Birding Southern Africa

Brown-hooded Kingfisher (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We just returned from our most ambitious vacation ever, an eleven week birding tour of South Africa and the neighboring countries of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. We called this a birding tour, and our primary goal was certainly birds, but you can’t explore a new continent and not pay attention to the other wildlife, which in Africa means mammals. 

One of our favorite African mammals, the Springbok (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Any trip of this length involves a lot of numbers, and here are some of our more significant ones. Our flights to Africa and back ran about 27 hours each, from Tucson to Dallas (2 hours), from Dallas to Doha, Qatar (15 hours) and from Doha to Cape Town (10 hours). In addition we took four flights within Africa, from Cape Town to Kimberly, from Kimberly to Johannesburg, from Johannesburg to Windhoek, Namibia and from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe to Johannesburg. With those flights our total airmiles for the trip was 28,000.  We also drove rental cars around South Africa and from Namibia on the west coast of Africa east to Botswana and Zimbabwe, more than 6,500 miles in total. We took more than 13,000 photographs, although the best ones were taken by Prudy using her iPhone 13.  Birders record the birds they see using an app called eBird, and we recorded 149 different lists of birds with a total of 462 species.

13 lions under a tree in Chobe National Park, Botswana (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We didn’t keep track of butterflies or flowers, but we did record 75 different mammals, including the big five (lion, elephant, cape buffalo, leopard and rhinoceros), as well plenty of others equally as dangerous. In Africa, humans are relatively far down the food chain. We also found several of Africa’s 500 species of snakes. Fewer than 200 snakes are found in southern Africa, but twenty of these are deadly. The Puff Adder probably accounts for the most bites, although the venom is slow-acting so few fatalities are recorded, compared with the Black Mamba whose venom can kill in less than 30 minutes. Another interesting snake we saw is the Mozambique Spitting Cobra, a reptile that, in addition to injecting venom through bites, also spits its venom at victims, aiming for the eyes. While most venomous snakes avoid contact with humans, the spitting cobras have a bad habit of entering homes at night and biting occupants on their face. This is a major problem in luxury game lodges where many tourists apparently have been bitten. 

Leopard in Kruger National Park, South Africa, looking at Impala (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The deadliest animal in Africa to humans, however, is the mosquito which is responsible for perhaps a million annual deaths. Hippopotamuses and crocodiles kill more humans than any of the big five, and among the big five elephants and buffalo kill more humans than lions, leopard or rhinoceros. In a one-on-one encounter a cape buffalo is more likely to kill a lion than vice versa, but when lions hunt in large prides, they can readily kill anything they want. 

Southern Carmine Bee-eater with a bee, Botswana (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our driver on a daytime safari in Chobe National Park in Botswana had heard there was a pride of 17 lions hanging out together near the river, so he made a special effort to find them for us. We were in an open jeep with no windows or doors, and it was a hundred degrees in the shade.  We looked and looked with no success, and were about to give up when the driver found 13 of them, all lionesses, dozing together in the shade of a small tree.  He stopped the jeep fifteen feet from the lions so we could take photos.  The driver assured us that lions never attack humans in a car, regardless of whether or not there were windows and doors, but fifteen feet seems perilously close to 13 lions, and they began yawning and showing their impressive teeth. A few days earlier we had been charged by an angry elephant who felt our car was too close, so we were more than a little nervous.  But it was a hot day, and the lions all went back to sleep.

This article originally was published in the December, 2022 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

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Postcard from South Africa

Male Pin-tailed Whydah (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As has happened to many writers, from Hemingway to Theroux, an unusual magnetism arises from the continent of Africa as one reaches life’s last quartile. Except for a three-week scuba diving trip to Egypt in the 90s, sub-Saharan Africa had been off our travel radar. And then we watched a slide show of South Africa’s incredible bird and mammal population, and suddenly our interest flared insatiably. Birding guide and close friend Rick Bowers had shared the photos from a trip he led four years ago, and suddenly we were planning an adventure to South Africa.  As is often the case for a do-it-yourself trip, our plan kept expanding until it had grown from three weeks to nearly three months, and beyond South Africa to include Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe.  Rick was largely given free reign to design the trip, and Prudy took responsibility for securing our accommodations. So here we are on September 11, four weeks into our eleven, with time for an update.

Cape Sugarbird on Protea (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent, and of particular interest to us as a biodiversity hot spot with a unique biome.  The country is home to 60 million people living in more than 471,000 square miles of varied topography, cultural diversity and incredible natural beauty. It’s the most populous country south of the Equator with climatic zones that range from extreme desert to 11,000-foot mountains, and its 1,739 miles of coastline border two oceans (the south Atlantic and the Indian), with nothing between it and Antarctica to the south. It has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any of the other 53 countries in Africa including some of the oldest human fossil sites in the world, suggesting that hominid species existed in South Africa 3 million years ago.

Greater Flamingo (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Its flora and fauna are amazingly varied, with 299 mammals and 846 birds. The fynbos biome in the western cape area contains 9% of all known plant species on Earth (three times more than those found in the Amazon rainforest).  The republic’s national flower is the protea, an especially lovely blossom that in fact is a genus of 130 separate species. This is of special interest to birders because of the protea’s attraction to beautiful sunbirds and sugarbirds.

Male Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our trip to date has been limited to the western cape, the area around the country’s oldest city, Cape Town, which was founded in 1652 to supply ships bound around the treacherous Cape of Good Hope. Rick and his wife Nora joined us in late August, and our itinerary since then has been birding hot spots within a day’s drive of Cape Town. Our rental house is on a rocky bluff a hundred feet above the Atlantic where the Steenbras River meets the ocean, and where we’ve found 40 of the 140 bird species we’ve documented to date. 

Female Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We’re staying in a group of solar-powered homes within a nature preserve, and are visited daily by Speckled Pigeons, Cape Rock Thrush, Fiscal Flycatchers and Amethyst Sunbirds, in addition to rock hyrax (furry rabbit-sized mammals related to elephants), gray mongoose and chacma baboon, one of the largest members of the monkey family. The latter is the one you avoid, since they like to steal your food, weigh up to 99 pounds and can bite a sheep in half with their two-inch incisors. Now we’re looking forward to seeing the big five mammals.

(This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of The Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Return to the Big Island

The Nene or Hawaiian Goose, State Bird of Hawaii (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Suffering the quarantine blues a year ago, I wrote an article remembering the last time we birded Hawaii’s Big Island, five years earlier.  With the pandemic ebbing a bit this year, we decided to return to the Big Island for our 47th anniversary. We spent the first week of December in a lovely eco cabin nestled in the rain forest near Volcanoes National Park, and as I write this, we’re spending a second week on the sunny Kona Coast, sitting on our condo’s deck mesmerized by the constant roar of breaking surf just below us.  

A male Kalij Pheasant (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

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.

An endemic, the Hawaiian Hawk (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. 

Native to Africa, the Yellow-fronted Canary was imported into Hawaii (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 introduced 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 six years ago, we documented 32 species, a relatively small number of birds for nearly a week’s effort, but it was fun and exciting, and our list includes several birds you won’t find in any other state.

A pair of Java Sparrows (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’ve seen several this trip.  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. 

Another endemic, the Hawaiian Amakihi (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Other endemics this trip include the Hawaii Amakihi, Hawaiian Coot, Hawaiian Hawk, Palila, Red-masked Parakeet and Hawaii Elepaio, .  Non-endemics that are also foreign to the state-side visitor include White-tailed Tropicbird, Warbling White-eye, Common Myna, Common and Lavender-billed Waxbill, Saffron Finch, Yellow-fronted Canary, Java Sparrows and Yellow-billed Cardinal. 

The striking Yellow-billed Cardinal (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Yellow-billed Cardinals, common on the Big Island, are eye-catching with a brilliant red head, black wings, white collar and breast and of course, a yellow bill.  Something other than birds might bring you to Hawaii, but don’t forget your binoculars.

(This article was originally published in the January, 2022 issue of The Saddlebag Notes, a newspaper printed in Tucson, Arizona)

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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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