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!
The first three Texas coast posts covered the Smith Oaks Rookery at High Island, a Reddish Egret dancing for his lunch on Galveston Bay, and the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge. Today we are going to the Big Thicket, then south back to High Island and Boy Scout woods. Part V (coming soon) will take us on the ferry from Bolivar Peninsula to Galveston, and then to Brazos Bend State Park.
[Ref: Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology].
The map below shows the boundaries as defined by the Spanish settlers before the Texas Revolution (1835). The area has a rich and colorful history. Its dense and almost impenetrable center became the preferred place "to disappear" beginning with confederate deserters during the Civil War. Before deforestation, it was said to be so dense that sections could only be accessed by crawling in on hands and knees. It was said that "if a snake crawls in, it has to back out."
Kentucky Warblers are ground-nesting birds, generally staying low in the understory, heard more often than seen. However, this is spring, when males take to the heights and sing motionless for 5-15 minute sets. They winter in Central America, breeding in the eastern U.S. This bird is likely in migration, heading to Missouri or Illinois. [Ref: Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology]
This chat favors low, dense vegetation without a closed tree canopy, including shrubby habitat along streams, swamps, and ponds. Richard Taylor's field guide Birds of Southeastern Arizona lists the Yellow-breasted Chat as a summer resident in SE Arizona below 5000 feet. It prefers dense brushy areas, which combined with its secretive nature, make it hard to spot. Here we see what is likely a male singing his heart out on a pine branch.
The Yellow-breasted Chat was previously placed in the family Parulidae, but in 2017, was elevated to its own family, Icteriidae (Chesser et al. 2017). [Ref: Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology]
These birds may be part of a year round population that lives in Louisiana who decided to forage a bit west of home, or they may be on their way back to their breeding ground in Canada from wintering ground further south on the Texas coast.
Both birds have radio transmitters on their legs, detail below.
Reference: Birds of North America, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
This bird is likely in migration to the southern U.S. from wintering grounds in southern Mexico and Central America, making the trek across the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.
Indigo Buntings live in shrubby areas and weedy fields. They eat seeds, berries and insects, and in migration, mainly seeds of grasses, as we can see in these images. Note that this male has grabbed the top of the grass with the seeds, along with the wire. Looks like corn on the cob.
Chuck-will's-widow is in the family of Nightjars and Allies, along with the Common Nighthawk (see last entry below), other Nighthawks and Nightjars, and the Eastern and Mexican Whip-poor-will. The family is in the Order Caprimulgiformes along with the Swift Family, and all the hummingbirds.
There are big gaps in our knowledge of this species, especially about habitat and breeding success. Sounds like an opportunity for a graduate student who likes working at night!
Common Nighthawks are often observed on the wing at dusk or dawn grabbing insects in both urban and rural areas. They nest on open ground, gravel beaches, rocky outcrops, and burned-over woodlands, as well as flat gravel roofs, especially in cities.
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.
Below is a female, olive above, yellow below.
The following images of orioles were not taken in Texas! (Just so no one is confused!)
OK, back to Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge . . . .
This bird was spotted on a wire near the road, not far from the Orchard Oriole above.
Speaking of flycatchers, here are some images of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher we spotted on Galveston Island on the 29th.
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.
"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
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.
White Ibis, first spring
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.
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.
Ohhhh, don't forget the Alligators !
Below, an exercise in image recognition. Let's see, from top to bottom: log, log, . . log-log. . . . .log, log, . . . . sea weed. . . . . loooo . . . nooooo....ALLIGATOR!
More posts soon.
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.
Pair of Roseate Spoonbills, Smith Oaks Rookery, High Island, Texas, April 26, 2019.
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.
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.
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.
- Kenn Kaufman, Lives of North American Birds, Houghton Mifflin Co, 1996
- Ted Lee Eubanks Jr., Robert A. Behrstock, Seth Davidson. Finding Birds on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail. Texas A & M University Press, 2008.
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.
Below, mom sizes up her offspring to be sure that everything went down OK.
Below, here comes dessert.
("Yeah, I know you are still hungry, I'll bring more!")
That's all for now, more soon.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About
Agua Caliente Park
Arizona Sonora Desert Museum
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Bosque Del Apache
Catalina State Park
Fort Lowell Park
Santa Cruz Flats
Tucson Audubon Festival
White Water Draw