For those of you that follow this blog, my last two entries were from our trip to the Texas coast in late April, first on the Smith Oaks Rookery in High Island, and next a very entertaining Reddish Egret doing his antics to scare up some lunch. This post focuses on one day, April 27th, when we visited the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. This 37,000-acre refuge occupies much of the center of the map below. To provide some orientation, and help you plan a trip to the area, High Island is in the lower right corner of the map, and Rollover Pass is lower center, with the Anahuac refuge directly north.
The 37,000-acre refuge was established in 1963 as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. For more on this system, and locations near you, click here. The Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge was established on ancient flood plains, with vast expanses of coastal marsh and prairie bordering Galveston Bay. The refuge is home to both local and migratory birds, as well as alligators (See lead photo!) and other wildlife.
The morning of the 27th we drove in from the north, stopping by open fields, then toured Shoveler Pond, detail map below. The red marks indicate places where images were captured. The GPS chip in the Canon 7D Mk II make this possible when combined with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom's mapping feature. Note that in April the Shoveler Pond Boardwalk was closed for repairs, but is open as of June 18th.
Orioles are in the family Icteridae (Icterids), one of 137 families in the Order Passeriformes, also known as perching or song birds. The Icterids are New World Passerines, and consist of 29 genera, and include orioles, blackbirds, meadowlarks, grackles, and cowbirds. Orioles are in the genus Icterus, which includes 33 species, including the Orchard Oriole, Icterus Spurius. We spotted this male, and a female, as we entered the refuge from the north, and were fortunate to get good views in good light. The males are black above, and reddish/chestnut below.
Orchard Orioles winter from Mexico south into northern South America, and breed from Texas and the southern states to Canada, east of the Rockies. The birds we see here could be breeding on the Texas coast, or are on their way north, and have stopped for a quick bite. They eat mostly insects and other arthropods, along with some fruit and nectar.
Below is a female, olive above, yellow below.
At this point I cannot avoid jumping away from the Texas coast for a moment, and digging into my archive of oriole images to take a peak at Baltimore, Hooded, Scott's and Bullock's Orioles, with this bold disclaimer:
The following images of orioles were not taken in Texas! (Just so no one is confused!)
Baltimore Oriole, male, captured at his nest on the shore of Squam Lake, New Hampshire, May 2019 (yes, we went to New Hampshire after Texas.) This sock-like hanging nest is typical of the species, carefully woven by the female. Here the male appears to be standing guard.
Hooded Oriole, male, captured at Agua Caliente Park in Tucson Arizona, May 2017.
Scott's Oriole, male, taken at Battiste Bed, Breakfast and Birds, Hereford, AZ, March 2018.
Bullock's Oriole, male, at Agua Caliente Park, May 2017.
OK, back to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge . . . .
The Eastern Kingbird, Tyrannus tyrannus, is one of over 300 species in the Tyrannidae family, Tyrant Flycatchers. They winter in South America and migrate in flocks to North America, generally avoiding Arizona and the Pacific Coast. This bird could be a Texas resident, or a migrant resting on the coast before continuing the trip north. They are handsome birds looking ready for a formal evening event.
This bird was spotted on a wire near the road, not far from the Orchard Oriole above.
Click this link to browse the Tyrant Flycatchers on the Cornell Lab website.
Speaking of flycatchers, here are some images of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher we spotted on Galveston Island on the 29th.
These are beautiful birds with very long tails. We were fortunate to catch this bird on the wire, but did not catch any in flight. They breed in the central south U.S. from Texas into Oklahoma and Kansas, wintering in Mexico and Central America.
For the photo geeks out there: This image is "soft" in part because of the high ISO (~2500), but largely because it was shot through the side window of the van. The window did not open, and getting out of the van and keeping the bird on the wire did not seem a reasonable option. Here I decided that a "soft" image was better than no image at all.
Diskcissel's are grassland buntings in the cardinal family, wintering in Central and South America, and breeding in the prairie midwest. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology website provides this wonderful description:
"The curt song of the Dickcissel sounds like the bird’s name, and it’s part of the soundtrack of the North American prairies. This chunky grassland bunting is colored like a miniature meadowlark, with a black V on a yellow chest. These birds are erratic wanderers—common across the middle of the continent, and a pleasant surprise whenever they turn up in pastures and fields elsewhere in the central and eastern United States. Dickcissels can form enormous flocks on migration and in winter."
It seems likely that this bird is in migration.
Photo geek note: These images were also shot through the side window of the van.
A Glossy Ibis on Shoveler Pond
The Glossy Ibis is in the family Threskiornithidae, consisting of 34 species worldwide, with 4 in North America: the Glossy Ibis, White-faced Ibis, White Ibis, and Roseate Spoonbill. We saw the spoonbill in a prior post on the Smith Oaks Rookery, and we will see the White Ibis below.
Shoveler Pond is an extensive wetland that is part of the park, and detailed in the second map at the top of this post. Below is a view from the perimeter road, including the viewing platform which was being repaired during our visit, but is open now.
The Glossy Ibis above was off in the distance on the pond, but I was able to capture closer images of the same species on the 29th on Galveston Island, below. Breeding adults have chestnut plumage glossed with green or purple. All plumages have a powder blue line on the face that does not completely encircle the eye, detail in 4th frame below. (Reference: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition, Dunn and Alderfer, p 266.) This bird is preening, showing long legs and decurved bill.
Eye detail below.
White Ibis, first spring
Above, on Shoveler Pond, is a White Ibis in the first spring. The adult is white with a pink/red face and white eye. The juvenile has a dark eye and dark back, but as it matures, in the first spring, distinctive white feathers come into the back with a mottled neck (Reference: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition, p. 266)
Both Glossy and White Ibises have similar foraging habits, using their long bills to probe for fish and crustaceans in the mud. Their range is similar, coastal marshes and wetlands of the southeast U.S with Glossy Ibises going up into New England, and White Ibises into Mexico.
As we got closer to Shoveler Pond, we spotted two photographers with some serious telephoto gear intent on the edge of the reeds. We joined them and over time spotted a King Rail in reasonable light looking for food along the water's edge.
King Rails are in the Rallidae Family along with Sora, Gallinules, and Coots. The King Rail lives near fresh water marshes and swamps from Mexico into New England. Their population has been declining in recent years, most likely due to loss of habitat and pesticide use. They are on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List as being threatened or endangered without conservation efforts.
This rail is 12 to 14 inches in length. Although there are no yardsticks in the wild, we do see the bird adjacent to a tree stump that is probably 4 to 5 inches in diameter.
King Rails eat crustaceans, especially crayfish, as well as aquatic insects, and small fish.
We stopped at Brazos Bend State Park on April 30th, the last morning of our trip. This Virginia Rail was foraging among the reeds in reasonable light. Unlike the King Rail, the Virginia Rail lives throughout North America, wintering in the southern U.S. and Mexico and breeding north centrally all the way up into Canada. This rail is smaller than the King Rail, and has grey cheeks, a reddish bill, and cinnamon neck. It is said to be larger than a Sora, and smaller than an American Coot. We get an estimate of this bird's size from these images, where we can compare the size of the bird to adjacent reeds and stumps.
Ohhhh, don't forget the Alligators !
There are lots of American Alligators throughout the freshwater wetlands of SE Texas, and Shoveler Pond is no exception. Above, an American Alligator waiting for lunch to arrive.
Below, an exercise in image recognition. Let's see, from top to bottom: log, log, . . log-log. . . . .log, log, . . . . sea weed. . . . . loooo . . . nooooo....ALLIGATOR!
They do look like floating wood. The portions of head and back that show above water belie their full size.
Below, an American Allligator out of the water getting some Texas sun.
Below, a close up. Imagine just the nose, eyes, and top of back above water. There is a lot of alligator below water, with a big mouth, and massive jaws and teeth. Definitely no swimming in Shoveler Pond, and best not to fall into the water!
That's it for Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge.
More posts soon.
This is the next of an occasional series on birding the Texas coast in April, 2019. The first post was May 8th on the rookery at Smith Oaks, on High Island Texas. Today we move a bit south and west to Rollover Pass, Galveston Bay, map below. All the images here were captured at the little yellow dot at the bottom left of the map below. High island is the slightly greener elevation to the right on the map. The map is a feature of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic CC that maps any images with GPS coordinates stamped on the file. Fortunately the Canon 7D Mark II has a GPS chip, which when combined with LR allows mapping of all my bird images, very helpful when trying to figure out "where were we?" when a photo was taken.
Among the many shorebirds at Rollover Pass on April 28th was a Reddish Egret, dark morph, in full breeding plumage. The Reddish Egret is a medium to large heron that inhabits shallow salt water, and runs, jumps, and spins to stir up small fish during feeding. This species comes in light and dark morphs, and here we see the dark morph in full breeding plumage. Considered uncommon, this bird lives in shallow salt ponds and marshes in southern areas on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
The characteristic feeding behavior consists of spreading the wings and spinning and lunging over the shallows to stir up prey. The behavior is so specific that it can be used as a bird identifier when spotting the bird from a distance.
On the 28th my subject was right in front of me, in good light, and "danced" a number of sets. Here are three that I was able to pull out of the deck of images.
Without interruption, here is Set 1. Note in the last frame a small fish has jumped out of the water to the right.
Here we see in the first frame a fish jumping completely out of the water, then splashing back in in the next frame.
Third and last set.
For more on the Reddish Egret see the Audubon Guide to North American Birds online.
That's all for now!
"Yup, best little rookery in Texas . . . "
Pair of Roseate Spoonbills, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas, April 26, 2019.
The last week of April we traveled to Houston Texas and birded the Big Thicket and Texas Coast with Naturalist Journeys, led by Robert Behrstock and Robert Gallardo. We were joined by 8 other birders, and had a great trip and a great adventure. It is impossible to blog about the whole trip, but in coming weeks I hope to hit some high points, starting with the Smith Oaks Rookery on High Island, Texas.
Rookery viewed from one of the elevated viewing structures at Smith Oaks.
High Island Texas is situated on a tall salt dome on Bolivar Peninsula, to the east of Galveston. It rises 38 feet above sea level making it the highest point on the Gulf of Mexico between Mobile, Alabama, and the Yucatan Peninsula. A popular area to settle in the 19th century, it became an oil producing area from the 1930's until the 1980's [Ref: Texas State Historical Association]. More recently the Houston Audubon Society has obtained land from private residents and oil producers, creating four sanctuaries, the two largest being Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks, the latter including a rookery.
The rookery at Smith Oaks is in Claybottom Pond, which was obtained from Amoco in 1994. In prior years industrial use had left an island in the middle of the pond which now suits itself perfectly for the rookery. By the mid 1990's herons were nesting on the island and then Roseate Spoonbills. By 2003 there were over 1000 nesting pairs at the rookery, including Great Egrets, Snowy and Cattle Egrets, Little Blue and Tricolored Herons, White Ibis, Neotropic Cormorants and Spoonbills. [Ref: Houston Audubon Society]
The edge of the pond that is accessible to visitors has a series of two story viewing platforms making it easy to view and photograph nesting families up close. See photo above.
Let's look at three birds that I captured on the 26th.
Great Egret and chicks. Note the single Roseate Spoonbill just below the nest. They seem to prefer breeding close to each other.
Great Egrets are stately white waders of southeastern coastal shores, ponds, marshes and mudflats. (They are winter residents in SE Arizona, where you can see them in prior blog posts.) Nesting pairs were in abundance at the rookery in April. Above, a parent with what appears to be three hatchlings. Both parents feed the offspring by regurgitating the adult diet which is predominantly fish.
Below, the Great Egret nest crowded in among other species and breeders, including a Roseate Spoonbill. This is the preferred environment for these birds, with the Egrets building sturdy stick nests 10 to 40 feet above the ground.
The island is ideal for nesting, being free of predatory mammals. However, the pond itself it full of alligators, and woe to the random chick that falls into the water.
Great Egrets feed by regurgitation. In the sequence below we see two large fledglings ("When are those kids going to leave home!") aggressively looking for food from the parent, and competing with the sibling as well.
One fledgling grabs the parent before any feeding can even begin. The sibling piles on.
And you think dinner at your house is tough!
It is not clear whether any feeding actually occurred during this sequence.
Below it looks like the parent's eyes are in peril.
The scrum continues.
Finally some relief with vision intact. Hopefully the other parent is on the way with a crop full of fish.
Cormorants are thin diving birds with feathers specially adapted to absorb water, becoming wet and heavy, facilitating the dive underwater for prey, predominantly fish. The birds cannot fly until their feathers are dry, so Cormorants are often seen in coastal areas or near ponds sitting on a rock with their wings outstretched, drying in the wind. The birds we see here are Neotropic Cormorants, the same species that is common on ponds in Tucson.
Cormorants are social birds, and are often seen together, here nesting. At the rookery they will nest as a group, above, or close to other birds, below.
Below, a pair of Neotropic Cormorants at their nest with chicks.
Cormorants feed their young with regurgitated food. Given their ability to swallow fish head first, they "swallow" their offspring's head, so it can feed off of food in the parents crop. Offspring are fed by both parents. Here we see a feeding sequence begin.
The chick ventures into the parent's mouth, and seems to completely disappear.
Above, the whole head in in Mom's (or Dad's) throat, and the chick is feeding from the crop. Below, the chick comes up for air. On the left, we can see the other parent feeding another chick.
If you are swallowing fish and frogs all day, head first, this looks easy. Certainly less hassle than the Great Egret feed, which looked more like a WWF match than a family meal.
Roseate Spoonbills are in the same family (Threskiornithidae) as Ibises, and like Ibises they probe in the muck or feel about in water for their food. Of the 6 species of Spoonbill in the world, the Roseate Spoonbill is the only one that lives in the U.S., inhabiting the shallow coastal waters of Texas, east to Florida. They eat small fish and aquatic invertebrates by sweeping their flat bills back and forth in the water. They get their pink coloration from carotenoids in the food they eat. Their bright coloration and spoonbill make them look more suited for animation on the big screen than foraging in coastal waters.
The spoonbills at the rookery seemed to still be in nest building stage. Eggs or chicks were not in evidence.
Spoonbills are definitely awkward standing, but elegant in flight. Below are three images I grabbed on April 27th as a Roseate Spoonbill flew over Anahuac Wildlife Refuge, just north and west of High Island.
That's all for now! More on the Texas coast soon.
If you looked at my blog post from April 2nd, you may recall that the last entry was a Phainopepla Nest at Agua Caliente on Roger Road. Above is a photo of mamma Phainopepla sitting on her nest late in the afternoon of Sunday March 31st, when the chick or chicks had already hatched. She has been most considerate and built the nest at eye level, albeit very shrewdly deep in the mesquite to make it both hard to see and difficult for predators to attack. And, yes there are pesky branches between my camera lens and the nest.
On Thursday April 4th I returned. I waited patiently, with a good view of one hatchling, below. The stage was set, all I needed was for the action to begin.
I spotted the mother on an adjacent tree branch above the nest. Reasoning that she was returning with food for her chick, I got focused on the nest and began to shoot. The image above was shot at 10:58 and 11 seconds, the next 5 images were all shot within one second, 10:58:12 (the camera does not record fractions of a second). The last image in this post was shot at 10:58:21, or in other words, this whole feeding sequence took 10 seconds. When was the last time you fed the kids in 10 seconds?
Above and below we see the mother feeding insects to her chick, with a pesky twig in the foreground.
She got that meal down quickly. All images shot with a Canon 7D Mk II, which can capture 10 frames/second, with some slowing for the time required to fill the camera buffer and move images to the card. So, 10 frames/second in bursts, with some slowing as the buffer fills.
Below, mom sizes up her offspring to be sure that everything went down OK.
But, there is more. Hack, hack, here comes a berry!
Insects provide protein for a growing bird, but the Phainopepla supplements what it captures on the wing along with berries, in this case an unripened mistletoe berry (Jeff Babson, personal communication). The berries are held in the mother's crop, an widened area of the esophagus which allows birds to get their food down fast, avoid predators, then eat at leisure, or in this case, feed the family.
Below, here comes dessert.
But wait, there's more!
Yahoo! A second scoop (so to speak)!
That's it! Entree and dessert (with two scoops) in 10 seconds. Really fast food!
("Yeah, I know you are still hungry, I'll bring more!")
That's all for now, more soon.
Potpourri: a mixture, assortment, collection, selection, assemblage, medley, miscellany, melange, mix, variety, motley collection . . . . . . (Ref: Google Dictionary)
A motley collection for the beginning of spring, a post that starts at Sweetwater Wetlands in early March (OK, I know, not really spring yet), then to Tubac and Patagonia, then back north to Agua Caliente and some nests . . . . .
Sweetwater Mudflats . . . . . *
* OK not really. We know it is Sweetwater Wetlands, but once a year the Tucson Water Department redistributes the water in the ponds in preparation for a controlled burn to reduce the mass of reeds before new growth in the spring. So, the "wetlands" become "mudlands" for a few days. These photos were taken on Sunday March 3rd, a day before the controlled burn.
Let's start with a Sora.
The Sora is a rail in the order Gruiformes, along with other rails, Cranes, the trumpeters of South America, the finfoots and the Limpkin (but hey, you knew that!). Within that order, the Sora is in the family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots). This family grouping is the one you will likely find in texts and field guides. (References: Kenn Kaufman, Lives of North American Birds, David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America).
The Sora is widespread and common across North America, wintering in SE Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and south into Mexico and South America. Distribution maps put their breeding north of Tucson from northern Arizona into Canada.
This bird stays out of sight among the reeds in marshes, often calling with characteristic whistles and whinnies, but rarely seen. However, the draining of the wetlands in preparation for the controlled burn exposed the mud floor of the basins, and brought this Sora out in the open to feed.
Above a Sora with its characteristic yellow bill and short cocked tail looking for food. Below we get a good look at the raised short tail and can see the generous size of their feet in the mud tracks.
Below, the body and tail don't look ideal for flight, but these birds do migrate long distances into South America for the winter. This image shows the size of the feet, ideal for grabbing reeds in the wetlands.
Next, an Orange-crowned Warbler on a cattail.
Orange-crowned Warblers winter south of us in Mexico, and breed north of SE Arizona into Canada - so this bird may be a migrant. Although they are named "Orange-crowned" the orange crown is rarely seen, and then only when the bird is excited and raises its crown feathers. They eat mostly insects supplemented with fruit, berries and seeds. It seems to be eating seeds in the cattails, although there could be insects in there as well.
Hawk Watch in Tubac
A Black Vulture in flight just east of Tubac
One of the rights of spring in SE Arizona is the March Hawk Watch in Tubac. If you have been there, you will understand that this is another kind of March madness! See my post from March 2017.
Every spring raptors migrate north from their winter homes in Mexico and parts south. This migration is followed very closely by the Hawk Migration Association of North America. There are 200 HawkCount sites in North America, one of them is in our own backyard here in Tubac, at the Ronald R. Morriss Park on the Santa Cruz River. On any given day during the month, there are dozens of hawk watchers at the park from dawn to dusk participating in the count. Hawks come north from Mexico into the U.S. resting overnight near the river, waking up in the morning, and generally moving into the air between 9 and 10 am, as the desert floor heats up producing thermals.
We made our yearly pilgrimage on March 19th, and I captured two images of note. Above is a Black Vulture. These are large raptors with bare heads and white feathers at the wing tips that looks like "mittens." Black Vultures have white mittens. Their range is throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the SE United States, just coming north over the border into Arizona, but not into Utah or Nevada.
Below is a Common Black Hawk, soaring high and difficult to photograph! Common Black Hawks live well to the south of us, with only an estimated 250 mating pairs in the United States breeding in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. They live and hunt near wooded streams, eating fish, frogs and lizards.
In the image below we see that the bird has broad wings and is all black except for a white band on a short tail and white spots at the base of the primaries in flight.
Female Pyrrhuloxia, Patagonia Lake State Park.
After the Hawk Watch we ventured east to Patagonia Lake State Park, and walked east on the Sonoita Creek Trail. For more on the park and the trail see my post from February 2018.
Above and below is a female Pyrrhuloxia, perhaps a juvenile, given the large head in relation to the body. Just a guess.
The Pyrrhuloxia is a close relative of the Northern Cardinal, with a range limited to the desert southwest, sticking to the southern border of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and south into Mexico.
Here we can see a distinguishing feature, a curved bill or culmen, which makes the bill a great nutcracker.
Our walk by the creek was marked by many sightings of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, small hyperactive songbirds that move very fast in the low growth close to the stream. They are very hard to photograph. Below is my best image, taken at some distance. Fortunately I was able to capture the ruby crown which is usually not visible. Note the broken white eye-ring and rear wingbar edged with black.
Nesting at Agua Caliente
Anna's Hummingbird, on her nest.
It is spring nesting time at Agua Caliente, in the Tanque Verde Valley on Roger Road. Above is an Anna's Hummingbird sitting on her nest, not far from the main pond.
For this species the female does all the work. The male provides his genetic material, then disappears. The female builds the nest out of bits and pieces of leaves and twigs with a big component of spider webs, which can be seen on close inspection in the images above and below. The clutch size is always two eggs, and as the young grow the nest expands to accommodate their increasing size. Like having a house built of spandex. I hope for more images of hatchlings later this month.
Below, two images of a female Vermilion Flycatcher sitting on her nest, and the male, not too far away. Her presence is intermittent, probably indicating no eggs yet, but hopefully soon. Unlike the Anna's Hummingbird, the male is a major helper for his mate, helping with the nest, and feeding mom while she sits on the eggs.
The final spring entry, a female Phainopepla sitting on her nest. These are striking birds of the southwest, the male a silky black with a crest. They are seen around Tucson mostly in the winter, feasting on mistletoe berries in Mesquite trees.
This is the first nest I have seen. It is located about 4 feet above the ground, deep in a mesquite tree. Below, the female is sitting on the nest earlier in March, incubating her clutch.
Below, a hatchling. There may be two, it is hard to see from this angle. The nest is very well built and deep.
The morning sun transilluminates the chick. "I am hungry! Where's breakfast!"
Below, mom returns, and feeds her hatchling in the second frame.
The image below shows what is probably early feather growth on the hatchling's head.
That's all for now! Stay tuned, spring is just beginning, more good stuff to come!
Elegant Trogon, male, Madera Canyon, Sunday February 17th.
Sunday, February 17th we decided to head to Madera Canyon, knowing it would be a great day - and hey, any day in SE Arizona is a great day, regardless of the birds you might see. We knew that a Trogon had been seen in the canyon as well as the very rare White-throated Thrush, but who knew? Well, we saw both, and got photos to prove it!
Word had it that a male Elegant Trogon was hanging out just downhill of the Madera Picnic area, close to a large pyracantha bush north of the parking lot and west of the road. We parked and initially walked north by the creek (down canyon), examining the pyracantha carefully, and alas, no Trogon.
On our way back to the parking lot, we saw a gaggle of birders on the east side of the road, craning their necks to catch a glimpse of the Trogon. As we made it to the road, he took flight and landed right in front of us on the west side of the road, first in a juniper tree, and then in the pyracantha bush. Above and below he pauses to model in both full sun and broken light.
The Elegant Trogon is a year round resident of Central America and Mexico who ventures north over the border into SE Arizona and western New Mexico 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 where they eat insects and fruit. We spotted our first last May in Cave Creek Canyon where they breed, nesting in open tree 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.
Here we see a solitary male in February. He may be bulking up for a big breeding season - maybe heading to the Chiricahuas this spring looking for a mate.
The male is striking: Black around the face with an orange eye-ring, green upper parts, red belly with a white band anteriorly, green back, and a long tail.
It is fun when a bird stays put long enough to look around, especially with such a great background. Check out the beard!
Below, an image in the pyracantha bush, showing the irrisdent green back and long tail.
He did not hang out for very long. Tired of the pyracantha, he took off and flew across the road, chased by a few birders with cameras who had arrived late for the party.
We spotted this Painted Redstart just to the north of the pyracantha bush before we discovered the Elegant Trogon. For more images from our Madera Canyon trip in March of 2018, click this link.
Painted Redstarts are warblers with bright red bellies, white wing patches, and a white crescent below the eye. They 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 in Arizona, New Mexico and portions of Texas.
They fan their tail feathers to stir up insects.
The Arizona Woodpecker lives in pine-oak mountain woodlands of Mexico, with a northern range that just makes it into SE Arizona and western New Mexico. The species favors the same environment as the Elegant Trogon, so it is not unusual to see them in the same area, same day.
This female was hanging out at the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge. For images of a male from Cave Creek Canyon, click this link. Males have a small patch of red on the back of the head.
Arizona Woodpeckers eat insects and forage off of bark or the ground. Here we see a typical position with feet spread out and the tail used as a support, for comfortable foraging up a tree trunk or, in this case, a telephone pole.
We had started our day walking south (up canyon) from the Proctor Trailhead, looking for the White-throated Thrush, a resident of Mexico who is rarely seen north of the border in southern Texas. However, last month this bird was spotted here in Madera Canyon for the first recorded sighting in Arizona. For more on the sighting, click this link.
Alas no White-throated Thrush on our first pass, but later in the day, giddy with our Elegant Trogon encounter, we ventured north from the Whitehouse Picnic area, and found a very patient and observant birder, who carefully pointed us and a fellow birder from Utah, Mike, to this White-throated Thrush sitting under a log, digesting berries.
The White-throated Thrush is a neotropical Turdus thrush similar in size and shape to the American Robin. It ranges from Mexico south to Ecuador, and is generally found at higher elevations but moves downslope in winter. For the eBird page on the White-throated Thrush, including a range map with sighting, (including Madera Canyon), click this link.
Since this was truly a rare sighting, the four of us tiptoed and whispered at some distance, trying to find good views without disturbing our visiting bird.
He appeared to be regurgitating berries and occasionally spitting out a seed. See the sequence of three images below.
Below, a stretch unrelated to the sequence above, perhaps also part of his post feeding routine. He took off after a while, but stayed in the area.
In the same area we spotted this female Ladder-backed Woodpecker foraging in this bush. The Ladder-backed Woodpecker lives year-round throughout Mexico and parts of Central America and into southern California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
Whiskered Screech-Owl (or, Where's Waldo?)
Sunday morning, as we made our first round on the trail south of the Proctor trailhead, we found a cluster of birders focused on a tree some 10 to 20 feet off of the trail. The common wisdom was that a Whiskered Screech-Owl was snoozing in the tree about 8 feet off the ground. So, here is my best image. I think you can see our Screech-Owl, AKA Waldo, tucked in next to the trunk. I believe that the feathers of the chest/abdomen and head are apparent. Note that we were all careful to stay on the trail and not approach the tree on foot to avoid disturbing this night worker's slumber.
For those of you who would really want to see a Whiskered Screech-Owl at this point, I have included an image from our trip to Cave Creek Canyon last May. This owl was a daytime regular in this Sycamore close to the road.
That's it for Madera Canyon this winter! Definitely a birding hotspot!
American Wigeons coming in for a landing, Sweetwater Wetlands, November 2018.
Fall in Tucson is an exciting time for birding. Migrants heading south stop by for a few hours or a few days, and others arrive for the whole winter. The days are cooling off and the Cottonwoods turn color, making fall birding a pleasure, with or without birds. For our fall birds 2018, let's start with the American Wigeon.
American Wigeon's are medium sized compact ducks with short bills and round heads. Their range extends throughout North America, from Alaska to Nova Scotia, south throughout the lower 48, into Mexico and Central America, including Cuba. They breed in Canada and the northern U.S. (Montana, Idaho, Wyoming and the Dakotas) and winter south as far as Central America, including Arizona.
They are dabbling ducks, staying on the surface as they plunge their heads and turn their tails straight up nibbling on aquatic plants. They also eat ground greens on fields and lawns. During breeding season in the north, the females will nest on the ground among tall grasses or small shrubs.
The image above was captured at Agua Caliente on November 15, 2018. The image below, from my library, was captured on New Year's Day, 2018 at Fort Lowell Park. The males pictured here have a short pale bill with a green streak behind the eye and a white stripe down the head. For more on field marks and identification, see the Cornell website.
At Sweetwater Wetlands on November 21st, the weekly gaggle of North American Birders led by Luke Safford had front row seats for a flock of hundreds of American Wigeons in the air. The two images below show the birds heading north. We can see the markings on the heads, wings and undersides.
All images caught at 1/800th second, although a faster speed in the 1/1500 to 1/2000 would have been even better. Canon 7D Mark II, 100-400 mm Mk II lens, without an extender.
Below, images of a large flock that rapidly descended upon the wetlands. We were at the west end of the park, looking east toward the Catalinas.
How many birds in the image below? Well, I printed it out and counted them (yup, I can be pretty compulsive). My count came to 130, although some are packed tighter than birders in a van, and difficult to count. This is just one frame, and my estimate is that there were 500 to 1000 birds in the flock (although we all know that estimating crowd size is difficult! )
Below, they are coming in for a landing, wings flared, flaps and landing gear down. The background is the Catalina range and fall foliage at the wetlands.
Below a close up of the image above showing more detail. As one would expect, there are males and females in the flock.
Ahhh, in from the wings comes a Peregrine Falcon . . .
Just as the mass of American Wigeons landed, who did we spot coming in from the left, but a Peregrine Falcon, undoubtedly on the hunt. Photographing a single bird in flight a is tough, but I did get this shot, above, as he circled around and headed northwest.
Peregrine Falcons were almost eliminated by DDT in the middle 20th Century but made a remarkable comeback after the pesticide was banned. They now range throughout North America, breeding as far north as Canada and Alaska, with a year round presence in coastal California, as well as Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. They are known for diving toward their prey from great heights, reaching speeds of 200 mph.
One or more Peregrines can be seen regularly sitting on the high power structures in the Santa Cruz River just west of Sweetwater Wetlands. In this case, he came in over the wetlands, perhaps pursuing the flock of Wigeons.
Below, three images of a Peregrine Falcon captured at Sweetwater Wetlands in September of 2017. We can see the characteristic dark head with black sideburns. The vertical dark bars on the breast points to this being a juvenile.
The American Coot is described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site as "a plump, chicken like bird with a rounded head and a sloping bill. Their tiny tail, short wings, and large feet are visible on the rare occasions they take flight." Coots are common at Agua Caliente as well as Sweetwater Wetlands, often described as "chickens of the water." They are not ducks, being more closely related to Sandhill Cranes and Rails. They bob their heads back and forth as they swim, similar to Pigeons when they walk.
The Coot above captured at Agua Caliente on the 15th has not mastered walking on water (oh, he wishes he was so powerful - something even the raptors cannot do!), rather he is standing on a floating log.
Unlike ducks, they do not have webbed feet, rather they have lobed toes, as we can just barely see in the image below. For a better view of the toes, look at the third image captured at Reid Park in February of 2017. Yes, he has two legs, but chose to stand on only one for this photo shoot. Lobed toes allow them to swim as well as to stand and walk on the ground. Unlike the Pied-billed Grebe another water bird with lobed toes, the Coots legs are more centrally located, making balance on land easier.
American Coot at Reid Park, February 2017.
Red-naped Sapsuckers are woodpeckers with a big sugar habit, driving holes in sap producing trees to get their daily calories. They live in the Rocky Mountains and to the west, breeding from northern Arizona to Canada and wintering in southern California to western Texas and south into Mexico. Their southern migration begins in August, with return tickets written for March. During the winter they are common visitors at Sweetwater Wetlands and Agua Caliente.
They sport a red throat and red crown, with the females having a small white chin patch, which I think is evident in the image above and the second image below.
They are difficult to photograph. This bird was in a tree right by the pond at Agua Caliente on November 15th. I was able to get close to the bird, but in minimal light with a mass of foliage between me the subject. The result was images with deep shadows, a ISO above 1000, and many images with twigs or leaves in the way. Here is the best of the crop with all the post-production tricks that Lightroom offers!
Below, light hits the bill, face and eye. They grasp the tree truck with large feet and support themselves with their tail.
Below, the bird has worked her way around to another side of the trunk. The feet are evident, along with all the twigs and branches of the tree that provide cover for this bird.
The two images below show how well camouflaged the Red-naped Sapsucker is. The back of the bird is almost a copy of the tree bark. All birds, with rare exceptions, spend their off-breeding days eating while avoiding being eaten.
Phainopepla in the Wind . . . .
Phainopepla are crested silky-flycatchers (Order Passeriformes, family Ptilogonatidae) residents of the desert southwest and woodlands. They summer presumably at higher elevations, and come back to the sonoran desert in the late fall. They have arrived at Agua Caliente, and above we see a male hanging on to a branch on the 15th, a windy day at the park. Below he is leaning into the wind.
Below, the bird's crest is bent by the wind. Reminds me of trying to walk in downtown chicago.
Below, two images of female Phainopepla from Agua Caliente 2 years ago, November 2016. Females are dark gray with white edging on the wing feathers and the characteristic red eye.
Ruby-crowned Kinglets are small energetic birds, olive green with a small bill and tail, a white eye-ring, and white wing bars. Their range is throughout North America and Mexico, breeding in the northern U.S. and Canada, wintering south including Arizona. Some birds stay year round in Arizona and Nevada, flying to higher elevations during the summer for breeding.
They forage frantically in scrubs and trees, making them hard to spot and very difficult to photograph. The bird pictured here was at Agua Caliente on the 15th, these are the best of a host of images I captured.
The ruby crown is seen on the male, and often is not evident, except in spring when the bird is singing for a mate. For identification in the field, one should depend more on size, shape, behavior and the eye ring, rather than the red crown.
Below I have included two images taken near Sunny Flats in Cave Creek Canyon, Portal Arizona, in January of 2016. This is a male captured at some distance with a Sigma 150-600 lens, with considerable post production cropping to get this image. Although the detail is not great, we can clearly see the ruby crown.
Let's shift west to Sweetwater Wetlands, where we saw the American Wigeons in flight earlier, and on the same day spotted this Northern Mockingbird sitting on a wire.
Northern Mockingbirds live year round in the U.S. and Mexico, breeding in the northern U.S. but not up into the upper midwest, northern mountain states or Canada. They are known for there almost endless singing, carrying a repertoire of as many as 200 songs over a lifetime, imitating other birds and wildlife including frogs.
They are medium sized with white wing bars and a long tail. This bird appears to be resting between songs.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About