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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Baby Birds

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Male Black-headed Grosbeak feeding young  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Fortunately for birders, the massive upheaval of a worldwide pandemic doesn’t rate as significant a problem as it might for those with more sociable pastimes.  We spend a lot of time on our own, anyway, looking for, finding and photographing birds.  We avoid crowded venues, and seek the solitude and quiet beauty of forgotten or less accessible getaways.  We do miss sharing our experiences, but we trust social distancing is not a permanent way of life.  And, as spring moves toward summer, birding brings the added pleasure of discovering newly hatched babies.  Finding new nests, nests with eggs or, better, nests with babies can do wonders for anyone depressed by the run on toilet paper.

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Broad-billed Hummingbird nesting on wind chime’s top edge  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Watching a hummingbird knit her tiny cup nest into the unlikely, precarious top edge of a wind chime can be a lot more fun than spending hours with CNN.  And the questions raised by time thus spent will easily sweep away worries about how many ICU beds are available nearby.  How does any bird understand and instinctively know the how, when and where of nest building?  This is nothing taught them by their parents, and yet the nest they build for the first time looks just like the one they were hatched in.

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Better-built Anna’s Hummingbird nest, also on a wind chime  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Anna’s Hummingbirds construct miniature works of art that employ spider web, are decorated like house beautiful and look like they could weather any monsoon storm; but no predecessor teaches the first-time mother bird where to place a nest, what materials to use, how to find the components and how to make and shape the final product.  Broad-billed Hummingbirds, on the other hand, take comparable time to build and shape their nests, but their finished product always looks like a loosely thrown together conglomeration of leftovers.  And why do Hooded Orioles weave beautiful hanging basket-nests out of palm frond fiber, while tiny Verdins build large football-shaped nests with its entrance hidden near the bottom?  Seeking answers to questions like these can get you through the peak of any pandemic.

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Male Bronzed Cowbird inspecting a Hooded Oriole nest for his mate’s possible use  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

And once eggs are laid in those nests, more questions arise.  How did brood parasitism get started?  Cowbirds never build their own nests, nor do they raise their young. Like irresponsibly delinquent parents, they lay their eggs in other bird nests, often specific species, and trust the parasitized bird to ignore this intrusion, incubate and then feed the intruder birds with their own. Our Hooded Orioles have put up with this invasive behavior on the part of Bronzed Cowbirds for centuries.

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Female Gambel’s Quail with precocial babies  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our birds are mostly altricial, as helpless as human babies, and needing full-time care and feeding until they fledge and for some time after.  Those that aren’t altricial are precocial, coming out of the egg and into the world almost totally self-sufficient.  We have one of these species to enjoy as well, our Gambel’s Quail, who lay their eggs without benefit of a nest, in flower pots, planters and on that beach towel you forgot to bring indoors.  They lay lots of eggs necessarily, since their babies are an easy appetizer for their many predators, as they follow their parents around like miniature wind-up toys.

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Dazed and confused newly-fledged Cactus Wren  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Other bird babies are hovered over for a couple of weeks, and are easy to spot once they’ve fledged.  They aren’t particularly afraid, look a little dazed and confused and spend a lot of time quivering in place, waiting for a parent to bring them something to eat.  Parent birds are very accommodating for the most part (male hummingbirds are an exception, ignoring their many multi-mothered offspring), and will continue feeding their young with incredible patience.

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Cuddly Great Horned Owl baby  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

And although they’re all ugly out of the shell, even fierce future predators like Great Horned Owls are teddy bear cuddly once covered with soft downy feathers.

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Newly-hatched House Finches waiting for food from mom  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

You don’t have to be a birder to enjoy birds, and if you are lucky enough to have nesting birds in your yard, you’ll be entertained for months.  By then, maybe we’ll have a vaccine.

 

(This article was originally published in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, on June 1, 2020)

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Landscaping with Wildflowers

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A SaddleBrooke yard landscaped with desert bluebell and other wildflowers  (Photo Bob Bowers)

An article in last month’s Saddlebag Notes claimed that wildflowers are “VERY invasive” and inappropriate for the cultivated yards of SaddleBrooke.  Admitting that California poppies are pretty, the author warned they would “move next door and beyond without permission!” She said you should protect your neighbors from an unwanted invasion by removing them, and said they would be uncontrollable if left to go to seed.

So what exactly are these plants we call wildflowers?  A wildflower is defined as a flowering plant that grows in a natural, uncultivated state.  This includes trees, shrubs and cactus.  Field guides, such as 100 Desert Wildflowers of the Southwest, list wildflowers common to SaddleBrooke, including poppies, lupine, penstemon, desert marigold, desert bluebells, fairy duster, brittlebush and globemallow, as well as mesquite, paloverde (our state tree), saguaro (our state flower), ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, beavertail, hedgehog, barrel cactus and other flowering plants native to the Sonoran Desert. Wildflowers are quite the opposite of invasive non-native plants and weeds, are protected in the state of Arizona and one of the state’s prime attractions.  The unwarranted fear that if you’re lucky enough to have some in your yard, you need to eliminate them before they spread like cancer into your neighbor’s is not only difficult to fathom, it makes no sense. Many wildflowers actually are difficult to propagate, let alone spread. In our yard, when they die we collect the seeds to insure their return, and I have never seen any sign of them in any of our neighbors’ yards. At the same time, plants in general are programmed to disperse, and you no doubt see plenty of non-wildflower volunteers in your own yard, including salvia, hollyhocks, snapdragons, nasturtiums, vegetables, prickly pear, cholla, oleander, mesquite, willow, hopseed bush and bird of paradise.

Ironically, while a master gardener attacks the use of native Sonoran Desert wildflowers in SaddleBrooke landscaping, many of the plants commonly cultivated in our yards are non-native exotics like bougainvillea (from Brazil), aloe and oleander (from Africa) and lantana (from the West Indies). Incidentally, both oleander and lantana are quite poisonous, especially to children.

SaddleBrooke does have rules about what you can and cannot plant, and Appendix A of the ALC’s (Architectural and Landscaping Committee) Requirements lists 37 prohibited trees and plants. These plants are prohibited for one or more of ten reasons, such as invasive, heavy litter, allergenic, pest prone, size or excessive water use. Wildflowers are not found on this list. Nor are there any CC&Rs or other rules against landscaping with wildflowers. To the contrary, SaddleBrooke’s landscaping goal is to “complement and reinforce the Sonoran Desert environment”, and the ALC Guidelines strongly recommend the use of native and drought tolerant plant species.

Renowned horticulturalists like Mary Irish, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, local nurseries, landscapers and gardening publications, such as Sunset Magazine’s Gardening in the Southwest, all recommend that residential Arizona landscaping incorporate wildflowers, praising their beauty, drought tolerance and pest and disease-free characteristics.

Wildflowers are native to and complement the Sonoran Desert environment, our community’s landscaping goal.  They meet our ALC’s strong recommendations for xeriscaping with native and drought-tolerant plants.  They aren’t prone to disease and pests.  They are not on any Federal, Arizona or SaddleBrooke list of prohibited, noxious or invasive plants, and in fact have even appeared as a cover photo for the SaddleBrooke Source Book.  Instead of killing them, we should be promoting them. Perhaps instead of cultivating questionable non-natives like oleander and lantana, we should be planting desert bluebell, California poppy, globemallow and penstemon. At the very least, wildflowers should be advocated as part of our community landscaping.

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SaddleBrooke years ago; lupine and desert marigold  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Years ago, SaddleBrooke was awash with springtime wildflowers. One of the photographs accompanying this article shows my granddaughter standing on a slope in the Preserve, surrounded by lush lupine. That spot, near Ocotillo Canyon Drive and Stony Ridge, still exists, but the wildflowers have long since disappeared thanks to the widespread use of pre-emergent weed killers throughout our community. Wouldn’t it be lovely to find flowers like that in SaddleBrooke once again?

This article was originally published in The Saddlebag Notes newspaper on May 1, 2020

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Arizona’s Woodpeckers

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Sonoran Desert Gila Woodpecker  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are approximately 10,000 species of birds in the world, and any traveler interested in birds knows that you will find them in every continent and every country, with an incredible diversity from place to place no matter where you go.  Many species are endemic (unique) to a single country or smaller geographic area, while others may be widespread but still quite limited, like hummingbirds which are found throughout the western hemisphere, but only in the western hemisphere.  Like hummingbirds, woodpeckers are fascinating and unique creatures worthy of our interest and research, rather than being taken for granted.  I recently realized that of hundreds of bird articles I’ve written, exactly none have been solely about woodpeckers, which brings us to today’s subject. The best part of my writing hobby is that it’s a learning opportunity for me—I can’t put finger to keyboard until I’ve done some research, and in the process, I educate myself first.  Woodpeckers are certainly unique enough to warrant writing about them, and by researching their family I’ve discovered many intriguing facts.

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An Acorn Woodpecker in Arizona’s White Mountains  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Probably the most significant and unique characteristic of a woodpecker centers on its name.  Woodpeckers have large sturdy pointed bills which they unleash on trees and cactus, excavating nest cavities, probing for food and drumming their presence and territory to other birds.  Not sure who’s done the counting, but they’ve been noted to peck up to 20 times per second and up to 12,000 times in a single day.  You might wonder about woodpecker headache, but fortunately for them, evolution has kept them safe.  Their skulls are heavily reinforced, their brains are cushioned and protected and their nasal passages are screened from flying wood chips and sawdust.

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A male Gila Woodpecker checks for nesting sites  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

They are all cavity nesters, that is they build their nests in holes they drill into trees and, in the case of the Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Gilded Flicker, denied large diameter trees in their desert habitat, they drill holes in large saguaro cactus.  The birds are not interior decorators, lining these cavity nests usually with nothing more than wood chips, products of the drilling.  Cavities are oriented toward the warmer south and east in colder climates and to the north in warmer zones.  Another unique characteristic of woodpeckers is their tongue, which is barbed, sticky and quite long. In some species, their tongue can extend as far as 5 inches beyond the tip of the bill, which explains how woodpeckers are able to get sugar water from hummingbird feeders.  In most cases, woodpeckers also have unique feet, with two toes forward and two pointing backward (zygodactyl feet), and this together with a strong supportive tail allows them to more easily climb trees in search of food.

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Arizona even has its own, the Arizona Woodpecker  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Interestingly, woodpeckers are found almost everywhere: across the Americas, in Europe, Asia and Africa.  Even more interestingly, they are not found everywhere.  Woodpeckers are not present in New Zealand, Madagascar, New Guinea or the extreme polar regions, nor, most surprisingly of all, on the giant bird-rich continent of Australia, even though they live just 600 miles north in Indonesia.  In total, there are about 180 species of woodpeckers worldwide, with 27 in Mexico and 22 in the United States.  The number one bird country in the world is Colombia, where you can find 45 species of woodpeckers.

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Red-naped Sapsucker (photo Jean Halford)

Here in Arizona we have a respectable number of 15 species, which includes 4 sapsuckers and 2 flickers as well as 9 woodpeckers. Southeast Arizona has documented records of 9 species routinely with another 5 species rarely.  Our local regulars include the Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers and Gilded Flicker.   Northern Flicker and Red-naped Sapsucker are here in winter, and occasionally we see Acorn and Lewis’s Woodpeckers.  Acorn and Arizona Woodpeckers can be found year-round in Madera Canyon, and Acorn Woodpeckers can be seen at nearby higher elevations such as Peppersauce Canyon.

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Northern (red-shafted) Flicker, Mt. Lemmon, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In spite of occasional hype and excitement about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker in Arkansas or Louisiana, this bird was last documented in the U.S. some 65 years ago and in Cuba in 1987, and is generally regarded as probably extinct.  Nor has a living version of Woody Woodpecker been reliably reported.

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A Diminutive Desert Beauty

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Male and Female Verdins are alike, bright yellow heads and reddish shoulder patch  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Verdin is one of my favorite Southeast Arizona birds. This tiny 4-inch bird is inquisitive and friendly, and will brighten anyone’s day.  Unless you get a good look at a Verdin in the sunlight, you might easily mistake him for a small sparrow, finch or just another unidentifiable little gray bird.  Get a better look, however, and there is no mistaking that beautiful yellow face and cinnamon shoulder patches.

 

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In this photo you see both the yellow head and red shoulder patches  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As with a number of special birds, we are especially lucky to have Verdins, since their U.S. range is quite limited.  Found throughout Mexico, where it is known as the Baloncillo, Verdins are only found in the southern sections of five states:  Texas, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona.  Verdins are permanent year-round residents wherever they live, preferring warm deserts, and refusing to migrate, just like the hardiest SaddleBrooke homeowners.

 

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Verdins look for dried sugar in the joints of hummingbird feeders  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) is a member of the Remizidae family and the genus Auriparus.  It is the only species in the genus, and the only species in the family found in the New World.  It is also one of the smallest passerines (perching songbirds) in North America.  It is gray overall, and the adult birds have a bright yellow head and throat, as well as those sometimes hard-to-see rufous-red shoulder epaulets (lesser coverts).  Its size and movements remind one of Bushtits and Chickadees, although it isn’t found in flocks like Bushtits, and its bill is longer and more sharply pointed than Bushtits.  Juvenile Verdins more closely resemble Bushtits, since they are gray overall without the yellow head and reddish shoulder. Adult male and female Verdins are essentially identical in appearance, and often travel and feed together.

 

Probable female Verdin with nesting feathers

We can tell this is a female, since she’s carrying soft lining to her nest  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Like Cactus Wrens, Verdins will build several nests each year, including smaller ones for winter roosting.  The male builds more than one nest of twigs, and the female selects her favorite.  Females line the nests with feathers and down, so one of the few ways to distinguish males from females is to observe nest-building. If a Verdin is carrying twigs to the nest, it’s likely a male, but if the bird has down or fluff in her bill, it’s a female.  Verdin nests are unique football-shaped baskets with a small opening near the bottom, giving the occupants more protection than an open cup-like nest. Nests are often built in mesquites and cholla cactus, although we’ve found their nests in a wide variety of trees.  The female lays 3-6 eggs, which incubate in 10 days, and the young fledge in 3 weeks.  Juveniles have none of the adult feather color, but can be differentiated from similar gray birds by their pinkish-yellow lower bill.

 

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Pomegranates are another good way to attract Verdins  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although Verdins are insectivorous, they also eat seeds and fruit, and are nectar-eaters, as well.  They flit acrobatically through branches gleaning insects, but are equally attracted to nectar-rich hummingbird plants like fairy duster, salvia, and honeysuckle.  Verdins also frequent hummingbird feeders, picking dried sugar water from the feeders’ nooks and crannies.  One sure-fire way to attract Verdins is to plant a Pomegranate tree.  Verdins will clean a split Pomegranate, leaving nothing but the shell.  If you don’t want to plant a tree, buy a Pomegranate at the grocery store, cut it in half and impale the halves on a finishing nail driven into a tree stake.  Pomegranates can cost three bucks apiece, but once Verdins start visiting, you’ll be glad you shelled it out.  They’ll even perch on your windowsill to say thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fall Sparrows in Southeast Arizona

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Black-throated Sparrow  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Sibley Guide to Birds lists 48 species of Emberizine Sparrows; the Emberizidae family of 20 genera that includes sparrows, towhees, juncos and a couple of buntings. Of these, Tucson Audubon’s Finding Birds in Southeast Arizona lists 35 species with documented sightings in our part of the state (east of Ajo and south of Coolidge), an impressive 73% of all U.S. species.

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Rufous-winged Sparrow  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Some of our sparrows are year-round residents, including Rufous-crowned Sparrow, the strikingly beautiful Black-throated Sparrow, the uncommon Black-chinned Sparrow and one of our most sought-after birds, the Rufous-winged Sparrow. The latter because within the U.S. it’s essentially limited to Southeast Arizona, and attracts birders from other parts of the country and around the world to add it to their life lists.

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Resident Abert’s Towhee  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The sparrow family also includes three of our four towhees as residents, the Canyon, Abert’s and Spotted Towhee. Three other sparrows live year-round in our area, but are more common in the fall and winter: the Lark and Chipping Sparrows normally summer at higher elevations than Tucson, and the Song Sparrow, a year-round riparian bird, becomes more numerous as inbound migrants flood in from beyond the region.

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White-crowned Sparrow  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The majority of our sparrows, however, are one of the end-of-summer joys of living where we do.  White-crowned Sparrows from Alaska arrive in September and October, with their bright white and black striped heads and orange bills, often joining mixed flocks of Brewer’s, striking Lark and Chipping Sparrows.  Between September and April/May, our ‘snowbird’ visitors also include Vesper Sparrow (striped breast, cream-colored belly and white outer tail feathers), Savannah Sparrow (similar to Vesper but with a pure white belly and a yellow lore) and Lincoln’s Sparrow (similar to Song Sparrow, but a gray-faced buffy ground hopper you might mistake for a mouse).

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Winter visitor, the Green-tailed Towhee  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Three other members of the sparrow family on the same September to April snowbird schedule are the Lark Bunting (Colorado’s state bird), Dark-eyed Junco and Green-tailed Towhee. These are all birds moving here for the winter from higher elevations or more northern latitudes, and are another reason to welcome cooler weather.  Those of you familiar with the challenge of identifying Empidonax flycatchers (Is that a Hammond’s, Gray or a Dusky?) may have similar issues with sparrows.  There are a lot of them around in the fall, and they often congregate in flocks of mixed species. Worse, there are many similarities between species and shades of differences within species.

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Arizona Song Sparrow  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Arizona’s Song Sparrow may look like a stranger compared with the one you remember from home.  If you want to become skilled in identifying sparrows and other birds, be patient. If possible, join one of the many birding field trips or bird walks in our area, listings of which can be found in the local newspaper, at state and regional parks and at Tucson Audubon’s web site, as well as on our email list.

 

This article originally appeared in the October 1 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.

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Catalina State Park: Arizona’s Crown Jewel

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Catalina State Park in April  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Living in Arizona comes with many advantages, not the least of which is our first class state park system, which two years ago received a gold medal for the best managed system in the nation. For birders, these 35 parks showcase some of the best birding sites in the state with native habitat ranging from desert scrub to mountain forests. In most cases, they also represent eBird Hotspots and many offer free weekly bird walks.

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Poppies, lupine and chicory bury the rocks in spring (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Fortunately for Tucson’s residents, the crown jewel of these parks, Catalina, lies within the metro area.  The entrance to this beautiful wild haven is on Oracle Road, directly across from Oro Valley Marketplace. In stark contrast to the bustle of the Marketplace, Catalina State Park offers 5,500 acres of saguaros, solitude and sanctuary, with miles of trails, canyons and treed washes as well as direct access by foot to Coronado National Forest and Mt. Lemmon.  In addition, the park is well known for its spectacular spring wildflower displays, especially following good winter rains. Access to the best wildflower areas is via the Sutherland Trail, with the color show generally peaking in March or April.

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Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at park ocotillo  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As an eBird Hotspot, the state park shows 192 species, including rarities like Rufous-backed Robin, White-throated Sparrow and Indigo Bunting. It’s also a reliable site for Rufous-winged Sparrow, Crissal Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler and Lawrence’s Goldfinch, and records show all four Arizona Towhees, seven species of hummingbird and fourteen warblers.

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Rufous-backed Robin is a rare Mexican visitor (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Rufous-backed Robin was first reported at the park on December 26, 2007, drawing large crowds to the desert hackberry trees it frequented near the main trailhead parking area until it was last seen on January 25, 2008.  The species was then absent from the park for 8 years, until another single Rufous-backed Robin was sighted on December 7, 2015, sticking around nearly four months.

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Hands-on experience at the Saturday Nature Program (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Apart from year-round good birding and its proximity to a large population center, Catalina State Park owes much of its success to a particularly strong volunteer team. More than one hundred volunteers are active at the park, participating in a wide range of activity from buffelgrass removal, mowing, litter control, trail maintenance, gift shop operation to restroom cleaning. Volunteers also provide free bird walks, geology hikes, star parties and, from October until April, conduct the popular Saturday wildlife exhibit, an environmental education project unique to Catalina State Park that is open from 10:00 to 1:00 every Saturday, weather permitting. The park also receives extensive support from the Friends of Catalina State Park, a non-profit corporation that has raised thousands of dollars for improvements and new projects at the park.

Prairie Falcon at CSP

Prairie Falcon picnicking at the park (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We’re lucky to have such a gem so conveniently located, and if you haven’t visited the park lately, you’re missing one of the best year-round metro area birding locations. While you’re there, consider becoming a park volunteer as well, or contributing to its success by joining the Friends of Catalina State Park.

Variations of this article first appeared in Tucson Audubon’s quarterly magazine, ‘The Vermilion Flycatcher’ (July, 2019) and the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona (August, 2019).

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Kookaburras and Gum Trees

The Laughing Kookaburra

The Laughing Kookaburra  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Living in the desert southwest, you might think a ‘kookaburra’ was a crazy donkey, unless you remember the children’s song, and even then you might wonder what a gum tree was. On the other hand, if you’ve been to Australia, from where we just returned, you’ll know that a kookaburra is a bird and a gum tree is the same as our eucalyptus. More specifically, a kookaburra is a member of the kingfisher family (Alcedinidae), a fairly large group of 114 species found primarily in the tropics of Asia, Africa and Oceana. In the U.S., our only common kingfisher (found in every state except Hawaii) is the Belted Kingfisher, a blue-gray bird with a large bill that hangs around water and eats fish.  Two Mexican kingfishers also can be found in the U.S., but only in Texas (both the Ringed and Green Kingfishers) and in deep southeastern Arizona (the Green Kingfisher).

Fresh roach for lunch

Insects are easier than fish  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Down the hatch

Down the hatch  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

By contrast, 16 species of kingfishers are found on the continent of Africa, 25 in Eastern Asia and 31 in Australasia, the kingfisher mecca, which consists of Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea.  Australia alone has 10 species, and we were fortunate to find 7 of those in one province, Queensland.

The colorful Azure Kingfisher

The stunning Azure Kingfisher  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Some of those, like the Sacred Kingfisher, aren’t particularly impressive, while others, like the magnificent Azure Kingfisher, blow your socks off.  The Laughing Kookaburra, on the other hand, is just too big, bold and in-your-face to ignore. He’s the largest of all 114 worldwide kingfishers, stepping into the ring at a hefty 17 inches, and his nominate call, a raucous loud insane laugh, starts low, rises to a shout-level pitch and then descends to an ironic chuckle.  No wonder it’s found in Tarzan and Jurassic movie soundtracks, and no wonder it, alone among kingfisher calls, found its way into a children’s song.

The Blue-winged Kookaburra

The Blue-winged Kookaburra  (Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are four species of kookaburras, all found in Australia, New Guinea and parts of Indonesia. We found the Laughing Kookaburra, a bird harder to miss than to find, and the Blue-winged Kookaburra, a slightly smaller version with, naturally, blue wings. Kookaburras are aggressive carnivores, eating just about everything that crosses their path, including snakes, rodents, reptiles and birds, although they rarely touch fish, the staple of most other kingfishers.  The name ‘kookaburra’ is adapted from the Wiradjuri word ‘guuguubarra’, onomatopoeic of its call.

What's for dessert

Post-lunch smile; laugh to follow  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Lieutenant-General Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement, also founded the complementary Girl Scout/Girl Guide movement with his sister Agnes.  In 1932, a music teacher in Melbourne, Australia, Mary Sinclair, penned the Kookaburra song as a nursery rhyme, and in 1934 it won a Girl Guides contest. In spite of its Australian focus, it’s well known worldwide and still an integral part of the Girl Guide. If you’re a little rusty with the lyrics, it starts with ‘Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree, Merry, merry king of the bush is he’, mentions the kookaburra’s affinity for gum drops, monkey counting (there are no monkeys in Australia) and ends with him sitting on a rusty nail.  The lyrics are a little weak, but the tune is catchy, and you’ve probably sung it more than once in your lifetime.  If not, I’ll bet you’ve heard that crazy laugh in a jungle movie.

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A Flamboyance of Flamingos

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A flamboyance of flamingos in Celestun, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you see a group of birds together and call it a ‘flock’, you may be missing an opportunity to brighten your language and impress your friends.  You’re probably familiar with a few of these alternative names for a collection or group of birds, like a ‘clutch’ of chickens or a ‘covey’ of quail, and you may have advanced to knowing a ‘parliament’ of owls or a ‘murmuration’ of starlings. But be honest, did you know a group of sparrows are also known as a ‘host’ or a bunch of hummingbirds is a ‘charm’?  Dating back at least to medieval times, collective nouns for flocks of birds or bands of other animals have been used to associate those creatures with folklore, behavior, characteristics or other connections, and in some cases they may just be the product of someone’s creative imagination.  A ‘chain’ of Bobolinks is cleverly appropriate, for example, while a ‘pandemonium’ of parrots makes perfect sense to anyone who has run into a bunch. Likewise, if you’ve ever seen a mass of flamingos, ‘flamboyance’ is an excellent descriptor.  A ‘parliament’ of owls might make you wonder, but picture a group of self-important legislators wearing eyeglasses and skepticism. A ‘murder’ of crows or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens are less obvious, but ravens and crows have been associated with death and murder for centuries.

 

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A tuxedo of penguins, Falkland Islands (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

 

Some of my favorite other collective nouns for birds are a ‘kettle’ of vultures (circling in the air like a large black pot), a ‘scold’ or ‘party’ of jays, an ‘ostentation’ of peacocks, a ‘pod’ of pelicans, a ‘gang’ of turkeys and a ‘tuxedo’ of penguins.  And birds have no exclusivity when it comes to colorful group names. How about a ‘cauldron’ of bats, a ‘pounce’ of cats or a ‘bloat’ of hippos?  Or a ‘scurry’ of squirrels, a ‘prickle’ of porcupines and a ‘dazzle’ of zebras?  Each of these evocative terms seems perfect. And this cleverness doesn’t stop at mammals, either.  Rattlesnakes are a ‘rhumba’, cobras are a ‘quiver’, trout are a ‘hover’ and sharks are a ‘shiver’. It’s a ‘kaleidoscope’ of butterflies, a ‘bloom’ of jellyfish and a ‘cloud’ of grasshoppers. A ‘scourge’ of mosquitoes is certainly appropriate, as is one we all know, a ‘plague’ of locusts.  You can even find names for groups of people, like a ‘blush’ of boys and a ‘hastiness’ of cooks.

 

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A dozen Colombian hummingbirds qualifies as a ‘charm’ (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In fact, who says you can’t make up your own names?  Get creative and join the fun.  I gave this a little thought and came up with a few of my own:  a ‘flutter’ of doves, a ‘swirl’ of swallows, a ‘buzz’ of hummingbirds and a ‘glitter’ of goldfinches. An ‘obsession’ of birders certainly fits, though that would work for golfers, gamblers and sports fans as well. Feel free to dream up and share your own. Just don’t suggest a ‘pain’ of column writers; it’s taken.

 

This article was originally published in the March, 2019 issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona

 

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