When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.–Thornton Wilder
As much as we love birding around the Houston area, the crush of humanity–mostly traffic and yahoo encounters–has become a bit much of late. This sentiment figured prominently in our choice of retirement location: Birding had to be available right outside our door. And now there are many birding sites within a few miles of our desert home. So presently I can work myself into a near stupor with building and maintenance projects and still get out to bird once in a while . . . .
And if the birding doesn’t pan out, as was the case this morning, daubs of wildflower color do dot the landscape and are available for macro work. This day I went out to South Fork, Cave Creek seeking an image of the Elegant Trogon, but had to settle for flowers and bugs (and hearing the bird’s call). Maybe next time.
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”–Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
A few nights ago as we lay in bed, around 4 am, an eerie scratching noise pried us from the arms of Morpheus. Having had roof rats in our Houston house many years ago, we were terrified that rodents had found their way into our new Arizona house–those suckers were really hard to get rid of! After wondering who or what was making the noise, Chris got out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded out the balcony door. Fully expecting to find a cliff chipmunk living it up on our roof, he was startled to discover a female Northern Flicker attempting to chisel her way into the stucco beneath the eaves! “You have a whole forest, but you have to drill into my house!” exclaimed Chris.
Even the most dedicated bird-lovers must have doubts from time-to-time when it comes to woodpeckers. Up in the North Woods of Minnesota they are reviled pests. Once Chris watched in fascination as a Hairy Woodpecker chiseling into a log cabin at a lodge in the Colorado Rockies. He was fascinated, mainly because he had never before had such a good look at this species,* but also at the audacity of the creature. Taking such liberties with private property in broad daylight, ten feet from a human onlooker! Doubtful the owner of the lodge would have been so charmed.
Despite their tendency to knock holes in trees and human structures, woodpeckers are among our favorite birds. We are always thrilled to see them. Even in the middle of the night. Well . . . .
*Even though they look very much alike in books, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are readily distinguishable in person. The size and robustness of the bill is very different.
Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. –John Muir
On a blazingly bright morning this week I took a long, hot walk in the Chihuahuan Desert. Signs of the renewal of life were everywhere. Cactus Wrens gathered nesting materials, Curve-billed Thrashers squabbled over territory, and young birds of several species, under the ever-watchful eyes of parents, explored their newly-discovered world . . . .
Out on the desert flats, the best hope for photographing birds is to keep an eye on agave or yucca bloom stalks or the tops of prickly pear cacti. Photographing here, though, can be a challenge. In addition to cataract-inducing glare, birds can see you coming from a long way off, and they have thousands of square miles of similar habitat to choose from.
On this trip, an adult monitored and fed a pair of young Western Kingbirds. The fledglings exhibited begging behavior as the adult approached. Occasionally, the adult would call out over the desert. Eventually I pushed my luck too far, and the adult flew off. The young birds flowed a minute or so after.
In this same general area, I have seen kingbirds hawking insects in a rather un-flycatcher-like fashion. Rather than grabbing bugs on the wing and returning to a perch to consume them, they swirled and darted in the air while consuming prey, without landing. Beautiful and interesting to observe, but nearly impossible to photograph (at least by me!).
Let us learn to appreciate there will be times when the trees will be bare, and look forward to the time when we may pick the fruit. –Anton Chekhov
A group of four bushy elderberry trees (Sambucus sp.) are currently in fruit a short walking distance from our Canyon House. A small flock of Phainopeplas are in residence around the bushes, and presumably will stay until all the fruit is consumed.
Ash-throated Flycatchers are the next most abundant birds that are gobbling up the fruit. Rather than hang around there, though, small groups come and go. At least three other species of tyrant flycatchers are eating the fruit: Western Wood-Pewees, Western Kingbirds and a Thick-billed Kingbird. I got the binoculars on the Wood-Pewees and the Thick-billed Kingbird a few times, but have yet to get photos. I’ll keep trying.
Other species of fruit-loving birds are also present in smaller numbers in the cluster of trees. These include Black-headed Grosbeaks, Bendire’s Thrashers, Curve-billed Thrashers, White-winged Doves, House Finches, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Western Tanagers, Northern Mockingbirds, Northern Cardinals, and a small drab vireo. I think I also spotted a Lesser Goldfinch plucking fruit, but I can’t be sure. A Canyon Towhee was also hanging around once, but I didn’t see it eat any berries–it’s presence may have been incidental, being a common bird in the desert at this elevation (around 5000 feet).
The desert is a marvelous place, but resources come and go, and nothing is certain. Rains may bring creeks to life and form puddles–but they soon dry up again. Flowers and fruit come and go, and the life of the desert must be ever vigilant in finding food and water and moving on to the next opportunity . . . But one thing is clear: We’ll be planting elderberries on our land!
What we call progress is the exchange of one nuisance for another nuisance.–Havelock Ellis
No matter where the birder-photographer finds him/herself, there are challenges. Hey, if it was easy, then everyone would do it, right?
After clearing lots of brush and scrutinizing the landscape, I am to the point now of putting out some seed and suet to see who will show up for a photo-op. Back in Houston, the biggest problem with bird feeders was mammals: fox and gray squirrels plus roof rats. Looks like the biggest problem with feeders in Portal is also going to be mammals: coatis and cliff chipmunks (and likely Coues deer, too–a small herd shows up several times a day to drink from our dripper).
White-nosed coatis are members of the raccoon family (Procyonidae). They range from southeast Arizona/southwest New Mexico to northern Columbia. They are diurnal and omnivorous and eat a wide variety of foods–but boy do they love black oil sunflower seeds and suet! These critters have little fear of humans and will eat you out of house and home! Cliff chipmunks are also Johnny-on-the-spot wherever, whenever food is available. You have to be on your guard to keep doors and windows closed, or unwelcome cliff chipmunks will invite themselves in!
Of course, some mammals are always welcome, namely wild cats. We’ve seen two bobcats at the dripper: a gorgeous adult and a sub-adult with some remaining spotting (of course, a camera was nowhere to be found). Jaguarundis have been reported from our property (but never photographed in the entire state of Arizona), and several years ago a mountain lion spent some time lounging on our patio! It’s just a matter of time before we see some of these rarer or more secretive critters–although it may take a trail cam to capture images.
Black bears also live in the canyon, and have damaged some of our female juniper trees. They like to climb up and eat the berries, and in so doing they break off branches which dangle and turn brown. Bears can stay away as far as I’m concerned . . . .
Once the birds start to show up, the Mexican Jays are always first in the chow-line. There are lots of Titmice, Juniper and Bridled, as well as Black-headed and Blue Grosbeak, Towhees, woodpeckers, and many, many others around, too. Can’t wait to get the bit glass on them!
The rain begins with a single drop. –Manal al-Sharif
I haven’t been spending much time directly behind a super-telephoto lately, but indirectly I have. During the past few weeks, I’ve been clearing brush and selecting sites for photography blinds and set-ups. It is a daunting task that has just begun, but I’ve decided to enjoy the process as much as (hopefully) the result.
We have adopted the firesafe methodology and are clearing dead brush and low limbs near the house. But I have decided to leave a few dead trees here and there adjacent to blind areas for perches. No natural forest is ever going to be completely free of dead vegetation, and its presence is part of the overall aesthetic. Dead vegetation also provides valuable habitat for wildlife.
We have also begun to identify trees and other plants with the help of some local experts and references. Desert mountain canyons are home to an incredible diversity of plants and animals. After several previous visits to the Cave Creek Canyon area, and the desert Southwest in general, I find myself being able to identify most of the birds at a glance. No so most of the plants–or the reptiles for that matter (herpetology was many moons ago). At present very few plants are in flower, though, making identification relatively easy.
The remnants of Hurricane Bud brought much needed moisture to the drought-stricken desert Southwest. And a day later there are still a few puddles around Cave Creek, but they will soon be dry, and we will begin again our wait for the true beginning of the monsoon–and the true beginning of our difficulties identifying a bewildering multitude of flowering plants!
Our world is made up of a myriad of microcosms, of tiny worlds, each with its own habitués, every one known to the others.–Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man
The last several weeks have found us swamped with work and moving (again!). A thousand-mile move finds us in Portal, Arizona for most of the summer. June is by local standards the “worst” month to be out here, but by Houston standards it is quite pleasant. The days have been hot and dry (around 90° F) with nights in the 60º’s F (although 50º’s are more typical historically). Strangely, over the past few days a monsoon-like pattern has developed with brief showers in the afternoon. The real monsoon should appear next month, when the “best” time of the year begins complete with the blooming of the desert.
While unpacking and working on the house, I wanted an “easy” photography project to unwind, and much to my delight the mystery vine that is threaded through the patio and onto an arbor has turned out to be a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) literally crawling with a host of insect species, including ants, flies, bugs (Homoptera), bees and wasps, and butterflies. As a bonus, while watering the vine yesterday a huge tarantula hawk (Pompilidae) appeared to drink from a splash on the patio. Many of these denizens of the Trumpet Vine World were large enough to photograph with a standard macro lens. It will be quite the task to identify the arthropodan menagerie of this mini-world–but I’ll put it on the list of Arizona projects!
This vine is also serving as a food plant for hummingbirds–nectar and associated insects. In the past two days, we have observed three hummingbird species drinking from the flowers: Blue-throated, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Likely there are also Magnificent Hummingbirds around, but we haven’t spotted any, yet. We’re not quite ready to start going after the birds seriously, at least for now. According to a neighbor, because of all the feeders, Magnificent and Blue-throated hummingbirds are now year-round residents in Cave Creek Canyon.
Finally, trumpet vine has a bad reputation among gardeners because of its aggressive and invasive nature. It is native to the eastern United States and naturalized in parts of the West. I personally love flowering vines, and once we are installed here permanently, I can foresee a diversity of native vines to feed our resident and itinerant hummingbirds–and the vast and largely unnoticed arthropod community.
When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. –E. O. Wilson
Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.–Benjamin Disraeli
If Disraeli was correct, then Rufous Hummingbirds are both fire and smoke.
I recently took the time to peruse our collection of images of hummingbirds from the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park in West Texas. Specifically, I was looking for evidence of the presence of Allen’s Hummingbirds, those little flying gems that are often indistinguishable from Rufous Hummingbirds. One of our field guides shows the migratory range of the Allen’s Hummingbird just barely touching the western extremity of Texas. Maybe . . . . But alas, no Allen’ Hummingbirds were in evidence.
But Rufous Hummingbirds are common in this desert park. One of the most aggressive of all hummingbirds, the males are known for their spectacular aerial fights–and their ruthless defense of nectar resources. Immatures are often frustratingly difficult to distinguish from females. But young and old, male and female perch, bold as brass, on the yuccas, agaves, desert willows, and ocotillos of the Franklin Mountains.
Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men. –Martha Graham
For this spring break, we took an epic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeast Arizona. It was the kind of road trip that produces exhaustion that hurts. But we were able to spend time in two major habitat types in the Cave Creek Canyon area, the Chihuahuan Desert at the mouth of the canyon and low elevation (less than 5500 feet) riparian areas adjacent to the creek.
The open desert areas are dominated by prickly pear, agave, and scattered grasses. Birds spotted here included Verdin, Pyrrhuloxia, Gambel’s Quail, White-crowned and Lincoln’s Sparrow, Curve-billed Thrasher, House Finch, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, and Northern Flicker (Red-shafted). Here, we hoped for shots of birds perched on the cacti and century bloom stalks . . . .
The riparian habitat at low elevation is dominated by juniper, deciduous hardwoods, and grasses. Junipers are the most flammable trees in the canyon and likely have, in places, achieved unnatural densities due to decades of fire suppression.
But upon closer inspection, tangles of dead or crowded juniper contain a greater wealth of lovely (and more fire-resistant) deciduous trees than is first evident–Arizona sycamore, Arizona walnut, and oak. The recent wildfires in California have aroused fears of the same in Cave Creek Canyon. Some have even started taking action to clear out the dead and low vegetation that could act as fuel for major wildfires. More as the story develops . . . .
The vast sage desert undulates with almost imperceptible tides like the oceans. –Frank Waters
When the weather is dank and dreary like this along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast, my mind turns to just about anywhere else. Getting back out to the desert is always a top priority. Among the most interesting desert birds to pursue is the Greater Roadrunner (and the Lesser Roadrunner, too, I’ll bet, but that species doesn’t occur in the U.S., and I’m not up for living The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Greater Roadrunners occur all across Texas, but we rarely see them anywhere but in the desert or scrublands.
Roadrunners are highly predatory, mostly terrestrial cuckoos. A common birding occurrence is to be walking in the desert and to see a Roadrunner skulk off into the brush as the bird detects your presence. Sometimes you’ll see one scurry across a trail ahead with a lizard or small snake in its beak. Sometimes the tail of a large snake (or lizard?) will be poking out of the beak. In this case, the anterior portion of the herp is being digested, and the rest of animal is slowly being fed down the gullet.
Roadrunners are masters of dispatching dangerous prey. Scorpions, centipedes, horned lizards, even venomous snakes are on the menu. Seeing a Roadrunner with prey is one thing, photographing it is another. Several times I’ve gone after Roadrunners in the field, prey dangling from their beaks. By the time I catch up to them, the prey is down the hatch! But with effort, documenting a Roadrunner with a dangerous, squirming victim is just a matter of time!
As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.–Albert Camus
The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park is literally minutes outside the margins of El Paso. Here, a fiberglass blind sits in the Chihuahuan Desert. A water feature and feeders attract a variety of desert and migratory birds–admittedly mostly common species. The place is thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds during migrations.
Ergonomically, the blind has a few issues, but is really quite usable for a blind in a state park. Being isolated and lacking ferris wheels, noisy yokel tourists rarely find it. Rather than the guy wanting to know how much your camera cost, most of your miseries associated with this blind will stem from attempts to use a tripod inside. Tripods can not coexist with this blind. Accept it. You must rest the foot plate of your super-telephoto on the window ledge . . . .
But as I hope these images show, it is possible to capture fine images here with nice bokeh and uncluttered, natural-looking context. The next time you are on your way to a major birding mecca like Bosque del Apache or the Chiricahuas, I recommend making a pit stop in the Franklins. It may ultimately make your short-list of favorite photo-birding spots as it has ours.