* with apologies to Edward Lear and his original poem, The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.
Above is a Great Horned Owl, but where is the hummingbird? Be patient, it's coming.
This post is a tribute to backyard photography in the time of Covid-19. None of us can get out as much as we want, and so we find our sit-spot* close to home and see who shows up.
In this case it was a Great Horned Owl who decided late in the afternoon of August 17th to find his sit-spot on top of our back yard water fountain. The top of the stone fountain is a popular spot for local birds, especially in our recent summer heat.
The image below shows what is probably a female with lots of water bubbling right in front of her. Why a female? Although field marks do not help distinguish males from females, females develop a brood patch on the chest/abdomen which is devoid of feathers to allow them to put their nice warm tummy right on their eggs or hatchlings. This owl has a crease down the middle, where the feather from each side meet, indicating coverage of a brood patch. Could it me a male? Well, only female Great Horned Owls incubate eggs, so no brood patch for the male of this species. My thanks to Dan Weisz for picking up this detail in the images.
She was there for an hour.
*Thanks to Melissa Groo and her recent online course, Bird Photography with Melissa Groo, available through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Academy, at this link. One of her tips is to find a "sit spot" where bird are active, and just sit and watch.
My thanks to our son Chuck who spotted this owl from the kitchen and sent out the alert. I started with a few shots through the glass back door, then ventured around the house to the back yard. My subject was quite tolerant of my presence. I eventually found my sit-spot on a patio chair, and waited.
Great Horned Owls sleep during the day, and hunt at night. [For details, I recommend Cornell's site Birds of the World, which will provide complete information and a review of past research, and is a reference for this post. However, it does require a subscription. A great alternative is All About Birds also from the Cornell Lab, which is free. ] They are nocturnal perch hunters, taking prey as small as scorpions and as large as rabbits. They will also take birds including ducks, geese, and herons. Barn Owls are also on their diet, which is why the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum here in Tucson does not fly the two species together for their raptor free-flight exhibits.
In the images above and below, our afternoon visitor demonstrates her neck agility as she checks out our backyard. Great Horned Owls can swivel their heads more than 180 degrees, more than compensating for eyes that remain fixed in their sockets. Their large talons take a force of 13 kgs to open, allowing them to sever the necks of prey.
This bird was snoozing about half the time. In the image above, her lids meet halfway, and in the image below the upper lids are completely closed. Note that the upper lids have dark feathers in the center that give the appearance of pupils. There is likely a survival advantage for appearing awake during sleep.
Enter humming birds. In the image below, a female Rufous Hummingbird, likely on her fall migration south from Canada to Mexico, approaches the fountain, in about the same focal plane as the owl, but to her left, and maybe a bit behind. The owl looked behind her perch from time to time, but did not seem interested in this hummingbird, or other birds in the yard.
Below, a female Anna's Hummingbird decides to approach the water from the front, taking advantage of a sleepy owl. Note that female Great Horned Owls weigh on average about 1500 grams (1.5 kgs) compared to the Anna's fighting weight of 4 grams. That is a 375X advantage for the owl. (Reference: Birds of the World).
In the next set of images the owl sees the Anna's and tracks her as she approaches the fountain. Fortunately for me they were in the same focal plane. This is the set of shots I was hoping for, and to get ready I moved the shutter speed up to 1/2000. Stats for the image below: Canon EOS 7D Mk II, EF 100-400 at 100 mm, f/4.5 at 1/2000 second, ISO 1600.
'The female Anna's approaches the water cautiously and eventually gets a drink, all under the watchful eye of the the owl.
The Anna's backs off, meeting her everyday goal of getting some dinner without being dinner. The owl seems happy to have a place to sit with lots of water to drink, and maybe thinking of larger entree's for later that evening. Some prefer to dine late.
That's it for a bit of backyard birding during the pandemic. Stay safe, stay well!
[Posted 8/24/, updated 8/25/2020]
Many thanks to Jeff Babson, Stephen Vaughan, Tom Richardson, and Dan Weisz for their review of selected images, help in hummingbird identification and sex identification of the owl.
I usually begin each blog post with one of my better bird photos to get you hooked, click on the link and start "turning the pages." However, today I felt the best intro was to show you a new addition to an otherwise quiet Summerhaven; one of many new warning signs the county put up in late July.
With the exception of the green island that is Summerhaven (the map looks like Italy on support hose), much of what we love in the Catalinas has been burned. Not a moonscape, rather most of what we see from the road is charring from ground fire, with tall green trees still in abundance, and some greening on the ground occurring even now. The forest will come back, it is just not ready for visitors yet.
As of this writing, The Coronado National Forest is closed until November 1, 2020. The burned areas are not safe for hiking, and flash flooding is a real risk. During the month of July Summerhaven has been open only to residents, but is open to the public beginning Saturday August 1st. The delay was to allow time for crews to repair certain critical guard rail posts. This first phase was complete by Friday July 31st, with the second phase continuing into August while the road is open to traffic.
So come on up! Stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants, and sample the fudge at the general store.
What follows is a sampler of birds in the village after the fire, beginning when residents could return in early July. The regulars are still here, with more warblers taking advantage of insects in the understory and water in the creek. Here are a few.
Red-faced Warblers winter in the mountains of Mexico, and breed in southern Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico. We are very fortunate to have them in SE Arizona for the summer.
They seem to like riparian areas around Sabino Creek and in Rose Canyon, where they forage in the conifers and understory and nest in the ground. We have seen more of them this year in Summerhaven, perhaps due to loss of habitat and food in Rose Canyon and other habitats after the fire. I hope Summerhaven's green island will attract and keep the populations thriving on Mt. Lemmon.
The females look similar to the males, but are a more orangish-red. I believe all the birds we see here are males.
All images here were captured relatively low in the understory near Sabino Creek on private land, not far from the water department.
In the image below we see a male feeding off of insects on the understory. Note that the leaves have galls hanging from their underside, the plant's response to flies or wasps laying eggs in the plant tissue. As the eggs mature, they will likely produce more food for the birds. [Thanks to Jeff Babson for the botany lesson!]
And, a final view of a male, striking an appealing pose.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
The Black-throated Gray Warbler, as the name describes, is black and gray, with a black throat in the male and more muted throat markings for the female, with two characteristic yellow spots just above and in front of the eye on each side.
These warblers breed in pine and mixed pine-oak forests west of the Rockies from SE Arizona into southern Canada. They winter in southern Mexico. Their song is described as a buzzy zeedle zeedle zeedle zeet-chee.
They forage for insects and nest in trees, anywhere from 3 to 35 feet above ground.
Like the Red-faced Warblers, I have seen more of them in Summerhaven this summer, in the pines and understory around Sabino Creek, again likely a result of the Bighorn Fire.
Image above, a nice pose facing away, but looking back at the camera, showing off his/her yellow spot. Below, "here's looking at ya'" with both yellow spots in evidence.
In the series of images below, a female is bathing in the creek, adjacent to Sabino Canyon Parkway.
And, preening to take full advantage of the bath . . . . .
Finally, clean and fluffy.
Like the Red-faced Warbler, the Painted Redstart is considered a specialty of the borderlands of the southwest. They are warblers who live year round in the mountains of central Mexico, but travel north into SE Arizona and western New Mexico to breed. They favor mountainous riparian areas making Sabino Creek and Rose Canyon a perfect match.
As with our other two species in this post, the Bighorn Fire has displaced them from favored habitats, bringing more of them into the Summerhaven area. The bird above was photographed in Summerhaven close to the creek.
Painted Redstarts are striking birds with bright red breasts, black and white wings, and a distinctive half eye ring. They forage by flashing their white wing patches and outer tail feathers, flushing out insects which they then pursue and capture.
This summer we have had two juveniles hanging out at our feeders, not far from the creek, but definitely out of their usual foraging neighborhood. The bird shown below has minimal red in the breast, characteristic wing markings and a developing half eye-ring. He seems to think he is a feeder bird, maybe a hummer, as he explores the nectar feeder.
The bird below is developing a red breast, but also wonders if a seed block is right for lunch. He tried pecking at it several times, but was quickly scared off by a possessive Pine Siskin.
The juvenile below landed on our railing and deck, and almost flew into the cabin. Here we see a sequence of observation and hopping about as he sizes up the world around him.
In the images below we see an adult in typical foraging behavior flashing the wings and tail.
The final image below shows full wing and tail deployment as he hopes to scare up some bugs.
We looked at some adult Abert's Squirrels in my October 2019 post, see this link. Here are two juveniles on July 22nd, tussling with each other about 20 feet off of the ground.
Abert's are small tree squirrels that live from the Rocky Mountains south into Mexico, with a population living year round here on Mt. Lemmon. They like cool and dry ponderosa pine forests, where they feed on the seeds and pinecones. They are excellent climbers and can hold onto a tree with their hind feet, freeing up their fore feet for eating.
Here we can see juveniles practicing their tree skills. Their feet are evident in these images.
Holding onto the tree sideways is not a problem for these fellas. Adults can hang upside down from their hind feet alone. These offspring likely were born here in Summerhaven, and are not migrants from the fire.
That's all for now. Soon we will start seeing birds stopping over in the village on their way south. We are already seeing Rufous Hummingbirds at the feeders, on their way to Mexico from the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Stay tuned!
Red-faced Warbler, Rose Canyon, May 14, 2020.
As we saw from my last post in March, the first day of spring is also the last day of winter (snow at 7500 feet in SE Arizona!). Although I would like to think that spring comes to the mountain in April, alas it does not! April is a cold month, with a few pussy willows budding and a lot of water running in the creek, but otherwise cold and gray. However, come May 1st, and everything explodes, trees begin to leaf, Cow Parsnip miraculously sprouts out of the mud in stream beds, and our nesting birds arrive for the summer.
This post is a sampling of what the first two weeks of May 2020 had to offer, starting with the Meadow Trail up at 9100', descending to 7500' for some Summerhaven offerings, and then driving down to Rose Canyon at 7000', where in early May the park was closed to all but foot traffic, making it ideal for birding!
The Meadow Trail: 9100 feet.
When you get to Summerhaven on the Hitchcock Highway, turn right up the hill toward Ski Valley, drive past the Iron Door, and up the mountain to the gate for the Sky Center. Park to the left where the trails begins.
Disclaimer: The two images below were captured in August a few years back. The trail does not look like this in May - it is not as green and the flowers are not in bloom yet. The good news is that if you want to see the trail this way, wait until August, all these goodies are coming soon!
The image below was captured at the the beginning of the trail, just to the south of the observatories and the U of A Sky Center. The image that follows shows the flat top of the mountain as you walk south to the edge of the rock wall, where the swallows feed. This is all at about 9100', with little variation in terrain, but differences in tree density. There are good nesting opportunities here, regardless of whether you are a cavity or ground nester.
Violet-green Swallows winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed from northern Mexico into Alaska. Mt Lemmon is in the southern range of their summer territory, with open skies and lots of bugs to the south of the rock ledge, and lots of nesting locations in the woods to the north.
Above and below are images of the swallow perching and preening between food forays. Folded up, the wings are longer than the tail. These birds move very fast and dart quickly making flight photography very difficult.
Above and below, the violet markings on the rump are evident.
Above and below, long wings and short tail.
We have seen Spotted Towhee's in prior posts, but usually in the winter or fall when I have caught the males rummaging through leaf litter. The month of May brings the males to the top of the trees to be seen and heard by interested females.
Down to 7500', let's look at some of the birds that hang out closer to the creek and home bird feeders.
Sabino Creek in Marshall Gulch, May 2020.
Black-headed Grosbeak's are chunky songbirds that winter in southern Mexico and breed in mountainous regions of northern Mexico, Arizona, and up into the Rockies and Canada. The males arrived this year in mid-April, with the females arriving about two weeks later. Their song is often described as a tipsy Robin, who cannot quite get the words right! Their chunky bills are great for cracking open sunflower seeds, making them regular visitors to feeders.
The first three images are mature males with dark heads, and cinnamon breasts.
The image in the frame below is an immature male or female - they look much alike until the male develops his characteristic black head and orange breast. The picture that follows is most likely a mature female, getting ready for nesting on May 1st.
Again, many thanks to Jeff Babson at Sky Island Tours for his help in confirming the age and gender of these birds.
Townsend's Warblers are in the group of birds that we are lucky enough to catch at one of their rest stops (Mt Lemmon) on their way migrating north. They winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, going up as far north as Alaska.
This is a male we spotted high in the trees above Upper Loma Linda Extension on May 9th. Like all warblers, they move very fast in the distance, making good photography a challenge. This bird is likely feeding on insects on this conifer.
To remind us that there are predators out there, we see an occasional Cooper's Hawk stopping by our feeders looking for a quick bite. After looking around a while he (or she) decided to move on.
To prove that Cooper's Hawks do eat, I have added the image below from my archive, August 2019. This one caught a bird near the cabin and perched to eat in good view. FYI, they eat the head first, most likely because of the high nutritional content: fat, fat-soluble vitamins, and protein.
Drive down the highway south of the Palisade Ranger Station, and you will come to Rose Canyon on your right. The first two weeks of May it was closed to traffic and campers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but many visitors parked on the main road, and walked down. We visited the canyon on May 14th, and found many birds in nesting and breeding mode.
Red-faced Warblers winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed in mountainous regions of northern Mexico, Arizona, and western New Mexico. We are fortunate to have them on Mt. Lemmon as nesters for the summer. They forage in the understory, favoring riparian areas, and nest in the ground. Here in early May, they are present in abundance in Rose Canyon, with the males singing from the upper branches. Later in the season they stay low to the ground gathering food for their nestlings, and are tougher to spot.
The Painted Redstart is a distinctive red, black and white warbler with a geographic distribution similar to the Red-faced Warbler - wintering in southern Mexico and breeding in the mountains to the north including SE Arizona, and W. New Mexico. They are the only member of their genus seen north of the U.S. border. They have a very characteristic foraging technique, fanning the tail and wings to scare up insects from the foliage. Here we can see their markings and some of the foraging behavior.
Here we see an adult (sexes are similar year round) fanning its wings and tail to get bugs to come out from their hiding places. These birds move very fast!
The Hermit Thrush is a very nondescript bird with a spectacular song. Here is a link to a YouTube video of a Hermit Thrush singing in Maine. Kenn Kaufman in his writings notes that plain looking birds need distinctive songs to identify themselves, and the Hermit Thrush is one of them!
Another nondescript bird with a distinctive song is the Warbling Vireo. SE Arizona is just on the border of their range, so Rose Canyon could be breeding territory, or this bird may be moving north. Given that it is May and the bird was singing, I am guessing this is breeding territory. Here is a link to a You-Tube video of the Warbling Vireo.
When we walked down the road toward the lake in mid-May, the park was closed, so there was no traffic whatsoever! The birds were very close to the road, including this male Western Bluebird sitting on top of a speed limit sign!
We are in the Western Bluebird's year round territory. They winter in Tucson, and nest in cavities and bird houses up on the mountain. A number of Mt. Lemmon residents have put out bird houses, which helps keep the population up.
The images above and below, a female perched on a branch. There are plenty of good nesting sites in Rose Canyon.
White-breasted Nuthatches are common on the mountain, living with us year round. They forage for insects and seeds off of tree bark, often hanging upside down and working their way from the top of the tree to the bottom.
Cordilleran Flycatchers are small flycatchers that winter in southern Mexico and breed each summer in the mountains of the pacific west of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, including Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. They started arriving to the mountain in early May, and by now they are well into nesting in Rose Canyon and Turkey Run, among other locations. See this link to my post on their nesting behavior from last fall.
The males and females are indistinguishable. The females are ledge nesters, looking for any flat place, including the rubber tires of inactive vehicles!
That's a wrap for early May on the mountain!
Stay safe, stay healthy!
Happy Trails! More soon . . . ..
Wild Turkeys and fresh snow, Mt Lemmon, March 18, 2020, the last official day of winter!
Mt. Lemmon in January: Acorn Woodpeckers and Pine Siskins
We last dropped in on the mountain community of Acorn Woodpeckers in October as they prepared for winter. Well, winter arrived, and here we see a male tending to the granary tree at Ajo and Loma Linda Extension on January 31st. In the image above he is sitting on a main branch of the dead granary tree, below he is checking out inventory, almost halfway through winter. Like all woodpeckers he is using tail to brace himself on the tree.
It appears that his winter store of acorns is down from fall inventory. We see acorns in the image above, captured on January 31st. For comparison, the image below was captured on October 18th. It is on a different part of the same tree, but most of the holes appear full, the result of the fall harvest.
And, then the Pine Siskins
Pine Siskins are small birds in the finch family that live throughout North America and reside year round on Mt Lemmon. They move in flocks, and come in large numbers to the feeders, especially in the winter when other food sources are scarce. In this series of images we see the birds going after each other for their part of the feed cylinder. It's not like there is not enough to go around!
The last of the series, below, catches a bird with his wings extended showing the yellow markings on the wing, usually only seen when folded.
For the photo geeks: This was shot with a Canon 7D Mk II, with an EF 100-400 Mk II, 286 mm, at 1/250 sec. at f/6.3 with fill flash using a Better Beamer. The combination of the flash and relatively slow shutter speed (required for synchronization) captured the wing extended (flash), but also the bird on right behind the wing (slow shutter exposed the bird before the wing overlapped it).
Return to White Water Draw: Great Horned Owl
We returned to White Water Draw on February 19, 2020 with a birding group led by Jeff Babson. Since my last visit in December, a pair of Great Horned Owls have set up camp in the barn right at the entrance to the preserve. The images above and below are the male, snoozing mid-morning.
Below we see the female sitting on her nest, presumably on eggs. There seems to be lots of prey in the White Water Draw area, so hopefully there will be enough food this spring for Mom, Dad, and their hatchlings. Portions of the barn are roped off under the nest.
Image above, just a slit of eye as she sleeps. Below, the left eye opens just a bit, then in the next frame looks a bit more menacing, before they shut us out entirely.
Zzzzzzzzzz . . . . . . . .
As we started our walk, there was a large flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds hanging out (literally) on wetland reeds. SE Arizona is in their wintering territory. My guess is that most of the birds we are seeing here are females, with some males mixed in. Males have more yellow on the breast and head than the females do.
Flocks of Blackbirds often are made up of predominantly one sex. In southern Arizona winter flocks are often females. Males typically migrate north before females to set up their territories before the females arrive.
Below, two females are mixing it up.
Special thanks to Jeff Babson both for the tour in February, and for his help reviewing these images.
For more on White Water Draw (WWD) and Sandhill Cranes, click on this link which will take you to all my posts on WWD going back to 2015.
In February there was less water than in December, but the cranes were still close in and to the right of the main viewing decks. They returned late morning, filling the sky as seen in the image above.
The images below show a family of three on their approach.
Images below, heavy air traffic on the approach, with a crowded landing field.
In the two images below we can see an immature crane who has not yet molted into adult plumage. The vast majority of immature cranes molt before the fall migration, but a few do not, and stand out from the crowd.
Snow Geese are amazing birds that breed in far northern Canada, Alaska and the Artic, and winter in the central U.S., east coast, and portions of Mexico. We are fortunate that they like inland wetlands such as White Water Draw and Bosque del Apache. Images above and below show a flock of Snow Geese coming into the wetlands for a landing around noon.
In the images below we can see one goose with distinct coloration, a blue morph. This change in coloration is determined by one gene. Note also in the detail below that this goose is missing one secondary flight feather on the right wing. Snow Geese do not molt in the winter so this is likely the result of an altercation with another goose, or a close encounter with a predator.
The geese pictured below are flying a landing pattern very close to the observation path.
In the image below, the geese are bunking right next to the Sandhill Cranes.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the shorebirds, known as "peeps" - about 5 to 6 inches long and weighing in at 1 ounce. They breed in far northern Canada and Alaska, and winter in the southern U.S., including the pacific coast, and Mexico.
In the images here we can see this sandpiper's distinctive yellow-green legs, and hunched posture as he hunts for food on the edge of the water.
We spotted this Marsh Wren moving quickly through the understory adjacent to the wetlands, and I tried many times to get a good photo without success. Then, while I was standing on the viewing deck looking for incoming cranes and geese, he popped out of the undergrowth and began hopping from branch to branch right below me. A good angle and good lighting produced this series.
This Marsh Wren is in his winter range. Some do live year round in northern Arizona, but most breed in the northern U.S. and Canada. Described by the Cornell website as pugnacious, they are ground foragers that live in marshes. They will built multiple nests and breed with multiple females, often destroying eggs and nestlings of other Marsh Wrens.
If you read my last post you know I ended it with a "footnote" - a note about birds feet. The Marsh Wren has a foot with the most common configuration, 4 toes. We can clearly see all 4 toes in this series, and the way the wren can use them to stand on a flat surface, or encircle a branch or reed.
In the last two frames below, the wren is hanging upside down with his toes firmly attached to the branch, and then moves upright without changing his foothold. As they say in the game of squash, it is all in the wrist.
"Wait, don't go. What about those Wild Turkeys in the snow?"
I was in the middle of editing this post here on Mt Lemmon when it snowed!! 6 inches on Wednesday the 18th into the 19th. I decided to lead off with the Wild Turkeys, but I cannot leave you all hanging there. So here are some more images of the last day of winter and the first day of spring (the 19th is early for spring and here is a link explaining why).
It started snowing early afternoon, and the Pine Siskins were at the feeders in force.
The following morning, March 19th, this Northern Flicker came by to say hello! (For the photo geeks, this image was shot through the sliding glass door on the cabin, which I do believe is better glass than the side window of a Ford van. Opening the door and having the subject stay put was not an option.)
One final "footnote." The Northern Flicker has 4 toes, two in front and two in back.
That's a wrap for winter!
Spring is here!
Stay safe, stay well.
Harris's Hawk taking off, Oracle State Park, January 3, 2020.
So here we are in March, looking forward to the spring solstice. But before we get into spring, let's look at what winter provided starting with a January trip to Oracle State Park.
Oracle State Park: Harris's Hawks call it home
The Kannally ranch house at Oracle State Park, with the Harris's Hawk's favorite Juniper in front.
The original 160-acre ranch was purchased by Neil and Lee Kannally in 1903, and grew to almost 50,000 acres as more family members arrived in Arizona. The ranch house was built from 1929 to 1933, patterned on Italianate villas of the 1920's, in a Mediterranean Revival Style with Moorish influences. Following the death of Lucile Kannally in 1976, the ranch was willed to the Defenders of Wildlife, which later deeded the ranch to the Arizona State Parks Board. The newly named Oracle State Park became the current 4,000 acre wildlife refuge and environmental learning center for school and adult groups. The Friends of Oracle State Park raises funds for the restoration, preservation and operation of the historic ranch house and its grounds.
A family of Harris's Hawks calls the ranch home. We found a sentry sitting on top of a tall Juniper right next to the house when we arrived for a morning birding tour.
Harris's Hawks are large raptors that live in desert and savannah regions in Mexico, southern Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Texas. They bond easily to human handlers, and appear to have been the model for the Thunderbird or Sacred Bird of several Native American societies. Because of their ability to work with human hunting partners, they are popular with falconers, and hunt both large prey such as jackrabbits as well as small maneuverable birds. (Reference: Birds of North America Online).
Harris's Hawks breed in social units of 2 to 7 individuals, and maintain a continuing presence at the park.
In the images below, a perched hawk leaps for the adjacent juniper. We can see the rusty upper wing and long legs. In the Harris's Hawk the lore, the area between the eye and the edge of the bill, is bare.
In the image below, one of the group is perched on a Aermotor windmill. Aermotor, founded by La Verne Noyes, has been in continuous operation manufacturing windmill water pumps since 1888. Between 1888 and 1892 they sold 20,000 windmills, creating an iconic feature on farms and ranches throughout the west. The Friends of Oracle State park are looking forward to full restoration of this windmill as an upcoming project. Right now it makes a great hawk's perch.
Ranch road with the ranch house in the distance.
In the images below, a Harris's hawk takes off from his perch. All these photographs were captured in early January. By March they should have started nest building and the laying of eggs.
El Rio Preserve: Black-tailed Gnatcatcher
El Rio Preserve is on Coachline Boulevard in the town of Marana. It is a 104 acre site on the de Anza trail at the base of the Tucson Mountains under development as a nature and recreational site. Birding walks have just begun this winter, once a month, usually on the first Tuesday. Look at the Marana website for more information. Click on Outdoor Recreation.
We joined the monthly birding walk, led by Jeff Babson on January 7th, and captured images of this Black-tailed Gnatcatcher. The image above and the one below are most likely a male in winter plumage when the black cap of the breeding season is replaced by a black streak over the eye.
The two images below are most likely a female with some brown coloration on the back.
The 4 images below were captured adjacent to The Chuck Huckleberry Loop at the Rillito River and North Columbus Boulevard. There is good understory along the path just west of the Columbus parking loop, which is where these photos were taken.
The image above is likely a female with brown on the wings, and the images below males in winter plumage.
The last image, below, is a male. Here we can see the tail spread out, showing that the outer tail feathers are shorter than adjacent feathers, creating a graduated look. This is not present in the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, a similar looking bird, but not common in winter in southern Arizona.
[Special thanks to Jeff Babson for reviewing these images and providing the fine detail that distinguishes these birds from Blue-gray's.]
Brown Creeper at Sweetwater Wetlands
Brown Creepers are small songbirds that live throughout North America and central Mexico. They are brown and white can be seen (with difficulty!) spiraling up large tree trunks from bottom to top probing into crevices and loose bark with slender decurved bills looking for insects. Once at the top of a tree they will look for the next big tree and start on the ground floor again, working their way up. They are superbly camouflaged, and very hard to see, and tougher to photograph.
The photographs above and below were captured at Sweetwater Wetlands on January 22nd. The bird was moving fast in the shadows making it tough to grab a good image.
The two images below were captured on September 3, 2018, near the meadow trail on the top of Mt. Lemmon. The decurved bill is evident. In the top photo the bird has got something in its mouth, likely an insect.
Spotting a Brown Creeper is always an special event! They are out there, so keep looking for them.
Orange-crowned Warblers are grayish to olive-green birds that live throughout North America, wintering in Mexico and the U.S. coastal areas and breeding in the Rockies and up into northern Canada. The orange crown is only visible when the bird is excited and raises its head feathers. They are often seen at Sweetwater foraging in the understory, including the cattails where they look for caterpillars as well as other insects. They also like fruit, seeds and oozing sap from holes drilled by sapsuckers.
The images above and below were captured in March of 2019 near the trail to the south of the wetlands where the cattails catch the morning sun from the right side of the frame.
The images below are from February of this year, in the same patch of cattails. This bird was working the cattails at the same time as the Verdin, pictured further down in the post.
The Verdin is a year round resident of southern Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, as well as Mexico. They have a bright yellow head, and a rufous/chestnut shoulder patch with is more evident in flight or when they stretch up their wings.
They commonly forage in the understory for insects and spiders, often hanging upside down as we can see in these images. They will also eat fruit and nectar, and will sip from hummingbird feeders.
Verdins build spherical nests, which can be seen throughout the Sweetwater Wetlands area, as well as flat winter roosts used throughout the year. For views of their winter digs, see this link from October 2019, Verdin roost. Like a good friend, it is great to know that they are around throughout the year.
Image above: Not clear whether our bird has found an insect, or just "packing material" from the cattail.
Let's finish with a Note about Feet, sort of a Footnote . . . (cue audio of groans . . . )
Who would think that feet are interesting? Well, for birds they are. Let's look at feet in three of our Sweetwater residents, the Sora, the American Coot, and the Pied-billed Grebe.
Most birds have four toes. This "classic" foot form is termed anisodactyl. Toes are numbered from 1 to 4. In the human foot toe #1 is the great toe, #5 the smallest lateral toe. In the anisodactyl configuration, toe #1 is rear facing, with #2 on the inside (medial), and number #4 on the outside (lateral). The Sora above is anisodactyl with long toes that enables it to walk on reeds in the wetlands, as seen in the image above.
In the image above, the bird has pulled his foot entirely out of the water, with rear facing toe #1 trailing. In the two images below we can see how these feet are useful on mud. These images were captured a year ago when the ponds were drained before the controlled burn, leading the Sora out in the mud looking for food.
In the image below the foot is lifted completely off of the mud, showing all 4 toes.
The American Coot has 4 toes, like the Sora, but the toes themselves are lobed, as seen in the image above, and the detail below. This is in contrast to ducks and gulls who have webbing connecting toes 2-4. The webbing is good for swimming and diving, but not so good for walking.
Lobate toes, as seen below, allow the bird to walk and grab reeds, but when the toes are brought together they create a more solid surface making propulsion in water more efficient.
In the image below we see an American Coot standing on a reed stump. This would be harder with webbing between the toes. The next image shows a coot standing on the pond bottom.
When it is time to go somewhere, the coot brings the toes together and the lobes come together and provide good propulsion. Good anatomy for perching and climbing as well as for swimming.
The last bird for our toe-to-toe comparison is the Pied-billed Grebe, one of my favorites. If they were bright yellow they would be your favorite rubber ducky for bath time. However, they are not ducks, they are Grebes. Their legs are situated way to the rear, with toes that are in the lobed category, but with toe to toe webbing that gives them a unique appearance. Images above and below, a grebe floating in the morning light. If you want to see one swallow a frog, follow this link.
In the series that follows, we see a Pied-billed Grebe on a mission that requires a bit more thrust than the normal cruise around the pond. The legs are way to the rear of the bird, like an outboard motor on a rowboat, and we can see them as he kicks. The legs are so far back in fact, that this bird has a hard time walking on land, and unlike a Sora or American Coot, cannot sit or climb on reeds.
In the image above, and the two below, we can see the lobed feet, with a webbed quality, as well as location of the hip posteriorly with a relatively short femur.
Even with the leg way back there, he can still scratch, with gives us another view of his neat feet.
Well, that's it for Part I. Stay tuned, Part II coming soon. We will drop by Mt Lemmon to check on the Acorn Woodpeckers, and make our second trip to White Water Draw.
A family of Sandhill Cranes returning to White Water Draw at 12:15 pm December 19th after a morning spent foraging for corn. Canon EOS 6D, EF 100-400mm IS II at 400 mm, ISO 200, f/5.6 at 1/1000 sec.
I traveled to White Water Draw (WWD) with a friend on December 19th. Although NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) buddies had reported "no Sandhill Cranes at WWD on Friday the 13th" we found close to 5,000 cranes returning from the cornfields around noon on the 19th. Yes, they have returned!
The water at the draw was very high, right up to the elevated berm and walkway, with the cranes roosting either very far to the north out of sight at the far edge of the water, or to the right of the observation decks, toward the east.
The cranes did not begin to return until 11:45 am, and at least one birder we met had already left for Wilcox, convinced that the cranes were no-shows. So if you go to WWD (which I recommend) pack hot coffee and a lunch and be patient.
Before the cranes made their entrance, we saw at least 3 Northern Harriers hunting over fields to the west, and with occasional "close encounters" over the trail. Let's start with the Harriers.
For the photo geeks: All photos shot with either a Canon 7D Mk II or 6D with Canon 100-400mm IS II, with or without 1.4 extender, hand held with a Stedi-stock. With both Canon bodies autofocus (in Servo mode) was an issue, even though the 7D Mk II has more focus points and more advanced autofocus algorithms. Either camera would often lock onto the background hills or utility poles. All post-production work done in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic.
Northern Harriers are raptors present throughout North America, breeding in the north central U.S. and into Canada, and wintering to the south, including Arizona.
They feed on small mammals and birds, and have a distinctive hunting behavior, cruising low over fields with their head angled down at 90 degrees. Unlike other hawks they depend on auditory as well as visual cues to find prey, and have facial discs similar to owls. They have the ability to hover over their prey before diving for the kill. Thus their name was borrowed by the British for the Harrier Jump Jet, developed in the 1960's.
The image above is a harrier cruising over the fields to the west of the trail. There is image distortion from rising thermals from the warming fields.
In the image below, two harriers are hunting the same area. There were at least 3 harriers that morning working in close proximity, along with a fourth that looked like it might be a Red-tailed Hawk.
Below is an image of a Northern Harrier looking for lunch. We can see the head angled down, hints of the facial disc, and distinctive white rump patch.
Images below, a harrier landing on a small tree.
Images below, a Northern Harrier landing on what looks like tumble weed. Last image shows better detail of the facial disc.
Sandhill Cranes breed far north into Canada and Alaska, migrating each year south to winter in Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Florida. They mate for life, and travel as families. White Water Draw is a favorite place for winter populations, and a great place to see them, as is Bosque del Apache in New Mexico. At WWD they leave each morning, flying north to forage for corn left in the fields after the fall harvest. They return en masse between about 10 am and noon, signaling their arrival with a chorus of honking. They circle the draw several times, with family groups breaking off and coming in for a precise touchdown in a forever growing flock on the ground.
In the image above, a family group of three coming in low at 11:45 am.
In the image below, three distinct groups coming in, one foreground flying left to right, one higher in the frame coming straight at us, and the third, distant specs in the lower right of the frame. At times incoming flocks look like swarms of bees on the horizon.
Below, a pair flying in with the mountains in the background.
The 4 images below show cranes landing at the water's edge east of the observation decks.
Below: back from a morning corn feast, time to get a drink of water and rest for the afternoon. The cranes will begin to leave for their flight back to Canada in February. For a good story on Sandhill Cranes at WWD, see this link from the Arizona Daily Star, January 2019.
The Sandhill Crane is in the order Gruiformes, which contains three families, Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules, and Coots), Aramidae (Limkin), and Gruidae, the cranes, which contains two species, the Sandhill Crane and the Whooping Crane. For more on the Whooping Crane, see this post from our trip to the Texas Coast last April.
Say's Phoebe is a medium sized flycatcher of the western U.S. that lives in Arizona year round, but also migrates north as far as Alaska for breeding, wintering as far south as southern Mexico. They eat almost exclusively insects including beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, dragonflies, and spiders. Winter location depends on food availability, so there must be enough insects at WWD to keep them here. The bird here may be getting bugs from the branch.
The Black Phoebe is flycatcher related to Say's Phoebe. It lives year round in SE Arizona and western New Mexico, as well as the Pacific Coast and Mexico, almost invariably near water, important since their nests are built of mud. They eat insects on the fly. This bird was flying a route from branch to branch catching insects above the water.
For the photo geeks: If you spot a Black Phoebe, wait and watch its behavior. They often forage for insects over water, and will run a route from branch to branch, often returning to the same branch on a circular route. Focus on the branch and wait for the birds return. A tripod helps.
The Eared Grebe is a small waterbird with thin bill and a bright red eye, seen here in non-breeding plumage. They breed in colonies in shallow wetlands in the western U.S, and Canada. In the fall they head by the hundreds and thousands to salty inland waters, especially Mono Lake in California and the Great Salt Lake in Utah to stuff themselves with brine shrimp before heading farther south for the winter.
During this feeding phase of their annual cycle they more than double their body weight, with the pectoral muscles shrinking to less than required for flight and the digestive organs growing. Before departure for wintering grounds the process reverses, with the digestive organs shrinking to one-fourth of peak size, and the heart and pectorals growing quickly to allow for flight.
The grebe pictured here was kind enough to float by us at relatively close range. These are almost full frame shots with the 7D Mk II at 400 mm, ISO 160, f/6.3 at 1/1000 sec.
That's all for now! Best wishes for 2020!
Yes, I know it is November, but it is hard to publish photos of October in October, so here they are, just past October. That gives you ALL of October!
The image above is, yes, an apple on an apple tree in Bear Wallow just west of the tunnel that runs under the highway. So, why is there a single apple tree there? My best guess is that at some time there was a cabin or a campground nearby, and someone planted the tree. It was bearing good looking fruit on October 19th. If you have knowledge of the origins of this tree, please add a comment at the end of this post! Thanks!
More Bear Wallow below . . . . .
Bear Wallow is a small valley that runs east to west not far from the top of the mountain at mile post 22. For a Map see this link. The trail through the valley can be accessed either from E. Upper Bear Wallow Road which runs east of the highway where it makes a hairpin turn, or from Soldiers Camp Road which is across the highway from the Butterfly Trailhead. There is a huge culvert, a tunnel if you like, that runs under the highway providing hikers and picnicers access the the valley on either side of the highway.
The valley is loaded with oaks and maples, as well as varieties of pine trees.
If you are not from Tucson, this valley is a one hour drive north of Tucson at at ~7500 feet. Yes, you can go from the Sonoran Desert to pines, oaks and maples in an hour. About 30 degrees cooler also!
The image above was captured at the eastern end of the trail, just south of E. Upper Bear Wallow Road, October 24th. The images that follow were all captured along the trail.
Bear Wallow is a great place to walk or picnic.
All these photographs were captured in the 11 am to 1 pm time frame. Even at high noon, only a little light filters onto the valley floor, keeping the floor dark while the tree tops are brightly lit.
Acorn Woodpeckers preparing for winter
Acorn Woodpeckers are year round residents of Mt Lemmon, living in large groups, and storing acorns in granary trees. For more on granary trees, and some great video, see this Cornell Bird Academy site. The image above is a male with the characteristic clown-like black and white face and red crest, with the striking white iris. Note how he is bracing himself with his tail, a typical woodpecker posture allowing him to get a three point stance on the tree truck and pound away on the bark.
The two images below are of a female, distinguished by a black band across the forehead, between the white face and the red crown. A subtle difference, but easy to spot if you look for it.
Look closely at the image below of a male and you will see the nictitating membrane partially closing over the eye. This extra membrane, in addition to the eyelid, is present in birds, as well as reptiles, sharks and a few mammals. It moves horizontally and can cover the entire eye. This membrane cleans the surface of the cornea, keeps it moist, and protects it.
Some of the aquatic birds, such as diving cormorants have nictitating membranes with a central, window-like area that acts like a contact lens over the cornea allowing the bird to see through the membrane when it is deployed. A bit like wearing goggles when you swim.
Acorn Woodpeckers live in large colonies and store acorns in designated granary trees. Below we see a male moving an acorn to a hole in a dead tree packed with acorns. This tree is close to the corner of Ajo and N. Loma Linda Extension Road. There is almost always some activity at this tree and adjacent trees. The woodpeckers work in pairs or groups, and keep track of their inventory. The holes are drilled in the winter, but filled in the summer. As the acorns age, they will shrink slightly. The woodpeckers check the acorns for fit, "rotating stock," moving an acorn from one hole to the next to assure a tight fit, making their food difficult for other critters to pull out. Reference: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Acorn Woodpecker will use the stored acorns as food during the winter, only leaving the mountain if the food runs out. Fortunately, if supplies run out, warmer temperatures and more food is just a quick glide down the mountain.
The Acorn Woodpecker is not the only year round resident of the mountain. The White-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches, both year round residents, store food in trees, and can be seen in their typical foraging behavior running up and down tree trunks looking for, or storing, food. No migration for these species is recorded, but, if they run out of food, they can cruise down to the valley.
Other local birds that are considered year round residents, such as Steller's Jays, and Yellow-eyed Juncos will migrate downhill in the winter to find food.
[Reference: Birds of North America, Online, Cornell Lab of Ornithology]
Cous White-tailed Deer
The Coues White-tailed Deer is a sub-species of the eastern White-tailed deer, and resident in SE Arizona, SW New Mexico, and Mexico. Named after the American Army physician Dr. Elliot Coues who described it in 1865, it is pronounced "cows" although the more common pronunciation is "cooz." It is both a desirable and challenging prey for deer hunters, as evidenced by the number of websites devoted to the species. Coues White-tail prefer woodlands of chaparral, oak and pine with interspersed clearings, making the Catalina range an ideal habitat.
The female above is avoiding the fall hunting season by hanging out near Ajo Road. Image captured at sunset on October 12th.
In the images below we see a buck munching greenery under a deck off of Middle Sabino Road. He is trying to avoid "camera season" (in addition to hunting season) just in case. Image captured October 20th.
Deer have antlers, a form of bone, which are grown and shed annually. Growth for the Coues White-tailed occurs from June to September, during which time the growing antlers are covered with a skin known as velvet. When the growing stops, the velvet drys out, and the buck rubs off the velvet to create a polished look. The buck above appears to be out of the velvet stage.
The antlers are retained through the breeding season, until a fall in testosterone causes decalcification of the pedicle at the base of the antler, and the antlers fall off. In Arizona this generally occurs in April or May.
As a buck ages and completes body growth, annual antler growth increases, producing larger racks for the older bucks. [Reference: coueswhitetail.com].
A Butterfly Break: American Lady
These photographs were taken on the Meadow Trail, at the top of Mt. Lemmon on October 6th. I am almost totally ignorant about butterflies, and I thank Jeff Babson for the identification. These images are a bit soft, perhaps due to rising thermals in the meadow.
Walking along Middle Sabino Road on the afternoon of October 20th, we spotted this Red-naped Sapsucker foraging for food. He did not stay at this tree for very long, but long enough for me to get these shots.
The Red-naped, Red-Breasted and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers were once treated as a single species - the Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. However in 1983 they were split into three separate species when studies showed distinctions among the three sufficient to divide them. The Red-naped. seen here, lives in the western U.S., breeding in the Rocky Mountains into Canada and wintering in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico and well south into Mexico. The bird spotted above is a migrant, looking for food on his trip south.
The Red-breasted lives further west along the Pacific Coast, breeding in Canada and wintering south. The Yellow-bellied lives east, from Oklahoma and Texas to the eastern seaboard, breeding in Canada. [Reference: Birds of North America Online]
The images shown below were captured at Agua Caliente in November of 2018. As with the Acorn Woodpecker, we can see the typical three point stance, two feet and the tail, that allows the woodpecker to hold onto the side of a tree and hammer away at the bark with his bill.
Red-tailed Hawk, Rufous Morph
The afternoon of October 12th we spotted two Red-tailed Hawks soaring above Upper Loma Linda Extension where it meets N. Ajo Avenue. This hawk is a rufous morph (again, thanks to Jeff Babson for the help in identification), with reddish brown on the chest.
Red-tailed Hawks are widespread throughout North America from Mexico and Central America up to northern Canada. The plumage color and pattern is highly variable, and birds are generally classified as either dark or light morph, with the addition of the rufous morph, seen here. Their name comes from the generally universal reddish dorsal tail.
The sequence of images that follow show an interaction between the hawk pictured above and a second Red-tail that entered the same airspace. It appears that our "home hawk" descends upon the interloper with talons open, discouraging him (or her) from sharing the space. Red-tail's are territorial.
Below, a Red-tail, rufous morph, perched on a snag above N. Ajo Avenue in Summerhaven. I suspect this is the same bird that I captured in flight, surveying his (or her) territory.
Let's close with the Abert's squirrel, a small tree squirrel that lives from the Rocky Mountains south into Mexico with populations found in Arizona, New Mexico, and SW Colorado. They like cool and dry ponderosa pine forests, where they feed on the seeds and pinecones. They are named after Colonel John James Abert, an Army officer who headed the Corps of Topographical Engineers and organized the effort to map the American west in the 19th century.
The Abert's squirrel has tufted ears with pale underparts and a rufous patch on the lower back. They nest in the ponderosa pine canopy in spherical nests. They are excellent climbers and can hold onto a tree with their hind feet, freeing up their fore feet for eating.
Images above and below, an Abert's close to N. Tucson Avenue, October 6th. Look for them in the winter, they live on the mountain year round.
Many thanks to Jeff Babson for always being willing to review the "mystery birds" I find in my travels, and making the identification, always with good cheer and additional information. Thanks Jeff!
That's it for October on the mountain!
Verdin Nest, Sweetwater Wetlands, October 16, 2019.
Fall has finally come to the Sonoran desert, with cooler mornings and the sun a bit lower in the sky. I joined the weekly Audubon bird walk at Sweetwater Wetlands on Wednesday the 16th, and here is a quick view of just a fraction of what we saw. To look at my prior posts on Sweetwater Wetlands, click on this link. The most recent post is at the top, the oldest post is at the end.
Bobcats: Wilma has kittens! *
The American Alligator
The alligators at Brazos Bend are very close to the pathways, and often will walk across them, or sun themselves on a path. The park has many posted warning signs, one of them above. Below, an alligator at Brazos Bend. For more alligator images, see this posting on Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
I want to express my concern for all those in east Texas affected by the recent flooding from tropical storm Imelda. During our trip in April we stayed two nights in Winnie, and traveled in and out of areas that were completely covered with water from this recent storm. Brazos Bend State park likely flooded as well. The American Red Cross is active in east Texas, and provided temporary shelter for many. If you would like to contribute for aid to those affected by the flood, go to this link for the American Red Cross. Thank you!
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About
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