics relating to life in the Sonoran Desert. After the classroom, it's out to the trail to see examples of what was discussed.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, learn how plants and animals adapt to life in the desert; why mistletoe is good to have in your trees; why it's not necessarily bad to have critters munching on your plants; and more. Sansom explains that everything has its place, even dead plants.

"When a plant dies, it fosters a lot of life for the ecosystem. Insects break down the material. It provides shade for quail and lizards. With this climate, any sort of shade left for animals is ideal. ... A pile of mesquite leaves will be a source of warmth in the winter.

"We teach people how to deal with the wildlife in their yard--to have a section of natural materials to provide a food source for native animals, and to keep a portion for yourself. We have to find a balance between human desire and nature's hunger."

On Saturday, Dec. 2, the topic will be desert holes. "We will talk about who makes what hole, from spider holes to holes in saguaros, and how to identify them," explains Sansom. She says it's a popular class. You can even learn how to determine what animal made a hole in a saguaro by examining the shape. While a woodpecker might make the hole, other birds will live in the nest afterward.

For those who want to go on a bird-watching walk, they are offered on the second Wednesday and third Saturday of every month. "This is the second most popular bird-watching spot in the United States," says Sansom. (Southern Texas is first.) "It surpasses golf in tourism dollars."

Sansom says the naturalists at the Mason Center introduce people to the idea of bird watching. "We teach people how to use binoculars. There is more to that than what you think. ... You can judge a bird by its shape, size, call, flight pattern and type of habitat you are in. ... We talk about field marks--different features on the birds, such as bars on the wings, how many eye markings, if there is an eye ring or stripe over the eye."

Participants are also taught the ethics of bird watching. A line must be arranged so as not to scare birds. No dogs are allowed. Cameras are OK, as many bird watchers look to get a good shot--and maybe even identify what lives in their own backyard.

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