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.

 

Verdin on Hummingbird Feeder

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.

 

Verdins love pomegranate arils

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.

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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.

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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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When the Red, Red Robin

american robin (photo prudy and bob bowers)

The American Robin, bobbin’ along (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Desert rats like myself don’t handle cold well, so after two and a half inches of snow and a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures in early January, my thoughts turned to spring. Warmer weather, fields of flowers and beautiful birdsong. It was still January, but in my mind spring had sprung, and that led to thinking about the classical harbinger for spring, the robin. Unlike most of the rest of the U.S. and Canada, we don’t see a lot of robins in this part of Arizona, which usually surprises folks who move here from other places. It’s not that we never see them; one February day a few years ago a flock of 14 paused for a breather in our mesquite tree on their way north. You can also find them, especially in winter, in Catalina State Park and other nearby spots, but they’re more common at higher elevations or beyond the desert scrub.

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Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut’s state bird (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers) 

Those who retire here probably miss watching these colorful thrushes meticulously working their way around a yard, pausing to listen for earthworms and then nailing those they discover. Come to think of it, with yards of rock instead of grass, little wonder we seldom see them. Regardless, it’s unlikely you’d find anyone who doesn’t know the American Robin, which is found in every state, most of Canada and all of Mexico. It’s also the state bird for Wisconsin, Michigan and Connecticut, and it’s one of the top four or five most abundant land birds in North America.

 

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Migrating robin eating hackberries, Catalina State Park, Arizona (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The scientific name for the American Robin is Turdus migratorius, or ‘migrating thrush’, and most live up to the name by wintering in the southern U.S., the Pacific Coast and Mexico from August until February.  The bird in the photo above was one of thirty that flocked into Catalina State Park in Tucson, Arizona on January 26, this year.Some have even wandered as far as the U.K., the Netherlands and Belgium, perhaps appropriately, since our bird got its name from the European Robin, another bird with an orange breast but in no other way similar to our robin. Nevertheless, early colonial settlers saw the orange breast and gave it the same name, which stuck. That explains our bird’s name, but what about the European bird?

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The European Robin (photo courtesy of Kaz)

The scientific name for the European Robin is Erithacus rubecula, or ‘little red unknown bird’. Although the bird’s breast is orange, red was the designated color and the bird became the Redbreast. The interesting reason is that when the bird was named, the word ‘orange’ didn’t exist in England; not appearing until the sixteenth century, when oranges were first introduced there. In the fifteenth century, human names began being used for common species, and the Redbreast became the Robin Redbreast, ‘Robin’ being a diminutive for Robert. Robin Redbreast eventually was shortened to Robin and then changed to European Robin. However, unlike our ground-probing worm eater, the European Robin is a small chat, or Old World flycatcher. Its territory ranges from Great Britain to Western Siberia and south to North Africa, rarely leaving home, though it’s been found once in Pennsylvania (2015) and once in Florida (2018), possibly as a shipboard stowaway. It has never visited Arizona.However, a foreign cousin of our American Robin, the Rufous-backed Robin, has visited Arizona many times and is increasingly found here.

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A Rufous-backed Robin in Sonora, Mexico (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

The Rufous-backed Robin, Turdus rufopalliatus (rufous-cloaked thrush) is a Mexican endemic that looks like our robin, but with a yellow eyering instead of white around the eye and, unsurprisingly, with a rufous colored back. The Mexican bird was first recorded in Catalina State Park in 1975; and again in 2007, 2008, 2015 and 2016. When we saw our first Rufous-backed Robin in Arizona on New Year’s Day, 2008 (in Catalina State Park), we were part of an elbow-to-elbow crowd of 200 birders watching it wolf down hackberries. By the time a Rufous-backed Robin returned to the park eight years later, this Mexican visitor had become a more frequent sighting across southern Arizona and the crowds were gone. I guess its fifteen minutes of fame are up.

(The above article appears in the February, 2019 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

 

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Caring for our Birds in Winter

A Costa's appreciates thawed sugar water

A male Costa’s Hummingbird appreciates a thawed winter feeder  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Not that long ago it was thought that putting hummingbird feeders out in the winter would encourage birds to hang around past the time they might normally migrate south.  This concern has been proven false for quite some time, but unfortunately some folks still think a feeder will cause a bird to forget to migrate, which can have serious consequences, especially in southern states like Arizona where hummingbirds are resident year round. Here in SaddleBrooke, some of our migrating hummingbirds leave late for Mexico or arrive abnormally early in the spring, and three of our species spend every winter here:  our Costa’s, the male with a purple gorget, Anna’s Hummingbirds (the male’s gorget is ruby red) and the brilliantly blue-green iridescent Broad-billed Hummingbird. These birds don’t wait for spring to nest, and sugar water feeders can make a life or death difference when temperatures plunge.

A winter feeder with frozen sugar water

Even sugar water will freeze if it’s cold enough  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Even in some of the coldest winter states, such as Wisconsin, late or lost migrant hummingbirds have been documented in the middle of winter, but with three year-round species of hummingbirds in SaddleBrooke, we clearly need to keep our hummingbird feeders cleaned and filled regularly.  Winter in the Sonoran Desert can sometimes be brutal, as it was in February of 2011, when our thermometer dropped to 17 degrees.  When temperatures drop below freezing or if our plants and feeders are buried under an atypical snowfall, all our birds are at risk.

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Without a thawed and clear feeder, Hummers can die  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although hummingbirds rely on insects and spiders for protein, up to 90% of their diet consists of flower nectar or the artificial equivalent, sugar water.  Considering that these lightweight wonders (our Costa’s Hummingbirds weigh about two and one-half grams, the same as a penny) routinely beat their wings 70 times per second, it’s little wonder they thrive on high energy sugar fuel.  When freezing weather hits or snow covers flowers and feeders, hummingbirds are particularly vulnerable.  They put themselves into a dormant, low metabolic state during freezing nights, slowly absorbing sugar stored in their crop, but if replacement sugar is not available in the morning, these birds might die.  If an overnight freeze is predicted, bring your feeders in after dark and replace them at first light.  If daytime temperatures persist below freezing, keep a close eye on your feeders, and thaw them out if ice crystals form.  Feeders without metal parts are especially useful, since they can be thawed quickly in a microwave.

A Red-winged Blackbird at a suet feeder

This Red-winged Blackbird is one of many suet eaters  (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although hummingbirds are most vulnerable, severe weather impacts all birds.  Sunflower and thistle feeders should be kept clean and full throughout the winter, as well, and winter is a great time to hang suet, which provides high calorie fat.  Suet cages are inexpensive, and suet cakes are cheap as well. If you want to provide a special treat, make your own suet.  Email us for an easy suet recipe, and watch your birds wolf it down in a fraction of the time they spend on commercial cakes. We make suet with lard, bacon drippings and a wide variety of other ingredients including peanut butter, cornmeal, flour, oatmeal, seeds, berries, cereal and nuts.  This is a great way to dispose of nuts, cereal and other foodstuffs that have outlived their shelf life. Another ingredient that your birds will thank you for is freeze-dried mealworms, which can be purchased at Tractor Supply or online at Amazon.  As much as birds appreciate mealworms, you might find it a little difficult to stir them into a simmering suet mixture on your stove.  At the very least you will probably want to dedicate the pot exclusively to suet.

 

This article was first published in the January, 2019 issue of Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson

 

 

 

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The World of the Owl

Great Horned and babies

Great Horned Owl and babies  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Since owls and hawks are both raptors (from the Latin ‘rapere’, to seize) and they share morphological and behavioral traits, originally they were thought to be close relatives.  However, with the emergence of DNA analysis, owls are now known to be only distantly related to hawks and far more closely related to nightjars and nighthawks, a similar group of mostly nocturnal birds.  Owls have probably fascinated and captured the imagination of humans from their first encounter.  These mysterious birds of the night, with their silent flight, large eyes, spooky calls and deadly predation figure prominently in folklore and religion from ancient Greece to Native America.  Owls are simultaneously associated with wisdom, prophecy and death.  In some cultures they are revered, or at least considered good luck and wise, whereas in others an owl and its call are feared as evil and a prophecy of doom.  Birders find them fascinating as well, often giving up a nice dinner or an evening at the theater for an opportunity to go owling.  Some of my birder friends could be considered obsessed with owls, but I’m pretty sure most of them view owls as good luck rather than harbingers of doom.

Wise-old Great Horned Owl

Our most common owl, the Great Horned  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

About 164 species of owls are found worldwide on every continent except Antarctica, and in virtually all habitat including farmland, forests, deserts, islands, tundra and cities.  Of those 164 species, only 19 breed north of Mexico, and these range from the Southwest’s 6-inch Elf Owl to the 27-inch Great Gray Owl of the northern U.S. and Canada.  The most common owl in SaddleBrooke is the Great Horned Owl, widespread from Canada through Mexico and often seen sleeping in a mesquite or palm tree during the day or calling from a chimney top at dusk.

Heart-faced Barn Owl

Heart-faced Barn Owl  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Owls don’t build nests, but use platforms, cavities or other birds’ abandoned nests instead.  Local Great Horned Owls have ‘nested’ on the flat patio rooftop outside a second story SaddleBrooke restaurant, in the crook of a forked saguaro or in a regular nest of sticks built by Common Ravens.  Owls are carnivorous, eating a wide range of invertebrates and vertebrates, and are one of our best friends when it comes to controlling the spread of white-throated wood rats, commonly called pack rats.  Great Horned Owls can eat a rat daily, which amounts to more than 9,000 rats during their 25-year lifespan.  Think about that the next time a pest control salesman tries to talk you into using a poisoned bait box to kill a rat in your yard.  The poison they use is a slow acting agent that doesn’t kill a rat for two or three days, while he staggers around looking like an easy prey to owls, hawks and bobcats.  Kill one rat with poison that then secondarily kills a Great Horned Owl, and you’ve unintentionally added thousands of rats to our population.

Burrowing Owls, Rocky Point

Ground-dwelling Burrowing Owls, Puerto Penasco  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

An owl that roosts and nests in burrows rather than above ground is the appropriately-named the Burrowing Owl, a small 10-inch owl that can be found perching in the open or peeking out of a dirt burrow built by prairie dogs or ground squirrels.  Burrowing Owls eat small rodents, lizards and birds, and I’m guessing prairie dogs and ground squirrels.  Like other small owls, Burrowing Owls are cute and often sought after by birders.  However, they line their flea-ridden burrows with cow chips, horse dung, food debris and pellets, and, not surprisingly, they often choose a new burrow a couple of weeks after their young emerge.  And by the way, if their housekeeping habits don’t discourage visitors, they also mimic a rattlesnake’s rattle.

Lopez Island Barred Owl

Barred Owl, Lopez Island Washington  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

(This article originally appeared in the December, 2018 Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Mimids

 

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher, Tucson (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

What do catbirds, thrashers and mockingbirds have in common?  If you answered they all mimic other birds, you’d be right.  Although a number of birds play at mimicking other birds, mockingbirds, thrashers and catbirds are specialists, to the point of having their own family, Mimidae, Latin for ‘mimic’.  Mockingbirds have earned their name, spending hours sometimes, relentlessly expressing their remarkable repertoire of the songs of other species, singing a seemingly never-ending series of short phrases which are repeated two to six times before moving into a new series.  How many songs does a mockingbird sing?  Easily hundreds, and each bird continues to learn and perfect new songs as he (or she) is exposed to other birds. And not just other birds; mockingbirds as well as other mimics are also expert at copying almost any sound from ringing telephones to swinging flagpole chains.  We were having a hamburger on In ‘N Out’s patio one day when we heard a cell phone ring. Since we were alone, we assumed a guest had forgotten his phone until we saw a Curve-billed Thrasher doing a perfect telephone imitation.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird enjoying an orange (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Although the why and wherefore of vocal mimicry by birds is still a subject of debate among ornithologists, it appears to have nothing to do with deceit but rather much to do with sex (what’s new?)  Studied evidence suggests that the more a bird’s song repertoire is expanded, the more successful that bird is in intimidating rivals and attracting and stimulating females.  Here in Southeastern Arizona, we’re fortunate to have both mockingbirds and thrashers when it comes to avian opera, although when springtime rivalry gets mockingbirds up at O-dark thirty, some light sleepers might take exception.  Of the five thrashers found in southeast Arizona, the most common is the Curve-billed Thrasher, our backyard bird with the signature loud and sharp two or three whistles.  Many newcomers to Arizona are pleasantly surprised when they discover that this noisy brash and bullying ‘pack rat with wings’ is also a closet Pavarotti, perched high in the open, singing his heart out where you expected to find a Northern Mockingbird.  As much as these two birds seem to sound alike, it’s actually easy to distinguish one from the other.  The song of a mockingbird is a regular repetition of short phrases, while that of a thrasher is more chaotic, irregular and occasionally punctuated with that signature sharp whistle. Sort of like amateur hour when it comes to opera.

Gray Catbird in Virginia

Gray Catbird, Alexandria, Virginia (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

You’ll have to travel east to find Gray Catbirds, the third member of the Mimid family, since they’re rarely seen in Arizona.  Often, they’re rarely seen where they live as well, since they are darkly colored, solitary and elusive in brush and heavy vegetation. However, when a male catbird chooses to sing, he seeks the limelight like other prima donnas and finds an exposed and open perch.  We had no trouble finding these striking and beautiful birds on a trip to Virginia last May.

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher

Singing Curve-billed Thrasher (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

When birdsong fills the air, but you have trouble identifying the bird, think ‘Mimid’ and look for a mockingbird, thrasher or catbird.  You should also consider these same birds when you hear the ‘phone’ ring, a flagpole chain or a barking dog.

(This article will appear in the November, 2018 issue of the Saddlebag Notes Newspaper, Tucson, Arizona)

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Rocky Mountain High

Double-crested Cormorant in a Denver trout stream

Double-crested Cormorant in a Denver trout stream  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Forty six years ago, John Denver celebrated the state of Colorado with a mostly incoherent song called ‘Rocky Mountain High’.  The lyrics stumble around the mountains, singing about getting crazy, trying to touch the sun and watching fire rain from the sky. Colorado’s Amendment 64 wasn’t implemented until 2014, but ‘friends around the campfire, and everybody’s high’ sounds like Denver and his buddies might have jumped the gun on legal marijuana.  Nevertheless, you don’t need drugs to feel high in Colorado.  Literally, it’s a high place to hang, with 115 Mountains higher than 10,000 feet and 25 higher than 14,000 feet.  Figuratively and emotionally, it’s also easy to feel high in Colorado—vistas are sweeping, the scenery spectacular and summer wildflowers are glorious. The birding isn’t too shabby, either.

 

a young male Pine Grosbeak

Young male Pine Grosbeak  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Colorado is smaller than Arizona both in area and population, but the birding is surprisingly comparable.  According to eBird reports, 500 species have been documented in Colorado compared with 554 in Arizona, almost equal in spite of the regular influx of Mexican birds into Arizona.  Reported eBird sightings (checklists) are also comparable, with more than 600,000 in both states.  However, for one metric, eBird hotspots, Colorado surpasses Arizona at many sites.  For example, Arizona’s Catalina State Park is a single eBird hotspot. Admittedly, the variety of habitat within the 5,000 acre park suggests more hotspots would be in order, but some Colorado sites choke with hotspots, complicating reporting and research.  For example, Denver’s Chatfield State Park is less than 4,000 acres (and a reservoir accounts for 1,500 of those acres), but a visiting birder is confronted with no less than 31 eBird hotspots.  Regardless, the birding is great, whether you are looking for Mountain Plovers or Lark Buntings (the state bird) on the Pawnee National Grassland, Blue Jays in Denver, Black-billed Magpies anywhere or camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigans on Mt. Evans.

 

Summer camouflage of the White-tailed Ptarmigan

Camouflaged White-tailed Ptarmigan on Mt. Evans  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In addition to Pine Grosbeaks and Gray Jays, Colorado is home to the near-endemic Gunnison Sage-Grouse (next door Utah has some as well), and is one of the few states where you can find the yellow-crowned American Three-toed Woodpecker. Summer in the mountains is the definition of delightful. Colorful birds compete with colorful wildflowers.  Mountain Bluebirds, Western Tanagers and the magenta-splashed Calliope Hummingbird, North America’s smallest bird, mix well with lupine, scarlet gilia and the state flower, Colorado blue columbine. One of our favorite high-altitude birds is the White-tailed Ptarmigan, a hearty bird found in alpine tundra year-round. Females are a little less macho than males, wintering just below treeline along willowed streams, while their daredevil mates tough it out above treeline winter and summer. Both sexes are masters of camouflage, turning speckled yellowish black on white in summer, blending perfectly with the rocky tundra, and reverting to pure white to disappear in the high country’s winter snow.

 

The state flower, Colorado blue columbine

Rocky Mountain state flower, the Colorado blue columbine  (photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

If you’re lucky enough to spend some time in Colorado this summer, try not to touch the sun, avoid crazy and watch out for fire raining from the sky.  Spend your time with birds and flowers instead, and any lyrics you write probably will make more sense than John Denver’s.

(The above article first appeared in the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona, July, 2018)

 

 

 

 

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