Pacific Wren

Pacific Wren
Pacific Wren

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Mt Graham, AZ - Post Number 2

Mt Graham in eastern Arizona was lot of fun and it was so enjoyable getting away from the hot desert climate around Phoenix.  Added to that was the total different habitat which lead to a plethora of new and fun birds which are not found in the desert.  While I really only found one new life bird on Mt Graham, I was treated to some great observations of some wonderful birds.  I will briefly expand on some of the wonderful birds I found on this last outing and a few reptiles and an insect or two that I found. 

This first is very colorful bird, but my best photo did not capture that bright red belly that makes it a great find.  The Painted Redstart actually belongs to the family of Wood Warblers and it is a summer resident in the higher altitudes of the American southwest.  As usual for most warblers, they are very active and do not sit still for photos.  It poses with its wings and tail spread out.  The first photo is a side view of one of these birds and just for those that have never seen one of these beauties, I am including a most unglamorous bottom shot to show off that red patch.

Painted Redstart

As we moved from one campsite to another, working our way up the mountain, we came to Arcadia Campsite and this is the place where we first found the Yellow-eyed Juncos that I wrote about in my first post.  We also came across a family of Hermit Thrushes.  Mom and dad were hopping around the campgrounds and 2 recent fledged young were following and checking out what there was to eat and how to find it.   The photo below is one of the juvenile birds.

Hermit Thrush

Just a short distance from Arcadia campsite is the Cluff Dairy site and we saw lots of birds in this location, but did not have much luck with photos.  We did see Grace's Warblers, Hepatic Tanagers, a Western Tanager, a Plumbeous Vireo, an Acorn Woodpecker, White-breasted Nuthatches, and a Pygmy Nuthatch.  The Pygmy Nuthatch was the only one that gave me a opportunity for a photo.

Pygmy Nuthatch

The next stop was Twilight Campgrounds where we found our first Hairy Woodpeckers and Brown Creepers.  It was a pair of the Hairy Woodpeckers and below is a photo of the male.  The female lacks the red spot on the crown.  Not a great photo, but for now this will have to do. 

Hairy Woodpecker

The Brown Creeper is an odd little bird and the only member of the Creeper family found in the United States.  They are often overlooked and can be hard to see if one is not familiar with them.  They land near the bottom of a tree and work their way upward probing of insects and insect eggs in the bark of the tree.  When viewing the photo below you will get a better understanding about how they can be easily overlooked.  It's kind of like the 'Where's Waldo' pictures from a few years back.

Brown Creeper

At Columbine there is a visitor center and it is only open on weekends and the last 7 miles of road leading to this campground is not paved.  It is passable by auto, but it is rough and rocky and dusty in spots.  At Columbine I managed to photograph a House Wren.  These busy little birds were fairly abundant at almost every stop along the way.  I remember these birds as backyard birds back in Nebraska readily nesting in wren houses in people's back yards.  Much different to see them in wooded mountain habitats in Arizona.

House Wren

This is also the spot where I was able to capture my first photo of a Cordilleran Flycatcher.  This bird belongs to the family of Empidonax Flycatchers and they can be very difficult to identify as they all look quite a bit alike.  Once one studies them enough and with some great lessons from some of the more advanced birders, they do become a tad bit easier to identify.  Their call note is sometimes the best way to tell, but even then that is tough.  Habitat also is a good field mark.  Not too long ago the Cordilleran and the Pacific-slope Flycatcher was considered the same species but have been split into 2 different species.  This one is a Cordilleran due to the habitat it was found in and also its call that it was frequently emitting. 

 Cordilleran Flycatcher

Will finish off this post with a Funereal Duskywing Butterfly and a Gila Spotted Whiptail Lizard.  These last 2 were just a couple of the non-avian photos that I captured on the way up the mountain.

Funereal Duskywing Butterfly

Gila Spotted Whiptail Lizard

More photos to follow in another blog.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Mt Graham, Arizona

Just returned on Sunday from a 3 day birding visit to spots in and around Safford, Arizona.  The city of Safford, is flanked on the southwest by one of Arizona's "Sky Islands".  This is the terminology that has been given to the various high mountains or clusters of mountains that arise out of the desert.  These mountains can be as much as 30 degrees or more lower in temperature than the surrounding desert.  Thus it creates a very unique spot that is isolated from adjoining areas and each 'sky island' will have various changes in habitat as one reaches higher elevations.  And along with these different habitats, the wildlife, insect life and the bird life changes drastically.  While the temperature in the Safford area hovered around 105 degrees every day, we were enjoying temps in the low 70's while we were near the summit.  This place is often overlooked as a birding hot spot due to the isolation of it located in eastern Arizona.  Way too many birds and creatures to post in one blog, so will spread this out over 2 or 3 blogs. 

The most plentiful bird that we found in the higher elevations was the Yellow-eyed Junco.  While the Dark-eyed Junco has several sub-species, the Yellow-eyed Junco is considered a separate species and in the United States it is only found regularly in the higher elevations (Sky Islands) of south-eastern Arizona, south-western New Mexico, and is casual to west Texas.  Not only was this the most common bird we found but was probably the most cooperative for photographs.  There is no mistaking these wonderful little birds with their bright yellow eyes.  Here are a few photos of some of them that we encountered.

Really had a hard time resisting taking more more photos of these handsome little sparrow sized birds.  They just happen to have a quite pleasant little song as well.

I have much more to post on this wonderful place and well try to post a new blog in the next few days.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Bartlett Reservior

Ventured out to a new destination early this morning.  Ellen joined me once again and we took off at 5:00 am for this man-made lake located in the surrounding mountains just north and east of the Phoenix metro area.  We had planned on visiting the Riverside Campgrounds just below the Bartlett Dam, but found out the road has been closed off to vehicles due to budget cuts.  This is a fairly long lake and has a lot of boaters on it and I think in the winter it is probably a very good refuge for a lot of water birds.  We walked around the parking lot for just a bit before deciding to move on to other areas and one of the first birds we saw was a Yellow-headed Blackbird.  This bird just seemed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.  They are quite numerous in the winter months in southern Arizona and are usually seen in large flocks of other Yellow-headed and also Red-winged Blackbirds.  Usually they spend their summer in more northern areas.  The habitat at this lake was not the normal habitat for these birds, nor was it the right time of the season.  However, it was a welcomed sight and it was a male in his very bright colored breeding plumage, but he was alone and just seemed out of place on the edge of this desert lake.

Yellow-headed Blackbird

We then drove to the boat ramp area to check out what might be there and as we pulled into a parking stall and were getting out of the car, we noticed a Northern Cardinal on another vehicle in the row behind us. It was perched on one of the side mirrors of the vehicle, then it would hop down to the window edge and look at itself in the side mirror.  Then it would fly to the next vehicle and do the same thing and it followed the same pattern onto the third vehicle.  I have never seen a Northern Cardinal behave in that manner, so it was actually quite hilarious to think he was making sure he was looking good for the females!

Northern Cardinal

Right at the end of the parking lot, we found this Desert Spiny Lizard basking in the early morning sunshine.  It is amazing how this species colors can vary from one area to another.

Desert Spiny Lizard

The trees were alive with the sound of music, Bell's Vireos to be more precise.  We had adults and recently fledged young just about everywhere we went today.  As usual, not always an easy target for the camera, but did manage a couple of photos and I thought this one was a bit unique.

Bell's Vireo

Another very common bird we found today were Black-tailed Gnatcatchers and in many instances parents were feeding newly fledged offspring.  Below are a couple of photos that definitely show they truly do have black tails.  I think the photos are of a juvenile and not an adult.

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher

And now a photo of the tail with the black feathers on the underside.  Captured in the process of hopping from one branch to another.

Black Tailed Gnatcatcher

Just had to capture a photo of a Common Raven as we had a couple let us approach fairly close without taking off. 

Common Raven

The final photo is one of a Zebra-tailed Lizard.  It blended into the sand and gravel so well that if you took your eyes off it for a short time, it was hard to find again.  At least until in moved again in the search for insects on the ground.  When it stopped it would flash its zebra striped tail in the air.

Zebra-tailed Lizard

The Arizona heat started warming up around 9:30 and that is when we decided it was time to call it a day.  We have already decided that this is a place worth revisiting in cooler temps and maybe we might even attempt to hike down to the campground if the road is still closed to vehicles.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Coon Bluff, Salt River-Revisited

The birding forays are starting to get a bit short due to the Arizona summer heat and I for one do not usually have an enjoyable time birding in the extreme heat.  Today I took about a 2 hour stroll in the Coon Bluff Recreation Area along the Salt River.  I did see a lot of good birds, including Lesser Nighthawks, Northern Cardinals, Bullock's Orioles, a Blue Grosbeak, a lot of Ash-throated Flycatchers and a lot of Vermilion Flycatchers to name just a few.  But my photography came away with more non-avian photos than usual.  Thought it would be fun to share them anyway.

First photo is a shot of some of the wild horses that roam around in different areas of the Salt River.  Guess there are a few groups and this morning I found a group of 6 at Salt River including a young colt.  I really enjoy seeing them when they are present.

Salt River Horses

Along the Salt River, (that is flowing with a fast and steady stream), among the rocks, I found several squirrels.  Not sure what species they are, but they had quite a network of tunnels among the rocks.


I ventured a bit further down the river today than I had in the past and the path got quite narrow following the cliffs.  Will have to explore that area a bit further on a future visit.  While on that path, a Tarantula Hawk (which is a species of a wasp) landed on a leafy stem and what a colorful insect to see.  However, I have been told by many that the sting from one of these wasps is one of the most painful of all insects.  I really have no desire to find out if that is true or not, so I will observe them from a distance!  Nice to have a zoom lens when photographing these colorful gems.

Tarantula Hawk Wasp

I did manage to capture one bird in a photo and that was a newly fledged Black Phoebe.  These birds are almost always found around water and they spend their days foraging for insect in flight.

Black Phoebe

Not a lot of photos, but still had a great time and saw some really cool stuff!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sparrows, aka LBJ's

Ah, what a boring topic to choose for a blog, as many people will think.  This group of birds is one of the least interesting and least colorful for many a novice birder and many times are ignored because of the difficulty in identification.  In the book, The Big Year, they are also referred to as LBJ's, those 'Little Brown Jobbies'.  While I am far from being an expert on sparrows, I was going through my old photo files and discovered that I had actually captured many photos of some of the more than 30 species found in the United States.  Still does not make me an expert, but I have found that trying to identify them requires much more than just visual looks.  Habitat, behavior and song play a big role and one always has to keep in mind the range maps in most guides.  Obviously birds don't read maps and will sometimes show up in the most unlikely places, but it is rare.  The sparrow family is quite large and in many cases, some of the species have sub-species and I suppose it is possible that someday some of those sub-species may be split off into separate species of their own.  I am not going to expand on how to identify each species as there are wonderful guides already written by many experts in the avian world that do much more justice than what I could ever begin to do.  What I have decided, is to try and post some photos of some of the Sparrows that I have been able to capture in photos.  I think that once you look at these photos, most people will agree that some of these Sparrows are quite attractive and distinct.  Just remember that not all the sparrows found in the US are depicted in the photos below.  I am only posting those that I have captured in photos.  Not all of the photos are of the quality I wish I would have captured, but they are good enough to identify the species of the bird and show off some of their true markings.  That gives me incentive to try for somthing better the next time I run across one of them!

Let's start off with a species that consists of more than one sub-species, a White-crowned Sparrow.  Below are photos of the sub-species gambelii and oriantha.  Very similar, but also very different once you look at the photos.  Check out the striping on the head and also the color of the beaks. 

White-crowned Sparrow-gambelii

White-crowned Sparrow-orientha

The White-throated Sparrow is a bit similar to the White-crowned and sometimes mixes in with White-crowns and is often overlooked by novice birders.

White-throated Sparrow
Next are photos of a Rufous-winged Sparrow and a Rufous-crowned Sparrow.
Rufous-winged Sparrow

Rufous-crowned Sparrow

Next we have a Black-throated Sparrow, a Black-chinned Sparrow, and a Sage Sparrow.  The Black-throated is one of my favorite sparrows; handsome little birds!  Sage Sparrow is not too bad either!
Black-throated Sparrow

Black-chinned Sparrow

Sage Sparrow
The next 3 in the lineup are the Baird's Sparrow, the Grasshopper Sparrow, and a Savannah Sparrow.  Savannah is one that has sub-species and not all Savannah's will look like this photo.
Baird's Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow
These next 4 consist of the Chipping Sparrow, Brewer's Sparrow, Song Sparrow, and Lincoln's Sparrow.  The Song Sparrow is found pretty much throughout the United States, but can look very different from one area of the country to another.
Chipping Sparrow

Brewer's Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

The last 3 Sparrows being represented include Lark Sparrow, Vesper Sparrow and finally the Fox Sparrow.  The Fox Sparrow is found in at least 3 color phases, of which I have 2 of them in photos. 

Lark Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Fox Sparrow--"Red"

Fox Sparrow--"Slate-colored"

These photos represent about half of the sparrow species found in the United States.  Birders should not be intimidated by the identification of this group of birds.  The more one sees them in the field and in their habitats, the more you learn about identification.  No, it is not always easy, but this is a group of birds that is challenging and when one does get past the stage of intimidation, they are quite interesting birds to observe and can be a lot of fun.  I will continue to seek out more of these LBJ's and hopefully capture some more future photos of more of them.  


Monday, June 11, 2012

Sunflower. AZ

Sunday, June 10, 2012, Ellen once again joined me on a trip to Sunflower, AZ.  Sunflower is not really a town per se, but a place with a few inhabitants and some awesome scenery and great birding.  We had heard that a pair of Common Black Hawks were nesting in the area.  They have nested there in past years so it seemed appropriate to see if they were back.  The Common Black Hawk is not too common in the United States being found only in the US southwest.  It is more common in Mexico and Central America and it feeds mostly on many aquatic animals such as fish, frogs, etc., so it seems a bit strange to find them in desert habitats, but they usually nest in trees along streams.  We found the nest, thanks to one of the local residents and were able to observe parents bring food back to the nest.  Below is a photo of an adult bringing in some food and the 2nd photo shows the fuzzy back of the head of one of the chicks.

Common Black Hawk
Common Black Hawk with chick

Further up the road we also found the returning Zone-tailed Hawks and they also have a nesting site, but too far away from the road to discern if there were any chicks.  What a protective and possessive pair of parents!   They saw us coming from a distance and immediately let us know that we were infringing on their territory with their screams and flying overhead from one side of the canyon to the other. 

Zone-tailed Hawk

Further up the road we found a Blue Grosbeak actually on an exposed branch and they are always a delight to find.  And a bit further up the road from there we had a Summer Tanager give us some good views.  And shortly after that we got a Yellow Warbler to expose himself a bit so we were able to complete the circle of the 3 primary colors:  Blue, Red, and Yellow.

Blue Grosbeak

Summer Tanager

Yellow Warbler

Another very common bird in this area is the Bell's Vireo, a rather drab gray bird that is most generally secretive, but very vocal.  They have one of the easiest songs to identify if you are a novice birder.  The trees were full of these wonderful little birds.

Bell's Vireo

We had been seeing Violet-green Swallows all day as they darted here, there and every where in the pursuit of insects in the air, but on the way back down the road we noticed one fly to a large tree branch and discovered a nest cavity with baby heads sticking out.  We watched for some time as both parents made frequent visits to the nest to feed their young.  What a great time of the year to discover not only the hawks nesting but also the swallows nesting as well.

 Violet-green Swallow

We had seen many Hooded Orioles in our adventure, but it was not until the last that one of them actually sat long enough on a distant Saguaro Cactus that I was finally able to capture a photo of this very colorful bird.

Hooded Oriole

These are but a few of the many birds we found in this small area and it is another great birding location for those that enjoy watching these marvelous creatures in their native habitat.