Arizona’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane landing at Whitewater Draw, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As a family, cranes are one of the world’s most fascinating.  Cranes are large, graceful and elegant wading birds with six-foot plus wingspans, long legs and necks. Their courtship dance displays have inspired choreographers as well as artists, and their massive migratory gatherings attract birders from everywhere.  Worldwide, there are 15 species found on every continent except South America and Antarctica.  In the United States we have two species, the Whooping Crane and the Sandhill Crane.  The Whooping Crane is highly endangered with less than 100 birds alive in the U.S., and less than 20 of those are wild-hatched birds. These birds are currently found only in three populations, a residential one in Kissimmee Prairie, Florida, a small migratory population in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas and a captive breeding program population in Wisconsin.  By contrast, there are thousands of Sandhill Cranes found across the United States, a status that reflects a strong and continuing recovery from a once serious depletion.

Some of the 25,000 Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater, February 2021 (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Six subspecies of Sandhill Cranes, some residential and some migratory, are found from northeastern Mexico, Cuba and Florida north across Canada and Alaska into northeastern Siberia.  Their common name comes from Nebraska’s Platte River habitat on the edge of that state’s sandhills.  Cranes from northern areas participate in massive migrations consisting of thousands of miles per year.  These monogamous birds will feed and socialize for weeks in staging areas before migrating, and during migration they typically fly as high as 2,500 feet, although some have been recorded at 12,000 feet, and they will fly as far as 500 miles in a ten-hour day.

Five Sandhills parachuting in for a landing at Whitewater (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In Arizona we can view wintering migratory Sandhill Cranes in the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County.  The cranes begin arriving in November and leave again on their northbound migration about the first of March.  You can sometimes find them at Cochise Lake near the golf course south of Willcox, but the most reliable and easiest location in Arizona is Whitewater Draw.  Whitewater Draw is a 1,500-acre former cattle ranch that was purchased by Arizona Game and Fish Department in 1997 and converted to a wetland habitat.  Surrounded by agricultural fields, Whitewater Draw provides ideal habitat for Sandhill Cranes, which now arrive annually in populations of 25,000 or more.  The birds feed on residual grain in the nearby agricultural fields and return to Whitewater to rest and feed on aquatic invertebrates and small vertebrates in the shallows of Whitewater.  Arizona’s Game and Fish Department has done a wonderful job of making Whitewater easily accessible to the public, with flat levee trails, benches, trees and observation decks extending out into the water. 

Sandhill Cranes flying over Whitewater Draw (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

On a recent trip, we were able to get within a hundred feet or less to thousands of cranes as well as other water birds attracted to the preserve.  Observation decks have stools and telescopes as well, and there are porta potty toilets on site.  Whitewater Draw is open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  From SaddleBrooke it is 125 miles or about a 2.5-hour drive each way.  Rather than making it a long day trip, consider staying in Bisbee (30 minutes from Whitewater) or Hereford (45 minutes from Whitewater), and give yourself time for more than one visit to the cranes as well as the opportunity to take in other attractions in that lovely part of the state.  Don’t forget your camera, extra camera cards and a battery charger.  We took more than a thousand photos and videos on our first day.

Crane looking for a snack at Whitewater (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This article was originally posted in Arizona Daily Star’s Saddlebag Notes newspaper on April 1, 2021

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The Monarchs of Mexico

Many birders have a strong secondary interest in butterflies. This is understandable, considering that butterflies are found in the company of birds, are equally colorful and are often mistaken as birds. There are roughly the same number of species of butterflies north of the Mexican border (750) as there are birds (900), although worldwide butterflies outnumber birds about 17,500 to 10,000.  Remarkably, only one of these 17,500 species does a roundtrip migration. In comparison, about 5,000 bird species migrate. 

Monarch resting on Prudy’s hand (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

That singularly incredible butterfly species is the Monarch, well known to everyone in the U.S. and Canada. Unable to survive the winter weather of Canada and the northern U.S., apart from a relatively small group that winters in Pacific Grove, California, they migrate by the tens of millions to Mexico.  In Arizona, most of our tagged Monarchs wind up in Mexico.  If you look for Monarchs in Arizona, don’t confuse them with our common Queen Butterflies, which are smaller than Monarchs and lack the bold black wing stripes found on Monarchs.

Out of focus Red Warbler in the butterfly sanctuary (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This is one of the most remarkable animal migrations in the world.  Monarch butterflies have a life span of about four weeks, but the generation born at the end of August miraculously survives eight months.  This generation of butterflies, known as the Methuselah Generation, lives long enough to fly as far as 3,000 miles south to escape the deadly northern winters.  The delicate lightweights fly up to 75 miles each day, typically out of sight at 800-1200 feet and endure wind, storms and predators.  Finally, they arrive at the oyamel fir forests at 11,000 feet in the mountains of Mexico’s states of Michoacan and Mexico, the exact spot their great-great-great grandparents migrated 12 months earlier.  Here they cluster by the millions to wait out the northern winter. This remarkably extended lifespan ends in March when the returning Monarchs again breed and die off every month or so as they fly back to their point of origin.

A golden cascade of Monarchs (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Monarchs, coming from millions of dispersed acres across the United States and Canada, winter together within small colonies that, in aggregate, consist of less than 20 acres.  One of the most convenient places to see millions of these beautiful Monarchs is El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, a fourteen-mile drive from Angangueo, which is less than a hundred miles from either Morelia or Mexico City.  It’s possible to visit the sanctuary as a day trip from Morelia or Mexico City, but when we visited it in 2009, we spent the prior night in Angangueo in order to acclimatize to the high elevation.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet in the sanctuary (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Local drivers are available in Angangueo and Ocampo, another small village on the way to the sanctuary, but the short road from Ocampo up the mountain is well-signed, paved with cobblestones and an easy drive in any vehicle.  Before you reach the preserve, be prepared to pay a small access fee as you pass through the small ejido of El Rosario, and when you reach the preserve, park in the lot furthest up the road to shorten your hike to the butterflies.  From the upper parking lot, you can see the arched entrance to the sanctuary, the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve.  Your modest entry fee includes the services of a guide, a requirement for all visitors.  Our guide, Juan, spoke little English but was friendly and in no hurry, and he waited patiently while we stopped to catch our breath or photograph birds along the path, like the platinum-cheeked Red Warbler or the White-eared Hummingbird.

High elevation White-eared Hummingbird (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The wide paved trail has many interpretive signs with information about the butterflies and their remarkable migration.  Starting at 10,000 feet, the one-mile path climbs through forests of oak, pine and fir, crosses a beautiful meadow and then ends at a viewing area just under 10,800 feet in altitude.

One of thousands of clusters of butterflies (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Enormous clusters of butterflies hang darkly from the oyamel fir trees, like giant clusters of leaves.  We timed our arrival for early afternoon when we heard that February’s afternoon heat often stirs the Monarchs to leave their roosts.  This proved to be one of those lucky days.  As the cumulous clouds parted and sunlight lit the forest, butterflies began falling from the trees like a golden snowfall.  Waves of orange and black Monarchs cascaded through the air, swirling around and even landing on us.  It was truly a moving and magical moment; one you should add to your bucket list.

Author’s cap attracts a Monarch (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This article originally appeared in the August 2021 issue of Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.

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Summertime Tanagers

Male Western Tanager (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Summertime in SaddleBrooke is a secret we don’t share with snowbirds.  Sure, we joke with them about the dry heat, tell them our summer monsoon should be renamed the summer ‘nonsoon’ and encourage them to leave before our first hundred-degree day.  Once they’ve cleared out (certainly by Memorial Day), we kick back, relax and enjoy the traffic-free roads, half-empty restaurants and crowd-free venues.  Those snowbirds that flee our comfortable single-digit humidity for the breath-stealing humidity beyond the desert also miss out on some of the best birding of the year.  Summer is when we watch the miracle of nest-building, courtship displays and babies.  Who wants to drive a thousand miles and miss watching the daily drama of quail trying to get a dozen hatchlings from windup toy to puberty?  Deserting the desert in the summer also means missing most of our hummingbirds and many of our most colorful migrants.  Our tanagers are a good example.

Female Western Tanager contemplates a bee (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Part of the Cardinalidae family, all five U.S. tanagers belong to the same genus, Piranga (Not Latin or Greek, but Amazonian Tupi language for ‘an unknown small bird’).  All five of these are found in Arizona although the Scarlet Tanager, common to the eastern U.S., is rare here.  The Flame-colored Tanager (from Mexico) is also rare here, but even rarer in Texas, the only other state where it’s seen. One of the other three species, the Hepatic Tanager, is mostly found in just two other U.S. states, New Mexico and Texas, while the remaining two species, the Summer Tanager and the Western Tanager are far more widespread.  If you have any doubts about these birds being colorful, consider the names, scarlet, flame-colored and hepatic (liver-red).  The Western and Summer are no less eye-catching. The male Summer is a bright rosy red overall and the male Western a red-headed black and yellow bird with a distinctive yellow wing bar. 

Young male Western Tanager on our waterfall (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Hepatic Tanager is the most widely distributed Piranga tanager, ranging from the Southwest U.S. all the way to northern Argentina.  And although its English name refers to a liver-red coloration, its species name flava (Latin for golden-yellow) comes from its original description, based on a female bird in Paraguay.  In Arizona, Hepatic Tanager is a common summer resident of higher elevations with pine, oak, juniper and other conifers.

Female Western Tanager eating palm fruit (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Western Tanager, the quintessential bird of western forests, is found west of mid-Kansas, north into Canada and south into Mexico, where it winters. Despite its brilliant colors and strong song, its predilection for shady foliage makes it elusive and sometimes difficult to spot.  Last summer our neighbor’s palm tree sprouted tiny fruits on long stems that developed into bird magnets. Mockingbirds, grosbeaks, waxwings and Western Tanagers swung from the stems while gobbling this fruit.  The tanagers were of particular interest to us, and they were in our yard and next door in large numbers (as many as 30 at a time) for weeks during their southbound migration.  The Western Tanager breeds farther north (60 degrees) than any other tanager, spending as little as two weeks in its northern most habitat.

Male Summer Tanager in Peppersauce Canyon (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Summer Tanagers are found mostly in the southern states from California to Florida, and the male may be our most striking summer migrant.  A berry and fruit eater, the Summer Tanager is also well known for eating bees and wasps. It’s a migrant commonly found in riparian woodlands. Two of the most easily found summer populations near SaddleBrooke are Peppersauce Campground near Oracle and The Shores recreational area north of Mammoth on the Gila River.  Just don’t tell our snowbirds.

This article originally appeared in the July, 2021 issue of Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

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The Howdy Birds

Burrowing Owl sleeping on a post, Marana, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As a family of birds, owls are unique and fascinating.  They are nocturnal predators with large night-vision eyes, stealth-silent wings and sharp beaks and talons.  No wonder they have fostered myths and folklore. Owls range in size from 5.5 inches to 29 inches, and our most familiar one, the Great Horned, is found in all 49 North American states and is one of our largest at 22 inches. At the other end of the spectrum is the Elf Owl, at 5.75 inches our smallest owl, and one that is found in the U.S. only in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.  Of all these fascinating birds, one of the most interesting and unique owls is the Burrowing Owl, a bird that has been described as a ‘can of beans on stilts’.

Roadside Burrowing Owl, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Burrowing Owl, a long-legged small owl at 9.5 inches, is aptly named since it is the only owl that roosts and nests in underground burrows.  These burrows are sometimes dug by the owls themselves, although in Arizona where dirt is near impregnable caliche, they rely on other critters, like prairie dogs, to do the digging or they find suitable substitutes like culverts.  This reliance on prairie dogs nearly led to their demise in Arizona in the 1920s.  Cochise County was known for its prairie dog villages, with some stretching for miles and with populations up to a half million prairie dogs.  Cattle ranchers had no use whatsoever for prairie dogs, who barked constantly and put the ranchers’ horses at risk with their ankle-breaking network of underground burrows.  In 1926, the U.S. Rodent Control decided to eliminate this ‘problem’ altogether, using poison gas which exterminated the entire population of southern prairie dogs in Arizona.  This shortsighted decision hoped to see a proliferation of prairie grass for cattle, but by eliminating the ‘earthworms of the land’, the water-holding burrows dried up and rainwater ran off unhindered, depleting the water table and turning the rich grassland into a stark desert. It also eliminated the Burrowing Owl’s nesting sites, and nearly all the owls disappeared.

Six newly-fledged baby owls waiting for mom’s food delivery, April in Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Today Burrowing Owls still exist, but in much smaller numbers and only with outside help.  They are endangered in Canada and threatened in Mexico.  Here in Arizona, they are a ‘bird of concern’, largely dependent upon help like that provided by Tucson Electric Power.  For 17 years, TEP has worked with Wild at Heart to relocate Burrowing Owls to safer habitat.  TEP has been building artificial ‘owl condo’ burrows on a farmland plot near Marana, and temporarily covering them with tents of perforated mesh. The owls can see out through the mesh, spotting predatory hawks before venturing outside, but the hawks cannot see inside the mesh, which only needs remain in place for a month.

Young Burrowing Owl, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Burrowing Owls are unique in another way as well. Instead of camouflaging themselves during the day like other owls, they perch and sleep in the open near their burrows.  Furthermore, they tolerate humans, resulting in lots of photo-ops of these cute and cuddly-looking creatures.  They also bob up and down as they stand in front of their burrows, a welcoming look noticed by cowboys as they rode past, which led the cowboys to call them ‘Howdy Birds’.  Before you decide to get too friendly with them, however, you should know that they line the burrow’s entrance and the burrow itself with cow and horse dung.  This is done for the practical purpose of attracting dinner, like dung beetles, but still…..  In addition, these monogamous birds eat invertebrates and small mammals, and like other owls they gulp down their prey whole.  Their digestive system compacts the fur, bones and chitinous remains of invertebrates into pellets the owls eject from their mouths.  You might rather kiss your dog than a Howdy Bird.

This article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper on March 1, 2021

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The Christmas Bird Count

Osprey near Page Springs Fish Hatchery, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This year will mark the 121st consecutive year that the annual ‘Christmas’ Bird Count takes place.  As you might imagine, the count has changed a lot in 121 years.  Although the first count happened on Christmas Day in 1900, and it’s still called the Christmas Bird Count (CBC), it now takes place over a 23-day period from December 14 through January 5.  The first count was organized by Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History.  27 people volunteered to count birds in 25 locations from California to Ontario, and they documented a total of 90 species.  By contrast, last year’s 120th CBC involved 81,601 observers in 2,646 ‘count circles’ across the United States, Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.  These volunteer ‘community scientists’ tallied more than 42 million birds and 2,566 species, about a fourth of the world’s total species.  Disturbingly, that total of 42,704,077 birds was a decline of 6 million birds from the 2018-2019 count, and even more shocking is that this number is down substantially from the 65 million birds recorded in the 2011 count, the last time I wrote about this annual event.  Even so, this year’s results, which are published annually by the National Audubon Society, will add a wealth of data to the pool drawn upon by researchers, scientists and decision makers.  The data have proven invaluable in monitoring the health of bird populations and have led to habitat preservation and other conservation measures.

Mountain Bluebird, Luna Lake, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Frank Chapman undoubtedly would be impressed with the evolution of his idea, but he was motivated by circumstances that no longer exist in the U.S.  As the 19th century drew to a close, birds were unprotected and, in some cases, threatened with extinction.  Birds were killed for their feathers, for their meat and often just for sport.  Incredible as it seems today, there was an annual event at the time designed to kill large numbers of birds for the ‘fun’ of it.  Called ‘the Side Hunt’, this was a competition where participants chose sides to see which team could shoot and kill the most birds.  Appalled by this, Chapman decided to provide an alternative, where participants would identify and count birds rather than kill them, and this first Christmas Bird Count took hold and eventually replaced the Side Hunt.  Five years after the first CBC, Chapman was also instrumental in founding the National Audubon Society, which adopted and expanded the Christmas Bird Count.

Hermit Thrush, Peppersauce Campground, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

You don’t have to belong to Audubon to participate, nor do you need to be an ornithologist or researcher.  You don’t even have to be an expert birder, since each counting team is led by a qualified and experienced ‘compiler’.  The compiler, or team leader, establishes the count date within the 23-day window, organizes the team into smaller groups to cover the 15-mile diameter counting circle, and compiles and submits the results.  Volunteers are enthusiastically welcomed.

Hooded Merganser, Page Springs, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This year there were 40 counts scheduled for Arizona, in a variety of habitats including the Tucson Valley (which includes most of the Tucson area), Buenos Aires NWR, Avra Valley, Nogales, Santa Catalina Mountains, St. David, Patagonia, Ramsey Canyon, Gila River and Madera Canyon.  Many of the leaders are well-known Arizona birders with years of experience in their designated count circles.  By the time you read this, most of the counts for this year will have been completed, but it’s not too early to plan for 2021-2022.  Information about this year’s counts is still available on Tucson Audubon’s web site, and help is appreciated and needed on many of these counts.  Post a note to yourself on next year’s calendar to review the listing in early December. This is a great way to spend a fun day, meet others with similar interests, learn a lot about birds and make a positive contribution to the knowledge and conservation of birds everywhere.  With any luck, COVID-19 will be a faded memory by then.

This article originally appeared in the January, 2021 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.

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Birding in the Time of Covid

Fall color in Eastern Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We recently decided to take a multi-night birding trip and considering COVID, the planning seemed to take as long as the trip.  We planned an twelve-night loop trip, with stays in four separate AirB&Bs. We picked places that were highly rated, had a thorough cleaning protocol and provided entry without checking in with other people.  We kept our daily drives short and included two destinations in eastern Arizona we had been to before plus two in western New Mexico we had not.  We took three coolers, and rented places with full kitchens and refrigerator/freezers.  We planned all our meals in advance, and our frozen foods stayed frozen on our relatively short drives.  It turned out better than we expected, and we were able to avoid grocery stores and restaurants the entire trip.  If you’re a birder or otherwise interested in putting together a road trip in the time of COVID, details of our trip might be useful to you.

A Hungry Mexican Jay at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our first day was a 200 mile drive from SaddleBrooke to Portal, Arizona, a 5,000-foot high outpost at the edge of the Chiricahua mountains and home to Cave Creek Ranch.  We stayed in one of several independent cabin units, which are scattered across the wooded area and supplied with full kitchens and bird feeders.  A central area at Cave Creek Ranch provides more feeders and socially distant seating, and our three days here were spent birding at both our own cabin and the central area, as well as at many of the nearby birding hot spots along Cave Creek and into the Chiricahuas. 

A rare Mexican bird in Arizona, the Eared Quetzal, photographed near Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This is where we found and photographed the pair of rare Eared Quetzals that have not been seen in Arizona for eleven years.  The unique positioning of the ranch relative to the nearby mountains draws great birds to the feeders, including Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Blue-throated Mountain Gem, Yellow-eyed Junco, Bridled Titmouse, Mexican Jay and Arizona Woodpecker. 

Black-headed Grosbeak watches Rose-breasted Grosbeak confront Yellow-eyed Junco at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In addition to the quetzals, we also had a rare visitor to our cabin feeder, a Rose-breasted Grossbeak.  After three relaxing days in this paradise, we packed up and drove just a hundred miles or so to Pinos Altos, a remote village north of Silver City, New Mexico. Our accommodation here was a beautiful casita that shared a driveway and two acres with the nearby owner’s home. We had bird feeders here as well, and the 7,000 foot location brought us different birds including Green-tailed and Spotted Towhees, Mountain Chickadees and, surprisingly, White-winged Doves.  The three days we stayed here also gave us the opportunity to visit the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. 

Red-naped Sapsucker taking sap from a tree in Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

From here our trip took us into elk country and two nights at a hundred-year-old farmhouse in Aragon, New Mexico, where we found a herd of elk waiting our arrival. Birds included Lewis’s Woodpecker and Northern Flicker.  The drive from Pinos Altos to Aragon took us to one of our target destinations, the Catwalk Recreation Area, a series of high metal walkways on a 2-mile round trip loop trail along Whitewater Creek. The sixty-year old walkways are held in place by supports drilled into the sides of the volcanic cliffs above the creek, and Canyon Wrens were our most common bird.  After Aragon, our loop trip took us back into Arizona and a private AirB&B home on the edge of the Reservation in Pinetop, Arizona. 

Pygmy Nuthatch, Pinetop, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We spent our final 3 days here, birding the feeders in the back yard (Pygmy Nuthatches and Steller’s Jays) and exploring the 9-10,000-foot high country between Pinetop and Greer.  The brilliantly painted fall trees were an unexpected treat. Our last day included a relaxing lunch at Fool’s Hollow Lake in Show Low and a final late afternoon birding stop at the Shores Recreation Area north of Winkelman.  All in all, a relaxing, enjoyable and safe time during a troublesome year.

Green-tailed Towhee, Fools Hollow Lake, Show Low, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This article originally appeared in the December, 2020, newspaper The Saddlebag Notes, Tucson, Arizona

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The Eared Quetzal

A rare U.S. visitor, a male Eared Quetzal (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although I’ve always loved birds, I didn’t get seriously into birding until January, 2008, when we took a multi-month road trip into Mexico.  One of many highlights on that trip was a two-night campout in Reserva Monte Mojino, a private preserve in the mountains east of Alamos in southern Sonora. This is a very wild area where the focus is conversion of cattle ranches to conservation in order to protect an ecological treasure. There were a couple of biologists doing research at the ‘ranch’ where we camped, but Prudy and I were there for the birds.  Our host was Stephanie Meyer, a U.S. expatriate biologist who rode with us in our Jeep, and without whom we never would have found the destination, just 17 miles from Alamos but which took nearly 3 hours to drive.  We saw lots of great birds including Lilac-crowned Parrot, Tufted Flycatchers (as thick as bees) and Plain-capped Starthroat, but we never saw the Eared Quetzal, a rare and beautiful bird in its own genus, falling between trogons and true quetzals.  At the time, I didn’t realize this would be my best opportunity to find one in Mexico, where they are endemic except for Arizona incursions

A female Eared Quetzal near Portal, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

However, luck sometimes comes to he and she who wait. Early in the morning of June 9, a couple who know their birds spotted and photographed a female Eared Quetzal on the road above the middle fork of Cave Creek near Portal, Arizona, which unleashed a COVID-defying stream of birders from all over Arizona and surrounding states.  Daily sightings have continued monitoring a pair, and possibly a third quetzal for over four months now, at least until October 13, the day before this article was written.  The birds have moved down the creek canyons closer to Portal, and when Prudy and I were staying at Cave Creek Ranch in late September, we only had to drive 3 miles to find 20 birders practicing social distancing and looking for the birds, which showed up 20 minutes after we arrived at the stakeout. 

Female Eared Quetzal in flight, Arizona (photo Randy Smith)

Eared Quetzals have visited Arizona since Richard Taylor first discovered one in the south fork of Cave Creek on October 23, 1977, but they are sporadic and unpredictable.  Several birds were in Arizona in late 1977, but it was two years before they were seen again, and then ten years (1989), and another two years (1991).  From 1991 until 1996, at least one bird was seen on at least one occasion annually, but then a three- year hiatus interrupted this run, and they have only been seen in 5 of the past 20 years.  Until this year’s good fortune, a single bird was found in 2013 in Madera Canyon, but 11 years since they were seen before that, in 2009. In addition to the birds in Arizona, this year two appeared for the first time beyond Arizona, near Pinos Altos, New Mexico on September 28, about 100 miles northeast of Cave Creek.  The birds live in steep rugged canyons in Mexico and may be more common than previously believed in Arizona, by hanging out in areas seldom reached by birders.

Even from the back this is a beautiful iridescent bird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This is a large and strikingly beautiful bird with brilliant iridescent colors.  Like trogons, it can perch immobile for long periods of time, evading detection. It has been found in Arizona in four different areas, most often in the Cave Creek area near Portal, Madera Canyon (2013 and 2007), the canyons south of Sierra Vista (not since 1999) and for two months in 1996 in Haunted Canyon, a remote area north of Superior.  It feeds on madrone berries and wooly black caterpillars among other fruits and insects.

Note the eponymous ear feather behind the eye (photo Randy Smith)

Eared Quetzal (Euptilotis neoxenus, ‘good-feather-eared new stranger’) gets its name from several long ‘ear’ feathers that contour horizontally around the back of its head.  In Mexico, it inhabits the wildest mountain terrain, and it has the most restricted distribution of the nine species of Mexican trogons. It is uncommon or rare throughout its range, and it always draws large crowds when it appears in Arizona.  We’ve documented 455 bird species in Mexico, and the Eared Quetzal would be number 456, except we’ve never seen it in Mexico.  For us it remains a feather-eared stranger in its native land.

(this article originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona on November 1, 2020)

This is a large and strikingly beautiful bird with brilliant iridescent colors.  Like trogons, it can perch immobile for long periods of time, evading detection. It has been found in Arizona in four different areas, most often in the Cave Creek area near Portal, Madera Canyon (2013 and 2007), the canyons south of Sierra Vista (not since 1999) and for two months in 1996 in Haunted Canyon, a remote area north of Superior.  It feeds on madrone berries and wooly black caterpillars among other fruits and insects. Eared Quetzal (Euptilotis neoxenus, ‘good-feather-eared new stranger’) gets its name from several long ‘ear’ feathers that contour horizontally around the back of its head.  In Mexico, it inhabits the wildest mountain terrain, and it has the most restricted distribution of the nine species of Mexican trogons. It is uncommon or rare throughout its range, and it always draws large crowds when it appears in Arizona.  We’ve documented 455 bird species in Mexico, and the Eared Quetzal would be number 456, except we’ve never seen it in Mexico.  For us it remains a feather-eared stranger in its native land.

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Birding the Big Island

Common Myna (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Being mostly quarantined for months, I catch myself thinking about exotic places we’ve traveled, like Australia, Colombia, Cuba and Hawaii.  I’ve written about many of these places but never about Hawaii.  We’ve spent many days on most of Hawaii’s islands, and in the 1980’s I even opened an office on Oahu and spent a week each month there.  Once, during a trade show in Honolulu, Prudy, wistfully eyeing the swaying palm trees outside, accused me of ruining one of our favorite vacation spots.  Of all the islands, the largest, Hawaii or ‘the Big Island’ quickly became our favorite due to its spectrum of attractions, from volcanos to snorkeling.  The last time we visited Hawaii was five years ago, a week-long birthday trip on the Kona Coast, and remarkably enough, the first time I went there as a birder. 

Pacific Golden-Plover (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers

Birding in Hawaii is interesting and challenging.  There are roughly 350 species of birds currently found on the islands, a little more than half the species found in Arizona.  There were 70 known endemics, of which 30 are extinct and 6 others which may be extinct. Of the remaining 48 endemics, 30 are listed as endangered or threatened.  In fact, Hawaii has the dubious distinction of being known as the endangered bird species capital of the entire world.  Twenty-one of the twenty-five bird species in the United States that have gone extinct are from Hawaii, and more than a third of all U.S. birds protected by the Endangered Species Act are in Hawaii. 

Zebra Dove (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The multiple bird-related problems in Hawaii started with the human-based introduction of non-native plants and animals.  Early Polynesians brought the jungle fowl, pigs, dogs and rats, and Captain Cook brought goats and European pigs.  Later, cats and other rodent species were introduced.  Rats led to importation of the mongoose, which helped control rats, but which also led to a serious threat to ground-nesting birds.  In addition, more than 150 species of exotic birds have been introduced to the islands, and those that survived compete with native birds for limited island resources.  On our visit five years ago, we documented 32 species, a relatively small number of birds for nearly a week’s effort.  Nevertheless, it was fun and exciting birding, and our list includes several birds you won’t find in any other state.

Nene, the state bird (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hawaii’s state bird is the Nene, or the Hawaiian Goose.  With a population of about 2,500, this endemic is the rarest goose in the world, and efforts are underway to expand the population within the state.  This work is succeeding, and the population is increasing; seeing these birds in the past was difficult at best, but we saw many of them on our most recent trip.  The Nene spends most of its time on the ground, foraging in scrubland, grassland and golf courses.  Another bird that won’t be found elsewhere is the ‘Oma’O, found only on the Big Island.  This bird, also known as the Hawaiian Thrush, is found mostly above 3,000 feet on the slopes of Mauna Loa.  We also found the ‘Apapane, a crimson endemic with black wings and tail, an abundant bird on all the main Hawaiian Islands.  We counted a total of 5 endemics, including the Hawaii Amakihi and the Hawaiian Coot. 

Yellow-billed Cardinal (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Non-endemics that are also foreign to the state-side visitor include tropicbirds, white-eyes, mynas, waxbills, saffron finches, Java sparrows and Yellow-billed Cardinals.  Yellow-billed Cardinals are common on the Big Island, and are eye-catching with a brilliant red head, black wings, white collar and breast and of course, a yellow bill.  Birds are rarely the primary reason to visit Hawaii, but if something else triggers a trip, don’t forget your binoculars.

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Lucy’s Warbler

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Lucy’s Warbler in Arizona soapberry tree  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Compared with some other states, bird-rich Arizona comes up short when you look at nesting warblers. There are about fifty members of the wood warbler family in North America, and only eleven of these nest in Arizona.  Nevertheless, we have some special warblers that are found only in the southwest part of the country.  Four of our nesting warblers are not found beyond Arizona and its neighboring states:  Grace’s Warbler, Red-faced Warbler, Painted Redstart and Lucy’s Warbler.  Each of these are impressive birds deserving their own article, but perhaps the most special one is Lucy’s.

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Hummingbird-sized cavity nester (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you are familiar with these four, you know how beautifully colorful the other three are, and may wonder why I would choose Lucy’s, a pitch black-eyed tiny creature that’s gray above and off-white below. Granted, it has rarely-seen rufous color on its crown and rump, but in no way is this comparable to the technicolored Grace’s, Red-faced and Painted.  So, what is so appealing about Lucy’s?  Well, in the first place it’s her size.  At give-or-take four inches, this hummingbird-sized warbler is smaller than all other U.S. warblers.  In addition, this is only one of two warblers that nest in cavities, and the only one in the west.

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Displaying her rufous rump patch (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although she will nest opportunistically in an unoccupied Verdin nest, a Gila Woodpecker-drilled saguaro hole or even in a clay bank crevice, her favorite spot may be a narrow wedge between the bark and the tree of a mesquite.  Here’s how Herbert Brandt described one of these nests in his 1951 classic, Arizona and Its Bird Life: “I found myself at one of the daintiest creature homes it’s been my pleasure to visit. Skillfully tucked down in a fold behind thick, rough bark was an artistic, silvery cup which held four wreathed gems of eggs. Within this ancient skin-wrinkle on the mesquite’s brawny arm, snuggled a Lilliputian cradle, the natal home of the smallest of all our many warblers.”  Brandt measured this nest at 1.75 inches in diameter and just .75 inch deep.  Incredibly, despite this Lilliputian-sized, hard-to-find incubator, much larger Brown-headed Cowbirds are known to parasitize these nests.

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Lucy’s is named after a 13-year old girl (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Lucy’s Warbler was discovered by Dr. James Cooper, the ‘Gentile Naturalist’, at Fort Mohave, Arizona in January 1861.  He dedicated the bird to the “interesting little daughter” of Spencer Baird, curator of the Smithsonian Institution, and it was named after this 13-year old girl, Lucy Hunter Baird.  Not a bad choice, after all, since Lucy developed a passion for ornithology, and eventually held a 14-year appointment with the American Ornithologist’s Union.

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Look closely to see her rufous crown (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

‘Birds of the World’ (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology) says “Unlike many cavity nesting species, Lucy’s Warbler will not use nest boxes, and no direct management actions specifically targeting this warbler have been taken.”  This text was written in March 2012.  On July 6, 2020, Tucson Audubon Society’s Citizen Science Coordinator, Olya Phillips, conducted a Zoom-connected, free-to-the-public one-hour presentation titled. ‘Lucy’s Warbler Nest Box Findings’.  This was a fascinating presentation that disclosed Tucson Audubon now has placed more than 3,000 nest boxes specifically designed for Lucy’s Warbler, and that warblers nested in 165 of these this year, raising a potential total of 825 young.  You can follow videos of the nest-building and chick-raising efforts of one of these families at  http://tucsonaudubon.org/lucycam/   where you can also learn how to buy and install your own nest box.  It might be time for Cornell to update their Lucy’s Warbler section.

 

This article originally appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona on August 1, 2020

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Arizona’s Wrens

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Arizona’s state bird, the Cactus Wren  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Wrens are one of my favorite bird families.  For the most part, wrens are small, fairly uncommon, active and melodious. A major exception to this set of characteristics is our state bird, the Cactus Wren, who is large by wren standards (over eight inches) and quite common in Arizona and other parts of the desert southwest. He is certainly active, but you probably wouldn’t call him melodious, since his song is described by Sibley as low, grating, chugging and unmusical, like a quacking duck or the cranking start of an antique car.  Some consider this song the quintessential sound of the desert.

Take the Cactus Wren out of the equation, though, and the other seven Arizona wrens have a lot in common.  They are all small birds with little distinctive coloration and all are accomplished songsters.  Except for the Cactus Wren, they are secretive birds that like to creep through dense, tangled vegetation, often with their tail raised above their back, a defining characteristic that should suggest a wren when you see it.  The others all are significantly smaller than the Cactus Wren, only four to six inches in length, yet they all sing disproportionately loud and beautiful songs, often to the dismay of the observer who has trouble finding the singing bird.  Worldwide, there are about 76 species in 17 genera, of which 8 species can be found in Arizona.  Four of these species are common year-round birds here, the Cactus, the Rock, the Canyon and the Bewick’s, all of which can be found in and around SaddleBrooke.

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A singing Rock Wren  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

At six inches, the Rock Wren is larger than most other wrens, and as might be expected, almost always found around rocks, although it is frequently found in SaddleBrooke yards. It is easier to spot than most other wrens, as well, and in addition to often finding him in the open, he gives himself away by bouncing up and down, as if doing deep knee bends.  The song is a distinctive series of three to six ringing ‘cheer cheer cheers’.

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Holder of best wren song, the Canyon Wren  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Canyon Wren is probably my favorite wren, with an overall dark rufous color offset by a brilliant white throat and breast and an extremely long bill.  Once you’ve heard a Canyon Wren sing, you’ll never forget the song, a cascading series of clear whistles, descending and slowing, not unlike a melodious waterfall.  You can find them in SaddleBrooke across the wash in the rocky cliffs and boulders of the eastern foothills.  Our fourth year-round wren is the Bewick’s, almost as common as the Cactus Wren, and nearly as easy to find as well. It has a bold white eyebrow and a series of songs that some equate to the sound of an old rotary phone.

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The House Wren  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our other four wrens essentially are winter visitors.  The most common of these is the House Wren, common to Arizona from September through April.  This is a small (under five inches) bird with a bubbling and loud song that suggests a larger, more easily spotted creature, but one that due to drab colors and size is sometimes difficult to find.  Winter Wrens and their split cousins the Pacific Wren are tiny birds with very limited winter sightings in Arizona, but the Marsh Wren, found in Arizona from September to March is much more likely to be found.  It’s almost exclusively found in tall reeds in wet marshes, hence the name.  Sweetwater Wetlands is a reliably good place to look for this bird, although it’s more often heard than seen.  And you probably don’t want to memorize his song to help identify him.  In the west, we’ve recorded more than 200 songs from this very prolific song writer.

 

This article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, on July 1, 2020.

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