King of the perch

The Western Kingbirds arrive in the spring like college freshmen – in large, noisy groups. They mob the acacia tree in the backyard next door, raising a racket and swooping through the yard on their way to another neighbor’s tree. The Hesper aloe stalks that we leave undisturbed next to the stream are a favored perch (the better to see you, my pretty flying insects …). Members of the flycatcher family, they sally forth in looping flight patterns, snatching prey mid flight before landing, often in the place from which they took off.

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Field marks: Gray head, flycatcher bill, pale yellow abdomen, narrow white feathers at edges of tail.

They stick around the neighborhood through the fall, but when the heat slams down like a sledgehammer they pretty much disappear from the yard. Maybe they have other campsites that they like better in summer. Or, maybe their behavior changes! The bird that visited the stream this morning made me wonder about that. Why was he alone? Is flocking a breeding behavior?

After moving these images from camera to Photoshop, I noticed that this bird looked a little bedraggled.  The feathers are missing in a spot on his upper abdomen, under his left wing, where there appears to be a wound. Before I grabbed the camera, I watched him with binoculars as he bathed in the waterfall, then preened his feathers in the fan palm at the back of the yard. Those would have been beautiful shots: wing feathers spread like fingers, beak combing through chest plumage. But maybe part of that grooming ritual was wound care. That’s when the thought occurred to me: was he alone because Kingbirds disperse after nesting? Or was he alone because he was injured?

He appeared strong, so I’m hoping that he’s recovering and will be ready to fly with his mates to Southern Mexico and Central America in October.

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Wound under the left wing

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Watching for insects from his perch above the pool at the top of the waterfall

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Killer Windows

August 3, 2017 — An unusual hummingbird flew into the frame of my viewfinder last weekend, and landed on a perch to drink. She was a stand-out amidst the cloud of feisty Broad-tailed and Rufous Hummingbirds who were dog-fighting like Second World War pilots for places at the feeder. Her angled beak looked broken, but my soft heart wanted to believe she was a new species.

We were at Sipe Mountain Wildlife Area outside of Eager, AZ, for the High Country Hummers Festival, an annual event sponsored by Arizona Fish and Game. The day was soggy: the monsoon brought in high humidity, jarring crashes of thunder and lightning and heavy, straight-down rain. Visitors sheltered on the porch of the headquarters building, and the birds hunkered down in the trees. During breaks in the rain, hummingbirds rushed the feeders hanging from the eaves.

I queued up my shot of the unusual bird and walked inside to look for Sheri Williamson. Sheri is author of the Peterson’s hummingbird field guide, and she and her husband band hummingbirds at the festival every year. I showed her my picture and asked her what she thought.

Unfortunately, she said this was a female Broad-tailed – not a new-to-me species with an exotic beak. Sheri said the bird had probably broken its beak flying into a window. She had been watching it for a couple days, and she said that the bird was probably not faring well in the competition for nectar. My husband Steve commented that the bird looked plump, but Sheri replied that hummingbirds fluff their feathers when ill.

The break in the beak undoubtedly affects the bird’s ability to drink nectar. Hummingbird tongues are complex structures that flick 15 times per second. The tip splays out like one of those grabber gadgets, and pushes the nectar into the bird’s throat like a pump. A bend in the bill can’t be beneficial. But the injury must also profoundly impact her ability to catch insects. Hummingbirds derive protein and minerals by picking tiny insects off leaves and branches (called gleaning), or by catching them midair (hawking). A malfunctioning beak can’t be an asset in a survival game that calls not only for keen eyesight and aerial acrobatics, but also a perfectly functioning beak.

Killer windows

This injury reminded me of the classic Far Side cartoon by Gary Larson, showing an audience of insects at a movie called “Return of the Killer Windshield.”  For birds, though, the horror is windows.

Experts estimate that between 365 and 988 million birds per year in the U.S. die after crashing into windows. That could be anywhere from two to 10 percent of the total bird population. According to ScienceNews,  “The biggest share of the deaths comes not from glass massacres at skyscrapers but from occasional collisions with the nation’s many small buildings, says Scott Loss of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. ‘It’s death by a million nicks.'” So, the biggest impact is lower buildings – such as our homes – because there are so many more.

Birds hit the windows at the back of our house from time to time. In winter, when Cooper’s Hawks swing by our feeders like kids visiting the drive-through at Filiberto’s, birds flee in panic, sometimes straight into our windows. Usually they pick themselves up and fly away, but that’s not necessarily a happy ending. Often the bird dies later from internal bruising or bleeding, especially on the brain. Last week we found a male Gila Woodpecker dead on the patio, and yes, I cried.

But we can reduce the number of birds that hit our windows if we take action.  Sheri says to hang feeder 30 inches or less, or more than 30 feet, from your windows. Other more elaborate measures are described on the All About Birds website, hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Check it out for good information on why birds fly into windows and how you can prevent collisions. A German company has even developed a glass coating that mimics spider webs, which birds can see and avoid.

It’s worth it to try.

 

They’re singing our songs

July 27, 2017 — This weekend at the Tanglewood Music Center in western Massachusetts, an orchestra will perform music inspired by birdsong. Composers have long riffed on birdsongs, sometimes drawing actual notes and phrases as well as inspiration. One includes a recording of an actual bird singing in the conclusion of an orchestral piece.

Mozart wrote in a notebook that a starling kept in a cage in a shop had learned a melody from one of compositions, before it had even been performed! The master was known for whistling in public. Naturally, he purchased the bird and took it home. Another composer incorporated the notes of the Eurasian Golden Oriole (above) song in one of his pieces.

A bird mimicking a human; humans inspired by birds.

Makes me think about the mockingbird who sang from a perch on the steel slats of the sunscreen on the south end of McCord Hall at Arizona State University. Students and staff hustled on the sidewalk below, oblivious of his complicated melodies and calls.

The connection between our species is profound but almost invisible these days. Maybe that’s part of the reason the world aches.

Hear the story on Here and Now

 

Morning in the garden

July 26, 2017 — I went to the Desert Botanical Garden on Sunday, which was another of those wished-for days under 100 degrees. I was hoping for birds, but wasn’t expecting much, because, once again missed the golden hour — about an hour after sunrise.

The garden was quiet: two or three small groups, and a couple other singletons with cameras around their necks. It was humid, but in the shade, surprisingly pleasant. My mission: gather ideas for a transformation of the back yard from largely grass to somewhat manicured desert. I did get some ideas — some too grand, I think, for the budget! But I saw fauna — such as the Flame Skimmer Dragonfly, above — as well as flora. It was lovely.

 

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Curved-bill Thrasher eating prickly pear fruit

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Curved-bill Thrasher

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Damselfly

female costas

Female Costa’s Hummingbird

Bunny

Cottontail

After the rain

July 20, 2017 — Rain in the night delivered morning temperatures in the 80s on Monday. Sipping coffee on the patio I was suddenly gripped by a thought: I’m wasting an opportunity. So, I gathered my gear and headed for South Mountain.

The Pyramid/Basura Trail parking lot had been closed last week, as construction crews paved the Chandler Boulevard extension. On Monday it was open again, so I parked next to the saguaro and strapped on my stuff. I was sad when the roadwork began, knowing it means more development and more of the casual encroachment that close-by housing brings. But traffic noise will be an improvement over the construction racket, and the road should be open soon.

It was 8 a.m. by the time I got going, a little on the late side for July. I saw only one other hiker, a guy about my age with what looked to be a heavy pack on his back. We talked. He was going to be on the trails all day in temperatures forecast to be around 100. The pack held 30 pounds of water, enough for himself and anyone he might encounter  struggling with the conditions. He mentioned snakes; I shared which birds I hoped to see: flycatchers, hummingbirds, doves, maybe a shrike.

rainWe parted ways where the Pyramid Trail branches east toward the mountain. I stayed on the track that leads to the old foundation. My plan was to leave the trail at the wash about a half mile ahead, and follow it back toward the road: basically covering my patch. I heard a Gila Woodpecker, and saw three Verdin. Widely spaced drops of  soft rain were falling, just enough to make me cover the camera and binoculars with zip lock bags. It’s tough to watch birds when your stuff is encased in plastic bags, so I resolved to be content just walking.

Near the place where the Pyramid hooks east, however, I spotted three Northern Mockingbirds swooping and circling each other in the scrub. I pulled the camera from its cocoon to see what I could get. I’m struggling with settings right now, so I wasn’t expecting anything great, but I managed to catch them in midair. Even though the focus probably wasn’t perfect, I had high hopes.

Shrike and mockingbird-blog

I was enjoying the show when I noticed one of the mockingbirds had perched to the side. The swooping games were over for him. Then I realized he wasn’t a mockingbird at all, but a Loggerhead Shrike. The shrike is about an inch smaller than the mockingbird, but the coloration is close enough that you might confuse them, especially if you don’t expect to see shrikes — which I didn’t. In the photo above, look at the tail feathers. The tail feathers of the shrike, on the left, are tipped with white, looking a lot like some hummingbirds. The outer feathers of the mockingbird’s tail are all white.  Shrikes also have a black mask over their eyes, clearly visible in the bird on the left. The mockingbird’s face is gray.

I always look for shrikes in this area. I rarely see them, but often hear them. Cornell’s All About Birds site says the shrike is “a songbird with a raptor’s habits.” It hunts insects, lizards and other birds, impaling prey on thorns or barbed wire. Nicknamed “butcher birds,” they used to be more common across the country but are now rare in the Northeast and Midwest. Log one more reason to treasure South Mountain.

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When I have seen a shrike, the bird is usually perched at the end of a branch or atop a tree — almost always too far away for a photo. More often, I hear them. Something about their call reminds me of a phone ringing. Last week I followed one up the wash, losing him in the branches as soon as I caught up with him. Instead I had about five minutes to enjoy the beauty of a Mourning Dove, roosted in a mesquite.

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Life took me other places yesterday, so I didn’t go through my pictures until today, and was excited to see that the mockingbird and the shrike were engaged midair. Maybe the shrike had threatened the mockingbird, although the mockingbird was too big to be prey. Perhaps the third bird was a juvenile or a mate that the adult mockingbird was defending — the bird on the right in the image at the top of this post certainly seems to be protecting the other.

Whatever the beef, it was not enough to chase the shrike away.

Happy Hatchday

Last Friday husband Steve noticed that the big pot outside of our front door had been transformed into a nursery. Sheltered by the French lavender, a Gambel’s Quail couple had made a nest for about a dozen eggs.  Two years ago, one of the pots on our back patio was home to a similar family, and we watched it for weeks, anticipating the birth day. This year we didn’t have long to wait.

The eggs hatched the next day, and one by one, the tiny fluff balls hopped to the lip of the pot and threw themselves over. It’s a big pot – three feet high – but these two-inch babies didn’t hesitate to leap and no one appeared to be hurt on impact. After a minute of confused scrambling, they ran to meet Mom, who was calling to them from a bush. With our kitchen under construction, workmen were coming and going through the front door, until we noticed the father quail frantically herding his chicks to the side. After that the door was closed for the couple hours it took for the family to move on.

These quail are a good example of precocial birds. Precocial (the word shares its root with precocious) birds emerge of the egg at least partially self-sufficient, in contrast to altricial birds, who are naked and helpless at hatch. Gambel’s Quail still need their parents for protection, but they can run and find their own food immediately after birth. It’s not an easy childhood, though.

Gambel’s Quail are monogamous, and I’d like to think this is the same pair we hosted two years ago, although probably not. The front door was a superior nesting site compared to the patio, because the bushes across the front of the house provide cover. Two years ago, the chicks born on our patio made a perilous dash across the pool deck to join their parents, a display that caught the attention of the neighborhood grackles. I watched, horrified, as a grackle flew to their hiding spot, strutted boldly in and flew away with a chick in his bill. By the next morning, the family had moved on, but there were still nine chicks left in the pot.

Chicks have one opportunity to leave the nest and join their parents out in the world. Late hatchers and the timid get left behind, and unless they are lucky and are rescued, they die. Fortunately, we were watching over them and we located a wildlife rehabilitator in the neighborhood who took them under her wing. All but one survived to grow up and get released on South Mountain. I love happy endings!

This year seemed to go much better, although dangers lurk for the first weeks. Our brood is down to six. One of our workmen witnessed a woodpecker snatch a baby and fly off to a tree yesterday.

Unfortunately, my camera was in the shop getting its nails done on hatching day, so the baby book is incomplete. But I got it back yesterday, and this morning I caught Dad with the brood, moving around the yard looking for bugs. If they stick around I’ll post more photos as they grow up.

South Mountain morning

It was 90 degrees when I parked at the Pyramid Trail head in South Mountain Park this morning. Somehow, I must dig deep to find the character to flip my mornings: hike first, coffee later. If I’m going to be happy this summer I need to get going closer to sunrise than lunch.

Grandma and machinesConstruction was in full swing on the Chandler Boulevard extension. A grandma pulled in next to me with a little boy. They toddled off for a better look at the work, and I was slammed back 20 years, when the sight of earth-moving machines would have been a full morning’s entertainment for our kids.

I strapped on my gear: Camelback, binoculars, camera. Red Sox hat – check. Hiking stick – check.

My intention was to follow Pyramid until it reaches the old ruts that lead to the remains of a building, tucked in a canyon north and west of the lot. The stories say that the chimney and foundation are all that’s left of a speakeasy. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s a good yarn, and the ruin was the right distance for a hike at this time of day.

Black-tailed GnatcatcherI crossed the wash, hoping to see an Ash-throated Flycatcher – a common occurrence in that spot — or at least a mockingbird, but I didn’t hear much until I climbed up the other side. Then, looking into the treetops, I saw Black-tailed Gnatcatchers flitting through the branches. They were beyond the range of my lens, especially given the bird’s fast moves on the interior of the tree. But, I could ID him from his song. I stopped another hiker to tell her what I was seeing, and she was appreciative to put a name to “one of those little gray birds.” Something changes when you know a creature’s name.

The land stretches flat for the first half mile or so. Before I reached the Basura Trail cut-off, I spotted a Gila Woodpecker hanging out in the elbow of a saguaro, to the west. I’ve seen a pair of them several times on that cactus: I think they have a nest hole on the west-facing side. At the trail junction, I paused to check out a pair of trees where, in past years, I’ve seen Loggerhead Shrikes. One time we watched as one of them impaled a lizard on a thorn and broke off pieces to feed the kids. No luck today, though.

Ash-throated FlycatcherAfter I joined the old speakeasy road I finally saw an Ash-throated. In March, these flycatchers were courting – almost every branch you looked at had a singing bird perched at the tip. The babies may have fledged, because the adults have returned to more normal behavior.

Further ahead, the trail dips down into the wash again. This spot is where I spent 30 happy minutes watching an American Kestrel this winter – it’s popular with the flycatchers, too. I found some dappled shade by a tree and settled in to listen and watch: that’s how you see birds. But this is a popular trail. I’ve encountered bikes as well as hikers here, and so it was this morning. I could hear three women approaching, and one of them was telling a story about a multi-car wreck. It was a good story. After they passed I knew I had  five minutes or so to wait for the birds to start moving again.

Black-throated Sparrow 3-11 v2At the last minute, I decided to ditch the plan to visit the foundation and follow the wash instead. It offers the cover of trees and brush – welcome relief from the sun. There’s an informal trail that winds through the wash, then climbs up the slope to the north of the Basura, finally intersecting that trail a couple miles west. It’s not an official park trail, but some hikers call it the Eliminator. When I hiked it in March I saw two new birds for the first time: a Sage Thrasher (above) and a Black-throated Sparrow (left).

It was after 10 and the heat was cranking up. Time to turn around. Back on the flat I started to pick up mockingbird songs, flights of House Finches and the raucous calls of Gilded Flickers. They are more comfortable living among us –no need to look for rooftops to know that I was getting close to the parking lot.

93 degrees. Lunchtime.