The Singing Tree

An operatic Curve-billed Thrasher

An operatic Curve-billed Thrasher  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As is my habit, I strolled outside at seven this morning, followed our slate walk to the driveway, picked up the papers and headed back. As usual, I paused under the giant 24-year old mesquite that shades our walkway to look for birds. I saw nothing at first, but suddenly became aware of a change from yesterday. The tree was singing, or so it seemed. To be accurate, a Northern Mockingbird thirty feet above me was singing loudly and non-stop, a delightfully unending string of different melodic phrases, and mesmerized, I remained in place enjoying this beautiful song while worry evaporated. A Gila Woodpecker’s call added counterpoint, and then a female Cardinal flew to a branch just inches above me where she broke into a soft, barely audible version of her mate’s glorious song, her open bill fluttering with each chorus of trills. Later, during our usual outdoor breakfast the yard was rich with springtime song, from the mechanical chortling of Cactus Wrens to the mockingbird-like mimicry of Curve-billed Thrashers. Is anything lovelier, more calming than birdsong? I think not.

 

Northern Mockingbirds Mimic other birdsong

Northern Mockingbirds mimic other birdsong  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The singing of birds likely has fascinated humans for as long as they have coexisted, and for good reason; apart from humans, singing is exclusive to birds. Bioacoustics, the study of animal use of sound to communicate, has discovered widespread communication through sound among species ranging from elephants and whales to insects. But this array of trumpets, howls, buzzes and roars doesn’t captivate us like the caroling of birds. And while many birds are restricted to non-musical vocalizations as well (think parrots, ducks and hawks), singing is limited to a single suborder of just one of thirty taxonomic orders of birds. A small percentage of birds taxonomically speaking, but the suborder oscines in the order Passeriformes represents nearly half of the world’s 10,000 avian species. Appropriately, oscines are known as ‘songbirds.’

 

The Northern Cardinal, easily recognized by song

Both male (above) and female Northern Cardinals sing  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Birdsong is not inherited. Almost all birds other than songbirds, and, as far as we know, every other non-human animal are born with genetically encoded vocalizations. But young songbirds learn to sing the way humans learn to speak, by listening and practicing, which is why we find geographic variation in the songs of identical species. And why do birds sing? The answer is ‘it’s complicated.’ Birds seem to sing for the pure joy of it, and maybe that’s true sometimes, but it’s mostly about holding territory and finding a mate. Both males and females use brief vocalizations (calls) such as chips and other simple sounds to communicate location or influence behavior, but singing is almost exclusively the role of males, and heard most often during mating season. It’s known that lengthening spring days trigger hormone release, leading males to establish territories and announce this to both rivals and potential mates by singing. But why don’t all birds sing? And why do some birds sing a single song while others sing dozens? And why do some birds sing one song in the morning and another in the evening? Why do mockingbirds mimic other birds, and why do some females sing? And so on. As I said, it’s complicated. A lot of ornithologists spend a lot of time trying to find answers, aided in part by the incredible Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, a repository of more than 130,000 recordings of animal sounds from gorillas to triggerfish, and consisting predominantly of most of the world’s bird species, including some now extinct. This invaluable resource is not exclusively maintained for scientific research. For 13 bucks, you can download their ‘Essential set of bird sounds for North America’, the most common 1,376 vocalizations of 727 regularly occurring U.S. and Canadian species. Or you can join more than 2 million birders and download the free Audubon Bird Guide app, which gives you the full resources of a hardcover field guide as well as the songs of more than 800 North American species. If you do use an app to learn the songs of birds, please be discrete in its outdoor use—playback can be confusing and irritating to both birds and other birders, and is prohibited in some areas.

 

White-winged Doves sing 'Who cooks for you'

White-winged Doves sing ‘Who cooks for you?’  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Fortunately, we don’t have to know all the answers in order to appreciate the music of birds. Hearing and learning the songs of birds is truly enjoyable, and it’s a thrill to recognize the song of an unseen bird and then see him present himself to erase all doubt.  As you enjoy the melodious spring, remember what a tiny fraction of the world’s life is responsible for your joy. Snakes rattle, frogs croak, lions roar and coyotes howl, but only birds sing.

(This article was first published in the April, 2018 Saddlebag Notes newspaper)

 

 

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No Longer Magnificent

Male Rivoli's Hummingbird, Copper Canyon

Male Rivoli’s Hummingbird, Copper Canyon, Mexico  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Last July, when it was really, really hot, we had no inclination to go look for birds.  But in spite of staying indoors, we still managed to add a new bird to our life list, thanks to publication of the ‘Check-list Supplement’, the American Ornithological Society’s annual revision to birds of North and Middle America.  The AOS committee on classification and nomenclature reviews change proposals, accepts some and publishes the results. Change proposals, often based on DNA results,  can combine two bird species into one (lumping), which disappoints those birders who lose a tick mark from their life list.  These changes also can add to life lists by dividing an existing bird into two or more new species, called splitting.  This happened to us while we were reading old magazines.  As we dozed off, the committee split the Magnificent Hummingbird into two species, the Magnificent found from Arizona south to Nicaragua, and the Magnificent found in Costa Rica and Panama.  Our stroke of luck was that we had recorded Magnificent Hummingbirds both here and in Costa Rica, and our one life bird suddenly became two.

Male Talamanca Hummingbird, Costa Rica

Male Talamanca Hummingbird, Costa Rica  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The committee also renamed both birds. The northern one is now Rivoli’s Hummingbird and the southern one is Talamanca Hummingbird.  The Talamanca was originally suggested as the Admirable Hummingbird, but that must have been too much of a mouthful, so it’s named after the mountain range where it’s found in Costa Rica. The name of our Arizona bird is more interesting.  Rivoli’s Hummingbird was the original name of this bird from 1829 until the 1980s, when it was renamed ‘Magnificent’.  Where did ‘Rivoli’ come from?  Well… Paolo Emilio Botta, an Italian doctor/naturalist on a French trading ship in the 1820s, collected birds as his ship the Blossom visited California and Mexican ports.  He sent bird specimens to Victor Massena, a French nobleman and amateur ornithologist/collector.  Massena passed bird specimens on to a French scientist/ornithologist and friend, Rene Primevere Lesson, where the naming buck apparently stopped, since Lesson named a lot of birds as well as other critters.  Out of gratitude to Massena, Lesson named our Anna’s Hummingbird after Massena’s wife, and later named the Rivoli’s Hummingbird after Massena and his title, the Duke of Rivoli.

Female Talamanca Hummingbird, Costa Rica

Female Talamanca Hummingbird, Costa Rica  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you’ve been lucky enough to see a Magnificent/Rivoli’s/Talamanca hummingbird, you’ll understand this obsession with royalty.  At 5 inches, it’s one of the U.S.’s two largest hummers (Blue-throated is the other), with a long bill and brilliant colors. The male has a violet crown, an iridescent throat, bluish green gorget and black belly (lighter on the Talamanca).  Truly magnificent, or at least it used to be. The scientific names also reflect this nobility:  the northern bird is Eugenes (high born) fulgens (glittering/flashing/gleaming/resplendent), and the southern bird is Eugenes (high born) spectabilis (remarkable, showy).  Incidentally, Lesson also named the Blue-throated Hummingbird’s scientific name (Lampornis (torch bird) Clemenciae) after his own wife, Marie Clemence.  About the only American connection to this gang of Italian and French birders is that the Duke of Rivoli’s collection of 12,500 birds eventually wound up at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences.  And you thought naming your kids was challenging?

(This article was originally published in the March, 2018 Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Birds, Hills and a World Class Fountain

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Reflective Snowy Egret at Fountain Hills Lake, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Scottsdale, Arizona, has a well-deserved reputation as an international tourist destination with its multitude of restaurants and resorts, a winter desert getaway for northern snowbirds. Its western border snuggles up against the country’s fifth largest city, but relatively few people venture east of Scottsdale, which is their loss. Nestled in the hills and canyons between Scottsdale and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian Reservation, lies the quiet, unassuming residential community of Fountain Hills.

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Black-throated Sparrow at Fountain Hills Lake (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Consisting of just twenty square miles, Fountain Hills is home to less than twenty-five thousand folks living in a beautifully varied desert landscape that ranges across 1,500 feet of elevation change.  Stunning views are abundant, particularly to the north, east and south, where you find McDowell Mountain Regional Park, the Verde River, Saguaro Lake and the Salt River Recreation Area.  Mountains on the horizon include the iconic Four Peaks, reproduced on the Arizona license plate.

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Double-crested Cormorant and the 330-foot fountain (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In the center of town lies a 33-acre lake and park, circumscribed by a mostly level, scenic one mile paved walking path.  In the center of the lake sits the attraction which gives the town its name, a powerful, towering geyser-like fountain that once was the tallest in the world and still the fourth highest.  For fifteen minutes on the hour, from 9:00 AM until 9:00 PM, this geyser shoots a massive amount of lake water 330 feet into the sky, suggesting a fireworks display more than a water show.  Normally only two of three pumps are in operation, but on special occasions all three are employed, driving the water column 560 feet high.

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Early winter arrival, a stunning male Hooded Merganser (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We had the opportunity to live near this fountain and lake for 10 weeks this fall, and a daily walk around the lake became our restful respite from the less pleasant purpose of our stay.  And of course being birders, we took full advantage of the lake’s magnetic draw to birds. The lake is an ebird hotspot, with 151 reported species from 374 visits.  During our time there, between our rental home across the street from the lake and our daily walks around the lake, we counted 70 species.  There are three small treed islands on the lake, and the mile long trail runs through a variety of trees including mesquite, pine and olive.  Current sightings include Yellow-rumped and Orange-crowned Warblers, Gilded and Northern Flickers, Double-crested Cormorants, American Wigeons, grebes, egrets, herons and spectacular Hooded Mergansers.

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A beautiful wild horse at Saguaro Lake, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In addition, countless birding opportunities lay close to Fountain Hills, with enough ebird hotspots to satisfy the most demanding birder.  The ever-flowing Verde River is just outside of town to the north, but our favorite secondary destination is Saguaro Lake and the Salt River Recreation Area.  From Fountain Hills Lake, it’s just 16 miles to Saguaro Lake, a ten-mile long reservoir that features canyons, trees and, surprisingly, saguaros.  An hour and a half daily boat tour is an easy way to find birds, including Bald Eagles, and waterfront picnic areas can be found at two ebird hotspots, the marina area and Butcher Jones Beach (named after an early surgeon).  High cliffs combine with desert scrub to broaden your birding opportunities.  From Saguaro Lake, continue on the Bush Highway and you follow the Salt River past a dozen other ebird hotspots as you loop south and back to civilization at Mesa and Highway 202.  In addition to birds, several of these stops are also good places to find and photograph wild horses.  And all this adventure is less than a two-hour drive from SaddleBrooke.

(This article was published in the February, 2018, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Birding Pinetop and the White Mountains

Steller's Jay

Steller’s Jay, Pinetop, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In spite of living in a land-locked state, Google ‘Arizona’s Beach’ and you’ll find a lovely oceanfront just four hours from Tucson.  Of course, it’s not actually part of Arizona; in fact it’s not even in the U.S., but it is an easy drive from both Tucson and Phoenix.  If you’re like me, with a love for the mountains equal to that of the sea, you’ll find even easier access to some of the most beautiful mountains in the country.  Most of our out-of-state friends picture saguaros and desert when they think of Arizona, and all of them are surprised to hear we have more extensive ponderosa pine forests than any other state.  Mt. Lemmon, of course, is the quickest way to get a mountain fix for Tucson residents, but if you want an experience richer than that of a sky island, turn north to the White Mountains.

White-breasted Nuthatch

White-breasted Nuthatch (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

A three hour drive on Highway 77 skirts the magnificent geologic formations along the Gila River south of Globe, then takes you down into and up out of the spectacular Salt River Canyon, through Apache country into endless ponderosa forests, reaching civilization again at Show Low, a hardscrabble town named in a poker game.  This part of Arizona, from Show Low north to Snowflake and east to Greer embraces two counties named for Native American tribes (Navaho and Apache), more than 20 lakes, elevations from 6,000 to more than 9,000 feet and lots of ponderosa pine trees.  It’s also a great place to find birds, with dozens of eBird hotspots, many of which boast more than 100 species.  There are many accommodation choices from private rental homes to resort hotels, with a wide range of rates.  Some places are more attractive than others for birding, with forest-adjacent decks or well-stocked feeders.

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Northern Flicker on Ponderosa Pine (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

One of our favorite destinations with both features is the WorldMark Condominiums in Pinetop-Lakeside, a small community of 4,000 just east of Show Low.  At nearly 7,000 feet, the forest is pine-oak, and the birds are abundant.  There are more than a dozen eBird hotspots, including lakes, reservoirs, ponds, creeks and marshes, all easily accessible from anyplace you choose to stay.  We recently rented a condominium at WorldMark for a three-night getaway, and although we explored many eBird hotspots, the resort itself was hard to leave.  A two-bedroom, two bath unit includes a covered outdoor deck, and is loaded with luxury for about $130 per night.

Mountain Chickadee

Mountain Chickadee, White Mountains, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

High definition television is included, but we put birdseed and nuts on our deck railing and spent most of our time enjoying, feeding and photographing Acorn Woodpeckers, Mountain Chickadees, White-breasted Nuthatches and Steller’s Jays.  A special treat was watching Acorn Woodpeckers pluck nuts from the deck railing and stash them under windowsills and into tree holes; sustenance silos for the coming winter.  Beyond our deck, a lovely seating area outside the reception building was outfitted with multiple seed and hummingbird feeders, and the time we spent there was equally rewarding, with all the above birds plus Pygmy Nuthatches, Dark-eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, Western Tanagers, Black-headed Grosbeaks and even Rufous Hummingbirds (this was September).  Needless to say, many more species are found at the area’s abundant lakes.

Acorn Woodpecker

Peanut-hoarding Acorn Woodpecker (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Late summer/fall is especially rewarding in this high-elevation country when triple digit temperatures are common back home, but we’ve ventured up here at all times of the year and have never been disappointed.  Nights are colder in December, and sometimes snow hangs from the pines or builds along the roadsides.  But the chickadees, nuthatches and jays are still there.  And you get to watch the Acorn Woodpeckers raid their summer silos.

(This article was published in the November, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Hooded Orioles and Bronzed Cowbirds

Female Hooded Oriole with tacoma blossom

Female Hooded Oriole with Tacoma blossom (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Due to a few simple twists of fate, we’ve been ‘stuck in Dodge’ this summer enjoying an unending string of phenomenal monsoons instead of our usual getaway to the foggy coast of Oregon.  However, this unplanned layover brought some unexpected surprises. Three weeks of rain turned the desert into Hawaii, cut our water bill in half, and our double digit highs (coupled with 1% humidity) were easy to take when Portland set a 130 year record of 105.  Another pleasant surprise was an abundance of summer birds. Broad-billed Hummingbirds, our most exotic local hummer, seem to be taking over Arizona. When we moved here fifteen years ago, they were no more than a summer treat, retreating to Mexico in the fall and not returning until spring, while now they’re a year-round SaddleBrooke resident as thick as bees. Even better, we’ve seen more Hooded Orioles this summer than ever, and the returning pair that nests in our neighbor’s palm tree had a record clutch of four this spring, two males and two females. Add regular visits from neighboring orioles, and these bright yellow, black and white birds are eye candy extraordinaire.

 

Patient House Sparrow yields to hungry cowbird

A hungry House Sparrow yields to a male Bronzed Cowbird  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Where there’s smoke there’s fire, and where there’re Hooded Orioles, there’re Bronzed Cowbirds, adding red and black to the bird rainbow. Cowbirds throughout the world are consistent in their nesting behavior.  They don’t build their own nests, instead parasitizing other nests, watching and waiting until the rightful owners take a break, then swooping in to lay their own eggs in the host nest. Sometimes they nestle these in with the originals, but often they’ll destroy all other eggs, even when they find another cowbird’s. Heartless, yes, but all part of nature’s drive for self-preservation. Sometimes, the host birds abandon the intruded nest and build elsewhere, and sometimes they simply build over the contaminated nest. One observer watched a pair of Yellow Warblers build a 12-story layer of nests, adding a new level on top of eggs each time a cowbird encroached to add her own. Often though, the host birds simply feed and raise the strange-looking chicks as their own, perpetuating the cowbird line.

 

Newly fledged male Hooded Oriole

First year male Hooded Oriole  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This summer we’ve seen lots of related action:  orioles driving off cowbirds, male cowbirds checking the palm for nests and female cowbirds flying into the tree, presumably to lay eggs.  Knowing exactly what these cowbirds are doing is as difficult as monitoring the orioles themselves during nest-building, since the nests are 30 feet or more above the ground and well hidden.  Hooded Orioles favor tall palms, attaching their nests to the underside of fronds. They peel off long frond fiber threads which they meticulously weave into beautiful hanging baskets. When researching Hooded Orioles’ nesting habits from the birding bible, Cornell University’s Birds of North America, we found almost nothing, due to limited studies and the difficulty in observing hidden nests high above the ground.

 

Male Bronzed Cowbird inspecting an oriole nest

Male Bronzed Cowbird inspecting a low-hanging, woven oriole nest  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Two weeks ago, these obstacles were swept away. A female oriole began building a hanging nest just over our noses under the eaves of our patio, less than 9 feet up.  Encouraged by a first year male (who was often chased by and in battle with an adult male—his father?), this female (his sister or mother?) would zip in under the eaves carrying a 2-foot length of palm fiber. The double-framed eave masked the nest from our patio door, but could see the hanging thread dance, bounce and slowly disappear as the out-of-sight oriole took two minutes to weave each thread into her intricate basket. In spite of a six day building process, our attempts to photograph the process were unsuccessful. We set a camera to be triggered remotely, but the layout required being in front of the camera on the open patio, rather than hidden inside. Nevertheless, we made continued efforts to photograph the oriole on her nest, an impossibility had the nest been normally located high in a tree. In the short available window, our oriole wouldn’t cooperate, but then luck delivered a more rare opportunity. While we baked in the sun, a male Bronzed Cowbird walked across the patio, and flew up and under the eave. We crept close to the camera, triggered the remote and managed to capture him inspecting the nest for his parasitizing bride.

Later, the nest was abandoned by the oriole. Not unusual, but it left us curious as to what we had witnessed and why.  Maybe the nest was built as a decoy to keep cowbirds away from a real palm tree nest?  Maybe a young female was just practicing for next year, her version of basket weaving 101?  Who knows? It remains a mystery we would have missed had we driven north.

 

(This article was published in the September, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

 

 

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Vultures and the Zone-tailed Hawk

A Soaring Turkey Vulture

Soaring Turkey Vulture (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are two species of vultures found in the U.S., and both are seen in southern Arizona. For the most part, Turkey Vultures (the more widespread and common) are Arizona migrants, flying up from Mexico in the spring to nest and vacation here before returning to their winter grounds in the fall. The smaller Black Vulture is a year-round resident of southern and southeast states, and although rarely seen in the SaddleBrooke area, is readily found in Pinal County’s Santa Cruz Flats. Turkey Vultures are distinguished by their large size, soaring and gliding high in the summer sky; wings raised dihedral and rocking side-to-side. From below, their silver and black plumage is distinctive, as is (if you can see it) their small naked head, red in adults but black in juvenile birds.

Black Vulture

Black Vulture in San Carlos, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

By contrast, Black Vultures have shorter wings and tails, and appear solid black from below except for diagnostic silver-white wingtips. Head color also differs from their cousins; black for juveniles and gray for adults. Both vultures feed on carrion, and you’ll often scatter them from feasting on roadkill when you drive backroads. Neither species has much to say, and Sibley describes their voice as soft hissing, barking, clucking and whining. Like some golfers I know.

Rare Zone-tailed Hawk near Oracle

Rare U.S. Zone-tailed Hawk near Oracle, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

So, in this part of the country when you look up and see a large black bird soaring and sailing gently high in the sky, it’s most often a vulture and around here most likely a Turkey Vulture. But not always. A similar-looking, but quite different bird found here during the same time of year, is the Zone-tailed Hawk. This is a relatively rare bird in the U.S. with a total of perhaps only 300 nesting pairs; a bird typically seen here only in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and often mistaken for a Turkey Vulture when it is seen. The Zone-tailed Hawk is close to the Turkey Vulture in size, has a near-identical underwing pattern of black and silver and soars and sails like the vulture. And to add to the confusion, the Zone-tailed is often found together with Turkey Vultures, sailing alongside one or two or even mixed in with a larger kettle of vultures. From a distance, distinguishing one from the other is difficult at best, and if it weren’t for the white tail bands on the hawk it would be near impossible. So next time you’re inclined to shake off circling black birds as ‘just vultures’, raise your binoculars and take a closer look. You could find one of those 600 rare hawks. At least one nesting pair has been documented in the Canada del Oro Wash near SaddleBrooke’s Preserve, and we’ve seen a solitary Zone-tailed Hawk numerous times from our yard.

Zone-tailed Hawk with surprised prey

Zone-tailed Hawk with surprised prey (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Zone-tailed Hawks have nothing in common with Turkey Vultures, so you might ask what’s up with this. And, as usual, there’s an answer. Turns out this is intentional deception, with the hawk taking advantage of his similar appearance and likely evolving it over time through genetic selection. Vultures eat roadkill and other well-dead critters. Zone-tailed Hawks like hot-blooded fresh meat like rabbits and rodents, neither of which are known for their keen eyesight. Suppose you’re a bunny enjoying a sunny morning, shopping for produce. A dark shadow passes over. You pause and take a weak-eyed look skyward, seeing only a couple of vultures circling slowly in the summer heat, looking for dead stuff, right? So you lower your head and go back to the veggies. Not always the right move.

 

(This article was published in the August, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Exterior Decorating for the Birds

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Male Hooded Oriole on stick sculpture (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

We get plenty of advice when it comes to interior decorating, but fewer suggestions when our yards are involved. More often than not, those limited ideas seldom consider all the creatures we share our outdoor living space with, especially birds. Recently, we’ve seen some fellow creature-oriented creative projects, and as we’ve implemented them in our own yard, our bird population has grown. Water features like bird baths, ponds and waterfalls naturally attract birds, as do flowers, shrubs and trees, and of course hummingbird, suet and seed feeders.  We’ve followed all of these suggestions, and our birds and other wildlife have shown their appreciation.  But if you’re interested in taking these basics to another level, there are a number of things you can do to increase both that appreciation and your number of visitors. And if you like to photograph birds, these modifications can also give you more natural photo opportunities.

 

Gila Woodpecker blends with cholla branch

Gila Woodpecker blends with cholla skeleton (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

For example, suet cake feeders look like square wire cages, designed to hold square commercial suet cakes.  These work perfectly fine, of course, but most people would prefer to take pictures of birds without a feeder in the frame. Through one of the local photography clubs, we found friends who substituted a segment of cholla skeleton for a suet feeder with great results. Dead cholla branches can be found with hollow interiors and nicely spaced ‘feeding’ holes. Just clean them up, inside and out with a hose, attach a length of looped wire for hanging and stuff a suet cake into the interior. Your suet-eating birds will appreciate the familiar surface of cholla, your landscaping will improve and you’ll get more natural-looking photographs.

 

Hooded Oriole on cholla sculpture

Drawn to a hummingbird feeder, this female Hooded Oriole rests on the cholla branch used to camouflage the shepherd’s hook (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you use shepherd’s hooks to hang hummingbird and other types of feeders, consider camouflaging the iron stands with branches and other plant material such as dead stalks of yucca, agave or desert spoon. You can secure the branches and stalks to hook stands with wire, making your feeder stands blend better with natural foliage. At the same time, you provide birds with more places to perch, again increasing your opportunities to get more natural photographs.  By including branches with small diameter twigs, you’ll also help your hummers, whose feet just weren’t designed for larger-sized sticks.  If you grow tomatoes and use those narrow gage tomato cages, you know how appreciative hummingbirds are of having those artificial perches. If you don’t grow tomatoes, you can still find tall flowers or vines that take to tomato cages, and hummingbirds will spend more time in your yard with more of these user-friendly perches.

Long showers at the bird spa

A newly-fledged Broad-billed Hummingbird showers under a water spray (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Water is a well-known bird attractant, and moving water is better than still water. If you have any irrigation spray emitters to water ground cover, for example, these are probably set no more than a foot or two off the ground.  Using a tall plant stake, reposition one or more of these four or five feet above the ground, add a stick or stalk sculpture (or tomato cage) within the watering circle, and enjoy the daily bird show.

Showering hummer on tomato cage

Perched on a tomato cage, a male Broad-billed takes a shower (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If your drip system doesn’t include a spray emitter, it’s easy to add one or just replace a drip emitter with a sprayer. We did this in a couple of different places with great payback. Hummingbirds take 10-minute showers, goldfinches preen on the dripping tomato cages and orioles forage through the mist and wet leaves. With a few simple steps, you can turn your yard into a high-end spa like Miraval, but for birds.  And free of charge.

(This article was published in the July, 2017, issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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