Canon R7 RF 100-500mm with 1.4x Extender at 700 mm, f/10, 1/1600 sec, ISO 640, +2/3 EV.
During the SW Wings Festival in August we took a day trip led by Homer Hansen to the Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David, Arizona. This post is focused on the Mississippi Kite, a raptor that breeds in that area each summer. The images here were captured on the monastery grounds where several of these kites were actively foraging for food.
The Mississippi Kite is in the Order Accipitriformes, Family Accipitridae, along with other kites, eagles and hawks. They are common in the Americas, but relatively rare in SE Arizona.
The birds are known for defending their nests from intruders, often divebombing picnickers and golfers in urban/suburban areas.
Mississippi Kites eat medium-sized and large insects, often caught on the fly, but will also eat frogs, toads, lizards, small box turtles, snakes, small birds, and mammals (Ref: Birds of the World).
Images series below: A kite sits atop a high snag, likely looking for food, crouches and takes off, showing his/her* wing span.
*The two sexes are very similar in appearance, overall length about 14 inches, with the female being larger and heavier. Among all raptors, the female is uniformly larger and heavier.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm with 1.4x Extender at 700 mm, f/10, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1000, +1 EV.
Mississippi Kites are sleek, gray/black raptors with long pointed dark wings and a squared offed tail. Their bill is on the small size with a hooked tip. (Ref: All About Birds).
During our morning at the monastery we saw several kites making sorties out from snags looking for insects.
In the image that follows we see the full wing-span of the bird, my guess between 3 to 4 feet. The wing tips are sharply tapered.
The birds are quite acrobatic in flight at lower altitude, but soar as well.
In the series below, I was able to catch one of the kites with a large insect firmly held in the left talon while the right leg was retracted.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm with 1.4x Extender at 420 mm, f/8, 1/2000 sec, ISO 500, +2/3 EV.
Mississippi Kites are known for eating their prey while on the wing.
Below, this kite looks down, as though searching the ground, but in fact, is getting ready to take a nibble of his breakfast.
Of note, another flying insect seems to be following the kite and his food.
Below, jaws open, he gets ready to take a bite.
Below, the flight continues, still trailed by another insect. Maybe it is safer to be behind a kite, rather than in front of it!
In these later shots we can see the wing markings better.
If all goes as planned, I am off to Panama in October, and I hope to see raptors migrating in numbers through Panama on their way to South America.
That's all for now!
More soon . . . .
Rufous Hummingbird, immature male, Mt. Lemmon, August 16, 2023.
In early August we traveled to Sierra Vista for the annual Southwest Wings nature and birding festival. We spent two days on separate parts of the San Pedro River, a day with Homer Hansen at the monastery in St. David, and a day devoted to hummingbirds led by Kristy Gallo. Kristy is an expert bird guide and one of the caretakers at Ash Canyon Bird Sanctuary in Hereford. Today's post hits the highlights of our hummer day with images captured at the sister canyons, Miller, Ash, and Ramsey. Many thanks to SW Wings and Kristy Gallo for a great day!
In this post we will see eight hummingbirds. Seven are considered rare or unusual sightings, for one of three reasons. They live in Mexico, and in the summer occasionally come north across the border, or they winter in Mexico and breed to the north including a small portion of Arizona, or they are migrating south from breeding grounds to the north.
Let's start with four that are considered largely Mexico residents but can be seen in Arizona in August: White-eared, Plain-capped Starthroat, Berylline, and Lucifer's. Note that only one of these four (Lucifer) has an entry in All About Birds, Cornell's free website that is so useful for information on birds of the U.S. However, Birds of the World, a subscription site has extensive information on all four, and has been my reference for this post.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 106mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 25,600, +2 EV.
On August 3rd we started shortly after 7 am in Miller Canyon at the Beatty's Guest Ranch. Here we spotted the White-eared Hummingbird, a resident of Mexico and Central America. The perched bird above is likely a male.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 363mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 10,000, +1 2/3 EV.
The White-eared is medium-small with a straight red bill, broad at the base and tipped black. The bird's name comes from its distinctive head pattern: black with a bold stripe behind the eye extending to the sides of the neck, looking like white "ears." In adults the sexes are similar in pattern, but females are duller. The perched birds above and below are likely females, or just victims of poor lighting!
The images here show good feather and bill detail.
Below, a White-eared coming in for a landing, with distinctive white stripe and black-tipped red bill.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 200mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 16,000, +2 1/2 EV.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/500, ISO 800, +2 1/2 EV.
Plain-capped Starthroats are large hummingbirds with long straight bills, residents of Mexico and Central America. The two sexes are similar with a white stripe below and behind the eye, a pink/orange/red throat depending on the light, a short tail, and a white stripe on the rump.
This bird was making the rounds, visiting the Ash Canyon sanctuary about every 90 minutes. He was arriving on the same branch above the feeders, then flying to feeder #3, then going to his next stop, only to visit again in a hour or so. I would love to know his daily schedule!
As soon as he arrived, the call went out to the group, and I was able to capture him on his favorite branch, then at the feeders.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 3200, +0 EV.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/800, ISO 3200, +0 EV.
Above, the Starthroat takes off from the feeder showing off the short tail and stripe on the rump and back.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/800, ISO 4000, +0 EV.
Above and below, the Starthroat hovering at feeder #3 during his short visit. In the frame below we can see that this is a popular bird for photographers. No, I was not shooting into a mirror!
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/1000, ISO 12800, +1 EV.
The Berylline lives in Mexico and parts of Central America in the foothills and highlands of oak and pine-oak forests, including forest edges, scrub, and clearings with trees. This bird was spotted as a "regular" in Ramsey Canyon just in front of the Nature Conservancy building.
In the series that follows this Berylline scratches his left face with his left leg. I love catching birds doing fun things, yawning and scratching being two of them. (And, yes, birds do yawn!).
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, f/7.1, 1/800, ISO 1250, +1/3 EV.
The Lucifer Hummingbird is a medium sized humming bird with a long decurved bill (curves down at the tip) and a bright gorget in the male, as shown above. The bird was named Lucifer in 1827 by William Swainson, likely referring to the latin word luciferous meaning bringer of light, and referring to the bright purple gorget.
A male at Ash Canyon on August 3, 2023, showing off his decurved bill and bright gorget. The gorget's color and intensity will vary as the bird rotates his head, changing the angle of incident light against the feathers.
The photographs that follow were captured in August of 2017, when the bird sanctuary was owned by Mary Jo Ballator. Mary Jo was convinced that the Lucifer would only come to glass single feeding stations, like the one shown below. It turns out they are not so picky and currently chow-down with the rest of the crowd at the common red plastic feeders. For more on the history of the Ash Canyon Bird Santuary, click this link.
Canon 7D MkII, Sigma 150-600mm at 283mm, f/5/6, 1/1250 sec, ISO 100, +1/3 EV.
In the image below, good detail of the back, and the forked tail, which is not always evident.
The next two species, the Violet-Crowned and the Broad-billed Hummingbird have ranges similar to the 4 rarer breeds above, but are present in larger numbers in Arizona.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 300mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 10000, +1 EV.
The Violet-crowned Hummingbird winters in western Mexico and breeds as far north as SE Arizona. It is a striking bird with white underparts, bluish-violet crown and red bill. In Arizona it nests in Arizona sycamore, limited to riparian zones. We see it here at the Beatty Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon, but it is a regular visitor to the Paton Center for Hummingbirds in Patagonia.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 238mm, f/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 20000, +3 EV.
Above, male Broad-billed Hummingbird in Miller Canyon, August 3, 2023.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm with 1.4 Extender at 700mm, f/10, 1/800, ISO 20000, +2/3 EV.
Above, a male Broad-billed at flowers in Portal, Arizona, August 26, 2022.
Below a female waiting for water in mid-town Tucson, June 20 2023.
For the photo geeks: The image below was shot at 5:40 pm with the setting sun over my left shoulder providing direct light on the bird. With exposure compensation the background went into darkness. Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 400mm, f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO 1250, -2 EV.
Canon R7, RF 100-500mm at 400mm, f/6.3, 1/1000, ISO 1250, -2 EV.
Below, a male in Madera Canyon, March 13, 2018. The male has a sight white spot behind the eye, but not the more dramatic eye stripe of the female, above. Also note the difference in color of the breast.
Canon 7D MkII, EF 100-400 with 1.4 Mk III extender, f/8, 1/320 sec, ISO 640, +1/3 EV.
Next, let's look at 2 species we see in SE Arizona during their migration, the Calliope and the Rufous.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm at 363 mm, f 7/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 6400, +2EV
The Calliope Hummingbird breeds in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and winters in southern Mexico. The male has a very distinctive gorget with a burst of magenta rays, seen above in Miller Canyon on August 3, 2023.
The female, shown below, has a buffy breast, a black crescent before the eye, and white at the upper base of the bill in front of the crescent. The female Calliope and female Broad-billed look much alike, but the Calliope is smaller in size, with markings as noted above, and a shorter bill than the Broad-billed. *
Calliopes are the smallest bird in the United States, weighting one-third the weight of the smallest warbler, about the weight of a ping-pong ball (ref: All About Birds).
*As always, my thanks to Jeff Babson for always being there to help me on bird ID. I was able to use this image and make the correct ID thanks to his sharp eye and detailed knowledge of the species.
The Calliope is a long range migrant, traveling about 5,000 miles each year from wintering to breeding grounds. Their route is similar to the Rufus (next bird, stay tuned!), going up the Pacific Coast in the spring, and returning along an inland route in the Rocky Mountains. These paths are likely dictated by the supplies of insects and flowers, more abundant on the Pacific Coast in the spring, and in the mountains in late summer.
Two range maps are shown below, the one on the left from data collected over many years, showing wintering and breeding grounds, and the one on the right from eBird showing sightings over the course of a year, which includes the migratory route.
It is truly remarkable that a bird this small travels so far, year after year.
Canon 7D Mk II, EF 100-400mm at 560mm, f/8, 1/250 sec., ISO 400, +1/3 EV.
Our last Hummer of Summer is the Rufous, another long range migrant, and a regular on Mt. Lemmon in mid to late summer.
Like the Calliope, the Rufous winters in southern Mexico, and travels up the Pacific Coast in the spring to breed in the Pacific Northwest including Canada. In the fall they return to Mexico via the Rocky Mountains, stopping off in SE Arizona along the way. The males return first, and can be spotted at feeders in Summerhaven in early July.
The images above and below are males, captured in Hereford at Battiste's Bed Breakfast and Birds in March of 2018. These males are likely stopping off to feed on their way north to breed.
The male Rufous is bright orange on the body and belly, with a orange gorget that changes color with the incident light, and a ruff of white at the neck and tail. Females and immature males look similar, greenish in color with rusty flanks, rusty patches on a green tail, and often a spot of orange on the throat.
In the first three images of a male in this section, above and below, we can see how the color of the gorget changes depending on the angle of the incident light.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm at 348 mm, f 8, 1/1000, ISO 2500, +2/3 EV.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm at 363 mm, f 7/7.1, 1/2000, ISO 6400, +2EV.
Above, a female or immature male hovering at the feeders in Summerhaven this summer, July 22, 2023.
Rufous are very aggressive at feeders, often harassing other hummingbirds to protect a feeder for themselves, even when not actively feeding. This behavior may have positive survival value for a long distant migrant who needs to protect food sources in many locations, coming and going.
Canon R7 RF 100-500mm at 100 mm, f 6.3, 1/4000, ISO 3200, -1/2EV
Image above, captured August 16, 2023, Summerhaven. This is likely an immature male given the incomplete gorget.
Note that all Rufous need to migrate, so even fledglings that are new to the game must travel 1,000's of miles south soon after birth.
Image above, a female or immature male at the feeder, August 20, 2023.
Below, a female or immature male coming in for a landing. This is one of my favorite images of the lot. Any day I will go with a picture that puts a smile on my face. This is one of them!
That's it for the Hummers of Summer.
Stay tuned for more, soon!
I want to thank our Summerhaven neighbors, Heidi and Art, for clueing me into the presence of a Red-shafted Northern Flicker nest close to their cabin in Carter Canyon, and for graciously allowing me to get some images from their deck on July 5th. Below are two iPhone 13 images of the tree in question near the eastern base of the canyon. In the image to the left you can see the dead tree, top recently lost in the 2023 February storm. On the right is a close up of the same tree with a hole well placed in a bark-less area. If you look really closely, you can see something in the hole, like a tiny seafarer peering out of a porthole!
Northern Flickers are woodpeckers in the order Piciformes, family Picidae, consisting of 239 species of woodpecker worldwide. All About Birds lists 23 species of woodpecker in the U.S., which includes what we name as woodpeckers, sapsuckers, and flickers. For more on species of woodpeckers covered on these pages see my post of June 11, 2022, Northwest Ohio, Spring Migration 2022, Part 2, Woodpeckers.
Northern Flickers are large woodpeckers with black and white scalloped plumage, a distinctive black bib, and a slightly decurved bill (bends down slightly at the tip). In the western U.S. they have red shafts on the flight feathers, in the east the shafts are yellow. In the west the males have a red whisker, in the east it is black with a red nape. Below, to the left is a male Red-Shafted Northern Flicker in Summerhaven in a late March 2020 snow, and to the right a male Yellow-Shafted Northern Flicker in flight over Cape May, N.J., October 2021.
Northern Flickers feed on insects, mostly ants and beetles from the ground, but like all woodpeckers, are cavity nesters. They excavate their nest holes in dead or diseased trees, but unlike many other woodpeckers, they may reuse their own cavities or use an empty cavity another species has excavated in previous years. The nests are usually 6 to 15 feet off the ground.
Food Run 1 of 3, Dad swoops in with a quick bite . . .
Canon R7 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm 1/400 sec., f/7.1, ISO 5000, +1EV.
As Heidi and Art can attest to, there are four nestlings in the hole, two males, and two females. On this day I saw one female, big, hungry and a tad aggressive, and two males. It is possible that the two females were playing tag team during my visit, showing only one face at a time, I cannot be sure!
In the frame above, a female chick looks out at us, and below she emerges looking for mom or dad, and some food. One of the males seems to be getting choked off at the edge!
Below, the female emerges and gets a portion of her left wing out the opening. Dad arrives with food. Note the red whisker on the adult male flicker, and the hint of red in his tail.
Below, the hungry female nestling gets fed. I got many shots of this feeding sequence, but I have edited them down for at least some degree of brevity! (My posts can get really long . . . .)
Canon R7 with RF 100-500mm at 324mm 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 506400, +1/3 EV.
Above, dad pauses after a quick delivery, and below, takes off looking for more food for the hungry kids!
Food Run 2, Mom arrives with lots of goodies . . .
Canon R7 with RF 100-500mm at 254mm 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 5000, +1/3 EV.
The nestlings greet mom with a raucous chorus that loosely translates into "feed me, feed me, feed me!" (I hear avian language translation is getting really advanced! Can't wait until is is part of Merlin!)
Above, the female chick gets fed quite a bit. It looked like mom had a lot of bugs in her crop and kept coming up with goodies for the offspring. Again, only one photo of dozens.
Below, mom takes a pause . . .
And, above and below, mom resumes feeding. Note that another male has appeared at the bottom of the hole, just barely getting his left foot over the edge.
Mom pauses again. The raucous chorus continues. She resumes feeding below.
Above, mom pauses, then makes her exit to the left.
Although I did not see the male chicks get fed during the 90 minutes I was set up, they looked pretty healthy and developing well. Birds of the World reports that female Flickers lay their eggs in sequence, perhaps a day apart. So, it is likely that they also hatch in sequence, with the eldest always being as bit bigger than the rest. If there is enough food for everyone, this may not be a problem. With some species in times of limited food, the youngest may not survive. Some owl species will abandon nests with eggs if the mated pair think there is not enough food for the adults and hatchlings.
Food Run 3, The Male Nestling queues up hoping to get fed.
Above one of the males gets in line before the food arrives. Below, he greets mom only to have one of the females nudge in from below . . . .
And, below, the female chick pushes her brother out of the way, effecting a body block with that pesky left wing. (Don't forget there is actually a hockey team called the Red Wings* . . . )
*In fact, there are three NHL teams named for birds, Penguins, Thrashers, and Mighty Ducks. The Red Wings are in fact named after a tire brand! Oh well . . .
Last frame, below, mom is about to leave, and the chant for lunch continues . . .
These nestlings should be fledging soon. Stay tuned!
For the photo geeks: The hole is on the west side of the tree, and in the morning it is in the shade, but in fact, well lighted with reflected light from the adjacent trees and understory, and from the side of the house to the west of the tree. As noon approached, the sun began to side-light the west side of the tree, technically providing more light but also sharp lines between light and shadow. In camera exposure compensation and post production processing became more difficult! Open shade with reflected light was much better, as I think this series of images shows.
That's all for now!
Regardless of where you are, stay cool and stay hydrated!
Red-breasted Nuthatch digging out a nest on Mt Lemmon, May 20, 2023.
Nuthatches pursue home improvement! Male Red-breasted carves a nest in a snag.
On May 20th, based on a tip from good birding friends, we ventured to the top Mt. Lemmon just a short distance from the Sky Center looking for a Red-breasted Nuthatch (RBNU) digging a nest. Not far from the road we found a male RBNU peeking out from a hole in a dead snag.
We watched as he repeatedly disappeared into the tree and emerged with a mouth full of wood chips, paused, and blew them into the air!
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm & RF1.4 extender at 700mm, 1/1000 sec., f/20, ISO 25600.
He would then turn around, head back into the hole and repeat the sequence tirelessly. That is to say, we tired of watching him before he tired of digging!
A little research revealed that RBNU nests are built by males and females, although a male on his own may build up to 4 nests, and show them to his mate, who then picks one. This is a male, and this nest is probably one of several he had under construction in May.
Birds are born to do 4 things, 2 on a daily basis (eat and don't get eaten) and 2 on an annual basis (make more birds, and molt). When the hormones kick in each spring, caution is thrown to the wind and otherwise foolhardy and inefficient behavior, like building 4 nests rather than one, can become the norm. Day to day in the off season, it would be; save energy, keep out of sight, and find food!
3 weeks later, surprise! Pygmy Nuthatches move in!
I returned to the same spot three weeks later fully expecting to see two RBNUs starting a family. Yes, there were two nuthatches there, but they were Pygmy Nuthatches (PYNUs)!
It appears that the RBNU male's mate did not like these digs (so to speak), and chose a home in a better neighborhood! That left a fully dug out nest unoccupied, which the PYNUs decided looked just fine! Successful breeding is a lot about timing and efficiency, so if you don't need to dig your own nest, all the better!
The 2 PYNUs were flying in and out of the nest while we were watching. Below, one of them (the two sexes look the same) is peeking his or her head out of the hole.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm & RF1.4 Ext. at 700mm, 1/1250 sec, f/10, ISO 3200.
Several minutes later a female (I know this is a female, you will see why in a minute) lands by the hole and peers in, maybe looking for the male?
"I know he is here somewhere, I just saw him . . . .
Yoo-hooo!! Where are you?
Come-on, time to make more birds! . . . "
Females will raise their tails and extend the wings as part of courtship behavior. Here she is trying to get the males attention.
For readers interested in all the details of a bird's life, including courtship and nesting, I highly recommend an annual subscription to the Cornell Lab's Birds of the World, which provides the research details that are otherwise summarized in All About Birds.
In the images that follow, she continues to look for the male in all directions. The hole to the nest is in the left upper corner of each frame.
She finally flys up next to the hole, continuing her courtship behavior. The male peeks out from the hole (he was hiding in the nest the whole time!) and flys down and to the right, images below.
Shortly after the I captured these images the pair flew off stage to the left, perhaps to get away from prying eyes and the avian paparazzi!
To be continued . . . . .
Hairy Woodpeckers start a family around the corner, and keep the food coming!
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm & RF1.4 Ext. at 420mm, 1/2000 sec, f/8, ISO 2500.
Around the corner from the PYNU nest we found a Hairy Woodpecker (HAWO) nest with mom and dad working diligently to feed an unseen set of nestlings inside. Above is a male with his characteristic flash of red on the top of the head with food in his mouth, keeping an eye out for predators.
Below is the female in a similar pose. It was late in the afternoon close to the Sky Center and the sun was lighting up this side of the tree.
One or the other would arrive with food about every 10 to 20 minutes.
Mom is leaning in with take-out.
In the series that follows, the female is taking off possibly with a fecal sac* in her bill.
*For more on fecal sacs, keep reading!
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm & RF1.4 Ext. at 480mm, 1/2000 sec, f/10, ISO 5000.
HAWOs live year round throughout the lower 48 states, Canada, and Alaska. They are pretty flexible in regard to habitat. They prefer mature woodlands with medium to large trees, but also live in parks and cemeteries. In Arizona they prefer coniferous forests (trees with cones) and have been observed to nest as high as 11,000 feet in New Mexico. In Arizona they will nest at altitude, then move to lower elevations with their fledglings.
HAWOs eat insects, especially larvae of bark beetles. When there is an infestation of bark beetle, HAWOs often appear in large numbers to eat the larvae and will nest in these areas with good success. It may be bark beetle larvae that they are shuttling in to their young. Lots of food is a predictor of breeding success. Reference: Birds of the World.
Special thanks to Marty and Jim Herde for their help finding these nest sites and for their updates on nesting progress. And, thanks to Jeff Babson for his help with male RBNU nest building behavior.
Some cavity nesters like their own small cabins: Western Bluebirds nest in boxes in Summerhaven, June 2022.
Above, a mama Western Bluebird (WEBL) is drying off after a bath likely in Sabino Creek (at its origin!) in June of 2022. She is likely the mama in the nest featured here, and taking a short rest from her domestic duties.
Female WEBLs are duller than the males, with gray-buff dominating with a pale orange wash on the breast, and blue tints on the wings and tail.
For years some local residents in Summerhaven have put out nest boxes for the Western Bluebirds (WEBL). WEBLs are cavity nesters, and if they cannot find a natural cavity, for example an unused Acorn Woodpecker hole, they won't breed at all. So, nest boxes increase the options and help to keep the generations coming. This is very important in an era when global climate change is impinging on habitat with loss of both food and nesting spots. My thanks to all who promote local bird populations by providing nest boxes.
Below, likely the same female as pictured in the lead is bringing a big bug to her hatchlings on Loma Linda Extension Road. During the summer WEBLs eat mainly insects, during the winter they switch to fruits and seeds. The protein in the insect diet (grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetles, ants, wasps, and pillbugs) is important for growing hatchlings.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec, f/8, ISO 2500.
As she lands she shows off her gray-buff body with blue tints on the wings and tail.
Always cautious of predators, she checks out the area before she leans into the nest.
She leans in to feed her chicks . . . and
Comes back up with a fecal sac, an avian version of a diaper! Some species as hatchlings make a membranous sac that coats the solid and liquid waste so mom and dad can take them out of the nest to keep the nest clean and odor free.
Below, she takes off with her bundle. For all the new moms and dads reading this post who are not thrilled with diaper duty, aren't you glad you have two hands to carry it to the trash?
While I observed, both the male and female made repeated runs to the nest box bringing in food, and often leaving with nest sacs. Note: as the birds grow older, they lose the ability to create the sacs.
Below is an image of the male, to prove that they were both there on duty!
Western Bluebirds (WEBLs) live along the U.S. Pacific coast and the Pacific NW as well as portions of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and central Mexico. In some areas they live year round, or are short range migrants. In SE Arizona we see them nesting on Mt Lemmon in the summer, and wintering in Tucson. In fact, in January of this year I posted on Sabino Canyon and Western Bluebirds, Winter 2023. That post shows wintering WEBLs in Sabino Canyon and near the Rillito River, as well as the images shown here which I have pulled out of the archive because hey, its June and everybody is nesting! So for the avid followers of this blog (both of you), yes, you have seen these pictures before!
That's it for our cavity nesters for now.
More coming soon.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 + RF 1.4x Extender, 700mm, f/10, 1/800 sec, ISO 2000, +1EV.
Birds are born to do 4 things: Eat, don't get eaten, make more birds, and molt!
Getting lunch before being lunch is a daily challenge whereas breeding successfully is a yearly activity, usually in the spring. Molting usually occurs each year after breeding is over, and for some species there is a second molt for breeding plumage.
When it comes to nesting, each species is a bit different. The species can build a nest in a tree or bush (American Robins), or on a house or platform (Cordilleran Flycatchers) , or on the ground (Red-faced Warblers). The one other mode that is fairly common is nesting in a cavity, perhaps a tree or cactus (Gila), maybe on a cliff (swallows), or in a nest box provided by you and I (Western Bluebird).
So, let's take a look at cavity nesters in our area. I am going to start with the Gila Woodpecker, one of our regulars in the Sonoran desert.
On May 6th I had the privilege and pleasure of leading a field trip for the 2023 NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) Summit, which met here in Tucson at the Westin La Paloma. The morning of the 6th, 8 photographers from all over the U.S., including Tucson, met at Agua Caliente County Park on East Roger Road at 6:30 am, to greet the rising sun and all the critters who were waking up to start the day right with food and water.
As we walked the northwest portions of the park we found a male Gila Woodpecker diving into Saguaro flowers and getting his face fully covered with pollen.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 454mm, f/10, 1/6400 sec, ISO 3200, +2/3 EV.
Richard Cachor Taylor lists 12 species of woodpecker in his field guide Birds of Southeastern Arizona: Lewis', Acorn, Ladder-backed, Gilded Flicker, "Red shafted" Northern Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker, Arizona, 4 Sapsuckers (Yellow-Bellied, Red-naped, Red-breasted, and Williamson's) and the Gila Woodpecker!
Gila's eat a large variety of insects, as well as berries, and cactus fruit. They will frequent hummingbird feeders. In the image below a male is diving for the nectar in the saguaro flower. Gila will feed their nestlings a mix of fruit and pollen (20%) and insects (80%). The male is distinguished from the female by sporting a red cap.
Below, our Gila comes ups for air with about half his head dusted with pollen.
Not far from the blooming saguaro we discovered a male Gila at the edge of a saguaro hole with his mouth full of insects. This could have been the same male diving for goodies at the saguaro flowers. Note that flowers are just beginning to bud at the top of the saguaro he is nesting in.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 508mm, f/10, 1/500 sec, ISO 200, 0EV.
Over the next few minutes we saw a pair of Gila, male and female, flying back and forth to the nest to provide food for the hatchlings inside.
Below the male emerges from the nest, checking out the local airspace to be sure it is clear before diving into flight. Remember, "eat but don't get eaten!" Truly, words to live by.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 700mm, f/10, 1/4000 sec, ISO 1000, 0EV.
Below he dives into the air. Diving down is an energy efficient way to become airborne, especially from a high perch.
This image shows his head, back, wing and tail markings well.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 700mm, f/10, 1/4000 sec, ISO 1000, 0EV.
After a few minutes he came back with more food for the family, and lands in a characteristic stall. The structure of the tail is evident here, with a mixture of feathers for flight and for supporting himself against vertical surfaces, a woodpecker characteristic.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 420mm, f/10, 1/6400 sec, ISO 2000, 1/3EV.
While the male held onto the edge of the hole, his mate emerged from the nest and took flight, as seen below. The male subsequently crawled into the nest to deliver his goodies. Note that the female does not bear the red cap of the male.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm + RF 1.4x Extender, 420mm, f/10, 1/6400 sec, ISO 2000, 1/3EV.
Gila Woodpeckers will commonly lay 3 to 5 eggs per clutch, with 1 or 2 broods a year. The eggs incubate from 13 to 14 days, and nestlings fledge at about 4 weeks of age. (Reference: All About Birds, and Birds of the World).
Although most Gila Woodpeckers nest in Saguaro Cactus, they will nest in cottonwoods, willows, oaks and paloverde. Below we see a male peeking out of a cavity in a eucalyptus tree in front of the ranch house at Agua Caliente Park. Gila Woodpeckers will often reuse nests in subsequent years.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 + RF 1.4x Extender, 700mm, f/10, 1/800 sec, ISO 2000, +1EV.
That's it for Gila Woodpeckers as they fulfill their annual duty to "make more birds!"
More soon on another cavity nester, the Hairy Woodpecker, feeding the brood on the top of Mt Lemmon!
Late April North of the Chiricahua's: We were waiting for the afternoon stagecoach and spotted a Woodpecker and a Hawk in the Pecan Groves . . .
No stage coaches on April 21st, but we did find a beautiful Cottonwood tree in a rancher's front yard, with a small pecan grove beside it. The woodpecker had been reported to be moving back and forth between the trees. . .
A Red-headed Woodpecker in Arizona?
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm lens with 1.4x extender at 700mm. 1/2000 sec., f/10, ISO 2500, +1 EV. Post-production processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Topaz DeNoise AI.
Yes, we found him, with the help of another avid birder (also with a long lens!). The image above is one of my better ones, with the male perched high in the cottonwood. Below he is nestled a bit lower in the leaves.
Red-headed Woodpeckers have crimson heads and snow-white bodies, with half-white and half black wings. They are stunning in flight. For food they gather acorns and beech nuts, which they often hide for later use like Acorn Woodpeckers do. The Red-headed is adept at catching insects in the air.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm lens with 1.4x extender at 700mm. 1/400 sec., f/10, ISO 320, +2/3 EV.
Older range maps on the All About Birds website show the Red-headed Woodpecker wintering in the southeast U.S. and breeding in the northern mid-west, east of the Rockies. However, current eBird maps show expansion of the population further west, with sightings in Arizona and California. Below is a current eBird map of the U.S. You can see a sprinkling of violet dots west of the Rockies.
The detailed eBird map below shows the sightings just south of San Simon where we were on the 21st. Red-headed Woodpeckers have been sighted there since January. It is unclear if this bird or birds have gone astray, or are staying in the area to nest. April is still in the migration time block, so they may be wintering in Arizona and are late to leave for the north. We'll see! Maybe they like eating pecans! (Reference: eBird)
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm lens with 1.4x extender at 700mm. 1/1600 sec., f/10, ISO 2000, +1 EV.
The Swainson's Hawk is in the Order Accipitriformes with all the diurnal raptors, and in the Family Accipitridae with other hawks, eagles and kites. Within this family there is the genus Buteo, which contains soaring species including the Swainson's Hawk, as well as the Gray, Red-shouldered, Broad-winged, Short-tailed, Zone-tailed, Rough-legged, Ferruginous, and Red-tailed Hawks. The Buteo's are known for their large, broad wings and the ability to soar on thermals.
Swainson's Hawks are long-distance migrants, breeding in western North America from Mexico to Alaska, and migrating each fall in huge numbers 6,000 miles south through Mexico and Central America all the way down to Argentina where they winter.
Swainson's Hawks are considered classics of the open country of the Great Plains and West, soaring on thermals or perched on fence posts. During breeding they feed their young the "three r's" of the buteo diet: rodents, rabbits, and reptiles. However, out of breeding season they eat insects, especially grasshoppers and dragonflies.
We spotted this Swainson's sitting high in the Cottonwood Tree, then taking off, appearing to catch insects in mid-air.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm lens with 1.4x extender at 700mm. 1/5000 sec., f/10, ISO 3200, +1 2/3 EV.
All of these images were captured over the adjacent fields. Swainson's Hawks come in two morphs, light and dark. The birds we caught are light morph. They have dark necks, white throats, white bodies and portions of the ventral wings, with a dark trailing edge. These markings are evident in the different views that follow. Swainson's are larger than Cooper's Hawks and smaller than Ferruginous Hawks.
In the image above the tail is gathered together for efficient flight, and below fanned out for lift and maneuverability at slower speed.
There were at least 2 Swainson's Hawks close to us on Friday afternoon. Note that the sexes look alike except for weight, the female being heavier. However, I can say with certainty that the pair below have just mated, with the female being on the right.
Back in the Cottonwood we spotted the large nest shown below, which I suspect is theirs. The female is likely carrying eggs, and now is the right time to fertilize them. Clutch size is 1-5 eggs with an incubation period of 34-35 days.
Just below the nest is a Bullock's Oriole. Although Swainson's Hawks do eat birds during breeding season, this oriole seems to feel safe right under the nest.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm lens with 1.4x extender at 700mm. 1/8000 sec., f/10, ISO 16,000, +1 EV.
For contrast and completeness I have included in the frame below an image of a dark morph Swainson's Hawk from the raptor free flight show at the High Desert Museum in Bend Oregon July 1, 2016. Same species as the light morph but darker coloration of the body and underwings.
Canon EOS 7D Mk II with EF 24-105mm at 90mm, 1/2000 sec., f/4.0, ISO 1250.
We missed the stagecoach (by 163 years) but got to see some neat birds. I thank them for letting us into their lives this sunny day in April!
That's all for now! More from Portal soon.
Bath time for a male Wilson's Warbler, February 18, 2023, Sweetwater Wetlands.
Sweetwater Wetlands is one of Tucson's birding hotspots. Last fall, following a scheduled controlled burn of the wetlands last the ponds were dry but are now back up to their pre-burn levels. And, spring has arrived. The trees are in leaf, and birds are actively pairing up and building nests. Let's "see what shaking" at the wetlands!
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 661 mm, f/9.0, 1/2000 sec., ISO 32,000, +1EV.
Wilson's Snipe is a medium-sized pudgy shorebird in the Order Charadriiformes, Family Scolopacidae, Sandpipers and Allies. There are 34 members in this family in North America including Sandpipers, Godwit's, Turnstones, the Dunlin, and the close look-alike, the American Woodcock. Many shorebirds live well away from the shore, including the Wilson's Snipe, which breeds across the northern U.S. and Canada and winters in the southern U.S., Mexico, Central and South America. If you were taken in by a "snipe hunt" at summer camp, be assured that they really do exist!
Wilson's Snipes, like American Woodcocks, are tough to spot due to their coloration that blends right into the habitat. The bird shown here has been hanging out at the wetlands this winter just west of the restrooms close to the entrance. Wilson's Snipes feed mainly on insect larvae, as well as mature insects and snails, crustaceans, and worms. They have a long flexible bill that allows them to probe for food in wet soil and swallow small prey without having to pull their bills out of the mud.
In the image above we can see the markings on the head. Below our subject takes a rest from his/her morning breakfast. We can see how well the bird's markings and coloration works as camouflage. The flanks of the bird in the image below almost looks like eyes of a larger animal, a useful ruse to discourage predators.
For the photo geeks: This location at the wetlands is a tough spot for photos. Most of the activity is in the morning when the sun is low and to the left of the frame. The area is heavily shaded, making it great cover for the birds, but not ideal for photography. I shot these frames at 1/2000 sec to capture motion in the bathing birds, which gave me ISO's in the 30,000 range. And, contrast was limited. Post production processing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Topaz DeNoise AI, which really saves photos like these.
For those readers who follow this blog, you may recall the American Woodcock I caught on camera in NW Ohio last spring, NW Ohio Spring Migration 2022, Part 4: Not all birds migrate! I am including a photo from that post here to show the striking similarity to the Wilson's Snipe.
American Woodcock, Oak Openings, Toledo, Ohio, May 2022.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 700 mm, f/10.0, 1/2000 sec., ISO 25,600, +2/3EV.
In almost the same spot as the Wilson's Snipe I spotted this Wilson's Warbler taking his morning bath. Wilson's Warblers winter in Mexico and Central America and breed in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, with Arizona being in their migration territory. The statistics from eBird tend to back this up. The bird we see here is likely working his way north, and has stopped for food and a bath. The males have a very distinctive black cap on a yellow body, clearly seen here.
Below, he gets ready to take the plunge!
This looks like fun, I hope the birds enjoy it!
Bathing and preening are a very important ritual for all birds. In the absence of water, certain breeds, such as the Gambel's Quail, will take "dirt baths" to help absorb dirt, oil, and parasites, which can then be removed with preening.
Below, our Wilson's Warbler begins to look more like Ernie's Rubber Duckie, with a black cap of course!
Two "Wilson's" bathing in the same pond? That raises the question . . . .
Who was Wilson?
With the help of subscribers he published the nine-volume American Ornithology (1808-1814). Wilson's illustrations of birds in poses were an inspiration for James Audubon and other illustrators and naturalists.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 508 mm, f/9.0, 1/2000 sec., ISO 2000, +2/3 EV.
Next in line for a bath was an Orange-crowned Warbler, shown here in drier circumstances hunting for insects under the leaves on February 24th.
Orange-crowned Warblers are yellow-olive overall with a faint eye-line, a pointy bill and in adults, a faint orangish crown patch that is usually concealed and difficult to see. They winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico, breeding in Canada and regions of the western U.S. , including Arizona. They forage for insects in the understory, often under leaves, which we see here.
In the photo above, an Orange-crowned Warbler opens his right wing, likely an attempt to "startle" insects to get them to move, making them easy prey. This behavior is used as a standard in the Painted Redstart, who "startles" its prey regularly.
Below, on February 20th an Orange Crowned Warbler was bathing in the same spot as the Wilson's Warbler shown earlier. As noted above, the orange crown is very hard to see in the wild, unless the bird is agitated or upset, or perhaps taking a bath! Below we have three shots following his bath showing the raised crown with a definite orange color.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 420 mm, f/9.0, 1/5000 sec., ISO 40,000, +2/3 EV.
For the photo geeks: This was shot in very low light, with high shutter speed to catch the motion of bathing, with resulting ISO of 40,000! The R6 will go as high as 102,000. Topaz DeNoise AI saved these images!
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 420 mm, f/8.0, 1/2500 sec., ISO 8000, +1 1/3 EV.
The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a small songbird in the Family Regulidae, Kinglets, along with the Golden-crowned Kinglet. They winter in the southern U.S. and Mexico and breed in the northwest U.S. and throughout Canada and Alaska. This kinglet is plain grey with a white eyeing and white wing bar, yellow on the flight feathers and a ruby-red crown that is seen only intermittently. We get a hint of the crown in the images above and below.
Rudy-crowned Kinglets move very fast in the understory looking for insects on branches and leaves. They are fun to watch, but tough to photograph. They forage as though they had too much coffee!
In the image below, our subject looks up for insects under the leaves. I find that Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a certain cute factor!
Rudy-crowned Kinglets have clutches of up to 12 eggs in one nest, and can live as long as 8 years. (Ref: All About Birds)
Canon 7D Mk II, EF 100-400 mm II at 400 mm, f/5.6 ISO 400, +1/3 EV.
Verdins are small songbirds that live year round in the southwest U.S. including Texas, as well as a major part of adjoining Mexico. They favor desert scrub or chaparral with thorny trees and are prodigious nest builders. They are the only North American member of the Old World family Remizidae. They enjoy a wide diet consisting of insects, spiders, fruit, nectar, and some plants.
The image above was captured at Sweetwater Wetlands in February of 2020. Verdins are often feeding on insects on the cattails that are common near the ponds.
Below we see construction of a nest on the east side of the wetlands on March 13th.
Canon R6, RF 100-500 mm with 1.4x Ext. at 420 mm, f/13, 1/2000 sec., ISO 4000, +1 EV.
Verdins are prolific year round nest builders, with pairs building as many as 12 nests a year. For breeding the nest is round with an entrance at the bottom or side. The male does much of the outer shell, the female does most of the lining. In addition to their breeding nest, they will build multiple roosting nests often in close proximity to each other. Juveniles have been recorded building their own nests in as little as 90 days after fledging. (Ref: Birds of the World).
The nest shown above the below was at the eastern end of the wetlands, partially obscured by branches, accounting for some the loss of image quality. Note that males and females are similar in appearance and work together on the nest.
In the image below one of the pair is hefting a sizable twig for the shell, perhaps the male.
The images above and below are from August of 2016 at Agua Caliente Park. I include them here to show nest building behavior as well as the side entrance into the ball shaped nest.
The image below is from Sweetwater Wetlands in October of 2019, and is likely a roosting nest built during the winter.
Verdins are nest collectors. Since they do not migrate, this may be one way to define their territory.
That's all for now! Stay tuned for more spring activity.
American Avocets in breeding plumage. Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/400 sec., f/7.1, ISO 2000, +1 EV.
The American Southwest is experiencing protracted drought and difficult decisions about water use, now and into the future. However, we do get rain! We enjoy a summer monsoon season with (we hope) frequent afternoon thunder storms, as well as winter storms that come into Arizona from California and occasionally from Mexico. The storms that have recently drenched California and the Sierra Nevada have made their way inland, and provided much needed rain to the desert valleys, and lots of snow in the Catalinas.
On February 21st the Camera Club Tucson's Trek Special Interest Group (Trek SIG) traveled to the Gilbert Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch, in the city of Gilbert, just east of Phoenix. A forecast of rainy weather did not deter the 6 hearty souls, myself included, who got up before sunrise to arrive at the preserve at 8 am.
We had about an hour of drizzly overcast, and were able to visit with the local birds on and off of the ponds as they got breakfast. Fortunately we had almost no wind.
Here are 4 species that characterized the morning. Let's start with the Neotropic Cormorant.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 428mm, 1/400 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, +1 EV.
The preserve has 7 ponds and a small lake, in addition to a library on the grounds, picnic ramadas and rest rooms. The ponds are part of an extensive water reclamation process for all the waste water from Gilbert, and provide a wonderful riparian environment for local and migrating birds, especially water birds, be they waders, dabblers or divers.
Neotropic Cormorants are water birds in the Order Suliformes, Family Phalacrocoracidae, along with other cormorants. They are non-migratory, living from the southern U.S. further south into Mexico and all of South America. Based on my quick survey of range maps, including All About Birds and eBird, the species seems to be moving its range further north over time.
The bird above was perched and resting shortly before 9 am on one of the eastern ponds. In the image below, the same bird has turned facing the camera with two compatriots to the right in the photo.
Cormorants are divers and excellent underwater swimmers eating mostly fish and shrimp, as well as frogs and insect larvae. Their swimming is enabled by feathers that can get wet, losing their natural buoyancy. Floating in the water the birds sit low, at times looking like submarines, partially submerged with the head and neck being the periscope. When not in the water they are often seen drying their wings in the wind. Wet cormorants are too heavy to fly, and need to dry out before they take to the air.
The paler breasts seen on these birds may indicate that they are juveniles.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 428mm, 1/400 sec., f/6.3, ISO 1600, +1 EV.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 6400, +1 2/3 EV.
Black-necked Stilts are fun birds to watch, in the water or in the air. They are wading birds in the same family as Avocets. They like shallow wetlands, eating aquatic invertebrates, small crustaceans, amphibians, snails, and tiny fish. Their range extends over North American along rivers and riparian areas. Note that their range as reported in eBird is much more extensive than the range shown in All About Birds. This bird could be wintering in Arizona, or may be breeding here as well.
If you look closely in the photo above you can see rain drops beading on the bird's back. Unlike the cormorant, the stilt's feathers are quite water resistant, the result of natural oils the bird produces and structural properties of the feathers.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 4000, +1 2/3 EV.
In the image below a Black-necked Stilt is sharing the buffet with an American Coot. Coots are plump water birds in the same family as Rails and Gallinules. Coots are common on waterways throughout North America and seem to get along well with other water birds, regardless of species.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 4000, +1 2/3 EV.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/400 sec., f/7.1, ISO 4000, +0 EV.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are regulars at the preserve, and always seem to be hiding in the dense brush adjacent to the water. Like Mr. Wilson on the 90's sitcom Home Improvement, this bird makes it hard to see his whole face! Above, a heron is peaking out between the branches. Below we get a good view of the bird, but dang if a few twigs don't cover the face!
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/2500 sec., f/9, ISO 40,000, +2/3 EV.
Black-crowned Night-Herons are most active at night and at dusk foraging in the wetlands. They are social birds, breeding in colonies of stick nests usually built over water. These birds are likely breeding at the preserve. Black-crowned Night-Herons are the most widespread heron in the world.
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/400 sec., f/7.1, ISO 2000, +1 EV.
American Avocets are long-legged waders in the same family as Black-necked Stilts. They are black and white/grey during the winter, but in breeding season sport the rusty head and neck we see here. They forage for aquatic invertebrates by swishing their slender upturned bill side to side in the water, as we see below. These birds are likely in migration; they typically nest on islands or dikes, placing the nest on the ground with little or no surrounding vegetation.
These images were captured shortly after 9 am. It is clearly raining, a trend that continued . . . . .
Canon R6 with RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 1600, +1 2/3 EV.
By about 10 am the drizzles had turned to rain. Our cameras were under our coats or stuffed in plastic bags. We decided that it was too wet for photos, and the birds seemed to agree. Their morning breakfast had turned into a nap, with the ducks tucked up in balls and floating on the ponds, and everyone else hunkered down in the understory.
We left for a coffee spot nearby to warm up before the ride home.
An aside: In late December my wife and I took delivery of a new Subaru Solterra, Subaru's first EV manufactured along with Toyota. After the early morning drive to Gilbert, the car needed a juice boost, so we headed to a Super Walmart in the San Tan Village where I found an Electrify America Level III charger. A friend and I grabbed lunch while the car charged, and we got home! A great car for birding SE Arizona, but you do need to know where the chargers are! More on EVs and birding in coming posts!
That's all for now! Our winter weather in SE Arizona continues as of this post. Rain in the valley, snow in the mountains, with more expected March 1st.
Canon R6, EF 24-105mm at 73mm, 1/640 sec., f/11, ISO 200, -1/3 EV, panoramic.
The photograph at the top of the post was captured on December 13, 2022 the morning after a winter storm system came through bringing much needed rain. I was standing just north of the visitor center on the trail east of the tram road, facing the Rincon mountains. If you look carefully you can see snow on the top of Mica Mountain.
Sabino Canyon is a great place for birds in the winter, due in large part to the ready access to water and the presence of food, including Mistletoe berries growing on Mesquite Trees. Many birds eat fruit during the winter and depend on berries. Although Mistletoe is considered a parasitic plant, in the wild it grows abundantly and provides much needed food for birds.
The image below is looking south toward the visitor center. The dense understory provides insects and berries for our avian friends, including the Western Bluebird.
Canon R6, EF 24-105mm at 24mm, 1/640 sec., f/11, ISO 160, -1 EV.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/2000 sec., f/11, ISO 800, +2/3 EV.
On December 14, 2022, a small block of Western Bluebirds, males and females, were working the understory across the desert floor looking for food. In the photograph above, a male takes a break and sits in the sun, likely looking for both food and predators. He wants to get lunch before he is lunch . . . .
Below another male on another day, December 6, 2022, shortly after 2 pm south and west of Sabino Canyon, close to the Rillito River. He was one of a small flock, working the understory for food.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm with 1.4x Extender at 480mm, 1/800 sec., f/10, ISO 5000, +1 EV.
The Western Bluebird is in the Order Passiformes (songbirds) in the Family Turdidae, Thrushes and Allies. Other species in this family include: Thrushes (Varied, Veery, Gray-cheeked, Bicknell's, Swainson's, Wood, and Hermit), Townsend's Solitaire, and the American Robin. (Ref: All About Birds, Bird Guide). Males are blue above with a rusty throat and chest. The amount of blue in the bird will depend on the light. Females are grayish above with bluish wings and tail, and a subdued orange-brown breast (Ref: All About Birds).
Below, a male on the left, and a female on the right, also December 6, 2022 near the Rillito. The birds this day were busily gathering berries and insects from trees and bushes in the low understory. I feel fortunate to have captured this shot with the male and female together, holding still!
In the image below, a female Western Bluebird grabs a Mistletoe berry from a Mesquite tree in Sabino Canyon, just north of the visitor center, December 14, 2022.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1000 sec., f/7.1, ISO 2000, +2/3 EV.
Below, possibly the same female is perched for a photoshoot. The blue coloration on the wings and tail is evident, with the gray back.
In the series below a female is scarfing down berries, December 6, 2022, just south of the Rillito. Birds have tongues, but no teeth. Food is either broken up or torn by action of the bill, or swallowed whole, as in this case. Not all birds can digest fruit. Being able to do so is a big advantage, especially in winter when insects are scarcer, and helps the species extend its range.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm with 1.4x Extender at 700mm, 1/800 sec., f/10, ISO 12,800, +1 2/3 EV.
Gulp! Down it goes!
Breeding season in Summerhaven, 2022 . . . . .
The images I captured in December reminded me of shots I captured last June which I never had a chance to process or post (chalk it up to sloth!). For years local residents in Summerhaven have put out nest boxes for the Western Bluebirds. Western Bluebirds are cavity nesters, and if they cannot find a natural cavity, for example an unused Acorn Woodpecker hole, they won't breed at all. So, nest boxes increase the options and helps to keep the generations coming. This is very important in an era when global climate change is impinging on habitat with loss of both food and nesting spots.
Below, a mama Western Bluebird is likely drying off after a bath in Sabino Creek (at its origin!) and taking a short rest from her domestic duties. June 19, 2022, Loma Linda Extension Road.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1600 sec., f/8, ISO 5000, +1/3 EV.
Below likely the same female is at work flying in with lunch for the kids. Big bugs, yum! In the second shot we can see blue on the wings and tail.
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm at 500mm, 1/1600 sec., f/8, ISO 2500, +1/3 EV.
Below, she has delivered lunch and keeps her eye out for predators. Note that Common Ravens and Steller's Jays are aggressive predators on Mt. Lemmon during breeding season, raiding nests for eggs or young hatchlings.
In the image above, the female reaches into the nest and then below comes out with a fecal sac. In some species, including the Western Bluebird, the hatchlings will enclose fecal contents, including residual food and urates (urine), in a clear membrane creating a sac which the parents can grab and dispose of in a distant location. This keeps the nest clean and free of odors that might attract predators.
Below, mom takes off with the sac. Sometimes an adult will eat the sac rather than dispose of it; when the hatchlings are very young their digestive tracts are not very efficient leaving significant nutrients behind, making the sac a valuable source of food for the parent.
Below, a male sits at the nest, just to show the world that dad's are involved too! Sometime other adult pairs or immatures will serve as helpers at a nest.
Western Bluebirds will have 2-8 eggs per clutch, and up to three broods per season.
Back to Sabino Canyon . . . .
Canon R6, RF 100-500mm with 1.4 Ext., at 454mm, 1/640 sec., f/10, ISO 2500, 0 EV.
Late in the afternoon of December 14th I was walking back to the visitor center just to the east of the tram road when I spotted two
In closing . . .
No post on Sabino Canyon would be complete without at least one image of running water. Below is an iPhone 13 photo captured on December 14th at the creek as it runs south from the Bear Canyon tram road. Fall color is in evidence on the banks.
Apple iPhone 13 Pro. 5.7 mm, f/1.5, 1/8700 sec., ISO 50.
Sabino Canyon is great anytime of year, but the winters are exceptional, so if you have not gone there recently there is still time!
That's all for now! More coming soon, stay tuned!
January 29, 2023: Special thanks to Jeff Babson for his help in verifying the species for some of the images.
A lighting strike at Agua Caliente Park at Soldier Trail and Roger Road in September started a wildfire that burned most of the palm trees adjacent to the stream that feeds the eastern lake. Fortunately Rural Metro was able to get the fire out and prevent further spread to the rest of the park. No structures were lost.
The County did clean-up and repair in October and November. The park reopened the Monday after Thanksgiving, November 28th. We were there bright and early to celebrate and say Hi! to the birds!
The images above and below (iPhone 13) show the area that burned, now fenced off until the rest of the repair and restoration can be completed. Most of the trees look viable, although charred. The tops are now green! There must be food up there, because the Gila Woodpeckers are active in the very top branches.
A few charred palm leaves don't discourage the Gila Woodpeckers
Canon R6 RF 100-500mm with 1.4 Extender, 700 mm, 1/2000, f/10, ISO 3200, +0 EV.
Images above and below, Gila Woodpeckers perched among the charred branches, with new green growth above.
In the image above, a male Gila Woodpecker on a slightly toasted branch. Below detail of the new growth at the top of a tree that is otherwise charred. Hopefully most of the remaining trees will survive.
The ponds are intact, and full of birds:
The rest of the park looks untouched. The eastern pond adjacent to the ranch house looks great, and was home to a number of birds this morning.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About