Month: July 2017

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.



Curved-bill Thrasher eating prickly pear fruit


Curved-bill Thrasher



female costas

Female Costa’s Hummingbird



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.


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.


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.