Steller's Jays are corvids living in evergreen forests of western North America, all the way from Alaska south into Mexico and Central America. They are regulars up on Mt. Lemmon where they forage for just about everything including insects, seeds, berries, as well as small animals, other bird's eggs, and even nestlings. Oh, and don't forget garbage, unguarded picnic items and feeder fare, including peanuts.
The images above and below were captured in Summerhaven in September 2017. The dramatic head markings and wing coloration do make them "stellar", however they are in fact named after Georg Steller, a German naturalist on a Russian explorer's ship, who discovered them in Alaska in 1741. He also discovered the Steller's Sea Lion and Steller's Sea-Eagle. For more details, see the Cornell website.
Speaking of peanuts, Steller's Jays love them! Below is an image captured in July 2018 of a jay grabbing a peanut in the shell off of our deck railing.
I had my Canon 7D II with a Canon 100-400 mm IS II on a tripod and gimbal mount on the deck that morning, scanning for bird activity. Shortly after capturing the shot above, I noticed that the jay was rummaging around two stories below and 90 degrees to my left in pine needles. I swivelled over and hit the shutter, not being sure what I was capturing. I all honesty, it was not until I got the images on the computer in Lightroom that I realized what this Jay was up to.
Below we see the Steller's Jay with his peanut on top of the pine needles.
He looks around, finds a spot he likes, and shoves the peanut into the ground. The monsoon was well underway, so the underlying soil was damp and soft.
With the peanut tucked away, he looks up to see if anyone is watching, then looks back down to his buried treasure, and forcibly shoves his bill down the hole. Note that at 1/500 second there was head blur on the image although his legs were sharp.
Having driven his peanut deeper, he looks up, then around to his right, and back toward what looks like a rock.
Yup, it's a rock. He grabs it with his bill, turns back to the left and carefully places it on top of the hole, and sits back to admire his work. This rock was not small, especially for a bird.
Having secured his food, he hops to an adjacent rock, and looks for his next find.
Jays are members of the corvid family, well known for their smarts. Jays in particular are known for their ability to store food items in various locations, and remember what they stored and where they stored them, They will go back for perishable items soon, and leave the non-perishables for a future meal. This demonstrates Episodic Memory, the ability to recall specific past events including what happened where and when.
For more on "bird brains" and how advanced they are, see the wonderful book by Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds.
That's all for now!
Morning, South Fork, Cave Creek Canyon
This is the second of two posts on our trip to Cave Creek Canyon in Portal Arizona in May of 2016. For the first post dated June 3rd follow this link. [Updated August 28, 2018].
This second post includes birds at Dave Jasper's feeders, Cave Creek Ranch, and the Rodriguez feeders, see map below. Next we will see birds spotted on Monday the 7th, during our trip up the mountain to Onion Saddle and Rustler Park. Finally finally some shots from South Fork.
The Red Crossbill is a medium sized finch with a bill that is criss-crossed. They are common throughout northern Canada, the Pacific Northwest, and the Rocky Mountains, and south through eastern Arizona and into Mexico and to Central America. The range map seems to leave Tucson just to the west. However, they are in the Chiricahua's. They travel in flocks, and use their crossed bill to extract seeds from conifer's, especially spruce, pine, Douglas-fir, and hemlock. This likely explains their distribution, favoring contiguous areas of forest.
The males are typically described as all red, with black wings without wing bars. The birds above and below are likely males, perhaps juveniles in their first year, with mixed coloration. Some of the images in the Macaulay Library come close to what we see here.
All images here were taken at the feeders in Dave Jasper's back yard.
Below, likely a female.
Below, likely a female in the foreground, next to a male, doing their best to drink water.
As you can see below, the crossed bill makes hydration a challenge. Water regularly flows out as they bring their heads up. They seem to raise their heads to get what water they can down the hatch!
Below a trio doing their best at the watering hole. Likely two females on the left, a male on the right.
Lewis's Woodpecker, is a woodpecker in name only who rarely pecks at trees, but rather catches flies in midair or grabs insects off of tree surfaces. It was initially described by Alexander Wilson in 1811 and named after Meriwether Lewis who first saw the bird in 1805 while on his famous expedition with William Clark.
Lewis's Woodpeckers favor woodlands near streams, and like to breed in Ponderosa forests and burned out woodlands. Their range includes Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and south for winter as far as California, Arizona and New Mexico. Our guide PD Hulce thought that this bird was a winter straggler whose bags were packed and ready to migrate when we spotted him not far from Cave Creek Ranch.
My first sighting of Lewis's Woodpecker was in burned out areas of Shevlin Park outside of Bend Oregon, where they were nesting in dead trees.
The images here were all captured next to the dirt driveway to Cave Creek Ranch. Some of the better images above and below were actually captured through the side window of the van! Our subject seems to be looking for bugs from a high perch, characteristic behavior for the species.
Below, views as our subject scans for insects toward the north.
We stopped at Cave Creek Ranch to watch their feeders, and discovered this Band-tailed Pigeon. The Band-tailed Pigeon is a relative of the Rock Pigeon, common in two distinct areas, wet forests of the Pacific Coast, and dry forests of the Southwest, including Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas. Their year round range extends south into Mexico and Central America. They typically stay in flocks, although this one seemed to be alone. Here we see the characteristic white crescent on the neck and the black-tipped yellow bill.
Below a blurry image of our subject taking off. Here we see the hefty build of the bird (the Cornell site describes them as "chunky") and yellow feet.
Western Tanagers are songbirds in the Cardinalidae family, along with other Tanagers, Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Grosbeaks and Buntings. They live in open woods throughout the west, especially among evergreens, but may stay hidden in the canopy. They like fresh fruit and water, which likely attracted these birds to the Rodriguez feeders in Portal, where these images were captured.
The two pictures below were captured near the feeders at Cave Creek Ranch on a prior trip in May 2016.
The Red-faced Warbler above was captured on May 7th just west of Onion Saddle at 6780 feet. These distinctive birds winter in central America and Mexico, and breed at higher elevations in Mexico and as far north as eastern Arizona and western New Mexico. They nest on the ground and forage for food in bushes close to the ground. They are tough to see and tougher to photograph, moving very fast and staying hidden in the foliage. This was the only reasonable image from this trip, However, below are images from Mt. Lemmon on Sabino Creek toward Marshall Gulch at 7616 feet, on June 17, 2017. See this link to a prior post with more pictures.
It is interesting that really cute birds can look very ominous when we spot them head on, as in the photograph below.
Western Bluebirds are year round residents of SE Arizona. They commonly sit on low branches and swoop down to the ground to catch insects. Their range extends from southern Mexico to Canada. The population in SE Arizona may be a mix of full time residents, and during winter, "snowbirds" from the north. The images above and below were captured at Rustler Park at 8287 feet.
The two images below were captured in Tucson at Agua Caliente Park in March of 2017, a male above and a female below.
Local Arizona populations likely summer in the mountains, and fly downslope for the winter.
They nest in holes in trees, or in nest boxes set up in backyards and parks. There are a number of nest boxes set up in Summerhaven on Mt. Lemmon which is undoubtedly helping the local population.
Western Wood-Pewees are gray to brown flycatchers that live in open woodlands and forests near streams. This one was spotted near Rustler Park at 8202 feet, which was in fact pretty dry in early May. They sit high on exposed branches, waiting for insects to fly by. Their range runs from Central America to Alaska, breeding throughout this area in woodlands and forests.
The images below were captured at Ramsey Canyon at 5617 feet in March of this year.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
The Black-throated Gray Warbler above was spotted near the South Fork of Cave Creek on May 9th. They are striking birds with a black throat and gray back, bold black and white striped face, and a spot of bright yellow just in front of and above the eye. They like pine and mixed pine-oak forests, breeding west of the Rockies including SE Arizona, and wintering in southern Mexico.
The two images below were captured at the General Hitchcock campground on Mt Lemmon at about 5200 feet. Our subject is playing hide and seek in the foliage.
Below, two images from Agua Caliente in Tucson, at about 2600 feet.
Let's close with a guaranteed crowd pleaser, the Painted Redstart. On the morning of Wednesday May 9th we traveled back to South Fork for the morning, and this Painted Redstart was moving fast stirring up bugs for breakfast. This was one of the best shots showing the characteristic wing movements used to get their breakfast to "come up for grabs," so to speak. For more on the Redstart, see my posting from Madera Canyon.
That's all for now.
This is one of two posts on our trip to Cave Creek Canyon in May [Revised August 28, 2018]
Southwestern Research Station at dawn, May 10, 2018.
On May 5th we packed up the Subaru and took off to Portal Arizona and Cave Creek Canyon for a week of birding with a group led by PD Hulce at the Southwestern Research Station. PD leads two groups in the spring, April and May, and one in the Fall for one week of birding and immersion in nature. There were a total of 8 in our group including PD. We stayed in very comfortable rooms at the SWRS with microwave and coffee maker, and ate great food cafeteria style with the students and researchers at the station. For more on upcoming tours, click SWRS Tours. Our thanks to PD and all the staff at the SWRS for making this a great week.
We arrived late on Saturday the 5th of May, and woke up with the sun shortly before 6 am on Sunday. The big event before breakfast was watching hummingbird banding led by Lee Rogers, as part of the Hummingbird Monitoring Network. The network captures and bands hummingbirds as part of their monitoring network on a regular schedule at selected sites in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. For more on the monitoring process click here. They are always looking for volunteers, including monitoring at the Skycenter on Mt Lemmon. I hope to write a post on the monitoring in the coming months. Stay tuned!
On Sunday after breakfast we traveled to the South Fork of Cave Creek Canyon for the morning, and spent the afternoon at feeders in Portal. Monday we were out all day driving west on 42 Forest Road climbing up to the Onion Saddle and then to Rustler Park, and back to Portal by way of Paradise. Tuesday we went east out of the canyon to the grass country and visited the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Wednesday we returned to the South Fork in the morning, and visited feeders in the afternoon. Thursday was "clean up day" looking for things we had not spotted. Friday we said farewell to our new birding friends and headed back to Tucson by way of Wilcox.
One week is a lot of birding, and about 6,000 images before editing! I am planning on three posts (with a fourth on hummingbird montoring). This the first one focused on our first day, Sunday the 6th.
For birding I shoot with a Canon 7D Mark II which stamps every image with the date, time, and GPS coordinates. I edit and develop the images in Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom, which includes a mapping module that will map any photo or set of photographs you select. Below is the map of the week's shoot. I exported a JPG of the map into MS PowerPoint, and added labels to better show where we were, and the topography of the area.
The town of Portal is in the middle right side of the map. 42 Forest Road meanders a bit south and west out of Portal into Cave Creek Canyon past the road into South Fork. Continue on 42 and you pass the SWRS, and then up the mountain to Onion Saddle and Rustler Park. These roads are all dirt, and irregularly maintained, with no guardrails and steep drop offs at higher elevations. They are closed during the winter. Drive carefully! The road connects to Paradise in the upper middle of the map, and then by a slightly better road back down into Portal.
After several years of birding in SE Arizona, we finally spotted our first Trogan! The Elegant Trogon is a year round resident of Central America and Mexico who ventures north just into the U.S. for breeding. There are an estimated 50 breeding pairs in SE Arizona, living in riverside upland oak and sycamore canyons as well as pine-oak woodlands, edge vegetation, and juniper forests. Cave Creek Canyon is the perfect location for them. They eat insects and fruit, and nest in open holes, favoring large Sycamores. During mating season, they call to each other with a low pitched croak, which to my ear sounds like the barking of a hoarse Chihuahua.
This male Elegant Trogan was spotted up the South Fork, where he was scouting out nesting spots, as well as looking for tasty bugs to eat. They characteristically sit upright with their tail down, scanning for bugs.
The images below show a male at the edge of a large hole in a Sycamore. He was clearly checking it out. I have not included the many images where his head is in the hole.
Below, two more images taken in the same area, same day and time. The last shows feather coloration from the right side.
Female Hepatic Tanager, South Fork, May 6, 2018
The Hepatic Tanager is a songbird (Order: Passeriformes) in the Cardinalidae family, along with Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Buntings, the Grosbeaks, and the Dickcissel. For more on the taxonomy, see the Cornell Lab website. Hepatic Tanagers live from Mexico and Central America all the way down to South America, and breed in the SW United States in Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Texas.
Above a female in good light, and below a male spotted at some distance. These two images were in the South Fork, not far from where we spotted the Elegant Trogan.
Their breeding range extends up into Arizona, as evidenced by the images below of a male captured in Summerhaven in September and October of 2015
The Dusky-capped Flycatcher is a Tyrant Flycatcher of the American Tropics, with a range from southern Mexico to South America, venturing into northern Mexico and Arizona for breeding during spring and summer. They nest in existing holes in trees, oak or sycamore. Their diet consists of insects which they gather from the foliage of tall trees. The canyon forests of SE Arizona are a great location for them.
They can be tough to spot. This fellow looks like he's hunting for lunch.
It is always a treat to see the Northern Cardinal, this one captured during the afternoon at Bob Rodrigues' backyard feeders, see this link to eBird Hotspots for details. This used to be Dave Jasper's yard, and Bob as new owner was kind enough to continue the tradition of opening the yard to visiting birders. If you go, there is a jar for donations to keep the feeders stocked. Many thanks to Bob for a great venue.
The image below is somewhat unique. The bird appears to be doing a handstand! The view shows the crest, wing feathers, and the tail fanned. We can see that the tail feathers take a beating over time. Cardinals molt after breeding season, late summer or early fall. So these tail feathers have seen 8 to 10 months of wear so far.
To show a molt in progress, I have included the images below, captured on August 11, 2017, during the Tucson Audubon Festival, at the Patton Center in Patagonia. This male has lost all of his crest feathers in a molt, and has grown only some back. I am told it is possible to see a "bald" cardinal if your timing is just right (or wrong, depending on your viewpoint!)
He looks pretty scruffy in general, in the process of losing and replacing feathers.
More worn tail feathers below . . . . .
Pyrrhuloxia are striking songbirds related to the Northern Cardinal, but limited in range to southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Like the Northern Cardinal they have crests. The males are grey and red, with a grey/yellow beak that has a curved culmen, the inner upper portion of the beak. This curve makes these beaks great for cracking seeds and nuts. For more images see my post from February 2018 from Patagonia.
Here we see a male Pyrrhuloxia on a feeder, getting ready to crack open a seed with his curved culmen. Above and below we get a good look of the worn tail feathers of this bird in May. Note that the photos from February in the Patagonia post show less feather wear.
More on molting and feather replacement in Red-tailed Hawks in an upcoming post.
Whiskered Screech Owl
The Whiskered Screech-Owl is a small higher elevation species that lives year round from Nicaragua to the mountains of Southern Arizona. Here we see our subject snoozing in a hole in a Sycamore right next to Forest Road 42. He has been a regular for a while, and it is common to see cars stopped on the road. Stop the car, roll down the windows and look up. There he is! Soon he will have his own road sign, "Owl Crossing." For a link to the Audubon site, and more on this bird, click Audubon Guide to North American Birds.
The Black-throated Sparrow is a year-around resident of Southern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, heading as far north as Oregon for summer breeding. They are ground foragers who we see here at the Rodrigues' feeders.
OK, we are not really looking for Waldo, rather a Greater Roadrunner. He is lurking among the branches, looking for a stray feeder bird to snag.
Greater Roadrunner's are large cuckoos with long legs, a very long tail, and a long neck. They are residents of the desert southwest but can be seen as far east as the Mississippi River. They spend their time on the ground, hopping to low branches or shrubs just long enough to spy for food. They are weak flyers, taking to the air just long enough to get to their next ground location. Their diet consists of any animal they can catch including lizards, frogs, snakes, as well as birds.
Just so you can see more of "Waldo" here is an image from Sweetwater Wetlands in April of 2018.
Cassin's Kingbird is a Tyrant Flycatcher that lives year round in southern Mexico and breeds north as far as Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. They like to eat insects, living in open woodlands. They tend to perch in trees looking for food, as well as foraging for insects on the ground. These habits make them easier to see and photograph.
The image above was captured shortly after dawn at the research station, the two images below are from Mt. Lemmon on the road to Marshall Gulch in June of 2017, one year ago.
That's it for this post! Stay tuned, more posts coming from this trip. Let's see, only 5000 images left . . . . . . .
It is spring in Tucson, and Agua Caliente Park is busy with activity. The winter visitors have left for northern climes, migrants from the south are stopping by on their way north, and our locals are building nests. Here is mix of what was happening in April.
Cooper's Hawks nested in 2017 in a large pine tree next to the cottage, and they (or another couple?) are back using it again this year. As a prelude to this nesting activity, here are two images captured in February showing a Cooper's Hawk displaying fluffy white tail coverts as a part of their courtship ritual.
This could be a male or a female, both sexes display this way. The two sexes look alike, the only difference is that the female is larger than the male (If you are going to carry those eggs and feed those chicks, you gotta be big!)
Below, likely the female, is working on nest building. The nest is high in a pine tree just south of the cottage. This view is looking up from the ground on the north side of the cottage and tree.
Below a view of the female tending to the nest. I caught her face between her legs!
Below, the male and the female sitting together in the nest. This was captured on April 5th looking up from the south side of the tree. Stay tuned, hopefully we will be seeing hatchlings in May!
A female Anna's Hummingbird is sitting on a newly built nest. The nest is built of plant down and spider webs, from the bottom up. These materials allow for expansion of the nest as the hatchlings grow. The clutch size is usually 2 eggs.
Nesting, hatching and feeding the offspring is strictly up to the female. The male provides the genetic material, and then disappears off into the flowers. Hatchlings keep momma busy, as posts from 2017 demonstrate!
Again, I am hoping for offspring in May.
A Vermilion Flycatcher on her nest. They commonly build nests on horizontal branches of Mesquite Trees. Not all nests survive, and they may nest more than once during a season.
Unlike Hummingbirds, the male supports the female during nesting and hatching, including feeding the female while she sits on the eggs.
Not everyone is nesting, or at least, we don't see their nests! Here are some feathered citizens of the park up and about looking for food, or maybe a mate!
On one of the Thursday morning bird walks we were lucky and spotted a Great Egret fishing on the newly constructed/rebuilt pond on the western side of the park. Here he is looking for breakfast, and below makes the lunge, having spotted what he wants. He seems to have grabbed a bite, and swallows it down in the following frame.
As if to say, "Sorry to have to eat and fly!", he takes off looking for the next culinary opportunity. These are beautiful birds in flight.
Later in the month, on the same pond, we discovered a Spotted Sandpiper along the shore in breeding plumage with spots on the breast. The Spotted Sandpiper is common in the U.S. from east to west, and all the way south to Central America. They live in SE Arizona during the winter, and travel north to breed. This fellow may be a migrant, stopping for food and water on the way north to breeding territory. They blend in very well to the surroundings, good for their survival, a challenge for the photographer.
Great Blue Heron
The Great Blue Heron is a regular resident of SE Arizona, and it is not unusual to see them at Agua Caliente. Above, a heron is peering at a line of turtles, as if to say, "I wonder what they taste like?" The turtles are lined up as though paying homage to a taller and much faster neighbor.
Below, a heron one Sunday morning in good light.
Below, a Great Blue Heron in flight demonstrating the remarkable wingspan. The second image shows the feather groupings including the flared tail. Finally, a tree landing!
The Hooded Oriole is a resident of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, and is always fun to see in good light. I realize that these images end up looking like mug shots from the Sheriff's office. He was released on his own recognizance, with a promise to return and visit again!
The Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, is a regular resident of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico. Here are three images in good lighting. Lighting is not everything, but it is close!
The Northern Beardless-tyrannulet is a neotropical bird living in Mexico and Central America year round. However, it will breed as far north as NW Mexico and just over the border into SE Arizona. If you are having a "Big Year", Tucson is the place to come to add this to your list. These birds are relatively unassuming with a slight crest and two broad white wing bars. They are currently working on a nest in the park.
The Great-tailed Grackle is a long legged, slender blackbird with a V-shaped tail. Above we see a male in a dominance display, letting other males know that he is the king of the date palm, at least for the time being.
Below, a female in good light.
That's all for now! Stay tuned, more to come.
Scaled Quail, Sierra Vista Southeast, Robert Gallucci's feeders.
For those of you who read my post of March 26th, you joined us for part 1 of our trip, Madera Canyon. This is the promised part 2, the Huachuca Mountains and canyons and the valley to the southeast. Sorry for the delay in posting, it took longer than I anticipated!
We made our way from Madera Canyon across the Coronado National Forest to Sonita and then to Sierra Vista. We stayed at Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds, which I highly recommend. Our hosts Tony and Julie Battiste were fantastic, and the accommodations were spacious and comfortable. Tony is an expert birder and guide. He has created an excellent yard with feeders and water features, complete with a photo blind with room for two to sit comfortably. The yard and blind are part of the B and B overnight, and can be used by others for a fee. Be sure to call first to be sure it is available, 520 803 6908.
We also visited a Sierra Vista South newcomer, Robert Gallucci, a professional photographer originally from New Jersey, who has a home and yard with feeders ($10 feeder fee). Rob is also an expert birder, and runs tours. Rob's house is not far from Tony's, but whereas Tony is close to the foothills, Rob is in the open flat country. This difference means different species, as we will see later in the post.
We visited Huachuca Canyon, one of the hotspots in SE Arizona and the home to a wintering male Elegant Trogan. Alas, the trogan was not home when we visited (we should have sent him a "Tweet" in advance) but we did spot other birds. This canyon is part of Fort Huachuca, a U.S. Army Installation and requires a pass for entry - more on this later.
Our last stop was Ramsey Canyon and the Nature Conservancy Preserve at the end of the road. Below is a view of the canyon a short way uphill from the Nature Conservancy entrance.
Ramsey Canyon, on the Nature Conservancy Preserve.
Ramsey Canyon is all private, with a narrow (but paved) two lane road. There is no public parking, and no parking on the road. The Nature Conservancy with trails and birding is at the end of the road. They have room for just under 30 cars, and when they are full, there is no other place to park. There are a number of B and B's in Ramsey Canyon, and if you stay at one of them, it is a short walk to the Nature Conservancy site.
Below is the map of this leg of the trip from Adobe's Lightroom. My Canon 7D Mk II has a GPS chip in it, and every image is date, time, and location stamped. Lightroom shows you where your images were captured. I added annotation to make it easier to read. The numbers refer to the number of images at each site. Rest assured I have edited these ~1500 images down a reasonable number for this post. So you don't have to make another pot of coffee to make it through the post, unless of course, you really like coffee!
Look carefully, and you will see Fort Huachuca in the upper left. Our B and B and Ramsey Canyon were to the south. Note that in the upper right is San Pedro House, another birding hotspot, on the San Pedro River. We did not visit this time, but it is a 20 minute drive from Ramsey Canyon.
First stop: Sierra Vista Southeast: Battiste Bed, Breakfast, and Birds.
There were many Rufous Hummingbirds at Tony's feeders and perched in the yard. For whatever reason, they mostly flew in, and sat and posed. There did not spend much time hovering over the nectar feeders. Maybe their tummies were full from another yard and they just wanted a place to rest. In any case, they are beautiful birds.
The Rufous Hummingbird is a brightly colored, feisty bird that breeds in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, winters in Mexico and the southern U.S. gulf states and Florida, and migrates throughout the western U.S. from Texas to California. The males captured here are likely migrants, on their way north for breeding. Their migration circuit is a clockwise loop, up the Pacific coast to Canada to breed in the spring, then back south in the fall through the Rocky Mountains to Mexico.
They are known for being very territorial, even in migration, chasing other birds from feeders. Of note is that the Rufous was the only hummingbird we saw in our two days at Tony's. Likely they were keeping the others away.
The Rufous Hummingbird has short wings that when folded fall short of the tail, as we can see above. In the two images below, this male is fluffing up his feathers, possible after a morning bath.
Scott's Oriole is a striking black and yellow bird of the desert southwest, closely associated with Yucca plants. They feed on insects, fruit and nectar, and here we see a male showing some interest in the grape jelly at the top of this log. They breed in Northern Mexico and Arizona and New Mexico.
Below are two images taken 1 second apart. A Curved Bill Thrasher decided he wanted this perch, and in a flash the Scott's Oriole was gone, leaving only black and yellow feathers floating in the air. We did not see the Oriole again.
The Pyrrhuloxia is a year around resident of southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as most of Mexico. They are closely related to the Northern Cardinal, but with distinctive red and gray coloration, which we can see in these males. For more on the distinction between Pyrrhuloxia and Cardinals, see my post from Patagonia.
Pyrrhuloxia are primarily seed eaters, with a curved culmen, the inner upper portion of the beak (upper mandible). This distinctive feature is clear in the images above and below. A nice feature for cracking seeds apart.
Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds was a great place to stay and bird. We saw many more species than shown here, but time and space (oh, the limitations of physics!) leads us on to another stop in Sierra Vista South, Robert Gallucci's backyard.
Rob Gallucci is a recent transplant from New Jersey who has a home on what looks like former ranch land a bit south and east of Tony and Julie's B and B. As mentioned previously Rob is a photographer and tour guide, who alerted Tony that he had Scaled Quail in his backyard. So we packed up the gear and headed over to Rob's place to check out the Scaled Quail.
Scaled Quail are ground dwellers of the southwest, with a snappy crest and contour feathers on the breast that look like scales on a fish. Their range is central and northern Mexico, and north into SE Arizona, New Mexico, and western Texas. Their numbers are in decline due to loss of habitat with overgrazing and development decreasing places to feed and nest. They are gregarious birds staying on the ground in groups, as well as being monogamous.
The quail we see here hopped up onto the wall around Rob's property, strutting on the wall, and then cruising down to the yard to feed on seeds.
It is interesting that these birds, which are ubiquitous throughout our region, preferentially select flat plains like Rob's yard, and not the foothills at Tony's. To see the terrain differences, see the map at the beginning of this post.
Again, many thanks to Rob for the "Scaled Quail Alert" and making his yard available for birders. See his photo website at: RGallucci.
Cassin's Finch is a small songbird with a short stocky bill, and a rosy-pink appearance overall with more red on a peaked crown. They breed in Canada, winter in Mexico as well as eastern Arizona and New Mexico, living year round in the rocky mountain states. My guess is these birds are migrating, stocking up at Tony's all-you-can-eat breakfast bar for the long flight north.
The Black-throated Sparrow is a year-around resident of Southern Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, heading as far north as Oregon for summer breeding generally staying west of the Rockies. For more images from the Tucson area, see this entry Birds, Black-throated Sparrow.
Black-throated Sparrows have a striking appearance and a "cute factor" that makes them fun to watch and photograph.
Oh, the poor House Sparrow, striking in appearance, but getting no respect as an "invasive species." It's not their fault that they were introduced into Brooklyn in 1851. Got to admit they adapted well, spreading to the Rocky Mountains by 1900. they are common in North America year round, and prefer nesting and feeding close to man-made structures, living well in town close to houses.
Next stop, Huachuca Canyon!
Huachuca Canyon is considered one of THE prime birding hotspots in SE Arizona. On this trip we were probably too early in the season for many of the species, but had heard that there was a male Elegant Trogan wintering in the canyon, and often hanging out in convenient spots, like the parking lot!
The canyon is on the Fort Huachuca military base, and entry requires a pass. The Army issues passes at the East Gate off of Highway 90. Pull into the parking area on the right before you get to the gates themselves. The pass requires a background check and creation of a photo ID, which takes about 15 minutes if there is no line. I am told Monday mornings are busier. We were there toward the end of the week, and had a minimal wait. Our passes were good for 30 days.
Once inside the fort, follow a map to the Huachuca Canyon, which is set up as a park and hiking area. The road into the canyon is dirt. Drive with your windows closed!
Alas, no Elegant Trogan's for us today! We did see a few other birds though, see below. Rest assured, we will be back!
The American Robin is widespread throughout all of North America, from southern Mexico to northern Canada. Here we see a Robin along a stream which runs along the trail just up the canyon from the parking area. We saw someone driving this stream in a Jeep, but they did not get far before turning around, and I would not recommend it.
Below, another Robin, sitting on a branch.
We spotted this fellow hopping on branches. Special thanks to Jeff Babson for acting as my bird ID coach and umpire, providing assistance reviewing images to help me make a positive ID. The Flycatcher's are tough (for me) to ID.
The Hammond's is similar to Gray and Dusky Flycatchers The Hammond's has a short, stubby, and all black bill, with a short notched tail, which looks even shorter because they are long-winged. The Gray Flycatcher is longer billed and longer tailed. Dusky is intermediate in shape between Gray and Hammond's and in fact is often identified by eliminating the other two.
For more details on Flycatchers, and in fact for identifying all birds, see Kenn Kaufman's book, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, Understanding What You See and Hear.
Let's finish with a fleeting image of a Painted Redstart fanning his tail to kick up the bugs!
Last stop, Ramsey Canyon.
As I noted at the beginning of the post, Ramsey Canyon is totally private, with a paved, but narrow road. There are B and B's in the canyon but for day trips it is best to park up at the end of the canyon at the Nature Conservancy Preserve. Remember, they have just under 30 parking places, and when they are taken there is no other parking. So come early, and be careful on busy days, or if there is a rare bird alert. Also note that they are closed Tuesday and Wednesday of each week and on holidays. Check their website in advance to be sure they are open if you are planning a trip.
We visited March 17th, and again the following Thursday, but did not see many birds. I did get landscapes on the 22nd, with one sample above. The canyon is beautiful with large Arizona Sycamores, still in leafless winter mode. The preserve is beautifully maintained, with excellent trails with markers.
Western Wood-Pewees are gray to brown flycatchers that live in open woodlands and forests near streams, places just like Ramsey Canyon. They sit high on exposed branches, waiting for insects to fly by. Their range runs from Central America to Alaska, breeding throughout this area in woodlands and forests.
Well, that is it for the Huachuca Mountains and environs.
Stay tuned - more to come soon.
Painted Redstart, Madera Canyon, March 15, 2018
If you have been following my blog, you will have noticed that the majority of posts are about Southeast Arizona, which for me means everything east and south of the Tucson metropolitan area and Mt. Lemmon, roughly bounded by Interstate 19 to the west, the I-10 corridor to the north, and the state line with New Mexico to the east. Last week we traveled south of Tucson to the Santa Rita mountains and Madera Canyon, then east to the Huachuca Mountains and Sierra Vista Southeast. This post is on the Santa Ritas and Madera Canyon, part 2 will be our exploration of the Huachucas and Ramsey Canyon.
The entrance to Madera Canyon is in the northern foothills of the Santa Ritas, at 4500 feet elevation. It is 14 miles, 27 minutes by car from Green Valley, right in their backyard.
From Tucson, the usual route is south on I-19 to Green Valley, then Continental Road to White House/Madera Canyon Road to the entrance. However, we decided to stick to the "blue highways" and took Kolb south to Valencia west, then south on Wilmot, west on W. Sahuarita Road to S. Nogales Highway to Continental Road. It is a smooth and uncrowded route through beautiful Sonoran desert. And, you get to drive by several federal prisons! One way the trip is 50 miles, and about 1 hour 15 minutes.
Madera Canyon is part of the Coronado National Forest. This link is a great resource. There is hiking and picnicking, and of course, birding, but no overnight camping. However, there are several lodges, including our choice on this trip, The Chuparosa Inn, Bed and Breakfast. Our host was Luis Calvo, who you can see giving a video tour of the canyon at Visit Tucson, Santa Rita Mountains. Many thanks to Luis, his wife and staff for a wonderful spot to enjoy the canyon.
Chuparosa Inn, Bed and Breakfast
The Chuparosa Inn is right on the main road (above) but also straddles the creek (below). Luis and his wife have done a wonderful job of designing the house and yard to take full advantage of the location. We found some of our best birding was right on their decks and patios at sunrise, close to their feeders and a hot cup of coffee! I set up my tripod with a Wimberley gimbal head and waited for the show to begin.
The Broad-billed Hummingbird is a small colorful bird with a red bill, dark at the tip, and a notched tail. Males have a blue throat and bluish green belly. We can see the distinctive field marks in the bird above, perched above the creek in the afternoon sun. They live year round in Mexico, and come as far north as SE Arizona and New Mexico to breed.
All bird's feathers have small muscles where they implant into the skin, which allows them to move the feather, allowing them to "fluff up" for warmth. We can see the difference between the bulky fluffed look of the first frame, and the leaner look of the second frame, above.
Below, the bird has raised and then lowered the feathers on the crown, something we will see later in this post in the Rivoli's.
Rivoli's Hummingbird was formerly known as the Magnificent from the 1980's until 2017, when the northern subspecies of the genus Eugenes was split from the larger southern subspecies of Costa Rica and Panama. The northerners were renamed Rivoli's Hummingbird, and the southern species names the Talamanca Hummingbird. The bird was named in honor of the Duke of Rivoli, an amateur French ornithologist. Anna's Hummingbird was named after his wife, Anna, the Duchess of Rivoli.
Rivoli's are large hummingbirds, which is evident when they share feeders with other hummingbirds. The males are dark green above, with an iridescent yellow-green throat and a purple crown. They may appear dark in poor light. They have a white dot behind the eye.
These first three images, one above, two below, were captured at the Chuparosa Inn above the creek as the bird fed on flesh blooms from their fruit trees.
The color of the feathers varies strikingly with the angle to the light, as we can see in the images below.
Above and below, we can see how the bird can change the height of his crown, and how the change in angle changes the color.
Below, a late afternoon view of the back, with some fill-flash added.
Mexican Jays are in the family Corvidae, also known as Corvids. This family includes crows, ravens, rooks, jackdaws, magpies, treepies, choughs and nutcrackers. They live in social groups in the Mexican mountains, and as far north as SE Arizona and Western New Mexico. Above we see three jays together, although there were more in the grouping. All images captured at the Chuparosa Inn.
Above, a possible breeding pair. Below, one of a pair gathers coconut shavings from a planter for a nest.
All set for home improvement !
Short break for a quadruped . . .
The inn has multiple feeders set up, and as one might expect, they attract anything that eats seeds, including hungry squirrels. This critter has taken up residence in the feeder, eye just visible on the right. Wild turkeys also stroll the property, grabbing what they can from low slung feeders.
Bath time !
Water runs over rocks on the uphill side of the terrace and acts as both a drinking and bathing source. Above Pine Siskins enjoy the bath, and below, get a drink.
Two images below, a Bridled Titmouse gets a late afternoon bath.
We see a lot of Yellow-eyed Juncos on Mt Lemmon, up at ~7500 feet, but here we find at ~5000 feet a Dark-eyed Junco, with a red back, similar to the Yellow-eyed brethren. Dark-eyed Juncos breed in Canada and Alaska, winter as far south as SE Arizona and Mexico, and can be seen year round from Northern Arizona and New Mexico up into the Rockies, northern California coast, and western Canada. There is a lot of variation in markings and coloration for these birds, with the Red-backed variety more common in SE Arizona. The Cornell website show the variations by region.
More on the canyon . . . .
We had two days in the canyon, and as you can see, we spotted a lot of birds in a great setting at the Chuparosa Inn. We also hung out at the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge (see map below) and walked around the Whitehouse Picnic Area. But some of our best birding was on the path south (uphill) of Proctor Road up along Madera Creek. This area is easy to walk, with beautiful views of the mountains to the south.
Note that the top of the map below is South, the bottom North.
Above, the trailhead at the Proctor Parking area.
Our major "find" on our walk was a very active Painted Redstart. He was jumping from branch to branch in a large tree right on the pathway. Getting him to "stay still" in good light was a challenge. The image above was captured along with a series of images that featured mostly leaves and an occasionally blurry flash of feathers. For this image I got lucky, he stayed still for a second in a beam of sunlight and was in the camera's focal plane.
Painted Redstarts are warblers with bright red bellies, white wing patches, and a white crescent below the eye. All field markings are evident in the lead image above.
Above and below, our subject has caught an insect, and begun to munch it down.
Image above shows markings of the back and tail, and below the belly and tail, with the tail fanned out showing the white feathers laterally. The Painted Redstart will fan its tail, as below, and move back and forth, to flush out insects from the leaves. A bit like shaking a vending machine to see what comes out!
Images below, good views of the breast and tail, and the distinctive white half-eye ring.
Painted Redstarts like riparian and arid woodland areas especially in mountains. They eat mostly insects as well as some tree sap, sugar water from feeders, as well as peanut butter and suet. Painted Redstarts live year round in the Mexican and Central American interior, breeding north into Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Texas.
That's it for Madera Canyon !
"Are you sure you know what you are doing? "
Stay tuned for the next installment, the Huachuca Mountains, Sierra Vista Southeast, and Ramsey Canyon.
Eastern Meadowlark, White Water Draw, January 20, 2018
No winter in SE Arizona is complete without a trip to White Water Draw (WWD), a Chihuahuan desert grassland habitat in the middle of agricultural land close to McNeal, Arizona. Located in Cochise County, WWD is just over 1500 acres of land maintained by Arizona Game and Fish, map below. See my prior posts November 2015 and January 2016.
We returned to WWD on a birding tour led by Jeff Babson, this time with Cochise Community College, on Saturday January 20th. We overnighted in Bisbee on the 19th, then met Jeff and the tour at WWD on the 20th. Bisbee is a fun place to stay, and only a 30 minute drive from WWD. This time we stayed at the Bisbee Inn/Hotel La More which was great. They have an open kitchen/dining area in the back of the first floor which guests can use for "bring in" food (you know, the "takeout" you put in the car and then "bring in"), as well as fixings for breakfast. They also have a sitting area with TV and games/books. A classic old hotel, which boasts several ghosts in residence, although we missed them on our stay.
Let's start with Sandhill Cranes, the birds that seem to bring everyone "flocking" to WWD in the winter months. These are large birds, with long necks, long legs and wide wings. They mate for life, can live 30 years, and tend to stay in family groups as they migrate back and forth from summer breeding grounds in Canada and the northern U.S. to winter foraging in Arizona/New Mexico wetlands, and for some species, Florida. For details of the birds, their behavior and ranges see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website and The Aldo Leopold Foundation site.
They begin to arrive at WWD in November, leaving in the early spring. They sleep at night in the wetlands, and leave at first light for nearby cornfields, where there is enough corn left on the ground from the harvest to meet their daily needs and "bulk them up" for the flight home in the spring. At WWD they return from the fields between 11am and noon, and may or may not return to the fields in the afternoon. This is convenient for those of us who really don't want to get up before dawn on a cold morning. Go ahead and get some breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, and wait for the cranes to darken the skies with their return flight at 11 am.
Arizona Game and Fish has a live Sandhill Crane Cam so you can check out when the birds come and go, and if they are there in numbers before you pack up and head to WWD. Also, they allow free overnight parking and camping for RV's. Note that they have vault toilets, but no water.
Below, Sandhill Cranes in flight. Hard to watch them in flight without a smile on your face!
The image below is uncropped by intent to show the density of birds as they come in at noon to land, and the different directions they take. They circle and appear to be taking instructions from a flight controller, peeling off in groups and putting down their "landing gear" for the glide in. Notice the differences between the upper left and lower right.
Below, a family group sharing their space with various shorebirds.
WWD is agricultural land set aside for conservation and wildlife management. So, the area around it is comprised of ranches and dirt roads, with plenty of wires - strung high on power poles or low on fences. Here we see a Loggerhead Shrike on a power line in the morning sun.
Loggerhead Shrikes are thick-bodied songbirds with blocky heads and a thick bill with a small hook. The tail is long and rounded. They sit on low exposed perches and look for rodents, lizards insects and other birds. They are known for impaling a kill on thorns or barbed wire to be eaten later. Their range runs east to west across the U.S. and they are regulars at WWD.
For more on Loggerhead Shrikes and similar species, including field marks, see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
The American Pipit is a small slender drab bird that frequents open country in the southern U.S. from coast to coast, and throughout Mexico. They breed only above the timberline, all the way up to Alaska and northern Canada, and on higher peaks in the lower 48. In Arizona they winter in the southeast near water and agricultural lands, making WWD a great spot to see them. They breed on the treeless slopes of the San Francisco Peaks. A look at the Range Map on the Cornell website shows the breeding range as determined by altitude.
American Pipits don't hop, they run or walk, as we can see in the images above and below.
Below we see a Pipit getting ready to cross one of the wetland channels. It is always important to look both ways before crossing, first left, then right. You can never tell when a raptor has decided to exceed posted limits looking for a snack!
Remember, these birds walk or run, they don't hop, so our friend here steps off into the abyss (above), saved by those really handy wings, making an uneventful crossing.
Their drab appearance is a real asset in this foraging environment. They blend in really well. Great for their safety, not so great for the photographer who wants to have their subject stand out from the background.
The Killdeer is a brown and white plover with a long bill and two black breast bands. They are one of the more common birds in Southeastern Arizona, making Richard Taylor's "Top 40" list in his field guide Birds of Southeastern Arizona. However, in my experience they are tough to spot, and for me, tougher to photograph. I have spotted them at Sweetwater Wetlands, but usually 50 to 100 yards away with lots of grass in the way. However on this trip to WWD this Killdeer got quite close. One advantage of WWD is that the elevated walking paths come very close to the wetlands and the food sources that draw birds.
Killdeer are common throughout the U.S., Mexico and Canada. They can be found in wetlands, lawns, golf courses, athletic fields and parking lots. Their name comes from their voice, an excited kill-deer. They are known for faking a broken wing to lead predators away from their nests, or distracting cows from stepping on their eggs by fluffing up, displaying the tail above the head, and running toward the cow to make it change its path.
Although their white breast bands are striking they do manage to blend in with muddy wetlands, making good imaging a bit tougher.
Time to get back to our "cover photo," the Eastern Meadowlark. This bird is actually not in the Lark family, rather it is in the blackbird family, which includes cowbirds and orioles.
The Eastern Meadowlark is very similar to the Western Meadowlark, with differences in song (which is hard to see in a photo, and which I did not hear) and subtle differences in field markings. The tip off here is partially population biology (there are more Eastern's in SE Arizona than Westerns) and partially markings, in this case paler cheeks and a whiter tail, which I think we can see in the last image.
Eastern Meadowlarks live right where we see them, in farm fields, grasslands and wetlands. They are ground nesters, singing from exposed perches such as the barbed wire. They eat mostly insects, and during the winter, spilled corn and seeds.
Special thanks to Jeff Babson for his help in discerning the subtle differences between the Eastern and Western Meadowlarks.
American Kestrels are also among Richard Taylor's "Top 40" and always a joy to see. For a female Kestrel on the hunt, see my post from New Year's Day. Kestrel's are the smallest North American Falcon. My guess is that this is a male, with slate blue on the wings.
This Kestrel was sitting on a power line not far from WWD. My wife volunteered to drive, and I sat in the passenger seat and rolled all the windows down. The car makes a great blind. The birds accept cars as part of their environment, and unless you lean out an open window and scream a lot, they will generally ignore you. One caution: the roads out this way are not paved, so be ready for a lot of dust getting onto and into the car. Keep your gear covered. Also a monthly car wash plan helps!
Looks like this fellow is looking for lunch from his high perch. He takes off in the last frame (unexpectedly as usual) maybe for a quick bite, or a better perch. I was focused on the cable, and he dove out of my sweet spot, creating a softer image.
Let's close with a common friend that often gets a shrug, "Oh, a White-crowned Sparrow." They are handsome birds, and this one picked a nice perch and a look toward the camera and just says, "Include me!"
That's all for now ! Stay tuned, more great travels in store for this spring !
Lincoln's Sparrow, Audubon's Paton Center for Hummingbirds, February 2, 2018
Patagonia, population 913, is located 64 miles and 1 hour 20 minutes south of Tucson on Arizona Highway 82 between Sonoita and Nogales. At 4000 feet above sea level, the town sits on the Sonoita Creek riparian area between the Santa Rita and Patagonia mountains. Self described as "quirky", it is a wonderful community and a great place to visit and overnight to enjoy birds and wildlife, as well as the local culture of food and art.
Founded in 1898, the town supported mining in the region and sat on a railway line that ran from Benson to Nogales. In time the rail line was abandoned, but the railway station in Patagonia was preserved and serves as a municipal building. The rail bed, absent tracks, is preserved in places, including the Patagonia Sonita Creek Preserve, reviewed later in this post.
Below is a map of Patagonia showing the site of the Audubon Paton Center, as well as the Duquesne House, where we stayed.
Be advised to follow all speed laws. Local law enforcement with radar guns are not unheard of along Route 82 as the speed limits are reduced coming into town.
Duquesne House Inn and Gardens
The Duquesne House is a wonderful bed and breakfast in central Patagonia, three blocks south and east of Highway 82. The building dates to 1898 but is beautifully restored and maintained with excellent accommodations and food. Our Inkeepeers Rick and Bekki Jaynes were fantastic. Everything was beautiful and spotless, with really really good breakfasts. I would definitely "recommend and return."
The inn has large gardens in the back with many comfortable places to sit and multiple bird feeders. The image below was taken in the early morning. A great way to bird while waking up with an excellent cup of coffee.
As the sun was peeking over the mountains, we were visited by a Curve-billed Thrasher warming up and looking for food. Curve-billed Thrashers are common year around residents of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well as all of Mexico. They are ground foragers and nest in cactus and shrubs 3 to 5 feet above the ground, making spring nests accessible for viewing. For more on their spring nests see this page on this site.
Anna's Hummingbird, Male
Anna's Hummingbirds are common residents of the Pacific Coast into Arizona and NW Mexico. The male is grey to green, with an iridescent green back, and throat feathers that vary in color from grey/brown to iridescent rose/pink depending on the angle of the light. This male was hanging out at the feeders at the inn. As I shot a burst in silent mode he moved his head slightly, showing how the color can change with his angle to the sun.
Patagonia Lake State Park
Sonoita Creek runs through Patagonia and into the Patagonia Sonoita Creek Preserve then into Patagonia Lake, created in 1968 by damming the creek. The lake and surrounding acreage became a state park in 1975. For more on the Patagonia Lake State Park click here.
The map below shows the park facilities at the lake including a Lakeside Market, campsites, and a birding trail along the creek, Sonoita Creek Trail, at the eastern end. We walked this trail two mornings.
The trail begins at the far east end of the park, trail kiosk below. The early parts of the trail include well stocked bird feeders and benches for sitting. As the trail continues, it goes through a gated fence and down some steps toward the lake. The trail is even and not rocky, although not well marked. However, with the lake on one side and the mountains on the other it is tough to get lost.
The reason for the gate will become evident soon!
Pyrrhuloxia, male, female and their lookalikes!
Pyrrhuloxia are striking songbirds related to the Northern Cardinal, but limited in range to southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Mexico. Like the Northern Cardinal they have crests. The males are grey and red, with a grey/yellow beak that has a curved culmen, the inner upper portion of the beak. This curve makes these beaks great for cracking seeds and nuts.
Images above and below: male Pyrrhuloxia on a rock near the beginning of the creek trail.
Below two males sharing a rock. During mating season they are very territorial. As of February 1st, they seem to be tolerating each other !
The male Pyrrhuloxia can be confused with the female Northern Cardinal. Below are mug shots of the two taken on this trip. The male on the left is red and grey, with red around the face and a grey/yellow beak with the characteristic nutcracker curve. The Cardinal has black around her face, an orange bill with straighter culmen, and a buffy breast.
Left: Male Pyrrhuloxia. Right: Female Cardinal
For completeness, Female Pyrrhuloxia below . . . .
The female Pyrrhuloxia is more grey, does not have black around the face, and has a grey beak with the curved culman.
And now, a milk break . . . .
Ah yes, that is why we went through a gated fence with a big sign that read, "KEEP THIS GATE CLOSED." It would not do to have cows wandering among the campsites. As I noted in my post on Santa Cruz Flats much of Arizona is open range, cattle everywhere (potentially). The cattle we saw near the lake appear to be cows and their calves. They were quite docile. However, they leave manure, so watch where you are stepping, especially if you wander off on a side trail.
The base of the Arizona economy 100 years ago was the Three C's, Cattle, Copper, and Cotton. Two more were added, Citrus and Climate. So, if you trip on a cow pie, know that it is a really important cow pie!
Aurochs, the wild ancestors of modern cows, were first domesticated ~10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Their descendants were introduced into North America in 1525 at Vera Cruz, Mexico. For more on our bovine friends and a historical timeline see ProCon.org.
The Black Phoebe is a flycatcher of the Western U.S. that lives and feeds near any water source. These birds have black heads and upper bodies with white bellies. They eat a variety of insects and rarely berries. This bird was feeding along Sonoita Creek as it was entering the lake. They are tolerant of humans and tend to stick to one territory to nest and feed, making "Phoebe watching" easier, with binoculars or camera. For more on the Black Phoebe see this link.
Song Sparrows are medium sized sparrows with long rounded tails. Their markings vary greatly by region. Here we see the reddish appearance typical of birds in the southwest. He was looking for food on the creek.
Paton Center for Hummingbirds
The Paton Center for Hummingbirds is a Tucson Audubon site right in Patagonia and just north and east of the Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. For the story of the Paton's, their love for birds, and all the work that went into making the Paton Center a reality, see this link.
Much work has been done on the Paton Center since it became a part of Tucson Audubon in 2014, including re-landscaping the back yard and the creation of feeders, paths, and benches. In addition, a path has recently been completed from the SE corner of the Paton Center along Blue Heaven Road into the Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.
Year-round residents of western and coastal Mexico, the Violet-crowned Hummingbird nests in Arizona Sycamore, which in the U.S. is found in riparian areas of SE Arizona and SW New Mexico. These striking birds sport white breasts, red bills, and violet crowns that vary in color with the angle to the sun. All images here captured at the Paton Center on February 2, 2018.
Above, a Violet-crowned sitting on a branch, and below two images with his tongue extended. The images that follow show what is probably harvesting bugs from the tree, so he may also be catching them on the fly. Either that, or he is cleaning his tongue and bill after gorging on nectar!
For more on hummingbird tongues as elastic micropumps see this this link to the NYT. The article by James Gorman includes a nice video of tongues in action, and references recent research published in 2015.
This Lincoln's Sparrow was spotted on a very well planned and executed pile of twigs not far from a small pond at the Paton Center. He looks wet, giving his feathers a sharper, bolder look. Lincoln's Sparrows like to stay concealed among twigs and thickets near water, rarely popping up to be seen.
The Lincoln's Sparrow was named by John James Audubon after his traveling companion Thomas Lincoln, who managed to capture a specimen on an expedition to Labrador.
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve
Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve visitor center just off of Blue Heaven Road.
The Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve lies south and west of Patagonia along the first two miles of the Sonoita Creek and adjacent floodplain. It contains rare Fremont Cottonwood-Goodding willows riparian forests, with trees of more than 100 feet tall and 130 years old.
The 873-acre preserve was the first project in Arizona for The Nature Conservancy, purchased in 1966 in conjunction with the Tucson Audubon Society. The area is rich in history, including portions of the railbed of the Santa Fe Railroad built between Benson and Nogales as part of the New Mexico and Arizona line.
You can get to the preserve visitor center by driving past the Paton Center on Blue Heaven Road a few miles. There is also a path from the Paton Center to the preserve open during the day. As always, wear solid shoes and carry water.
Map of Patagonia, Paton Center, and Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve.
The Greater Roadrunner is a large cuckoo with long legs, very long tail, and long neck. They are residents of the desert southwest but can be seen as far east as the Mississippi River. They spend their time on the ground, hopping to low branches or shrubs just long enough to spy for food. They are weak flyers, taking to the air just long enough to get to their next ground location. Their diet consists of any animal they can catch including lizards, frogs, snakes, as well as birds.
Above, a Greater Roadrunner not far from the visitor center looking for lunch.
Black Vultures are large raptors slightly larger than a Red-tailed Hawk and smaller than a Turkey Vulture. The are black with stubby tails. The hawk above was circling above the visitor center, perhaps waiting for whatever the Roadrunner did not want.
This image shows the hawk's typical black color with white/silver wingtips looking like white mittens. The legs are white, and the wings relative straight with a leading anterior edge.
Which reminds me, the Tubac Hawk Watch will begin in March in Tubac at the county park which is adjacent to the Santa Cruz River flyway. For more on hawk watching, see HawkWatch International.
The Railroad Trail
There are excellent trails within the preserve, including the Railroad Trail, which follows the rail bed, complete with cement abutments at either end where bridges spanned the creek. The image above is at the southern end of the trail. The preserve will be very green in spring.
Along the trail we spotted this Hermit Thrush hiding in dense foliage.
Below, the northern limit of the Railroad Trail, looking out over the abutment where a bridge once stood.
Along the trail we spotted this Bridled Titmouse. This species is in the family Paridae, along with Tits and Chickadees. Their range comprises central Mexico extending north as far as SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.
Above, portions of the preserve showing portions of the floodplain. This is a beautiful site, and a great walk on level ground, with or without your favorite avian species.
That's it for now! Enjoy the rest of February, and don't forget the hawk watch in Tubac in March. More posts soon.
Special thanks to Jeff Babson, Sky Island Tours, for his help in the identification of a number of these birds during the creation of this post. It is not unusual to see a bird and get an image and then wonder later, "What was that?" Jeff, many thanks.
Burrowing Owl, peeking over a berm.
On Sunday January 7th, my wife and I joined Jeff Babson and a flock of fellow birders for a trek to Santa Cruz Flats, a spread of farmland south and west of Picacho Peak in Pinal County, Arizona. From Tucson we traveled I-10 north past Picacho Peak to Toltec Road, Exit 203, and headed south into the farmland that comprises Santa Cruz Flats. The area is great for birds that favor open ground and fields, as well as raptors looking for food.
In the image below, Jeff has his spotting scope set up aimed north and east searching for critters. We had mixed clouds early on, giving way to sunshine and good light throughout the morning. There is a lot of land out here. Nice straight horizon and flat fields.
The Canon EOS 7D Mark II has GPS built-in that stamps every image with the location. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom has a mapping function that produced the map below, showing the number of images for each coordinate. I have added annotation with the help of Microsoft PowerPoint and copied it as a JPEG, below.
Map of Santa Cruz Flats with spotting locations, January 7, 2018
The Toltec Road exit is off of I-10 toward the top of the map. The spotting location for the image above is approximately at the yellow call-out with the number 7 on the map. An early stop was a hay barn, below, which is labeled on the map above, Owls in Barn.
Let's start with three owls in a barn . . . .
This barn has a window cut at one end, allowing good views down the length of the building. If you look at the peak of the roof straight up at 12 o'clock, you can see a pale oblong shape that is in fact two Barn Owls snoozing.
Image above: Canon EOS 6D (full frame) with Canon EF 17-40 mm f4 lens at 17 mm. Image below, Canon EOS 7D II (cropped sensor), with EOS 100-400 mm II, at 400 mm with 1.4 extender for effective focal length of 560 mm.
These two owls were nicely side-lit. They don't seem to mind sleeping in the light
Barn Owls are nocturnal hunters who roost in quiet out of the way places during the day, such as barns and abandoned buildings. At night they hunt in open fields and meadows, making Santas Cruz Flats an ideal place to live. They have excellent night vision, but their hearing is considered superior among raptors. They can hear and locate prey as they fly quietly over open fields. For more images of Barn Owls in free flight see these two links: Raptors at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and High Desert Museum, Bend, OR.
Barn Owls swallow their prey whole and about twice a day regurgitate large pellets with the compressed remains of their meals. What appears to be a pile of pellets can be seen on the floor of the barn.
I did say 3 owls. The third is a Great Horned Owl who is perched just above the fourth high window on the left, just barely visible looking like a hash mark. Switching from the Canon 6D to the 7D with the 100-400 mm lens, I captured the images below, albeit at an ISO of 6400, 1/125 second.
Great Horned Owls are also nocturnal. They are powerful predators, and will attack and take down birds and mammals larger than themselves, including other raptors; Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons, Prairie Falcons, and other owls. Yes, they eat Barn Owls. Note that at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum they will run raptor free flight with both owls, but never together.
So, are these three owls living in peaceful coexistence, or is the Great Horned Owl just waiting for the right moment? I guess it is always a good idea to have extra food on hand.
And a fourth by the road . . . .
East of the barn was a colony of Burrowing Owls, sitting on and around remnants of a cement irrigation ditch. Above an owl peeks over a berm. Below a fellow birder and photographer sets sights on our subject.
Below a closer view of the owl on a irrigation ditch.
We spent some time looking at the owls from a distance, and then slowly walked down the road to get closer. The owls would dodge below the berm, making it hard to get a good view of them.
We finally gave up, loaded up the cars again, and headed to our next stop.
We started down the road, Dorothy was driving, I was in the passenger seat, with two fellow birders in the backseat of the Subaru. Suddenly Dorothy stopped and pointed to the right. There was a Burrowing Owl, sitting on top of the berm right next to us. My thanks to our fellow birder Kat who was able to reach in the back of the Forester and grab my gear. Using the car as a blind, I was able to get the images below.
Burrowing Owls live underground in burrows dug themselves or taken over from other burrowing animals. These owls are living under old concrete irrigation channels. They hunt during the day for insects and rodents. They are sandy colored with long legs and yellow eyes. The head is flattened with white eyebrows.
Above, the owl has turned his head backwards, showing the mobility of the neck that owls are known for.
Burrowing Owl populations have fallen in recent years due to loss of habitat, including declines in other burrowing animal populations, such as prairie dogs and ground squirrels.
In the field behind the Burrowing Owl were Horned Larks, regular residents of fields in SE Arizona, where they forage for seeds and insects. They have a characteristic yellow face, black mask, and black feathers on the head that look like horns. They socialize in flocks and forage in bare fields close to the surface. They are tough to see, and almost impossible to get close to. Telephoto and patience is required.
These images were captured at 11:30 am. Although it was cool in the early morning, the desert was heating up by noon, creating rising thermals. The warm air from the ground mixing with cooler upper air creates diffraction that is evident when viewing distant objects. This is the same shimmering effect given off by a highway on a hot day. It can be annoying for birders with binoculars, and drive photographers nuts. All the settings on the camera can be "right" and the image looks out of focus.
I was getting thermal effects with these larks. I took many frames, picked the best looking ones, and processed in Lightroom to get these images.
More on thermals later.
Let's go back to our map, copy below. We are now in the right lower corner, facing northeast, with the southwest face of Picacho Peak in the background. We spotted two Crested Caracara's sitting in a snag on the far side of a field. It was shortly afternoon and we were definitely seeing diffraction from rising thermals off of the fields. Note the telephone poles in the background that appear to be curved and irregular.
If you like French Impressionism, you with LOVE this next photo! The image below is a cropped version of the one above. Shutter 1/1000, f 8.0, ISO 320. Lots of thermal effect.
Crested Caracara's are tropical vultures in the falcon family. [And you thought your Thanksgiving dinners were challenging!] The Caracara lives year round in Mexico, Central and South America, coming just far enough north as Arizona and Texas. They eat almost everything, dead or alive, fresh or rotted. [Yup, Thanksgiving would be difficult].
The birds we spotted across the field took off, and I was able to track one flying north and west. The bird seemed to get into clear air, and a number of images were sharper. Below is a sequence I caught panning east to west.
For close up images of the Crested Caracara see this link from my post on raptor free flight at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Northern Harrier Hawk
Not far from where we spotted the Caracara, Dorothy spotted a bird waaay away in one of the fields. Jeff took a quick look and said, "Here is a mystery bird!" We lined up at the spotting scope. And the answer was . . . . Northern Harrier Hawk. It was waaaay far away, and the distance plus the thermals created more French Impressionism in the Sonoran Desert.
Northern Harrier Hawks winter throughout the southern U.S. and deep into Mexico, breeding in the northern U.S. and Canada, and as far north as Alaska. They hunt low to the ground and can hover over fields looking for prey. For images of a Harrier at White Water Draw, see this link.
That's it for Santa Cruz Flats! We had a great day and look forward to returning soon. Don't forget that this is open range, the cattle share just about everything, including the road. Keep one eye on the birds, the other on the road, so you don't end up sharing the front seat with 2000 lbs of fresh beef.
American Kestrel enjoying New Year's Day at one of her favorite dining spots in midtown Tucson, Ft. Lowell Park.
Monday, January 1st we welcomed in the New Year at Fort Lowell Park, a Tucson City park on the site of the old fort at Craycroft and Ft. Lowell. The park is a treasure in the northern midtown area, on the south side of the Rillito River, and east of Craycroft, complete with soccer and baseball fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool, a playground, and a pond that attracts ducks and various water birds. For more on the history of the fort and the historic site, see the website for the Old Fort Lowell Neighborhood Association. Note that Fort Lowell Day will be on February 10th; a great chance to learn about the history of the fort and see cavalry reenactments.
The park is a great wildlife area with a well maintained duck pond and adjacent fields. Below a view of signage on the edge of the pond on the southside, with ball fields in the background to the right. Below that, a view of the pond from the northside facing south.
We shared the park on the 1st with walkers and birders, dozens of ducks, and one female American Kestrel who was out looking for breakfast. Below she is standing on on the field south and west of the duck pond, looking for ground critters, likely voles, who have done a good job of aerating the field with their burrows. We know this is a female by her warm red wings. Males have similar markings but with slate gray wings.
The American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America, about the size of a Mourning Dove.
I was able to catch her on different perches, mostly on high snags, but in the shot below she is sitting on top of a fence pole. Her size can be judged by the diameter of the post and especially the size of the chain links on the fence.
From this perch she rapidly dove toward the field to catch a vole. Although I was waiting for her to fly, camera in "rapid focus, rapid fire flight mode," the first shot I got was toward the end of the dive when she is flaring her wings to slow down. She has almost every wing and tail feather displayed as she is in full "brake" mode. The sequence that follows show her plunging into a hole looking for a vole.
For the photo geeks: Canon EOS 7D Mark II with EF 100-400 IS II at 400 mm, 1/2500 sec at f 5.6, ISO 400. Post-production processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
She dug around for a while but came up empty, taking off to continue the hunt from another perch.
Below, two images showing the early stage of another dive toward the turf. Kestrel's are beautiful birds, probably my favorite raptor.
The pond has lots of wild ducks, mixed in with what looks like a more permanent population of domestic waterfowl. Below an American Widgeon. For more on these birds and for images in flight, see my last post of December 9, 2017, from Sweetwater Wetlands.
Let's close with a familiar friend who is common, but always stands out. I have never seen a birding group that does not stop to marvel at a Vermilion Flycatcher, no matter how many they have seen. Below a male close up on a branch, not far from the duck pond.
That's all for now - Happy New Year everyone! More posts coming soon.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About