If you live in Portal, Cave Creek Canyon is your backyard. Put out feeders and water, keep everything clean and stocked 7/24, and a wide range of species will appear. Any bird in the neighborhood who will come to a feeder will visit you. Birders like ourselves are lucky there are a number of private lodges and residences in Portal that open up their "feeder theaters" to us.
The Cave Creek Ranch, where we stayed, maintains stocked feeders from dawn to dusk, and is open to the public for a contribution to their seed and jelly fund. In addition, two private homes have opened their backyards to the public both with a seed and jelly kitty jar.
Bob Rodrigues lives off of Portal Road, at the site previously owned by the Jasper family. He continues to maintain the "Jasper Feeders." The link will take you to an eBird Hotspot page with directions and more details.
Dave Jasper now lives off of the south side of Portal Road, just west of Portal Peak Lodge, Store and Cafe. He has continued the feeder tradition at his new home. During our visit in April we spotted a number of species that, if not rare, are usual sightings for Cave Creek Canyon. For more on his site and birds seen here, see this eBird page. The next three species are in this OMG! category, a special sighting for Cave Creek Canyon. All of the images for these three were captured at Dave Jasper's backyard on Portal Road.
The Yellow-breasted Chat is a long-tailed tanager-like bird with a thick bill. Previously thought to be a warbler (family Parulidae, New World or Wood Warblers), in 2017 it was placed in its own family, Icteriidae. It sports a bright yellow throat and breast, with dull olive-green upper parts and white spectacles. The two sexes are similar in appearance.
Although its range is extensive throughout North America, it is often difficult to see, favoring dense thickets and shrubby areas, and therefore an uncommon sighting. It is also considered skulking and secretive in nature, making it more elusive. However, early in the breeding season the male's presence is easy to determine by his extensive vocal repertoire, composed of whistles, rattles, catcalls, and grunts. (References: Birds of the World, eBird). They eat insects, but also fruit, and may have been drawn to the orange halves and jelly jars.
Maybe it was a combination of the breeding season (April) and the dry winter of 2021 that brought this male to Dave Jasper's feeders and watering hole.
The Cassin's Finch is a rosy-tinged finch of the mountains of the western U.S. and Canada. The species lives year round in western Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Canada, with breeding further north in Canada. The birds that migrate will go as far south as central Mexico, always sticking to the mountains. Arizona is in their winter range, but they are not as common in our area as the House Finch. These birds we spotted at Dave Jaspers feeders are probably migrating north from Mexico.
The male is rosy red, with bright red crown feathers which we see raised up in the image above. The red is due to carotenoid pigments which come from their diet of foods like orange berries of firethorn plants.
The male Cassin's Finch can be distinguished from male House Finches by the brighter peaked crown, unstreaked underparts, and a rosy wash on the back which is visible in the image below.
The bird below is a female Cassin's Finch with crisp streaks on the underparts, in contrast to the softer appearance of the streaks in the female House Finch.
The male Lawrence's Goldfinch is a well dressed bird, soft gray overall offset by a black face, cap and throat, and yellow accents splashed on the breast, wings and rump. If GQ published an edition for birds, this bird would win best dressed. The species is in the family Fringillidae, along with the American and Lesser Goldfinch, the Cassin's Finch (which we just saw), the Pine Siskin, Crossbills, and the Pine and Evening Grosbeak, among others.
The Lawrence's Goldfinch lives year round on the southern California and Baja coasts, breeding further north on the California coast and valley areas, wintering in Arizona, New Mexico and Canada. It is a nomadic species, often migrating west to east rather than north to south, always seeking rainfall, seeding plants and drinking water. They have no loyality for their breeding areas, often present in large numbers one year, and absent the next.
For whatever reason, this male ended up in Cave Creek Canyon in April.
Lawrence's Goldfinch eat mostly plant seeds, plant buds, and some fruit, only rarely insects. The lemon yellow breeding plumage come not from a molt, but from wear, yellow emerging through the overlying gray of the feathers.
Below are two images of this male taking off from the feeders. I was fortunate that the bird stayed in the focal plane. We can see the notched tail with white streaks, yellow rump, yellow of the worn edges of the flight feathers, and coverts, as well as the head markings.
In the image below, the tail is moving slightly to the left for stabilization and steering. I hope birds enjoy flying, because it looks like fun!
For the photo geeks, the two images above were shot with a Canon R6, EF 100-400 IS II with 1.4 III extender at 540 mm, f 8.0, ISO 6400, 1/2000 second, mounted on a tripod with a Wimberley gimbal head. These started as RAW images with post production processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC and then export as JPGs for this site.
The Orioles Three . . . .
We got a chance to see three orioles at one sitting, Scott's, Bullock's and Hooded. Orioles are members of the blackbird family (Icteridae), along with meadowlarks and cowbirds. Birds in this family all have strong, long, and pointed bills, good for gathering food and building nests.
Scott's Orioles are residents of high deserts and adjacent mountain slopes, where they eat mostly insects, fruit and nectar. They are closely associated with yuccas throughout their range, looking for insects and nectar from the yucca flowers, and hanging their nests from live yucca leaves.
They live year round in southern Mexico and the tip of Baja and breed in northern Mexico and in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The males sport bright lemon yellow below, velvety black above with a black throat and chest. They have a yellow shoulder with white wingbars and a black and yellow tail.
In the images above and below we see a male going for an orange, and dipping into the jelly jar. Cave Creek Canyon is in their breeding range.
In the images above and below we see a female Scott's Oriole, with characteristic dull yellow below, olive-green above with faint wingbars and some stippling of the head. She may have a nest nearby.
In the sequence below we see a male taking off, showing markings on the wings and tail.
The male Bullock's Oriole is bright orange with a black line through the eye, black cap and throat and a white wing patch. They breed throughout the western U.S from Texas and Colorado to California and up into Oregon, Idaho and Montana. Cave Creek Canyon is in their breeding area. They winter in southern Mexico and central America.
The female, seen below, has a more muted appearance with a white wingbar, and gray on the abdomen.
The male Hooded Oriole has a black tail, throat, and wings with yellow to orange rump, hood, and belly. The black throat extends up the face creating a little mask around the eye and down the chest to make a bib. Adult males sport white wingbars. Females are olive-yellow overall with grayer backs and thin white wingbars.
Hooded Orioles eat a variety of insects as well as fruit and nectar from flowering plants, as well as nectar from hummingbird feeders. They breed in portions of northern Mexico, southern Arizona, New Mexico and California. In California they are often nick-named "palm-leaf orioles," for their propensity to build hanging nests on the undersides of palm fronds, using their sturdy bills to “sew” the nest to the frond. They have also been known to migrate into new communities in California to take advantage of newly planted palms. They winter in southern coastal Mexico.
In the sequence below we see a male taking off from the jelly feeder, very carefully staying in my plane for focus.
The breeding male Lazuli Bunting, a relative of the cardinal and grosbeak, is brilliant blue above, with a pumpkin-colored breast and pale belly. Lazuli Buntings eat a variety of insects as well as berries and seeds. They frequent feeders, especially those stocked with white proso millet.
The species breeds in the western U.S. from costal California east to Nevada, northern Arizona, and north to Utah and Colorado and up into Canada, wintering in SE Arizona and Mexico. This male is likely in migration north.
Each male Lazuli Bunting has his own unique "voice," a combination of notes developed in the first year on the breeding grounds. This unique song is based on the syllables and song fragments gleaned from other males, and becomes their song for life.
That's it for Part II. Stay tuned for more in the next few weeks.
Juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl, South Fork of Cave Creek, April 23, 2021.
From April 22nd to the 26th, we headed back with some good friends to Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, to expand birding beyond our local haunts now that the pandemic is showing signs of control in the U.S. and now that we are vaccinated. Yahoo!
For more on Portal and Cave Creek Canyon going back to our first visit in 2016, see this link to my prior posts. These posts include maps of the area, details about Cave Creek Ranch, as well as images of 39 species, including the Elegant Trogan and the Whiskered Screech-Owl.
This first post covers our first few days in the South Fork of Cave Creek, a fantastic birding area. Our first stop was at sunset on the 22nd, just beyond the berm on the south Fork, where a pair of Northern Saw-whet Owls had produced several fledglings.
Northern Saw-whet Owl
The Northern Saw-whet Owl is a small owl common to the forests of North America and the west, only rarely seen as far south as Cave Creek Canyon. This past spring a pair nested in a large Sycamore near the berm at the end of the South Fork Road, high in a cavity.
Late in the afternoon of April 22nd we were fortunate to see a fledgling sitting on a branch, not far from the nest. Juveniles have a cinnamon belly, unspotted brown back, and a white "V" between the eyes. Adults are small, robin-sized, mottled brown with a whitish facial disk and a rounded oversized white-spotted head. We saw only juvenile fledglings on this trip., so for images of the adult from the Cornell website, see this link.
The images above and below were shot in early evening as the sun was sinking below the Chiricahuas to the west. This fledging left his* nest to perch on a branch and take in his new world. Other birders reported two or three nestlings total, a good sized clutch for this species.
*It is not clear whether this is a male or female.
The following morning, we caught the same bird or his/her sibling sitting at the nest entrance, taking in his new world, see images below. To my eye this bird looks different from our subject of the prior evening; perhaps a bit younger with white flecks at the edges of the facial disk, that might be residual feather sheaths. They are cavity nesters, in this case a large hole in a Sycamore close to the berm.
Northern Saw-whet Owls breed in forests across southern Canada and the northern and western United States, extending south to central Mexico. They live year round in northern Arizona, but are uncommon in the Chiricahuas.
They are cavity nesters in a wild range of habitats, but seem to prefer mature forests with an open understory for foraging, deciduous trees for nesting (in this case a Sycamore), dense conifers for roosting, and riverside habitat nearby. They eat small mammals, especially mice and voles, as well as insects, and will feed on other birds during migration. Their flexibility when it comes to food probably helps explain their wide range.
Our subject here is taking in his late morning world, perhaps including the photographer, who was well below the nest and in the understory. It was a challenge to find a clear visual path to the nest opening.
In spite of our drought, there must have been enough food to feed the parents and the nestlings. Owls will sometimes abandon nests if they cannot find enough food for themselves and offspring.
A bit about the South Fork . . . .
The south Fork Road facing toward 42 Forest Road and Portal, with the creek to the left of the photo. A great riparian area for birds, with lots of bugs and understory, as well are large trees for cavity nesters.
If you are driving west out of Portal, the road bears left and becomes 42 Forest Road, heading to the visitor information center, Sunny Flat and the Southwestern Research Station. If you go to the right at this point, the road heads up to the town of Paradise, and eventually over to the western side of the mountain range, and back toward Tucson.
Off of the 42 Forest Road, before you get to Sunny Flat, you will find the South Fork Road on the left which heads southwest along the South Fork of Cave Creek. The road ends at a berm, where the dirt road has been turned into a trail. The whole area around the road and the creek is prime birding territory.
South Fork Road facing southwest in the direction of the berm and trailhead. This is a great place to pull over and look for birds.
Just before the road ends at the berm, it crosses the creek at this bridge, which is where the two birds below were spotted!
The Brown-crested Flycatcher lives in riparian woodlands of North, Central and South America, breeding as far north as Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Texas, and wintering in southern Mexico, with large populations in Central and South America. They are cavity nesters, favoring large trees and cacti. They tend to be shy, favoring the upper canopy, except on breeding grounds, which likely brought this bird within the reach of my lens. (Reference: Birds of the World).
Let's finish with my best shot of this Arizona Woodpecker, also captured from the bridge over the creek. The Arizona Woodpecker is a year round resident of the mountains of Mexico, with their northern range extending just into SE Arizona, making Cave Creek a great place to spot them.
They forage for insects from tree bark, in a fashion similar to the Brown Creeper, starting at the bottom and working their way up. They also eat berries and Acorns, a dietary flexibility that likely allows them to winter in areas that strict insectivores would avoid.
For more images of the Arizona Woodpecker from prior posts, click this link.
That's all for now. More from Cave Creek soon!
June is on the cusp of summer, and in addition to the songbirds of May, we see hummingbirds in larger numbers, coming to nectar feeders as well as flowers in bloom. Broad-tailed and Rivoli’s are regulars on the mountain this month, and Rufous will make a stopover in August on their migration south. Here is a sampling of what we will see.
Broad-tailed Hummingbirds winter in pine-oak forests and tropical highlands of Mexico, and breed in high-elevation meadows near pine-oak and evergreen forests from Mexico north to Colorado, Utah, Idaho and Nevada, including Arizona. The birds we are seeing now are likely here to breed. They are iridescent green above with greenish or buffy flanks, with a white chest and white line down the belly. Adult males have a magenta gorget (throat). Females and juveniles have green spots on their throats and cheeks and a pale eye ring. They eat insects, nectar from flowers, and of course, sugar water from nectar feeders.
The images below were both shot in Summerhaven, the first a male Broad-tailed from May 10, 2020, the second a female feeding at flowers August 27, 2017.
Rivoli’s Hummingbirds were known as the Magnificent until 2017 when the one species was split into two, Rivoli’s in the north, and the Talamanca further south in the Costa Rica highlands and Western Panama. Rivoli’s are among the largest of Hummingbirds, evident if you see them on a feeder with other hummers. The males have a purple crown, emerald throat, and a green back, with a white dot behind the eye. In low light the birds look very dark. The females are green above and grayish below. They live year-round in pine oak forests of central and southern Mexico, breeding north in Mexico and just over the border into SE Arizona. They sip nectar from flowers and feeders and eat insects from plants or in mid-air. They nest at 5,000 to 9,000 feet along stream beds, making Summerhaven an ideal location. Nests are tough to see, typically on a horizontal branch over a stream, commonly at 20 feet or higher
The images below are of males in good light from Madera Canyon, March 2018. Madera Canyon, like Summerhaven, is a riperian area, favored by this species.
One of our more impressive and entertaining hummingbirds is the Rufous, a small and energetic winter resident of Mexico known for very long migrations (up to 4,000 miles) to breed in the Pacific Northwest, Canada and Alaska, going up the Pacific Coast in the spring, returning in summer and fall down the Rocky Mountains following wildflower blooms. Males commonly arrive at feeders here on their way south in late July and into August. Males in good light are bright orange on the back and belly with an iridescent red throat. Females are green above, with rufous flanks, rufous patches in the green tail, and often a spot of orange on the throat. Rufous hummingbirds are very aggressive at feeders, often staking out a feeder and chasing away all others. Only the Rivoli’s stays put, ignoring the frantic gyrations of the Rufous.
Image below is a male Rufous Hummingbird captured at Battiste Bed Breakfast and Birds in Hereford, Arizona, March 2018.
Below, two images of female Rufous Hummingbirds, captured in Summerhaven August 2018.
Mature Anna’s and Broad-billed’s can be seen at Molino Basin and the Hitchcock campground during the summer. Immature Anna’s will appear on the mountain in late summer after they have fledged in Tucson.
So fill your feeders with fresh nectar (sugar-water, no coloring), clean off your binoculars, and enjoy the hummers of summer!
On-line reference: The Cornell Lab All About Birds. And, many thanks to Marty Herde for sharing her observations as an ace birder and Summerhaven resident!
That's all for now! Stay tuned, more on the way from Portal AZ from April 2021.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About