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 Emberizidae, along with 5 other Towhee's and species of Sparrows, Juncos, Longspurs, Buntings, and the Brambling (Reference: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th Edition, pp. 326-345).
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