Month: May 2017

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.