Posts Tagged ‘arizona’

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.

Ocelots in the Sky Islands

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Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Ocelot © C. Allan Morgan

A little cat has been making big news in Arizona. Back in November 2009, a remote camera in the Huachuca Mountains, placed by volunteers with Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, captured a blurry but recognizable photo of an Ocelot. This was the first solid evidence for the species’ presence in Arizona in almost 50 years.

Tantalizing to be sure, but anyone who spends time in the wild knows just how rare it is to see even the relatively common Bobcat. That’s why it was so exciting to hear on February 8, 2011 that dogs had treed an Ocelot in the Huachucas. The animal, which appeared to be a healthy adult male, was allowed to go on its way unharmed after photo and video documentation. It was much grayer and shorter-nosed than the more familiar tropical subspecies, as befits an Ocelot of the colder, more arid Southwest.

Four months later, the Monument fire swept through the southern part of the Huachuca Mountains, causing many to fear for the life of this very special feline neighbor. The story recently took an optimistic turn in late April, when a private citizen’s remote camera captured new Ocelot photos in the Huachucas. These are being examined by biologists with the Arizona Game & Fish Department and compared with the 2011 photos. Whether or not the spot patterns match, we know that there is still at least one Ocelot roaming Arizona’ssky islands.”

Less than 40 miles as the raven flies from the Arizona encounters, other remote cameras at El Aribabi Conservation Ranch in Sonora, Mexico have recorded multiple Ocelots and at least one Jaguar in addition to Bobcats and Mountain Lions. The bigger felines can no longer travel freely where the border fence has been completed, but I’m glad there’s room for the Ocelot to slip through.

-Sheri Williamson

Blithe Spirit of the Prairie

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Friday, May 11th, 2012
Horned Lark Birds

Horned Lark © 2012 Sheri L. Williamson

Hail to thee, blithe Spirit!
Bird thou never wert-
That from Heaven or near it
Pourest thy full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.

–Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ode to a Skylark

Though it doesn’t share the soul-stirring, poet-inspiring vocal talent of its famous cousin, there’s much to love about the Horned Lark. That face, for example. The upswept tufts of black feathers worn by adult males combined with the striking face pattern are worthy of a superhero or luchador.

Our only native American Lark brightens up farm fields, pastures, and golf courses as well as prairies, deserts, and alpine and arctic tundra. It’s one of the world’s most widespread and adaptable songbirds, with various subspecies nesting from northern Canada and Alaska southward to tropical Mexico and across northern Europe and Asia (where it’s known as the Shore Lark).

This dapper songster sings in flight, a behavior shared not only by the Sky Lark of Europe and Asia but by a few other North American songbirds. If you guessed the Lark Bunting and Lark Sparrow are two of these, you’d be right, but the dun-colored Cassin’s Sparrow of the southwestern grasslands also delivers its trilling song from high in the sky.

-Sheri Williamson

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

I Wish Upon a Star

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Tuesday, September 13th, 2011

The power of the night’s sky is truly something to behold. For centuries, stars have been looked at as Gods, points of light to navigate by, and even shimmering lights to simply enjoy. This is that of a star-filled night by where a father and son chased a special image.

One day in May of last year, I was busy preparing for a photography trip to Sedona, AZ with my father. Knowing my dad would be all over Sedona red rock landscapes, I was envisioning something a bit different and the plan quickly morphed into coming away with a great nightscape image. What I envisioned was something with great foreground elements, star trails and enough lighting to make the entire scene incredibly dynamic. Once in Arizona, we did the obvious shooting early in the mornings and late in the evenings. The remainder of the time during the days was spent scouting for new spots, including where my night setup would be. I had already researched the phase of the moon and the times that would work best for my shot. What we didn’t plan on was the multiple tanks of gas and hours of time it took to find the perfect spot. And wouldn’t you know it; the perfect spot ended up being no more than 5 minutes from town.

I set up my rig based on composition, and about 40 minutes after sundown the process began. While some photographers out there might envision one very long exposure, I approached it a bit differently, mostly because of the amount of light pollution from town. I took the first image, 40 minutes after sundown. To our eyes, it was almost dark but to the camera, there was still a lot of light to be exposed. This particular image is what illuminated the mountain ridges in the foreground. I then left my rig alone for around 2 hours, waiting for the moon to set and the night sky to get as dark as possible. This is when multiple 30 second exposures began which lasted 90 minutes. I left the spot with 181 images. I ended up using a subset of those images, stacked them in a way that created the single final image which you see above. As some may see, some images require a lot more time than others!

What was so exciting about this long and arduous process was hidden inside all this work was the adventure of a father and son. My dad was so enthralled to be a part of something that was merely a vision in my head more than 1700 miles away. We both came home with a diversity of imagery and adventures we will not soon forget.

Return of the Vultures

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Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011


It’s not exactly the swallows returning to Capistrano, but in our little mountain town in southern Arizona, we await the return of the Turkey Vultures to their roost above the historic downtown district. Something about the up-canyon winds and the tall cottonwood trees makes the parking lot of the former ice cream parlor “The Arctic Circle” irresistible to the big birds. Once, at a program at our local library, I mentioned that vultures roost above the Arctic Circle and no one batted an eye. With the arrival of the first vultures this week spring has officially arrived.

I’m not sure why the vultures leave southern Arizona in the winter. There are still plenty of road-killed jackrabbits on the roads and highways, although the competition for carrion might be increased with our influx of wintering Bald and Golden Eagles. Although the Bald Eagle is a fish eagle, the ones who visit Arizona in the winter have to be considerably more opportunistic in their diet. Sandhill Cranes, ducks and carrion make up most of their diet in the absence of fish. Golden Eagles are made for catching Jackrabbits but are not above taking a free meal on the road if available. So maybe the vultures feel the need to go south of the border for the winter. They don’t go far, in fact we’ve seen them just across the border in northern Sonora.

The weather should not be a factor in their migration. I’ve seen large winter roosts in the Fort Worth area where the winter weather is similar to ours. I’d love to know where our summer residents go, studies indicate that some of North America’s Turkey Vultures go all the way to South America each winter.

They may not have a very glamorous lifestyle or stylish plumage, but they are supremely adapted for their life as a scavenger. Watching them wheel and soar effortlessly on the invisible wind currents makes me think if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I would settle for a lifetime as a Turkey Vulture. A winter in Mexico or points south and summer spent in Tombstone Canyon in Bisbee sounds like a life well lived.

Spring in July

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Thursday, July 15th, 2010

It’s mid-July and summer is over in Southeastern Arizona. Now comes my favorite season, our fifth season, the Monsoon. We receive 80% of our rainfall in July, August and September although much of it falls in such violent downpours it runs off before replenishing the aquifers. The days all begin clear and warm and as the morning passes, clouds begin to build over the mountains. By afternoon huge, towering thunderheads move across the landscape bringing lightning, thunder, rain and winds to the thirsty desert. Often the storm cells are isolated; one mountain canyon will get three inches of rain while the adjacent canyon is dry. Storms miles away can fill desert washes with dramatic “flash floods” that transform a dry wash into a swirling river in a matter of minutes. Each year people drive into normally tame water crossings during rainstorms and require rescue. Arizona even enacted a “Stupid Motorist Law” that requires anyone who drove around a barricade to enter a wash and needed rescue to pay the cost of the rescue.

Monsoon season is our second spring. Many wildflowers bloom in the late summer after the rains. Some of our birds wait until August to nest and some of the spring nesters will nest again. Our deer and pronghorns have adjusted their breeding schedule to have their fawns in July and August rather than April and May as they do in most parts of the country to take advantage of the most dependable lush time of year. Hummingbirds that avoided the deserts on their way north in the Spring stream through Arizona on their way south in July, August and September to take advantage of the abundant wildflowers. Late summer is the best time for hummingbird viewing in southeastern Arizona. August may bring the “dog days” of summer to some parts of the country but in Arizona it is a time of refreshing rains, green grass and wildflowers and renewal.

Fire Season

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Wednesday, June 9th, 2010


The Chiricahua Mountains of southeastern Arizona are the largest of the “sky island” mountain ranges and home to a host of rare species, some of which are found nowhere else in the U.S. As I write this blog entry the mountains are ablaze. Each summer as the temperatures rise and the humidity drops, we dread the beginning of the fire season. A combination of low fuel moisture level (sometimes drier than kiln-dried lumber), hot, windy days and occasional lightning strikes provide the recipe for seasonal wildfires. Human caused fires, either accidental or intentional, only add to the risk of a catastrophic fire.

On May 26th a plume of smoke in upper Cave Creek Canyon heralded the beginning of what is now known as the Horseshoe fire. By May 31 it had spread to over 1600 acres and despite the efforts of over 700 firefighters, 5 helicopters, and the expertise of the U.S Forest Service’s elite “hot shot” crews, is 0% contained. The Forest Service has acknowledged that, because of the rugged terrain and harsh conditions, the fire is already beyond their capabilities to extinguish and will probably burn until the summer rains begin. Which means that if the “monsoons” come on schedule this year, it will be 4 to 6 weeks before the fire is out. Fire management will consist of trying to protect structures and minimize the impact on endangered species and sensitive habitats. The Forest Service knows the location of the Mexican Spotted Owls, Elegant Trogons and Northern Goshawks as well as the riparian habitat that supports the greatest concentration of nesting owls of any comparable size area in the U.S. However, even with the massive effort and sophisticated computer models to predict fire behavior, Mother Nature is still in charge and unpredictable.

Ironically, our years of fire suppression have only added to the fuel level and the threat of catastrophic fire. Tree ring data show that low intensity fires swept through these border mountain ranges every 7-10 years, clearing dead wood, opening up meadows and stimulating germination of some fire-dependant pines. Once Smokey Bear showed up and began immediate fire suppression, fuel loads began to build until they reached the dangerous levels seen today. Today’s fire management strategy is much more holistic, but it will take years of prescribed fires and a few very frightening wildfires to begin to restore the natural system.

Reports from the Chiricahuas today indicate that the fire is a low intensity fire creeping down into the jewel of the mountain range, South Fork Canyon. Hopefully the favorable conditions will continue and a cleansing fire will do little lasting damage. We all are hoping for the best for the firefighters, wildlife and habitat of this special area.

Monsters and Dragons and Dinos! Oh, my!

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Friday, January 8th, 2010

We used to brag that Arizona’s native Gila Monster was one of only two living species of venomous lizards, the other being its close cousin, the Beaded Lizard That was before an international team of researchers led by Dr. Bryan Fry of the University of Melbourne, Australia discovered that the Komodo Dragon and some of its relatives produce venom, debunking the longstanding notion that virulent, septic bacteria living in the dragon’s nasty, toothy maw were the source of its toxic bite.

Now a team of researchers led by Chinese paleontologist Enpu Gong have found evidence that Sinornithosaurus, a small feathered dinosaur, also used chemical weapons. The fossils show grooved teeth similar to those found in the Gila Monster, Beaded Lizard, and a number of rear-fanged venomous snakes, as well as a recess in the jaw that may have housed the venom gland. Venomous dinosaurs were imagined in Jurassic Park (remember the “spitters”?), but this may be the first hard evidence for such creatures.

Gong and his colleagues suggest that Sinornithosaurus was a specialized bird hunter whose venom helped to subdue its active, mobile prey quickly and safely (for the predator, that is). Likewise for the Komodo Dragon. Thanks to venom components that inhibit coagulation and lower blood pressure, even a relatively minor bite results in rapid blood loss and unconsciousness. The dragon can bite a deer or pig, let it go to avoid injury from flailing hooves, and then track the animal while it waits for the venom to do its work. In many venomous snakes, the venom not only kills the prey but begins the digestion process as well.

Gila Monsters live mainly on the eggs of birds and reptiles, so immobilizing and/or digesting their prey isn’t much of an issue. Why be venomous, then? The answer probably lies in these lizards’ relatively small size and couch-potato physique. Such plump, slow-moving reptiles would be an easy meal for large birds of prey, Coyotes, Bobcats, etc. if not for a powerful bite made even more painful by a dose of venom. Human victims of Gila Monster bites describe them as excruciating. Like coral snakes, Monarch butterflies, and a host of other creatures with chemical defenses, The monster sends a warning to would-be predators with its retro pink-and-black color scheme and bold patterns: Attack me and you’ll be sorry!

The Sleeping One

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Friday, December 4th, 2009

Migration is one way for insectivorous birds to escape the rigors of winter, but one, the Common Poorwill, has another tactic. In the relatively mild climate of the desert Southwest, poorwills tuck themselves away in rock crevices or rotten logs and go into a state of torpor for days to weeks at a time. The bird’s heartbeat slows, and its body temperature may drop by 40 degrees F. This is remarkably similar to the true hibernation of many species of rodents, including the legendary “groundhog” (Woodchuck).

This peculiar behavior (for a bird) was known to native people, including the Hopis who called the bird Hölchoko, “the sleeping one.” The first scientist known to have encountered a “hibernating” Poorwill was explorer Meriwether Lewis. In his journal entry for October 16, 1804, Lewis reported the following:

This day took a small bird alive of the order of the…goat suckers. it appeared to be passing into the dormant state. on the morning of the 18th the murcury was at 30 a[bove] 0. the bird could scarcely move.

Unfortunately, the significance of this encounter was lost in the myriad of other discoveries by the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Almost a century and a half later, another naturalist, Edmund Jaeger, stumbled onto a torpid poorwill in the Chuckwalla Mountains of southern California. Dr. Jaeger published his story of discovery in The Condor, National Geographic, and his book Desert Wildlife, as well as other venues. Following publication of his discovery, Dr. Jaeger received several letters from others who had also found torpid poorwills but not recognized the significance of their discoveries. Even Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World whose grandfather and two brothers were prominent biologists, wrote to relate his story of finding a dormant European Nightjar, a close relative of the poorwill, while on vacation in England.

In 1964, the site of Dr. Jaeger’s discovery was protected by The Nature Conservancy. A 160-acre preserve commemorates the canyons where modern science joined native people’s knowledge of this strange avian behavior. Dr. Jaeger died in 1983 at the age of 96, and his friends and students scattered his ashes in the canyon of the poorwills.