Cedar Waxwings, hanging on tight in the wind.
Thursday October 18th, was the weekly bird walk at Agua Caliente Park, a Pima County Parks and Recreation activity led by Jeff Babson. In October the walk starts at 8 am by the ranch house. You can sign up in advance at the Pima County website, link here.
The 18th was clear but very windy! We were surprised by a flock of Cedar Waxwings hanging on to tree branches as they swayed back and forth in the wind. I had the shutter set at 1/2000 second to freeze the birds and branches as they swung back and forth. It is easy to see ruffled feathers in these shots.
Cedar Waxwings are songbirds in the Bombycillidae family, related to the Bohemian Waxwing and the European Starling. They live throughout North America, staying wherever they can find fruit; in mixed woodlands, along streams, or in fields, grasslands, sagebrush, and along desert washes. They travel in large flocks, and will arrive in Tucson from time to time and stay for as long as they can find food. They breed in Canada, traveling south in the winter to feed on ornamental berries. See my post from December 2016 for Cedar Waxwings feasting on berries in Bend, Oregon. For more on their habitat, food and nesting patterns, see the Cornell Website here.
Below, portions of the flock at Agua Caliente near the pond, close to the ranch house.
Below, a bird caught in mid-hop, checking out a new branch for size.
Below, the bird on the right has a mottled breast, characteristic of a juvenile, in the first year of life.
(Note correction thanks to Jeff Babson. Originally I assumed this mottling was due to the wind, rather this is a juvenile. 10/27/2018)
Below, a bird finds shelter and looks for food in a tree next to the pond.
Cedar Waxwings get their name from the Cedar Berries they eat during the winter, and the red waxy tips on their tertiary feathers, a feature I was not able to capture this day. However, we can see the red waxy tips on the two images below, captured at Catalina State Park in March of 2017.
For spectacular images of Cedar Waxwings in the Bay Area, see Tom Grey's website.
Rufous Winged Sparrow
Jeff Babson spotted this sparrow foraging in low shrubs off of the path on the way to the western ponds. As always, my thanks to him for the excellent walks at Agua Caliente, and this particular identification.
The Rufous Winged Sparrow is a resident of the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and northern Mexico, with a fairly small range. They tend to stay in one place throughout the year and life cycle. Their nesting behavior is triggered by the first summer monsoon rain, thus they nest later than most species in the SE Arizona region.
They are small with a short conical bill and long tail. They have rusty stripes on the head and a rusty stripe behind the eye. The breast is grey and unstripped. There is a rusty (rufous) patch on the shoulder, which is not always evident, and not seen in these images.
The Rufous Winged Sparrow is distinguished from its cousins (Rufous-crowned Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow) by a yellow bill, brown streaks down the back, and two black mustache stripes, which we can see in images below. Among these features, the pair of mustache stripes is the most distinctive.
This last image, above, shows the long tail.
Below, two images captured in our backyard in August of this year. Major credit to my wife DJ who recognized the bird, AND got me out there with my gear to get these images. We can see the rufous patch on the shoulder.
Finally, we all know that birds don't dance but the last image below looks like a disco move. But then again, this bird is not old enough to remember disco . . . hip hop maybe . . . .
On a more serious note, the Rufous-winged Sparrow is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, because of its declining population due to loss of habitat from grazing and development.
That's all for now! More soon.
Mamma Cooper's Hawk feeding one of her nestlings, May 18, 2017
The middle of May in Tucson has turned out to be cooler than usual - partial compensation for some of the really hot days we had earlier in the year. On the Thursday May 18th Agua Caliente birding walk we caught up with the nursery. Over the past two months we have seen nests for Anna's Hummingbirds, Vermilion Flycatchers, the Great Horned Owl, Curved-bill Thrashers, the Beardless Tyrannulet, Ravens, and Cooper's Hawks.
The Cooper's Hawk's nest is high in a Cottonwood tree close to the guest house and the path that leads to the western ponds. From the path, looking waaaay up and toward the south, you can see the nest. There are at least two nestlings, here being fed a fresh kill by the mother, images above and below. In the image below it is not clear if the chick is full, or offering food back to mom. The kill is off to the mother's left side, right side of the frame, and as we watched she ducked her head out of frame to get pieces she then fed to the young.
Below, a pause in the feeding.
I suspect we were catching all this toward the end of the meal. The mother finally picks up the whole kill, and dangles it above the young. Perhaps she is showing the chicks what they will need to deal with as adults ("You're not going to get this kind of service forever!") , or this could just be a "last call!"
In any event, after a minute or so she flies off with the kill, perhaps to leave it with the male who generally sits watching the nest from an adjacent tree. She returns, and settles down on the brood, keeping them warm and protected.
Ravens defend their nest against a cruising Red-Tail Hawk
Ravens are also nesting, just north of the Cooper's Hawk nest. The nest itself is tough to see from the ground, but it is there, and likely has nestlings. As we were walking west on the path to the western ponds, just as we cleared the cover of the mesquite bosque, we spotted a soaring Red-tailed Hawk to the south. This is likely a immature male, with all the markings of a Red-tailed, but without a red tail. Image below:
As the hawk flew closer to us, he was intercepted by first one and then a second Raven, on high alert for any raptors that might raid their nest. Below, the hawk spots one of his attackers.
The Ravens rapidly went on the attack, doing aerobatics that looked at times incompatible with flight. Below are three images showing the Raven attacking the hawk feet first.
The second Raven got into the fight quickly, sometimes hanging back, sometimes getting closer. Below the Ravens are 2 on 1 against the hawk.
The hawk moved north and west fairly quickly, getting out of our range, and away from the Raven's nest. They appeared to break off the flight. Score another point for Raven homeland defense!
For the photo geeks: All images captured with a Canon 7D Mark II with a Sigma 150-600mm C series. I was set up for shooting songbirds at ground level when the Red-tailed hawk was spotted. I did manage to change focus settings from One Shot to AI Servo, and switched my focus point from center, single point to the center grid. These settings worked pretty well for the rapid movement overhead. The 7D was set at aperture priority, f 8.0, ISO fixed at 200. Shutter speeds varied between 1/400 and 1/640 sec. If I had more time, I would have moved the ISO up a bit, and aperture down a bit to get faster shutter speeds. Frames 1,2,3,5 and 6 were at 600 mm, frame 4 at 275mm. I had to zoom out as the birds came right overhead. Shutter was set on High Speed Continuous, which with the 7D captures up to 10 frames/second, slowing down as the buffer fills. I shot 1800 frames total on the 18th, over 200 were of this encounter. These 6 were the best. Post-production processing with Lightroom CC [version 6], with considerable cropping on most images and generous use of the Clarity and Sharpening sliders.
After all this feeding and fighting, we caught up with some of the more placid songbirds. Below, three images of a Lark Sparrow
Hooded Orioles are common right now, and one male was out and about on a blooming Saguaro toward the west end of the park, images below.
That's all for now - more coming soon! Happy Trails!
The Vermilion Flycatcher nest that I posted a week ago has progressed. A week ago there were three nestlings, now there are three fledglings. Above, a portrait of the three offspring in the morning light. I was able to find a spot between the leaves and branches, and the three of them finally struck the right pose. The one on the right has his back to us, and has turned his head back toward the camera. The nest is no longer big enough for the three of them, the one on the right was spending most of his time on the branch. They are still waiting for "take out" from Mom, see below, but should be ready to catch bugs on their own soon.
Anna's Hummingbird Nest
My posting of the 16th had images captured on the 13th of the Anna's Hummingbird mom feeding very new hatchlings. One week later on the 20th the nestlings are bigger, and it is clear that there are two of them in the nest, below.
The mother really does gymnastics to feed her young, two images below.
Stay tuned. More soon.
The past month has been an explosion of spring nesting activity, and for us, our number one stop has been Agua Caliente. Above, a female Vermilion Flycatcher sitting on her nest with three nestlings on April 15th. Our best guess is that these offspring will fledge in the next week.
We have been following this nest for the past three weeks. The male will feed the female when she is sitting on her clutch of eggs - which we see in the images below captured two weeks ago on March 30th. The male here looks like Superman rushing in with provisions for his hungry mate.
Curve-billed Thrasher's build their nests at a very convenient (for me) height of 4 to 6 feet above the ground, commonly in Cholla cactus, as we see here at Agua Caliente. Both the parents provide food, and I have some shots of all four family members crowded in the nest. As an aside, the juveniles have eyes less yellow than their parents, and less of a curve to the bill, as we can see here.
It is feeding time, although in the image below the parent looks more like a choir director than a waiter.
These birds are ready to fledge, as we can see in the wing-flapping sequence below. View left to right.
I posted images of the female building this nest on March 18th. Her eggs have now hatched, and she is feeding two hatchlings as of April 13th. Below she is sitting on the nest, followed by images of her feeding. Note that she is solo on this, the male Anna's Hummingbird does not stick around for raising the young.
These hatchlings look really young. Note how far down the mother's bill goes! Ouch!
Great Horned Owls
A female Great Horned Owl has been sitting on her nest at Agua Caliente for some time. This past week we were able to see a nestling for the first time, just barely peeking up into view as the mother moved herself around in the nest. The mother's head is to the left and tucked down, her tail to the right.
Happy Easter, a Joyous Passover and have a wonderful spring!
March 16th morning walk with Jeff Babson at Agua Caliente, we spotted a hummingbird nest, with a female Anna's Hummingbird sitting on the nest off and on, as well as tending to it. This nest matches the excellent description on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, "The female builds the nest out of plant down and spider webs, sitting in the nest and building the cup rim up around her. Nests take around a week to build and are 1 inch tall by 1.5 inches in diameter. They may be built of cattail, willow, leaves, thistle, or small feathers and bound together by spider webs or insect cocoons. They may decorate the outside with lichens, mosses, or even paint chips."
Above we can see her tending to nest construction. Her choice of building materials allows the nest to expand as she lays her eggs and the chicks grow. This nest is no bigger than a golf ball, situated at a Y-shaped branch - tough to spot and equally difficult to find again once binoculars or camera is lowered!
For photo geeks: The image directly below was captured on the 16th, handheld without flash. The image above was captured on the 21st, when I returned with tripod, gimbal mount, remote shutter release, and flash with a Better Beamer. Image above Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C series at 600 mm, ISO 200 1/125th at f/10, Canon Speedlite 580EX II with Better Beamer, output lowered 2 stops, on tripod.
All images below handheld from the 16th.
Lucy's Warbler is one of the smaller warblers, wintering along western coastal Mexico and Central America, migrating north to Southern Arizona for breeding. They were spotted about a week ago in Tucson, having returned from their winter grounds. Below are three images from Agua Caliente last Thursday that shows the characteristic rufous crown and rump patch, and one image from March 10th at Catalina State Park that shows the bird in flight. The last is not the best, but it does show the characteristic markings of the male.
Lucy's warbler is one of the few warblers that nest in holes. Their favorite sites are in mature (old) mesquite trees, but as these are cleared for development, their habitat is becoming more limited. Tucson Audubon is studying the use of nest boxes as a substitute for tree holes. For more information on nest boxes for desert birds see this link.
The Belted Kingfisher is a winter resident at Agua Caliente, but difficult to spot, rarely sits still, and (for me) difficult to photograph. This image was captured last week, just north of the pond near the ranch house. For great images of this distinctive bird, and a discussion of differences by sex and age, see Tom Grey's website.
Cedar Waxwings in Tucson!
Cedar Waxwings are visually spectacular songbirds that travel in flocks, seeking out fruit as well as insects. They live throughout North America in the winter, migrating to the northern U.S. and Canada for breeding in spring and summer. I last spotted them in Bend Oregon in December, see this post. My only other glimpse of them in Southern Arizona was last spring in Portal. So imagine my surprise when I walked out my front door in the Old Fort Lowell area earlier this month to find a flock of 50 to 100 warming themselves in the morning sun on a nearby tree.
The image above shows the characteristic black and while facial coloration, the yellow tips on the tail feathers, and the bright red waxy tips on the secondary wing feather. Below is a good look at the tail feathers.
Below a bird is stretching and preening, showing off the red tips of the secondaries on birds right side, left side of the image.
Presumably the same flock was there the following day at dawn, not to return. I suspect they are moving north, looking for trees with fruit.
Hawk Watch: A Southern Arizona Rite of Spring*
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About