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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It’s that Quail Time of Year

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Newly hatched and exploring the world (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Not sure why, but for some unexplained reason we’ve seen more Gambel’s Quail this year than usual. On our quarterly Tucson Bird Counts along the Canada del Oro Wash and along Willow Springs Road we’ve counted far more quail in all of the sites than we’ve seen in past years, and the same can be said for SaddleBrooke.  This bodes well for future generations, and at the deadline for this article, in mid-May, most of us have already seen baby quail.  By the first of June and continuing into summer, we should see many more, with lines of newly-hatched babies following their parents like a string of wind-up toys.  Unfortunately, this bodes well for roadrunners, too. Greater Roadrunners seem to look forward to the arrival of bite-sized quail babies, maybe because their diet the rest of the year is mostly lizards and scorpions.

 

Handsome male Gambel's Quail

Handsome daddy Gambel’s Quail lookout (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

The Gambel’s Quail we see in SaddleBrooke is one of three species found in Arizona, the other two being Scaled and Montezuma.  Similar to California Quail, Gambel’s (Callipepla gambelii) is a non-migratory bird well adapted to life in the suburbs.  They are beautiful 10-inch birds that prefer walking to flying, and when they do fly, their short, rounded wings produce explosive and noisy takeoffs.  Both females and males have a distinctive topknot, and the male is particularly striking with his dark face, forehead and abdomen.  If you have binoculars, take the time to study their coloration and top knots.  The male is often seen perched on a wall or other high point, acting as a sentry while his family forages below.  Their diet is pure vegan, including leaves, seeds, flowers and plant shoots, and they scratch their way across the terrain like free-range chickens.

 

Mama and brood

Mama Gambel’s and brood (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Unless they’re breeding, quail are gregarious and typically found in groups.  Social coveys form after the young hatch, sometimes consisting of several families and often circling the wagons and hatchlings when roadrunners appear. Normally only one brood is produced annually with up to 15 eggs, although 2 females may lay eggs  in the same nest.  Calling a quail nest a nest is a bit of a stretch, since you are likely to find a bunch of quail eggs under a bush, in a pot or just randomly dropped.  We found a single egg lying on our patio one day, stuck it in a nest with 15 other eggs under a bush, and all 16 eggs hatched successfully.  Quail young break out of their eggs in three weeks and hit the road running. No lengthy fledging for quail; none of the soft life typical for other birds. Quail are ready to roll immediately, an important characteristic when your ‘nest’ is open to the world on the ground and you rank at the top of a roadrunner’s menu.

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Loners need short-term protection (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Once in a while one of these get-up-and-go babies gets separated from the rest of the family. Recently we had one wander in under our feet with no family in sight. If this happens to you, scoop him up and keep him in a shoe box lined with some soft cloth, water and powdered bird seed until you see or hear his family, which shouldn’t take long. Once they make their whereabouts known, release him nearby and they’ll find each other.

As cute as they are, getting attached to baby quail is not recommended. The fifteen you count on Tuesday will probably be thirteen on Wednesday and into single digits by Saturday. You might want to consider buying a puppy instead.

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

 

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Canyon Birding by Train

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Verde River Canyon from open-air car (photo Prudy Bowers)

We didn’t intentionally plan this, but scheduling vagaries put us on three train trips to three canyons over three weeks in March.  A triple header spring fling.  Two of the trips were part of Road Scholar’s ‘Scenic Railroads of Arizona’, the first of which was a 4-hour, 40-mile round trip on the Verde Canyon Railroad along the beautiful Verde River.  The Canyon is rimmed with Sedona-like red rock cliffs and buttes, and the non-stop eye candy of colored rock, riparian forest and rushing water is impossible to turn your back on.  Coach car seats are assigned, but once the train pulled out, we moved to an open-air car and stayed there for the duration.  At an average speed of 10 miles per hour, we had plenty of time to take photos and look for birds, which included Turkey Vultures, Common Black Hawks and a posing Bald Eagle.

 

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Grand Canyon Railway Fiddler (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The second Road Scholar ride was quite different, but equally rewarding.  The Grand Canyon Railway runs from Williams, Arizona across the Coconino Plateau to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, a 65-mile, 2-hour trip that descends from ponderosa forests to upper Sonoran prairie and then climbs back to pine, fir, aspen and spruce at the national park.  Wildlife, including pronghorn, is likely along the way, but the faster pace of this train and lack of open-air cars make spotting and photography more problematic.  So instead of trying to focus on slipping scenery, we enjoyed a fiddle-playing comedian and a colt-toting marshal.  Once in the canyon, birding wasn’t any easier, considering the constant distraction of sweeping vistas and plummeting depths.  They don’t call it grand for nothing.  Even so, you can count on Steller’s Jays, Dark-eyed Juncos and, if you’re lucky, California Condors.

 

Magnificent Hummingbird, Mirador Hotel

Magnificent Hummingbird at Mirador Hotel, Copper Canyon (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Our third trip was a train adventure on steroids, taking three legs of the daily trains between Los Mochis and Chihuahua, Mexico.  Two passenger trains depart every morning, one heading east from Mochis and the other heading west from Chihuahua, each traveling 400 miles on a single track and somehow never colliding.  To board this adventure, we chose to take some friends and drive 600 miles south to El Fuerte, in the overly-publicized state of Sinaloa. From El Fuerte (312 feet above sea level) to Posada Barrancas (7,300 feet) are 80 miles of special interest, since they travel into and through the Copper Canyon, crossing high bridges, passing through long narrow tunnels and looping elliptically to gain precarious elevation. All this while surrounded by copper-colored rock walls (hence the name), spectacular waterfalls and hillsides of pink-blossomed amapa trees.

View of Urique from Gallego Point

Copper Canyon from Gallego Point (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

There are three great hotels at El Fuerte, Cerocahui and Posada Barrancas, and we put together a trip that included 5 overnights, including side trips to Mexico’s 800-foot Basaseachi Falls, Cerro Gallego, with a glass bottomed platform that juts out 6,000 feet above the canyon floor and an eco-park that features the world’s longest and probably highest zip line, a single run 3 miles long that reaches 80 miles per hour.  Of the three hotels, the most breathtaking is the Mirador, 7,400 feet above sea level and perched on the very edge of the canyon.  Every room features a canyon-side balcony, and if you can pull your eyes away from the view, you can find birds like Mexican Chickadees, Black-eared Bushtits, Painted Redstarts and Blue-throated Hummingbirds.  The challenge is giving up the view, even for a hard-core birder.

 

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

 

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Penguins: White Tie and Tails

Three Kings at Volunteer Point

Three Kings at The Falklands’ Volunteer Point (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

Having just returned from the far southern reaches of South America, it seems appropriate to write about the most popular bird from that part of the world, the penguin.  Unafraid of humans (they have no land predators), flightless and shuffling around upright like munchkins dressed for formal night, these adorable critters are impossible not to love.  Except for the Galapagos Penguin, all penguin species are found exclusively in the southern hemisphere, and one of the best places to see them up close and personal is along South America’s coastline from Argentina to Chile.  Another hotspot for penguins is the Falkland Islands, some 900 miles off the coast of Argentina.

Magellanics at Punto Tombo, Argentina

Magellanics at Punto Tombo, Argentina (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

On our trip, we found about a half million Magellanic Penguins at Argentina’s Punto Tombo reserve, and three species (Magellanic, Gentoo and King Penguins) at East Falkland’s Volunteer Point, a two-hour, four-wheeled drive across spongy peat from Stanley.  The big attraction at Volunteer Point is the colony of King Penguins, second only to the Antarctic’s Emperor Penguins in size, standing three feet tall and weighing 30 pounds, give or take.  With charcoal back and wings, coal-black head and face, white belly and neon orange and yellow accents, this is a stunning bird.  Put several thousand of them together, some with incubating eggs on their feet, some with featherless hatchlings poking their heads out, some molting, some grooming and many bellowing at a moonless sky, you have a classic, incomparable photo op.

King with newly hatched chick

King Penguin with young chick (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

King Penguins are monogamous, and share parental duties over a lengthy chick-raising cycle that starts with egg-laying (one egg only) in November, and doesn’t end until the juvenile birds head out to sea a year later to fend for themselves.  Like other penguins, Kings spend half their life at sea, eating small fish, squid and even lantern fish, diving as deep as a thousand feet to find their prey.

Gentoo adult with juvenile

Magellanic juvenile (left) calling mom (right) (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

All penguins are flightless, and their wings have evolved into highly-effective flippers, propelling them through deep water as efficiently as their airborne cousins cross the sky.  This wing-flipper evolution is not a recent phenomenon, either.  Fossils of flightless penguin predecessors have been found in New Zealand that date back more than 60 million years.  Penguins are all colored specifically for camouflage, with gray or black backs and wings and white fronts.  Orcas and leopard seals searching for them from below have difficulty distinguishing the white bellies of penguins from the reflective ocean surface, and the dark plumage on their backs effectively screen them from flying predators like skuas and vultures.

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Gentoo Penguin checks his formal attire (photo Prudy and Bob Bowers)

This black and white ensemble combined with their human-like upright strolling gives them the formal look of an opera buff headed for the Met, all decked out in a freshly pressed tux.  Or perhaps more appropriate in their case, white tie and tails.

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

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The Birds and the Bees

verdin-eating-dried-sugar

Verdin looking for crystallized sugar (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If, like millions of other folks, you hang sugar water feeders in your yard to attract hummingbirds, you’ll know this article isn’t about sex education.  I get lots of mail from hummingbird lovers who want to know how to keep non-hummer intruders away from their feeders.  When you put sugar water in a feeder and hang it outside, you’ll certainly attract those little acrobatic marvels you’re after, but in the wild you should know there’s no such thing as table reservations.  Candy stores draw kids of all kinds and ages, and easy-to-get sweet, energy-packed sugar water works the same way in your back yard.

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Orioles, like this Hooded, are nectar lovers too (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Among other creatures, hummingbird feeders attract ants, bees, bats and even other birds.  Although hummers aggressively fight off rival hummingbirds, including their own species, they’re mostly hesitant to take on other critters. They ignore ants, but ants contaminate feeders, and you can eliminate them by hanging ant guards between the feeder and its hook.  Hummers also tolerate bigger birds, and since there aren’t any smaller birds, this includes a lot of intruders like woodpeckers, orioles, Verdins and House Finches.  Even the school yard bully Rufous Hummingbird gives up his bar stool to a Gila Woodpecker that outweighs him 16 to one.  Nectar-feeding bats are also sugar water feeders, although, like Dracula, they feed only at night.  If your feeders are full when you go to bed and empty when you get up, you probably have bat visitors.  Migrating nectar feeding bats can use a little sugar, too, but if you don’t want to refill all your feeders every morning, put a couple on a flat surface when the sun sets.  Bats will ignore these, since they need to hang from the feeder to feed.  And until you rehang them in the morning, your hummers can still feed from a table top.

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Bees can be the most annoying nuisance (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Compared with birds and bats, bees can be a real nuisance.  If bees on your feeders bother you, there are some ways to mitigate the problem.  First, try to keep your feeders at least half full.  Sugar water becomes more concentrated as it evaporates, and everyone including bees likes a sweeter hit.  Rinse off the outside of feeders daily.  Wind and heavier birds will splash sugar water onto the outside of a feeder, which is like a candy store tossing bonbons on the sidewalk.  In summer, dilute your sugar water from 1 part sugar to 4 parts water to 1 part sugar to 5 of water. The less concentrated liquid won’t attract as many bees.

no-bees-but-a-piggy-back-fly

No bees, but a hitch-hiking fly on this Rufous (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

It also helps to hang multiple feeders; often bees will focus on the sweetest, leaving others for the hummers.  Some folks even designate one feeder for the bees, hanging it out of sight and filling it with more concentrated sugar.  Don’t bother with ‘bee guards’ or feeders with slits instead of holes.  Bees don’t seem discouraged by either.  Feeders with flexible membranes over the holes that open only when a hummingbird pushes the membrane aside with his bill will keep bees out, but given a choice, hummingbirds will also ignore these.

feeder-after-skin-so-soft

Bee-free feeder with light coating of Avon Skin so Soft (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Another option is to put a light coating of Avon’s Skin-so-Soft around (not in) the feeding holes.  Wet your finger with it instead of spraying it onto the feeder, and spread it lightly around the holes.  Although bees are not completely discouraged, their numbers will drop, at least for a while.  On the other hand, if you’re the one getting discouraged, look on the bright side.  In the high country, it’s bears, not bees that come to the feeders.

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

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Hummingbird Feeders

this-male-costas-is-guarding-his-feeder

A male Costa’s guards ‘his’ feeder (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbirds, those amazing little winged marvels that seem to burn more energy than they consume, are pushovers when it comes to attracting birds to your yard.  Flowers are the simplest way to draw them, especially bright tubular ones like salvia and tacoma, and they love water mists and sprays, like when your drip irrigation system springs a leak.  They’re big fans of floral nectar with its high sugar content, not surprising when you weigh the same as a penny, fly 30 miles an hour and sport a heart rate up to 1,200 beats per minute.  These little acrobats can also hover, fly upside down and spin their wings in a figure eight pattern at more than 3,000 cycles a minute.  Did I mention they have the highest metabolism of any homoeothermic animal?  Sugar isn’t their only food source, however.  Like the rest of us, they need protein as well, which they get by snagging spiders, gnats, mosquitoes and other tiny tasty critters.  If you wonder why the hummer in your yard is playing elevator, going up, down and sideways in an apparently empty plot of space, take a closer look and you’ll likely find him picking off near-invisible bugs.  But it’s a sugar high that powers those aggressive dogfights we’ve grown accustomed to, and you’ll be their friend for life if you supplement your floral buffet with a few sugar water feeders.

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An impatient Broad-tailed Hummer being hand-fed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Hummingbird feeders are like fishing lures when it comes to consumers.  Stores are full of expensive elaborate contraptions that often appeal more to the buyer than the bird (or fish).  When shopping for a hummingbird feeder, keep the birds’ needs in mind.  Hummingbirds don’t like to wait in line for a sugar hit, so choose a feeder with multiple feeding holes.  They sometimes like to take a breather, too, so a feeder with a perch will give that racing heart a chance to rest.  You also want enough capacity to accommodate your traffic, but not so much that you’re tossing unused food when it’s time to clean the feeder.  And do yourself a favor at the same time—choose feeders that are inexpensive, wide-mouthed to facilitate filling and easy to disassemble, clean and reassemble.  Red components, like the reservoir and top cover, are common and may attract hummers initially, but once they find your feeders, they won’t forget.

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Frozen sugar water needs to be thawed (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Don’t waste your money on commercial dry ‘nectar’ mix or premixed food.  All you and the birds need is a simple sugar water blend you can prepare easily and cheaply at a fraction of the cost of premixed ‘nectar’.  Use a four-to-one recipe:  bring water to a boil, add pure granulated sugar at the rate of one part sugar to four parts water, stir to dissolve, let cool and you’re done.  Store unused sugar water in a closed container in your refrigerator, and never add food coloring or anything else.  And don’t forget to clean your feeders when they are empty, after a week or two regardless and immediately if the liquid turns cloudy or black spots appear.  Use a bottle brush and hot water to clean the components, adding a vinegar or mild bleach mix if necessary, and always rinse multiple times to protect the birds.

you-need-multiple-feeder-holes

Choose a feeder with multiple holes for crowds (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In SaddleBrooke, we have six species of hummingbirds during spring and fall migration, and three of those species are found here year-round:  Costa’s, Anna’s and Broad-billed.  ‘Seasonal’ hummingbirds, like the Midwest and eastern states are accustomed to, is not the case here, so keep your feeders up and filled whenever you’re in town.  These supplemental feeding sources, more for your benefit than the birds when flowers and bugs are abundant, can be critical lifesavers during a winter freeze.  Your hummers will thank you.

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

 

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