Road Trip! Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer (Part 2: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum)

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?—Richard P. Feynman

Male Costa's Hummingbird at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Male Costa’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. The Tucson area is near the eastern extremity of this hummingbird’s summer breeding range. From many angles his gorget appears blackish, but during courtship the male Costa’s is sure to direct brilliant violet rays toward potential mates! Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an interesting and highly recommended institution nestled within Saguaro National Park. Composed of zoo, botanical garden, nature park, wildlife refuge, and natural history museum, the 21-acre campus blends into the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Some animals are free to come and go as they please, and others are captive.

According to museum literature, the hummingbird aviary contains up to seven species. On the day we visited it contained only four: Anna’s, Costa’s, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Because Black-chinned and Broad-billed are common in the areas we bird, we focused our attention primarily on Anna’s and Costa’s.

Male Anna's Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Male Anna’s Hummingbird at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Aviary bird. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f/4L IS. Natural light.

The covered aviary made for a weird, muted light in which it was difficult to capture the iridescent colors of male humming bird gorgets. Because these colors are the result of the physical optics of the feathers, not pigmentation, getting the colors to show well depends on the spatial relationship between light source(s), bird, and camera. On the whole, shooting hummingbirds in the aviary was a bit unsettling: We are used to hummers being will-o’-the-wisps, and free to wander.

Verdin at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Quizzical Verdin on Desert Willow at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We also saw a variety of wild desert birds. Cactus Wrens and White-winged Doves were the most common and were seen singing on saguaros and other plants. Verdin, Phainopepla, and Gila Woodpeckers were also about. Some Ash-throated Flycatchers and Gambel’s Quail made brief appearances.

Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Gila Woodpecker on Saguaro at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Wild bird. Gila Woodpeckers nest in cavities excavated within saguaros. Many woodpeckers were raising families while we visited the Southwest, and we often saw parents bringing fruit and insects home to young. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also boasts an impressive assortment of desert plants. A number of species were in bloom including fishhook barrel cactus, red yucca, a variety of legumes, and the spectacular red bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrina), a naturalized native of the Neotropics. Some saguaros were in bloom, but coming to the end of their flowering season.

Barrel Cactus flowers at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum
Fishhook Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus sp. ) flowers at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring-flash.

Our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum brought up many philosophical issues about the place of nature in a human-dominated landscape. We have hinted at some of these issues before, but Elisa hopes to explore them more deeply in future writings.

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.