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.
Wilson's Warbler, male, Carter Canyon September 24, 2020
Before we get to the rest of the photos, let's have a frank discussion about warblers. Ready? What are they? Well, the name warbler is used internationally to describe several different, unrelated families of birds. Okay, that's clear. Oh, and some of them (like the Painted Redstart) don't have warbler in their name. Even clearer.
The good news is that these warblers are divided into three broad categories by continent. So, for North and South America (and associated islands) we have the New World Warblers. This is a group of just over 100 species in the family Parulidae (and the lonely Olive Warbler now in the family Peucedramidae. Crystal clear and straight forward - right). Fortunately for anyone living in the Americas, these birds are small, colorful, fun to watch but terribly frustrating to identify.
The second category is Old World Warblers, over 400 species of plain and drab songbirds living in Africa, Asia and Europe. So if you live in cold and rainy England, you get to see drab warblers. Oh joy. The third group are the Australasian Warblers, over 60 species in the family Acathizidae. This includes the Weebill, Australia's smallest bird. If you take at trip down under, study up on these.
Okay, since most of us live in North America (granted, I might have a few fans from another continent), let's focus in on a group known as Wood Warblers. Wood Warblers are a subset of the 100 plus New World warblers that live in North America. David Allen Sibley describes Wood Warblers as belonging to one of 54 species, 53 in the family Parulidae, and that one lonely Olive Warbler in the family Peucedramidae.
So far so good. One step further, if we limit ourselves to SE Arizona, there are by my count 33 Wood Warblers in Richard Taylor's guide Birds of Southeastern Arizona. This number is not fixed since warblers are migratory, and may stray off their recognized migratory paths. And, the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum identifies 6 Wood Warblers as representative of Sonoran Desert species: Orange-crowned Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler (AKA butter butt), Wilson's Warbler (see my lead photo at the top of the post), Yellow Warbler, Yellow-breasted Chat (no "warbler" in that name) and Lucy's Warbler.
So, in our travel restricted pandemic mode, we can settle down to watch between 30 to 40 species of Wood Warbler. Some are resident, but many are migratory, making their way into our lives on an intermittent basis. At least SOMEONE is traveling!.
So, with that introduction, let's begin by looking at some of the many warblers that were hanging out on the mountain in October.
Townsend's Warblers winter in Mexico, Central America, and portions of SE Arizona, as well as the Pacific costal areas from Baja to Oregon. They breed in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. This is most likely a female, with a pale throat. I captured this image along Carter Canyon Road on September 24th. The males have black throats, and bolder contrast of the yellow and black head markings.
This female is likely a migrant, although Cornell's range map does show a winter location in SE Arizona. I would not expect this bird to stay in the mountain in the winter; she needs insects for food, although the species will eat tree sap and other sugars if needed during the winter.
It is fun to watch warblers forage for insects. They move rapidly in the understory and will from time to time pause on a branch and look in all directions for the next bite-full.
Hermit Warblers breed in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, and winter in southern Mexico and Central America. They pass through Arizona during their migration.
Males have a black chin, females a yellow chin. This could be an immature, given the pale chin and dusky cheek. Hermit Warblers eat insects as well as sugar rich sap.
Diet and food availability help determine habitat and migration patterns. Warblers (with some exceptions) eat insects, and "follow the food," going south during the winter.
The male Wilson's Warbler is easy to identify with his bright yellow body and black cap. Females have an olive crown and occasionally a small black cap. They live throughout North America, breeding in the Pacific Northwest and further north through Canada into Alaska and all the way east to northern Maine and Nova Scotia. They winter in southern Louisiana and Mexico, and south into Central America. Range maps show their migration throughout the lower 48 states, including SE Arizona and Summerhaven.
They eat larval insects, spiders, beetles, and caterpillars off leaves and twigs in the understory. They will also take to the air to catch flies, bees, mayflies, aphids and other insects.
Here we see "Mr. Wilson" looking carefully for bugs on adjacent leaves.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
We have seen the Black-throated Grey Warbler during the summer on the mountain, see my post of August 1, 2020. The Black-throated Grey Warbler lives west of the Rockies, breeding in SE Arizona and eastern New Mexico all the way up to the Pacific Northwest and Canada, wintering in southern Mexico. They forage for insects in the lower understory. The image above was captured as the bird foraged on the ground, just off of the lower section of Upper Goat Hill Road. Image below, a Black-throated Gray Warbler in a pine.
That's it for warblers. Let's take a look at some of the woodpeckers active in October.
Red-naped Sapsucker (and a local Acorn!)
The Red-naped Sapsucker is a woodpecker who eats tree sap, fruit and insects. They breed in the rockies and west, wintering from Arizona south into Mexico. This bird is on the way south, but may winter in Tucson. Their varied diet gives them more options for their winter residence, in distinction to some warblers who can only eat insects.
Woodpeckers use their tails to brace themselves on bark and branches, allowing them to use their bills as drilling devices. The images above and below show the tail, and how they deftly use it against a branch.
In the image below we see our Red-naped Sapsucker to the right, but to the left is an Acorn Woodpecker, a local resident, keeping an eye on him.
Image below, the Acorn moves closer. . . . .
And and then moves to displace the intruder. This was just west of Sabino Canyon Parkway, near Retreat.
"This tree isn't big enough for both of us!"
The acorn continued to harass the sapsucker, who had likely strayed into the acorn's territory.
The Red-shafted Northern Flicker is a large brown woodpecker with an extensive range throughout North America, living year round throughout the lower 48 states and Mexico, and breeding as well in Canada. The male has a red malar stripe, the female, shown here, does not.
Flickers eat mainly insects, especially ants and beetles which they forage from the ground. They eat seeds and fruits as well, which helps explain their extensive year round range, even in cold climates. Their tongues can extend 2 inches, facilitating snaring of bugs.
The female here was foraging on the ground just west of Sabino Canyon Parkway in the village. They peck into the ground as other woodpeckers peck at tree bark. She allowed me to get fairly close for these shots.
Next we have two Vireos. Vireos are small to medium sized songbirds found in North and South America and Southeast Asia. They are typically somewhat dull in appearance and greenish in color, the smaller species resembling wood warblers, except they have heavier bills.
Here in the images above and below we see a Warbling Vireo ("warbles" but is not a warbler!). Warbling Vireos breed in much of the lower 48 states and Canada, wintering in southern Mexico and Central America. This bird is likely in migration south. They are plain birds with a "yellow wash" on their underparts, and a faint white stripe above the eye. Their bill is clearly chunkier that what we see in warblers.
They eat insects, adding fruit to their diet during the winter
Here we see a Cassin's Vireo, with white underparts washed with yellow, two white wingbars, and distinctive white "spectacles", white eye rings that connect over the bill, giving the appearances of eyeglasses.
Cassin's Vireos live west of the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, breeding from coastal California into the Pacific Northwest and Canada, and wintering from SW Arizona into southern Mexico, staying close to the Pacific Coast. This bird is likely in migration.
They eat mostly insects, occasionally fruit in winter, which likely explains their migratory pattern, wintering in southern climes that provide an insect diet.
Brown Creepers are small songbirds that live throughout North America and Canada, and as far south as Central America. They eat a variety of insects which they skillfully extract from the bulky bark of the biggest trees they can find. They start at the bottom and work their way up to the top, pulling insects and larvae out of crevices in the bark. They are mottled brown and white with a slender decurved bill, ideal for extracting insects. They are tough to spot given their coloration that blends in perfectly with the trees they feed on.
Images above and below shows a creeper braced on the trunk with large feet and thin tail, looking for food. The markings and decurved bill are evident.
Image below: Without moving his feet, this creeper looks like a yoga instructor, bending deep into a crevice in the bark.
Voila! He comes up with an insect!
When they reach the top of the tree, they fly down to the bottom of same tree or another and start all over again, methodically working their way to the top.
That's it for October!
Stay tuned. Fall colors from Bear Wallow coming soon!
Stay safe, stay well.
Fall on the mountain, two Yellow-eyed Juncos spar over water rights! (Or, two birds fly into a bar . . . . .)
So, winter in coming and that means it is time for a little tussle over winter territory.
Yellow-eyed Juncos are residents of the mountains of SE Arizona and SW New Mexico all the way south to Guatemala, being locally abundant, sedentary and as described by Cornell's Birds of the World, philopatric, tending to remain or return to a particular area. This makes them easy to study; therefore much is known about our local friends. For more details, see Birds of the World, my reference for this post.
Here we see a sequence of two males in an aggressive display over a water bowl kindly provided (along with food) by one of our friendly neighbors on the mountain. These dominance displays are observed year-round but are reported to occur most often when birds are in winter flocks and during territory establishment in early spring.
A Yellow-eyed Junco testing the waters by dipping his tail in the pond! Males and females look alike. I am assuming this is a male because of the behavior that followed this otherwise sedate portrait.
The male on the left is drinking at the water, when the male on the right flies in.
The interloper challenges the resident male by lifting his wings.
The stare down . . . .
The junco on the right raises up his head, the face-to-face bob, one of the 8 dominance moves reported in NJ Moore's 1972 PhD thesis, Ethology of the Mexican Junco, University of Arizona (Reference: Birds of the World) .
The bird on the left counters, raising his head and lifting his wings.
The junco on the right in turn stretches to look taller.
Then lifts his wings, as his opponent on the left crouches . . . .
At the sound of the bell, they are into the air
Tumbling in the air, the bird that was on the left is now on top. The crouch was a good move!
The bird that was sitting on the left is on top, maintaining his position. The juncos tumble staying airborne.
Our interloper decides to break off and begin his exit.
Perhaps wisely, he decides there must be water somewhere else. On to the next bar . . . .
For the photo geeks: This series was shot with a Canon R6 mirrorless full frame digital camera, attached to a Canon EF 100-400 mm IS II with a 1.4x extender, at 1/400 sec, f/7.1, ISO 2500, electronic shutter at ~20 frames/second. I captured 37 frames in under 2 seconds. The lack of a mirror allows rapid frame capture.
That's it for our dueling juncos! More October birds coming soon.
I usually begin each blog post with one of my better bird photos to get you hooked, click on the link and start "turning the pages." However, today I felt the best intro was to show you a new addition to an otherwise quiet Summerhaven; one of many new warning signs the county put up in late July.
With the exception of the green island that is Summerhaven (the map looks like Italy on support hose), much of what we love in the Catalinas has been burned. Not a moonscape, rather most of what we see from the road is charring from ground fire, with tall green trees still in abundance, and some greening on the ground occurring even now. The forest will come back, it is just not ready for visitors yet.
As of this writing, The Coronado National Forest is closed until November 1, 2020. The burned areas are not safe for hiking, and flash flooding is a real risk. During the month of July Summerhaven has been open only to residents, but is open to the public beginning Saturday August 1st. The delay was to allow time for crews to repair certain critical guard rail posts. This first phase was complete by Friday July 31st, with the second phase continuing into August while the road is open to traffic.
So come on up! Stop for lunch at one of the many restaurants, and sample the fudge at the general store.
What follows is a sampler of birds in the village after the fire, beginning when residents could return in early July. The regulars are still here, with more warblers taking advantage of insects in the understory and water in the creek. Here are a few.
Red-faced Warblers winter in the mountains of Mexico, and breed in southern Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico. We are very fortunate to have them in SE Arizona for the summer.
They seem to like riparian areas around Sabino Creek and in Rose Canyon, where they forage in the conifers and understory and nest in the ground. We have seen more of them this year in Summerhaven, perhaps due to loss of habitat and food in Rose Canyon and other habitats after the fire. I hope Summerhaven's green island will attract and keep the populations thriving on Mt. Lemmon.
The females look similar to the males, but are a more orangish-red. I believe all the birds we see here are males.
All images here were captured relatively low in the understory near Sabino Creek on private land, not far from the water department.
In the image below we see a male feeding off of insects on the understory. Note that the leaves have galls hanging from their underside, the plant's response to flies or wasps laying eggs in the plant tissue. As the eggs mature, they will likely produce more food for the birds. [Thanks to Jeff Babson for the botany lesson!]
And, a final view of a male, striking an appealing pose.
Black-throated Gray Warbler
The Black-throated Gray Warbler, as the name describes, is black and gray, with a black throat in the male and more muted throat markings for the female, with two characteristic yellow spots just above and in front of the eye on each side.
These warblers breed in pine and mixed pine-oak forests west of the Rockies from SE Arizona into southern Canada. They winter in southern Mexico. Their song is described as a buzzy zeedle zeedle zeedle zeet-chee.
They forage for insects and nest in trees, anywhere from 3 to 35 feet above ground.
Like the Red-faced Warblers, I have seen more of them in Summerhaven this summer, in the pines and understory around Sabino Creek, again likely a result of the Bighorn Fire.
Image above, a nice pose facing away, but looking back at the camera, showing off his/her yellow spot. Below, "here's looking at ya'" with both yellow spots in evidence.
In the series of images below, a female is bathing in the creek, adjacent to Sabino Canyon Parkway.
And, preening to take full advantage of the bath . . . . .
Finally, clean and fluffy.
Like the Red-faced Warbler, the Painted Redstart is considered a specialty of the borderlands of the southwest. They are warblers who live year round in the mountains of central Mexico, but travel north into SE Arizona and western New Mexico to breed. They favor mountainous riparian areas making Sabino Creek and Rose Canyon a perfect match.
As with our other two species in this post, the Bighorn Fire has displaced them from favored habitats, bringing more of them into the Summerhaven area. The bird above was photographed in Summerhaven close to the creek.
Painted Redstarts are striking birds with bright red breasts, black and white wings, and a distinctive half eye ring. They forage by flashing their white wing patches and outer tail feathers, flushing out insects which they then pursue and capture.
This summer we have had two juveniles hanging out at our feeders, not far from the creek, but definitely out of their usual foraging neighborhood. The bird shown below has minimal red in the breast, characteristic wing markings and a developing half eye-ring. He seems to think he is a feeder bird, maybe a hummer, as he explores the nectar feeder.
The bird below is developing a red breast, but also wonders if a seed block is right for lunch. He tried pecking at it several times, but was quickly scared off by a possessive Pine Siskin.
The juvenile below landed on our railing and deck, and almost flew into the cabin. Here we see a sequence of observation and hopping about as he sizes up the world around him.
In the images below we see an adult in typical foraging behavior flashing the wings and tail.
The final image below shows full wing and tail deployment as he hopes to scare up some bugs.
We looked at some adult Abert's Squirrels in my October 2019 post, see this link. Here are two juveniles on July 22nd, tussling with each other about 20 feet off of the ground.
Abert's are small tree squirrels that live from the Rocky Mountains south into Mexico, with a population living year round here on Mt. Lemmon. They like cool and dry ponderosa pine forests, where they feed on the seeds and pinecones. They are excellent climbers and can hold onto a tree with their hind feet, freeing up their fore feet for eating.
Here we can see juveniles practicing their tree skills. Their feet are evident in these images.
Holding onto the tree sideways is not a problem for these fellas. Adults can hang upside down from their hind feet alone. These offspring likely were born here in Summerhaven, and are not migrants from the fire.
That's all for now. Soon we will start seeing birds stopping over in the village on their way south. We are already seeing Rufous Hummingbirds at the feeders, on their way to Mexico from the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Stay tuned!
Red-faced Warbler, Rose Canyon, May 14, 2020.
As we saw from my last post in March, the first day of spring is also the last day of winter (snow at 7500 feet in SE Arizona!). Although I would like to think that spring comes to the mountain in April, alas it does not! April is a cold month, with a few pussy willows budding and a lot of water running in the creek, but otherwise cold and gray. However, come May 1st, and everything explodes, trees begin to leaf, Cow Parsnip miraculously sprouts out of the mud in stream beds, and our nesting birds arrive for the summer.
This post is a sampling of what the first two weeks of May 2020 had to offer, starting with the Meadow Trail up at 9100', descending to 7500' for some Summerhaven offerings, and then driving down to Rose Canyon at 7000', where in early May the park was closed to all but foot traffic, making it ideal for birding!
The Meadow Trail: 9100 feet.
When you get to Summerhaven on the Hitchcock Highway, turn right up the hill toward Ski Valley, drive past the Iron Door, and up the mountain to the gate for the Sky Center. Park to the left where the trails begins.
Disclaimer: The two images below were captured in August a few years back. The trail does not look like this in May - it is not as green and the flowers are not in bloom yet. The good news is that if you want to see the trail this way, wait until August, all these goodies are coming soon!
The image below was captured at the the beginning of the trail, just to the south of the observatories and the U of A Sky Center. The image that follows shows the flat top of the mountain as you walk south to the edge of the rock wall, where the swallows feed. This is all at about 9100', with little variation in terrain, but differences in tree density. There are good nesting opportunities here, regardless of whether you are a cavity or ground nester.
Violet-green Swallows winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed from northern Mexico into Alaska. Mt Lemmon is in the southern range of their summer territory, with open skies and lots of bugs to the south of the rock ledge, and lots of nesting locations in the woods to the north.
Above and below are images of the swallow perching and preening between food forays. Folded up, the wings are longer than the tail. These birds move very fast and dart quickly making flight photography very difficult.
Above and below, the violet markings on the rump are evident.
Above and below, long wings and short tail.
We have seen Spotted Towhee's in prior posts, but usually in the winter or fall when I have caught the males rummaging through leaf litter. The month of May brings the males to the top of the trees to be seen and heard by interested females.
Down to 7500', let's look at some of the birds that hang out closer to the creek and home bird feeders.
Sabino Creek in Marshall Gulch, May 2020.
Black-headed Grosbeak's are chunky songbirds that winter in southern Mexico and breed in mountainous regions of northern Mexico, Arizona, and up into the Rockies and Canada. The males arrived this year in mid-April, with the females arriving about two weeks later. Their song is often described as a tipsy Robin, who cannot quite get the words right! Their chunky bills are great for cracking open sunflower seeds, making them regular visitors to feeders.
The first three images are mature males with dark heads, and cinnamon breasts.
The image in the frame below is an immature male or female - they look much alike until the male develops his characteristic black head and orange breast. The picture that follows is most likely a mature female, getting ready for nesting on May 1st.
Again, many thanks to Jeff Babson at Sky Island Tours for his help in confirming the age and gender of these birds.
Townsend's Warblers are in the group of birds that we are lucky enough to catch at one of their rest stops (Mt Lemmon) on their way migrating north. They winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, going up as far north as Alaska.
This is a male we spotted high in the trees above Upper Loma Linda Extension on May 9th. Like all warblers, they move very fast in the distance, making good photography a challenge. This bird is likely feeding on insects on this conifer.
To remind us that there are predators out there, we see an occasional Cooper's Hawk stopping by our feeders looking for a quick bite. After looking around a while he (or she) decided to move on.
To prove that Cooper's Hawks do eat, I have added the image below from my archive, August 2019. This one caught a bird near the cabin and perched to eat in good view. FYI, they eat the head first, most likely because of the high nutritional content: fat, fat-soluble vitamins, and protein.
Drive down the highway south of the Palisade Ranger Station, and you will come to Rose Canyon on your right. The first two weeks of May it was closed to traffic and campers due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but many visitors parked on the main road, and walked down. We visited the canyon on May 14th, and found many birds in nesting and breeding mode.
Red-faced Warblers winter in southern Mexico and Central America, and breed in mountainous regions of northern Mexico, Arizona, and western New Mexico. We are fortunate to have them on Mt. Lemmon as nesters for the summer. They forage in the understory, favoring riparian areas, and nest in the ground. Here in early May, they are present in abundance in Rose Canyon, with the males singing from the upper branches. Later in the season they stay low to the ground gathering food for their nestlings, and are tougher to spot.
The Painted Redstart is a distinctive red, black and white warbler with a geographic distribution similar to the Red-faced Warbler - wintering in southern Mexico and breeding in the mountains to the north including SE Arizona, and W. New Mexico. They are the only member of their genus seen north of the U.S. border. They have a very characteristic foraging technique, fanning the tail and wings to scare up insects from the foliage. Here we can see their markings and some of the foraging behavior.
Here we see an adult (sexes are similar year round) fanning its wings and tail to get bugs to come out from their hiding places. These birds move very fast!
The Hermit Thrush is a very nondescript bird with a spectacular song. Here is a link to a YouTube video of a Hermit Thrush singing in Maine. Kenn Kaufman in his writings notes that plain looking birds need distinctive songs to identify themselves, and the Hermit Thrush is one of them!
Another nondescript bird with a distinctive song is the Warbling Vireo. SE Arizona is just on the border of their range, so Rose Canyon could be breeding territory, or this bird may be moving north. Given that it is May and the bird was singing, I am guessing this is breeding territory. Here is a link to a You-Tube video of the Warbling Vireo.
When we walked down the road toward the lake in mid-May, the park was closed, so there was no traffic whatsoever! The birds were very close to the road, including this male Western Bluebird sitting on top of a speed limit sign!
We are in the Western Bluebird's year round territory. They winter in Tucson, and nest in cavities and bird houses up on the mountain. A number of Mt. Lemmon residents have put out bird houses, which helps keep the population up.
The images above and below, a female perched on a branch. There are plenty of good nesting sites in Rose Canyon.
White-breasted Nuthatches are common on the mountain, living with us year round. They forage for insects and seeds off of tree bark, often hanging upside down and working their way from the top of the tree to the bottom.
Cordilleran Flycatchers are small flycatchers that winter in southern Mexico and breed each summer in the mountains of the pacific west of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascades, including Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. They started arriving to the mountain in early May, and by now they are well into nesting in Rose Canyon and Turkey Run, among other locations. See this link to my post on their nesting behavior from last fall.
The males and females are indistinguishable. The females are ledge nesters, looking for any flat place, including the rubber tires of inactive vehicles!
That's a wrap for early May on the mountain!
Stay safe, stay healthy!
Happy Trails! More soon . . . ..
Wild Turkeys and fresh snow, Mt Lemmon, March 18, 2020, the last official day of winter!
Mt. Lemmon in January: Acorn Woodpeckers and Pine Siskins
We last dropped in on the mountain community of Acorn Woodpeckers in October as they prepared for winter. Well, winter arrived, and here we see a male tending to the granary tree at Ajo and Loma Linda Extension on January 31st. In the image above he is sitting on a main branch of the dead granary tree, below he is checking out inventory, almost halfway through winter. Like all woodpeckers he is using tail to brace himself on the tree.
It appears that his winter store of acorns is down from fall inventory. We see acorns in the image above, captured on January 31st. For comparison, the image below was captured on October 18th. It is on a different part of the same tree, but most of the holes appear full, the result of the fall harvest.
And, then the Pine Siskins
Pine Siskins are small birds in the finch family that live throughout North America and reside year round on Mt Lemmon. They move in flocks, and come in large numbers to the feeders, especially in the winter when other food sources are scarce. In this series of images we see the birds going after each other for their part of the feed cylinder. It's not like there is not enough to go around!
The last of the series, below, catches a bird with his wings extended showing the yellow markings on the wing, usually only seen when folded.
For the photo geeks: This was shot with a Canon 7D Mk II, with an EF 100-400 Mk II, 286 mm, at 1/250 sec. at f/6.3 with fill flash using a Better Beamer. The combination of the flash and relatively slow shutter speed (required for synchronization) captured the wing extended (flash), but also the bird on right behind the wing (slow shutter exposed the bird before the wing overlapped it).
Return to White Water Draw: Great Horned Owl
We returned to White Water Draw on February 19, 2020 with a birding group led by Jeff Babson. Since my last visit in December, a pair of Great Horned Owls have set up camp in the barn right at the entrance to the preserve. The images above and below are the male, snoozing mid-morning.
Below we see the female sitting on her nest, presumably on eggs. There seems to be lots of prey in the White Water Draw area, so hopefully there will be enough food this spring for Mom, Dad, and their hatchlings. Portions of the barn are roped off under the nest.
Image above, just a slit of eye as she sleeps. Below, the left eye opens just a bit, then in the next frame looks a bit more menacing, before they shut us out entirely.
Zzzzzzzzzz . . . . . . . .
As we started our walk, there was a large flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds hanging out (literally) on wetland reeds. SE Arizona is in their wintering territory. My guess is that most of the birds we are seeing here are females, with some males mixed in. Males have more yellow on the breast and head than the females do.
Flocks of Blackbirds often are made up of predominantly one sex. In southern Arizona winter flocks are often females. Males typically migrate north before females to set up their territories before the females arrive.
Below, two females are mixing it up.
Special thanks to Jeff Babson both for the tour in February, and for his help reviewing these images.
For more on White Water Draw (WWD) and Sandhill Cranes, click on this link which will take you to all my posts on WWD going back to 2015.
In February there was less water than in December, but the cranes were still close in and to the right of the main viewing decks. They returned late morning, filling the sky as seen in the image above.
The images below show a family of three on their approach.
Images below, heavy air traffic on the approach, with a crowded landing field.
In the two images below we can see an immature crane who has not yet molted into adult plumage. The vast majority of immature cranes molt before the fall migration, but a few do not, and stand out from the crowd.
Snow Geese are amazing birds that breed in far northern Canada, Alaska and the Artic, and winter in the central U.S., east coast, and portions of Mexico. We are fortunate that they like inland wetlands such as White Water Draw and Bosque del Apache. Images above and below show a flock of Snow Geese coming into the wetlands for a landing around noon.
In the images below we can see one goose with distinct coloration, a blue morph. This change in coloration is determined by one gene. Note also in the detail below that this goose is missing one secondary flight feather on the right wing. Snow Geese do not molt in the winter so this is likely the result of an altercation with another goose, or a close encounter with a predator.
The geese pictured below are flying a landing pattern very close to the observation path.
In the image below, the geese are bunking right next to the Sandhill Cranes.
Least Sandpipers are the smallest of the shorebirds, known as "peeps" - about 5 to 6 inches long and weighing in at 1 ounce. They breed in far northern Canada and Alaska, and winter in the southern U.S., including the pacific coast, and Mexico.
In the images here we can see this sandpiper's distinctive yellow-green legs, and hunched posture as he hunts for food on the edge of the water.
We spotted this Marsh Wren moving quickly through the understory adjacent to the wetlands, and I tried many times to get a good photo without success. Then, while I was standing on the viewing deck looking for incoming cranes and geese, he popped out of the undergrowth and began hopping from branch to branch right below me. A good angle and good lighting produced this series.
This Marsh Wren is in his winter range. Some do live year round in northern Arizona, but most breed in the northern U.S. and Canada. Described by the Cornell website as pugnacious, they are ground foragers that live in marshes. They will built multiple nests and breed with multiple females, often destroying eggs and nestlings of other Marsh Wrens.
If you read my last post you know I ended it with a "footnote" - a note about birds feet. The Marsh Wren has a foot with the most common configuration, 4 toes. We can clearly see all 4 toes in this series, and the way the wren can use them to stand on a flat surface, or encircle a branch or reed.
In the last two frames below, the wren is hanging upside down with his toes firmly attached to the branch, and then moves upright without changing his foothold. As they say in the game of squash, it is all in the wrist.
"Wait, don't go. What about those Wild Turkeys in the snow?"
I was in the middle of editing this post here on Mt Lemmon when it snowed!! 6 inches on Wednesday the 18th into the 19th. I decided to lead off with the Wild Turkeys, but I cannot leave you all hanging there. So here are some more images of the last day of winter and the first day of spring (the 19th is early for spring and here is a link explaining why).
It started snowing early afternoon, and the Pine Siskins were at the feeders in force.
The following morning, March 19th, this Northern Flicker came by to say hello! (For the photo geeks, this image was shot through the sliding glass door on the cabin, which I do believe is better glass than the side window of a Ford van. Opening the door and having the subject stay put was not an option.)
One final "footnote." The Northern Flicker has 4 toes, two in front and two in back.
That's a wrap for winter!
Spring is here!
Stay safe, stay well.
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!
Steller's Jays are corvids living in evergreen forests of western North America, all the way from Alaska south into Mexico and Central America. They are regulars up on Mt. Lemmon where they forage for just about everything including insects, seeds, berries, as well as small animals, other bird's eggs, and even nestlings. Oh, and don't forget garbage, unguarded picnic items and feeder fare, including peanuts.
The images above and below were captured in Summerhaven in September 2017. The dramatic head markings and wing coloration do make them "stellar", however they are in fact named after Georg Steller, a German naturalist on a Russian explorer's ship, who discovered them in Alaska in 1741. He also discovered the Steller's Sea Lion and Steller's Sea-Eagle. For more details, see the Cornell website.
Speaking of peanuts, Steller's Jays love them! Below is an image captured in July 2018 of a jay grabbing a peanut in the shell off of our deck railing.
I had my Canon 7D II with a Canon 100-400 mm IS II on a tripod and gimbal mount on the deck that morning, scanning for bird activity. Shortly after capturing the shot above, I noticed that the jay was rummaging around two stories below and 90 degrees to my left in pine needles. I swivelled over and hit the shutter, not being sure what I was capturing. I all honesty, it was not until I got the images on the computer in Lightroom that I realized what this Jay was up to.
Below we see the Steller's Jay with his peanut on top of the pine needles.
He looks around, finds a spot he likes, and shoves the peanut into the ground. The monsoon was well underway, so the underlying soil was damp and soft.
With the peanut tucked away, he looks up to see if anyone is watching, then looks back down to his buried treasure, and forcibly shoves his bill down the hole. Note that at 1/500 second there was head blur on the image although his legs were sharp.
Having driven his peanut deeper, he looks up, then around to his right, and back toward what looks like a rock.
Yup, it's a rock. He grabs it with his bill, turns back to the left and carefully places it on top of the hole, and sits back to admire his work. This rock was not small, especially for a bird.
Having secured his food, he hops to an adjacent rock, and looks for his next find.
Jays are members of the corvid family, well known for their smarts. Jays in particular are known for their ability to store food items in various locations, and remember what they stored and where they stored them, They will go back for perishable items soon, and leave the non-perishables for a future meal. This demonstrates Episodic Memory, the ability to recall specific past events including what happened where and when.
For more on "bird brains" and how advanced they are, see the wonderful book by Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds.
That's all for now!
The Spotted Towhee is a member of the Family Passerellidae, along with 5 other Towhee's and species of Sparrows, Juncos, Longspurs, Buntings, and the Brambling (Reference: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds).
They are common in Summerhaven during the summer and fall months. Smaller than a Robin, they have short conical bills, and spend most of their days rummaging around for seeds in leaf litter. In the spring the male will sit high on a branch singing for a mate.
The image above was captured in Portal Arizona in January of 2016, and is included here because this is one of my best images. Note the lack of tree leaves in the winter allowing for a better shot. He looks like he is dreaming of spring. Here you can see the characteristic features of the male; black head, red eye, rufous sides and back spotted in white.
The images below were all captured September 2017 in Summerhaven. An adult male is sitting on a rock, looking for the next good leaf pile.
Below, also Mt Lemmon the same day in September, likely a juvenile with developing coloration of the head and breast. He is well camouflaged in the leaves and pine needles.
This last image, below, shows the white corners to the black tail. Again we see well the bird blends in with the ground cover. All the Summerhaven images captured from a deck above the ground.
For more cool stuff on the Spotted Towhee, including their two-foot hop and nesting behavior, see the Cornell website at this link.
Speaking of Towhees, of the 6 species in Peterson's Field Guide (Green-tailed, Eastern, Spotted, Canyon, California, and Abert's) 4 claim SE Arizona as part of their range. So, in addition to the Spotted Towhee , here are 3 more to keep your eye out for.
Canyon Towhees are brown birds with long legs and tail, and a buffy throat with a hint of a reddish crown. All the images here were captured at Molino Basin in May of 2017. Special thanks to Dick Carlson for leading us "up the mountain" one morning after Jeff Babson's Agua Caliente walk, and for helping us find and identify these birds. Their non-descript color means they blend in well with the surroundings. Like the Spotted Towhee they forage in ground cover and leaf litter for bugs and seeds.
The bird above is likely a female, seen below with a fledgling. Mom on the right, offspring on the left.
Below, junior is hungry and lets mom know that it is time for a snack. Of note is that this pair stayed close to each other all the time we were there. They do nest in the ground and it seems likely that home was not far away.
OK, says mom, let's see what is available in all this ground litter that I call the kitchen cabinet.
Ah, found a bug, hope this holds you for a while.
There you go. But keep foraging on your own, I'm not going to do this forever!
For more on the Canyon Towhee, see the Cornell website link here. They look similar to the California Towhee, but are genetically distinct, and do not share the same range. Canyon Towhees live in Mexico, Southern Arizona and New Mexico, and may nest twice a year, concordant with the winter and summer rainy seasons in the southwest. Molino Basin is a good place to look for them.
Abert's Towhee is among the larger of Towhee's. They are brown, with a year-round range in riparian areas of the Sonoran Desert. In other words, they are family! The images above and below were captured at Agua Caliente on March 9, 2017. Below is likely a male singing for a mate in Spring.
The three images below were captured two weeks later at Sweetwater Wetlands. Unlike the Canyon Towhee who lives in dry canyons and waits for rain, the Abert's Towhee hangs out by water. Here we see the morning bath.
First check out the water . . . .
Then shake like mad to get the feathers wet. Got to get rid of all that dust and crud!
Finally, find a safe perch in the sun to dry off!
The Abert's Towhee was named by Spencer Baird in 1852 for Lt. James William Abert, who obtained the first specimen. Abert was a 1842 graduate of West Point, and a Topographical Engineer in the Army, who served in war against Mexico, as well as the Civil War. For more on Lt. Abert see this link.
The Green-tailed Towhee has a rufous cap, white throat, gray chest and plain olive green upper parts. It winters in the southwest U.S. and Mexico summering north into the Rockies. All images here were captured in Portal, AZ in late April of 2016.
These pictures were shot on two separate days. Above and below on April 30th in the dry creek bed of Cave Creek. As with the other Towhees, they prefer rummaging through leaf litter.
The three images below were shot on the 29th. The bird stayed out in the open long enough for me to get left and right lateral shots that show the yellow-green on the edges of the wings and tail.
I cannot wrap this up without recognizing a member of the Emberizid family that Peterson's Guide considers "Uncommon, local," but for Summerhaven is very common, and OK, local. The Yellow-eyed Junco.
The Yellow-eyed Junco has a year-round range in Mexico's interior that extends up into SE Arizona. They are found in coniferous forests, and pine-oak woods, making Mt Lemmon a perfect habitat. All images captured in Summerhaven in September of 2015.
That's it for the 4 local Towhee's and one Junco! Happy September! Fall is almost here. With the wet summer, I am hoping for great fall colors.
July 2017 Birds on Mt. Lemmon: Thrush, Warbler, Goldfinch, Robin, Wren, and oh yes . . a Turkey Vulture spends the night.
As James Taylor wrote, "I've seen fire and I've seen rain . . ." July began with the Burro Fire, which thanks to 800 firefighters was expertly contained until the monsoon roared in with drenching rains that put it out completely. Now we are wet, but very grateful for their work and sacrifice, and for this spectacular forest in Tucson's backyard. So, in celebration, let's looks at some of the birds that flew into town (Summerhaven) this month.
The Hermit Thrush has a spotted breast and fine white eye ring. A year-round resident of SE Arizona, this bird winters below 6000 feet and summers above 5500, making him a fairly common resident of Summerhaven during the summer. The eye ring is subtle, but I think is evident in the image below. For images of Hermit Thrushes in Northern California, see Tom Grey's website.
Thrushes are in the family Turdidae, and are large-eyed, slender-billed songbirds. Most species in this family bear the name of "Thrush" and are brown backed with spotted breasts. However, included in this family are Robins and Bluebirds, distinctively different looking as adults, but as juveniles the bear the thrush speckled breast. Reference: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, Roger Tory Peterson, Fourth Edition.
Confession: these images were actually captured in late June, but I could not leave out this little fellow with his face all filled with bugs.
Virginia's Warbler is a small gray warbler with a white eye-ring, yellow breast, gray belly, and yellow undertail coverts. The male has a rufous crown which we can see in these image. It is fairly common in summer in SE Arizona above 5000 feet. The images here are not the best, but show the main features of the bird.
Virginia's Warblers forage for insects and spiders in low shrubs and trees, as we can see in this series. They don't sit still for long, and are usually playing a "fan dance" with the leaves.
Virginia's Warblers are a Wood Warbler in the Family Parulidae. I count 50 species of Wood Warbler in the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. It is no wonder that the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a separate guide to warblers (The Warbler Guide) with a downloadable Quick Finder.
The Lesser Goldfinch is a common resident in SE Arizona, and often travels in flocks, foraging for seeds. As the rains begin, grasses begin to go to seed July through September. Several summers ago I found a small flock of Brewer's Sparrows in Summerhaven above their usual 5000 foot ceiling feasting on similar grasses off of Middle Sabino Road. This time it was our regulars turn, just above Marshall's Gulch on Sabino Creek. Great fun to watch them at the all-you-can eat buffet.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About