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 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