Archive for the ‘Tom Wood’ Category

The Parrots Next Door

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Monday, December 17th, 2012
Thick-billed Parrot

Thick-billed Parrot © Tom Wood

The Parrots Next Door by Tom Wood

One of the saddest stories in American ornithology is the loss of the Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot native to the eastern United States, in 1918. I remember being brought almost to tears by the specimen of Carolina Parakeet on display at the Smithsonian Museum, imagining a southern swamp made alive by parrot voices.

Out west, we had another parrot that visited our border mountain ranges. The large, noisy, Thick-billed Parrot was a frequent visitor to the pine forests of Arizona and New Mexico as far north as the Verde River. They ventured north from their stronghold in Mexico in years when drought reduced their food supply and were commonly seen from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. In 1917-18 thousands of Thick-billed Parrots were present in the Arizona mountains. But the parrots are big, noisy and tasty – a dangerous combination in the days before regulated hunting. Historical photos show hunters and miners with dozens of dead parrots. The last wild bird in the U.S. was seen in the Chiricahua Mountains in 1938.

But Thick-billed Parrots are not extinct. In fact, across the border in the mountains of Mexico Thick—billed Parrots still fill the air with their raucous calls. The nearest population at Mesa de las Guacamayas (mesa of the parrots) is 50 miles from the border and within sight of the Chiricahua Mountains in Arizona. For years, we have been traveling 150 miles south from our home to the logging village of Madera, Chihuahua to see the parrots. We usually associate parrots with tropical forests, but here, high in a pine forest in Mexico the loud chatter of parrots is unmistakable. We usually hear the birds long before we see them; the call may carry two miles and the birds are rarely quiet. With local guides we visit the nesting site, groves of the largest aspens I have ever seen. High overhead the birds return to the roost in late afternoon after feeding in the nearby pine forests. It never fails to give me goosebumps.

These parrots are among the most endangered parrots in the world with an estimated population around 2000. A number of groups have been working on preserving this rare species, but no partners are more important than the local ejidos, the farming cooperatives that control the land. Locals have set aside areas protected from logging in order to protect the birds. Our birding trips help provide funds to the local community and encourage conservation.Efforts to reintroduce the birds into the U.S. were complicated by the complex social order of the flocks and the inability for naive captive bred birds to evade predators. Perhaps the best hope is to ensure that the birds do well in Mexico. If they decide to immigrate, the Chiricahuas are a one hour flight from Mesa de las Guacamayas.

Throw Back Thursday: I Thought We Knew Hummingbirds

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Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Throw Back Thursday: I thought we knew Hummingbirds by Tom Wood

Fork-tailed Woodnymph © Tom Wood

I thought we knew hummingbirds. Living in the self-proclaimed ‘hummingbird capital of America”, authoring numerous articles and a couple of books on hummingbirds and more than twenty years of research on these little jewels in Arizona had us pretty comfortable with hummingbirds. We love introducing others to these small wonders and watching the looks on birders’ faces as they watch a feeder with six or eight species visiting. For someone from the eastern U.S. where often the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only option or, better yet, foreign visitors that had never seen these New World birds it can be a jaw-dropping experience. Recently we had an opportunity to have our own jaw-dropping experience at feeders in the real hummingbird capital, Ecuador.

You don’t need to look in the field guide (a huge tome), to know these are some amazing birds – just look at their names: Tourmaline Sunangel, Booted Racket-tail, Glittering Emerald, Shining Sunbeam, Golden-tailed Sapphire. I could go on and on. Over 140 species of hummingbirds are found in a country the size of Colorado. Some, like the improbable Sword-billed Hummingbird or Wire-crested Thorntail, look like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Our North American hummingbirds, with a few exceptions, only hint at the extravagance the iridescence of hummingbirds can achieve.

Booted Racket-tail © Tom Wood

Hummingbirds are tropical creatures and, in Ecuador on the slopes of the Andes, they reach their pinnacle. We marvel at the migrations of “our” hummingbirds but these tropical hummingbirds have no need to make a long migration. Everything they need: flowers, insects and shelter, are available year-around. We visited several lodges at a variety of elevations and drainages and each valley or mountain ridge seems to have its own mix of species. Watching the feeders at one of the mountain lodges was almost a religious experience for the hummingbird aficionado.

This has been a banner year for hummingbirds in southeastern Arizona. Or perhaps I should say this has been a good year for hummingbird watchers. Fires and drought have impacted the wildflowers and insects that hummers depend, on causing birds migrating to Mexico to frequent new areas and feeders in record numbers. They are resourceful migrants and, by next year when they return, hopefully conditions will have improved. As we watch them go and begin the winter task of compiling and analyzing data from our banding study, forgive me if my mind wanders to Ecuador.

There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

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Thursday, September 20th, 2012

Throwback Thursdays

Notes from the Field by Tom Wood: There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

hawks during migration season

Swainson’s Hawks © Tom Wood

There is a rhythm to the seasons. Technically, fall began on September 23 when the sun crossed the equator and the days in the northern hemisphere began to grow shorter. But to me, the first precursor to fall is the arrival of waves of Rufous Hummingbirds winging through Arizona on their way south to Mexico. I’ll know for sure when I hear the first Sandhill Crane calling in the Sulphur Springs Valley. If you are a naturalist or gardener or anyone else with a close attachment to the land you view the passing of the seasons differently than the deskbound city-dweller. Seasons are measured in the plants and animals around us rather than the calendar.

Actually, we have five seasons here in southeastern Arizona and it is the arrival of that fifth season that affects many of us at a very primal level. After months of hot, dry weather the first thunderheads begin to build in late June. When the first rains of our “monsoon season” come in early July, the impulse to go out in the rain and celebrate the season is often too overwhelming to ignore. I imagine that the arrival of the salmon in Alaska is greeted with the same sense of relief and celebration. Like the blooming of fruit trees or a vegetable garden, it is the promise of plenty.

This time of year the afternoon temperatures can still be uncomfortably warm. And, although there is scarce change in the morning temperature and humidity, there is SOMETHING in the early morning air that tells me that fall will soon be here. It arrives earlier on the mountain peaks and I can see the golden yellow aspen groves from miles away. Another hint that change is on the way. For a couple of weeks the newly arriving Sandhill Cranes, some of whom nested in Siberia this summer, will share the fields with the last of our nesting Swainson’s Hawks before the hawks leave for Argentina. It’s the pulse of the planet and you can hear it if you are listening.

Nature Stories: Capturing the Secret of Wildlife

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Monday, September 10th, 2012

Capturing the Secret Life of Wildlife by Tom Wood

American Badger wildlife

American Badger © Tom Wood

I’ve been blessed to see some amazing wildlife and behavior in my life. Sometimes, after a particularly exciting, serendipitous sighting I think, “What if I had been ten minutes earlier or later?” It’s only a short jump from that thinking to “What have I missed by ten minutes?”  Until recently this has been nothing but a Zen riddle “What is happening when I am not here?” but now a new tool allows an inquisitive naturalist to monitor what is happening miles away while you sleep (or work or play). Motion-sensitive remote cameras have become ubiquitous in the hunting community and can also be used to monitor a wide variety of wildlife and habitats. They have become an important research tool as well as a new way to learn about your wild neighbors.

Collard Peccary wildlife

Collard Peccary © Tom Wood

Trail cameras, also referred to as “gamecams” or “camera traps,” can be found at most sporting goods stores or on-line outlets or can be home-made with a simple point-and-shoot camera and motion-sensitive hardware. Over-the-counter models range from less than $50 to over $400.  Some cameras use flash for nighttime visitors, while others are able to take infrared photos without the use of flash. Many also offer an opportunity to capture short video clips. Some features to consider when purchasing a camera include battery life, shutter delay and security features.

I purchased a couple of inexpensive cameras on-line after seeing tracks in a dry creek-bed on property owned by friends. I was amazed to quickly verify that both bobcats and coyotes were regularly visiting the creek bed. Encouraged by my early success, I soon established two photo points watching a strategic location: a shallow basin I kept filled with water. Water is a magnet for wildlife in the desert, and I soon had photographs of an amazing array of desert creatures who visited the sites. I had no idea, based on my daytime wandering on the property, that this habitat supported so much life.

Bobcat Wildlife

Bobcat © Tom Wood

Baiting sites is controversial in the camera monitoring community and may be illegal in some areas, but I freely admit to scattering birdseed and even cat food occasionally to entice the local wildlife to pose for my cameras. My weekly visits to refill the water basins are rewarded with the thrill of sorting through the sometimes hundreds of images stored on the computer chips, vicariously watching as the wildlife visits. Sorting through the images is like opening Christmas presents, waiting for that special one.

Coyote wildlife

Coyote © Tom Wood

If you have wondered, as I have, what animals might be using a particular trail or visiting a waterhole or feeder when you are not around, a wildlife camera provides an easy and fun way to satisfy your curiosity. Pick a tree or post with an unobstructed view of the target area – a blowing branch in front of the sensor will result in hundreds of pictures of the branch. Hopefully you will be rewarded with a few candid shots. If you would like to share your results, we could set up a site for wildlife camera shots from around the country. Contact me at: tom@sabo.org

 

Exception to the Rule – Woodpeckers

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Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Exception to the Rule – Woodpeckers by Tom Wood

Early in an ornithological education you learn about the adaptations that woodpeckers have for their unique lifestyle. Wikipedia states” Woodpeckers, piculets and wrynecks all possess zygodactyl feet. Zygodactyl feet consist of four toes, the first (hallux) and the fourth facing backward and the second and third facing forward. This foot arrangement is good for grasping the limbs and trunks of trees.” In combination with stiff tail feathers this allows the woodpecker to climb a vertical tree trunk like a lineman with spiked boots and a belt.

Our target bird for the morning was a woodpecker, one that had eluded us for many years. And it has only three toes. Though I had spent a lot of time in the Colorado coniferous forests they call home, the American Three-toed Woodpecker was a “nemesis bird” for me until last year. This year I hoped to share my sighting with Sheri. It’s never a good idea to have a life bird your spouse hasn’t yet seen.

American Three-toed Woodpecker © Tom Wood

Hoping that lightning would strike twice in the same place, we drove through thousands of acres of forest to the exact spot where I found the bird (with a little help from the Colorado Field Ornithologists website) last year. Amazingly, two minutes after we got out of the car a faint tapping led us to a beautiful male American Three-toed Woodpecker high in a spruce tree. Later that morning at a nearby lake, Three-toed Woodpeckers seemed to be following us along the trail and allowed close study and photography. It’s exciting to find a new bird, particularly one you had looked for many times, but is even better to have a chance to watch their behavior.

Now a trip to the northern Rockies for the Black-backed Woodpecker is in order. Once considered conspecific with the American Three-toed, it also has three toes. Something about the oddballs attracts me.

Easy Answer

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Thursday, May 10th, 2012

Yellow-headed Blackbird by Tom Wood

Sometimes it can be challenging to identify a bird over the phone, but this was an easy one. The caller described a “black bird with a yellow head”. “That’s a Yellow-headed Blackbird!” I explained. There was silence on the other end of the line. I think the caller thought he had reached the biggest smart-alec in Arizona. “No, really. That’s what they are called.” I wish all bird names were so descriptive. As if the name Yellow-headed Blackbird were not obvious enough, the scientific name, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus , literally means “yellow head yellow head”.

Actually, it’s a good thing this blackbird has such a striking field mark. If the head were not so bright or the wing patches so distinctive, the bird might have been named after another subtle field mark seldom mentioned. The bright yellow cheerio of color around the vent could have given us a truly tasteless common name.

Checklists and field guides remind us that taxonomically orioles and blackbirds are closely related, but the Yellow-headed Blackbird truly shows that affinity. You never, however, see flocks of thousands of orioles wheeling overhead and settling into a marsh. A raucous flock of Yellow-headed Blackbirds are nowhere near as melodious as an oriole or even their red-winged brethren. Here in southern Arizona we only see Yellow-headed Blackbirds in the winter, often in the same marsh where we watch Sandhill Cranes. We’ve seen bare trees so full of Yellow–headed Blackbirds they looked like lemon trees. We’ve also often seen them in the San Luis Valley of southwestern Colorado, at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where they nest in the cattails along the Avocet Trail. The males will mate as many as six or seven females, but will only help tend one nest. They often nest in mixed colonies with Red-winged Blackbirds. In late summer when they arrive in our area, some show only a glimpse of their breeding season glory. But by next spring they will be unmistakably a “Yellow-headed Blackbird”.

-Tom Wood

A Furry Surprise

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Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Adult Great Horned Owl, Southeastern © Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

When I saw the two ears just above the edge of a large nest forty feet up the cottonwood, I thought to myself “a Great Horned Owl is already on the nest in late January”. I gathered our birding group and set up the spotting scope and was surprised to see the “ears” were not the feathered ear tufts of a Great Horned Owl, but the furry ears of a Gray Fox high in the tree enjoying the winter sun. I had often seen foxes relaxing on low branches of willows and other small trees but this one won the prize for tree climbing.

The Gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), may be at the top of the tree because it is at the bottom of the canine food chain. A very atypical canid, Gray Foxes are adept climbers and may climb or roost in trees to escape coyotes. Many years ago, as a wildlife rehabilitator, I had the chance to raise both a young Gray Fox and a young Red Fox in North Central Texas. I would let them out in our large nature center auditorium to play and a rousing game of tag often ensued. The Gray Fox was no match for the long legged Red Fox in a straight race, but whenever the Red Fox got close the Gray would go arboreal across chairs and tables and outmaneuver his pursuer.

Gray Fox © Daniel J. Cox, Natural Exposures

Although the overall color is mostly gray, the rufous on the shoulders of Gray Foxes sometimes misleads people into calling them Red Foxes. Gray Foxes seem to be a charming mix of dog and cat. They only weigh about as much as a big house cat, 8-10 pounds, with short legs and a long snout. They make a variety of chirps, barks and yips that sound anything but doglike. Like a Coyote, they are efficient predators on mice, birds, lizards and large insects and will eat fruit in season. Their ability to climb, rare among canids, allows them to reach fruit high in the tree. Since they are mostly nocturnal, I don’t see them often. But now that I have a better search image, I’ll be checking all the old raven’s nests I see for those telltale ears.

El Chickadee

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Friday, January 6th, 2012

High on the list of “familiar birds” are the chickadees. Chickadees are common feeder birds and so friendly and trusting they can become tame enough to feed from the hand. But there are seven species of chickadees in the U.S. and only two, the Black-capped Chickadee and the Carolina Chickadee are widespread and well known. The Mountain Chickadee and the Chestnut-backed Chickadee are found in the Western region on the U.S. Another the Boreal Chickadee is found across the boreal forest in the U.S. and Canada, but two species, the Grey-headed Chickadee and the Mexican Chickadee are rare enough to require a special trip to add them to a life list.

© Brian E. Small/VIREO

I was lucky enough to travel to Alaska in 1996 for a float trip down the Canning River on the north slope of the Brooks Range. At one of our camps we found chickadees in a grove of stunted willows. Around the evening campfire we mentioned seeing probable Boreal Chickadees and our guide immediately said, “I’ll bet those were not Boreals!” A search the next day turned up not only Grey-headed Chickadees (then known as Siberian Tits) but the first known nest in North America as well. We watched as the adults fed young chicks in the nest – in fact it was the begging call of the young that first drew my attention. At the time of the sighting, we didn’t realize the significance and none of us thought to take a picture of the birds.

© Glenn Bartley/VIREO

I almost hesitate to call the next chickadee “rare”. Mexican Chickadees are common throughout the Sierra Madre of Mexico but qualify as a rare bird in the U.S. They are found in only two mountain ranges along the border and one of those ranges, the Animas in New Mexico, is a private ranch and not accessible to the public. That leaves the Chiricahua Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border as the only place for birder to seek out this bird for their life lists. Last summer, as a huge wildfire burned in the Chiricahuas for weeks, we feared for the island of high elevation habitat holding this small population.

© Bob Steele/VIREO

It was a relief for us to hear the familiar chickadee call on our first trip back to the Chiricahuas after the fires. Soon there were several chickadees mobbing a nearby Northern Pygmy-Owl in an area where the natural mosaic of a long-lived fire left the habitat relatively intact. Nature is resilient and that includes these tiny little birds.

© Rick and Nora Bowers/VIREO

I Thought We Knew Hummingbirds

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Friday, October 7th, 2011

I thought we knew hummingbirds. Living in the self-proclaimed ‘hummingbird capital of America”, authoring numerous articles and a couple of books on hummingbirds and more than twenty years of research on these little jewels in Arizona had us pretty comfortable with hummingbirds. We love introducing others to these small wonders and watching the looks on birders’ faces as they watch a feeder with six or eight species visiting. For someone from the eastern U.S. where often the Ruby-throated Hummingbird is the only option or, better yet, foreign visitors that had never seen these New World birds it can be a jaw-dropping experience. Recently we had an opportunity to have our own jaw-dropping experience at feeders in the real hummingbird capital, Ecuador.

You don’t need to look in the field guide (a huge tome), to know these are some amazing birds – just look at their names: Tourmaline Sunangel, Booted Racket-tail, Glittering Emerald, Shining Sunbeam, Golden-tailed Sapphire. I could go on and on. Over 140 species of hummingbirds are found in a country the size of Colorado. Some, like the improbable Sword-billed Hummingbird or Wire-crested Thorntail, look like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Our North American hummingbirds, with a few exceptions, only hint at the extravagance the iridescence of hummingbirds can achieve.

Hummingbirds are tropical creatures and, in Ecuador on the slopes of the Andes, they reach their pinnacle. We marvel at the migrations of “our” hummingbirds but these tropical hummingbirds have no need to make a long migration. Everything they need: flowers, insects and shelter, are available year-around. We visited several lodges at a variety of elevations and drainages and each valley or mountain ridge seems to have its own mix of species. Watching the feeders at one of the mountain lodges was almost a religious experience for the hummingbird aficionado.

This has been a banner year for hummingbirds in southeastern Arizona. Or perhaps I should say this has been a good year for hummingbird watchers. Fires and drought have impacted the wildflowers and insects that hummers depend, on causing birds migrating to Mexico to frequent new areas and feeders in record numbers. They are resourceful migrants and, by next year when they return, hopefully conditions will have improved. As we watch them go and begin the winter task of compiling and analyzing data from our banding study, forgive me if my mind wanders to Ecuador.

There is a Rhythm to the Seasons

By

Friday, September 30th, 2011

There is a rhythm to the seasons. Technically, fall began on September 23 when the sun crossed the equator and the days in the northern hemisphere began to grow shorter. But to me, the first precursor to fall is the arrival of waves of Rufous Hummingbirds winging through Arizona on their way south to Mexico. I’ll know for sure when I hear the first Sandhill Crane calling in the Sulphur Springs Valley. If you are a naturalist or gardener or anyone else with a close attachment to the land you view the passing of the seasons differently than the deskbound city-dweller. Seasons are measured in the plants and animals around us rather than the calendar.

Actually, we have five seasons here in southeastern Arizona and it is the arrival of that fifth season that affects many of us at a very primal level. After months of hot, dry weather the first thunderheads begin to build in late June. When the first rains of our “monsoon season” come in early July, the impulse to go out in the rain and celebrate the season is often too overwhelming to ignore. I imagine that the arrival of the salmon in Alaska is greeted with the same sense of relief and celebration. Like the blooming of fruit trees or a vegetable garden, it is the promise of plenty.

This time of year the afternoon temperatures can still be uncomfortably warm. And, although there is scarce change in the morning temperature and humidity, there is SOMETHING in the early morning air that tells me that fall will soon be here. It arrives earlier on the mountain peaks and I can see the golden yellow aspen groves from miles away. Another hint that change is on the way. For a couple of weeks the newly arriving Sandhill Cranes, some of whom nested in Siberia this summer, will share the fields with the last of our nesting Swainson’s Hawks before the hawks leave for Argentina. It’s the pulse of the planet and you can hear it if you are listening.