Road Trip! Desert Southwest Birding in Summer (Part 1: Madera Canyon, Arizona)

Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona.
Preening Broad-billed Hummingbird at Madera Canyon, southeast Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

For Upper Texas Gulf Coast birding there comes a summer tipping point where the pain outweighs the gain. By about late July, it’s tough to justify going out birding with the bugs, sweltering weather, yahoos, and low diversity of birds. What to do . . . ?

It’s time for a road trip! This time around we visited Franklin Mountains State Park (West Texas), and several places in southeast Arizona including Saguaro National Park, Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum, Cave Creek, and Madera Canyon, a classic North American birding destination in the Coronado National Forest.

Southeast Arizona lies within one of the three northward-extending prongs of tropical biodiversity that extend into the U.S., the others reaching Big Bend and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Madera Canyon, one of the major birding hotspots within this Arizona prong, is on the northwest side of the Santa Rita Mountains, a Madrean Sky Island, about 25 miles south of Tucson.

Madera Canyon cuts largely through granitic rocks and passes through four major life zones, from Lower Sonoran in the blistering valley floor to cooler Canadian at the top, and ranges from about 3600 to over 9400 feet in elevation. At 9453 feet Mount Wrightson crowns the canyon.

Adult Painted Redstart perched on a branch
Shady Character. Painted Redstarts are common on the trails in Madera Canyon, Arizona in July. They prefer to sing, hunt, and preen under shaded cover, so it was quite a challenge to capture a usable image! Luckily, we saw this bird early on the hike, and my hand was still steady. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/100.

For our first visit to Madera Canyon we stayed for three days at the Santa Rita Lodge. The lodge is centrally located with hiking trails above and below in elevation. The feeders near the office were often thick with birds. Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches, White-winged Doves, and Mourning Doves predominated. Black-headed and Blue Grosbeaks, Arizona and Acorn Woodpeckers, Hepatic Tanagers, Bridled Titmice, and American Turkeys visited sporadically. Hummingbirds were abundant. Black-chinned and Broad-billeds predominated. A few Rufous and a single Plain-capped Starthroat visited while we watched. A Canyon and Bewick’s Wren appeared briefly. White-eared Hummingbirds were reported in the area, but unfortunately we didn’t see them. Mexican Jays were common around the lodge in general.

On the Nature Trail, flycatchers, especially Ash-throated and Western Wood-Pewees predominated. Elisa was lucky to see a Western Wood-Peewee nest with nestlings. Painted Redstarts were common, and we caught several possible glimpses of Flame-colored Tanagers. Just south of the lodge we were treated to a Whiskered Screech Owl roosting in a cavity in a large sycamore tree.

Hermit Thrush perched on mossy stump.
The look-out. A Hermit Thrush eyes a couple of primates walking through the woods in Madera Canyon, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/300mm f4L IS. Hand-held with natural light, ISO 800, f/5.6; 1/160.

On the Carrie Nation Mine Trail, we  saw Ash-throated, Western Wood-Peewee, Black Phoebe, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Yellow-eyed Juncos, Hermit Thrushes, Black-throated Gray Warblers, Painted Redstarts. Elisa saw a single Red-faced Warbler.

On the last morning, we hiked the Bog Springs Trail where we saw mated pairs of Hepatic Tanagers, in one case gathering nesting materials.

Mud-puddling Two-tailed Swallowtail
Mud-puddling. This Two-tailed Swallowtail (Arizona’s state butterfly) is drinking nutrient-rich water from a mud puddle along the nature trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona. During the encounter, which lasted about 10 minutes, I observed it drink continuously and excrete excess fluid from its abdomen every 15-30 seconds. Mud-puddling allows butterflies and other insects to obtain essential mineral salts and amino acids. Canon EOS 7D/300 mm f4L IS. Hand-held in natural light, ISO 500, f/9; 1/400.

Our visit to Madera Canyon drove home one central point: There is a significant difference between birding and bird photography. In some of the places we visited, it would have required a herculean effort to haul the super telephotos up into the canyon. In those instances, we just broke out the binoculars and smaller glass and enjoyed the views or photographed flowers, insects, or reptiles.

Female Phainopepla at the Arizona Sonoran Museum.
Next time: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Female Phainopepla. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

The mountains are calling and I must go.—John Muir

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

Road Trip: Birding the Rio Grande Valley in Summer

Buff-bellied Hummingbird at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas
Buff-bellied Hummingbird (Amazilia yucatanensis), Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. Four species of Amazilia hummingbirds occur in the U.S. Only the Buff-bellied is common. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC): f/8, ISO 640; 1/1000. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Chris’s Field Notes: We just returned from a three-day birding adventure in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV) in the vicinity of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Estero Llano Grande State Park. We stayed at Casa Santa Ana, adjacent to the wildlife refuge—highly recommended for the hospitality and birding the extensive grounds. Although the heat, humidity, and biting insects (not to mention chiggers) tested our resolve, we saw a number of new species and obtained nice (or at least better than we had!) shots of some Valley specialities, essentially Mexican species with ranges that barely extend into South Texas in summer.

Birds notable for us included: Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Groove-billed Ani, Clay-colored Robin, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Altamira and Hooded Oriole, Couch’s Kingbird, Olive Sparrow, and Brown-crested Flycatcher. Nests and young birds were everywhere. I saw one adult male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Estero Llano Grande State Park (at the extreme southern extent of their summer range). Although we explored significant wetlands, including some with profuse amphibians (leopard frogs), waders were rare (strangely it seemed), compared to the Upper Texas Gulf Coast. I witnessed a display by the male Bronzed Cowbird. The bird was on a low branch overhanging a path at Santa Ana NWR when it lowered its head, roused its feathers, and flapped its wings while making whistling, buzzing, and clicking sounds. Spectacular.

The Tamaulipan mezquital ecoregion through which the Rio Grande winds is a harsh place in the summer. Scattered trees, often mesquite and “acacia” surrounded by grasses and low shrubs predominate. Shade is usually incomplete. Mosquitos were not a significant problem, but other types of biting (and bottle) flies abound. Dragonflies like Roseate Skimmer (Orthemis ferruginea) and Band-winged Dragonlet (Erythrodiplax umbrata) were profuse and offered many photographic opportunities. I didn’t see many mammals, only one Southern Plains Woodrat (Neotoma micropus). Lizards were abundant, especially the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis). White skies due to high humidity often made photography difficult. Many times I had a bead on an interesting bird only to have a dazzlingly white cloud drift in behind and ruin the shot. All in all, an amazing place, and I can’t wait to get back during cooler weather.

Groove-billed Ani at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas.
Groove-billed Ani at Casa Santa Ana, Rio Grande Valley, Texas. That big heavy bill gives the impression of a seed-eater. Anis do eat fruit, nuts, and seeds, but the bulk of their diet consists of arthropods. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC): f/8, ISO 800; 1/640. Natural light.
Adult Clay-colored Robin gathering nesting material photographed by E.D. Lewis
This Clay-colored Robin made several fiber-gathering trips to this back-yard garden palm tree. Canon EOS 7D/500 mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/5.6, ISO 500; 1/100. Natural light.

Elisa’s Field Notes: This was our first late spring/early summer visit to the Lower RGV, and I hoped that the effort (in defiance of the heat!) would yield many observations of nesting, nestlings, fledglings, etc. I was not disappointed! With excellent summer birding in our own Gulf Coast backyard, we see quite a bit of bird family life, but mostly of the waterbird persuasion. During our short trip into Texas’ subtropical scrubland, I was able to spot White-eyed Vireo, Long-billed Thrasher, Plain Chachalaca, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, and Altamira Oriole juveniles just beginning to make it on their own. Our timing was rewarding in other ways, too. We essentially had the refuge and the park to ourselves! Our host mentioned that anyone who was “out here at this time of year is committed.” I suspect that he might have meant to say that we should be committed!

I was also charmed by the abundance of nests and nesting behavior. Oriole nests, in particular, are standouts. I saw the Altamira Oriole pictured below fly directly into the nest as it swung and bobbed in the wind. It must be somewhat like living in a small boat out at sea. Altamira Oriole nests are typically woven to a fork of a tree branch and, sometimes, to a telephone wire as we saw outside of the state park. I wonder if building the nest so far from stable branches is one way to make your nest more inaccessible to predators . . . Regardless, as an amateur fiber artist, any creature that weaves or works with fiber is OK by me!

Adult Altamira Oriole and nest photographed by E. D. Lewis
An Altimira Oriole emerges from its nest of grasses woven onto the branches of a mesquite tree at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS USM (+1.4x TC): f/6.3, ISO 640; 1/2500. Natural light.

 What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.—Jane Austen

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

Get Lost! Birding Lost Maples in Early Spring

bigtooth maple in bloom with emerging leaves
Although Bigtooth Maple flowers attract the attention of bees and flies alike, they depend on the wind for pollination. The flowers, which bloom alongside emerging leaves in spring, are unisexual. Can you tell if these flowers are male or female? (Answer: The prominent stamens with the large yellow anthers full of pollen indicate that these are male flowers.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

They say that timing is everything. For birders whose getaways are tied to school holidays, the timing of spring break is usually too early for spring migration. Not this year! With the deciduous trees just starting to put out new growth, Spring Break 2014 was timed perfectly for birding Lost Maples State Natural Area on the Edward’s Plateau of Central Texas.

Our goal was to see and photograph male Golden-cheeked Warblers (which typically arrive in Central Texas around March 10th) singing in the treetops before the trees were completely leafed-out. We heard many Golden-cheeked Warblers, but got only a few ID shots. The trip was a success for other reasons, however, in part due to the generosity of Richard Redmond of the Texas Ornithological Society who spent a day with us and shared his vast knowledge of Hill Country birds and birding techniques, especially tracking target birds by their songs . . .

White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples, SNA, Texas
Singing in the Shadows: White-eyed Vireo at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Two Trips in One

When we go birding together, we often end up birding apart. Different things catch our eyes and ears, and so we end up with unique take-aways on the same get-away. In this spirit, we decided to share our Lost Maples birding experience “he said, she said” style.

Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Female Spotted Towhee at Lost Maples SNA, Texas. This colorful bird spends much of her day in the brush pile near the observation blind. Lost Maples is in the winter range of this species. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Chris’s Field Notes

The most abundant species observed were Chipping and Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Black-crested Titmice, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, but I also saw White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos (and also caught the merest glimpse of a Hutton’s Vireo), Black and White, Orange-crowned, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Yellow-throated Warblers. Other highlights included a male Scott’s Oriole, a pair of Canyon Wrens, and a nest-sitting Great Horned Owl and Red-tailed Hawk. Wildflowers were on the sparse side, but Agarita and Bigtooth Maple were in bloom . . . . My couch-potato Houston Flatlander lifestyle didn’t help tackling those canyon trails hauling 30lbs of photographic equipment, but I came back invigorated and looking forward to the next trip.

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas
Male Black-chinned Hummingbird at Lost Maples SNA, Texas showing specular reflection and structural color. Black-chinned Hummingbirds were thick around the feeders near the observation blind. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Elisa’s Field Notes

If it weren’t for our chance encounter with Richard and his experienced ear, I would likely never have seen half the species I observed — many of which were firsts for me including the Golden-cheeked Warbler, the Yellow-throated Vireo, and a far-off-in-the-distance Hutton’s Vireo. This trip, more than any other, clearly illustrated the need to know more birds by ear. Springtime is a great time to study bird songs and, wouldn’t-cha know, there’s an app for that. The bird identification mobile app that I use provides representative vocalizations, but most birds sing more than one tune. After a quick search, I downloaded BirdTunes and found it to be an encyclopedic resource of songs, calls, and scolding vocalizations, with regional variations for most species.

As a visual learner, birding by ear has always been daunting, and I quickly forget which bird sings which song when I don’t see and hear them regularly. On this trip, I developed a strategy that I think will work for the long-term. I characterize the song in a way that I can associate with the bird’s name or identifying feature. For example, the song of the Canyon Wren reminds me of a horse whinny which I associate with canyons and the West. Now when I hear that cascading whinny, I think “canyon” then “Canyon Wren” and look to the rocks to find it.

I was lucky to photograph two species singing on this trip — the vireo near the top of the post and the titmouse included in this spring’s “Image of the Season” sidebar. It bears mentioning that I used the bird song app as a pre-birding and post-birding tool for review and study, and not in the field to attract the birds. If you use recordings in the field, please do so responsibly. Check out the American Birding Association’s Code of Ethics section 1(b) for guidance.

Agarita branch with flowers
Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) is the quintessential hill country plant to me. It’s one of the first plants I was able to reliably identify when learning the flora of Central Texas. After the cheery yellow flowers fade, bright red berries develop among the prickly evergreen leaves. (In case you’re wondering: these flowers are bisexual – each flower has stamens and pistils.) Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM. Hand-held. High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.—George Santayana

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

Hummingbird Travelog Part 2: The Prince of the Garden Has Moved On

Juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird in suburban Houston, Texas
Garden Prince: A Juvenile Male* Ruby-throated Hummingbird Surveys His Native Plant Kingdom. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

For most of the month of September, a (presumably) transiting juvenile male Ruby-throated Hummingbird laid claim to a patch of native plants in our back yard in suburban Houston. From a shepherd’s crookish twig (a dead coral bean tree branch entwined with a greenbrier vine) this feisty little bird watched over his patch of turk’s cap and coral honeysuckle. Occasionally he would make forays to visit our patio to sample the firespike flowers, but hour after hour he would sit, vigilant atop his curly perch. Whenever invading hummingbirds would appear he would, without mercy, drive them away and return to his throne. By the second week of October he was gone for parts unknown . . . perhaps he will return next year a king, gorget ablaze.

My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy.–William Shakespeare

*I think that this is a first fall male because of the high level of aggression, the slight streaking of the throat, and one dark throat feather (not visible in photo). Although, it could possibly be an adult female. I invite comments from anyone who knows better.

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Hummingbird Travelog Part 1: The Oasis Effect

Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird in flight
Juvenile male Rufous Hummingbird making a play for an open feeder spot at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light. 7.26.2013.

All systems in nature seek the lowest available energy state. This is a concept that my students could always grasp on a personal level. (Substitute “teenagers” for “all systems in nature” in the first sentence. See what I mean?) Human nature, like the rest of nature, tends to follow the path of least resistance. Hummingbirds are no different.

Consider the droves of hummingbirds attracted to sugar-water feeders. Well-kept feeders are an easy alternative to foraging, and field studies show that when nectar (or nectar substitute) sources are super abundant, high metabolic cost territorial activity decreases. Feeders are the path of least resistance for hummingbirds.

Human interest in hummingbirds and the resulting dedication to supplementing their diet has impacted their biogeography. Hummingbird banding data support the idea that feeders (along with native gardening practices) are the reason that overwintering hummingbird populations have expanded along the Gulf Coast after first migrating into Mexico in the fall. Feeders and native plantings also contribute to the so-called “oasis effect” observed in exurban developments in the arid southwest where increasing numbers of hummingbirds (among other birds) in resource-poor terrain take advantage of supplemental food, shelter, and water resources.

Hovering male Calliope Hummingbird drinking from a sugar-water feeder
Male Calliope Hummingbird taking advantage of the sugar-water feeders at the Franklin Mountains State Park bird blind in July. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchonized flash. 7.26.2013.

On our recent summer desert birding road trip, we found the Franklin Mountain State Park feeders buzzing madly with hummingbirds. Especially welcome was the opportunity to get close-up views of Calliope Hummingbirds – thought to be the smallest long-distance avian migrant in the world – on their 5,000 mile southern journey to Mexico from the northwestern US and Canada.

For Calliopes, fall migration starts early. Sources report typical Calliope departures from northwest locales in late August. But wait, it was late July and they were already in Texas … Was this early arrival due to a natural seasonal shift or could it just have been the oasis effect?

I hear like you see — like that hummingbird outside that window for instance.

— Ray Charles


 © 2013 Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birders’ Paradise: Fall Migration at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas

Male Yellow Warbler on September 1, 2013 at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Male Yellow Warbler on September 1st, 2013 at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

September begins the fifth straight month of “the baking” of the Texas Gulf Coast. On the upside, the trickle of fall migrants that started in July finally gets into full swing. On September 1st we visited Lafitte’s Cove for the first time this fall migration (technically still summer, of course) and saw five warbler species: Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow, Canada, Black and White, and Hooded Warblers.

Canada Warbler at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island, Texas
Canada Warbler at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash.

Warblers are are a Lafitte’s Cove speciality: In the past year we’ve seen twenty-four of the fifty-two species of warblers that regularly visit the United States. This is especially impressive given that the preserve covers only twenty acres. Surely Lafitte’s Cove must be counted among the best migrant traps in the United States.

Louisiana Waterthrush attracted to the dripper at Lafitte's Cove on Galveston Island, TX
Hunting Louisiana Waterthrush surveying a dripper-flooded patch of oak motte at Lafitte’s Cove, Galveston Island, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+ 1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash. 9.1.2013.

Now, birds are fattening up on insects in preparation for their epic flight back to their wintering grounds to the south. Mosquitos can be a problem for birders at Lafitte’s Cove, but they have been less of a problem for us here than at other migrant traps along the Texas Gulf Coast like Sabine Woods and High Island.

We eagerly await the first blue norther when we’ll be able to bird in the cool fresh air! The first frost will mean an end to many of the nastiest biting bugs, and our wintering friends will be paddling peacefully across Gulf Coast waters (or otherwise doing their thing).

juvenile male Ruby-throated hummingbird at Lafitte's Cove, Galveston Island
Resting Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I spotted this juvenile male perched just above a patch of blooming Turk’s Cap at Lafitte’s Cove on Galveston Island, Texas. Note the liberal dusting of pollen on his head. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized flash. 9.1.2013.

Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.–George Eliot

 © 2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Summer Birding in Portal, Arizona and Environs

Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. The feeders around the main office were swarmed with Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Blue-throated, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. The Broad-billed Hummingbird is primarily a Mexican species, its range barely extending into the Southwest U.S. during summer. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

Portal, Cave Creek Canyon, and the South Fork of Cave Creek of southeast Arizona are magic words to birders. Southeast Arizona provides habitats for about one-half the species of birds present in North America north of the Mexican border. A variety of biological, geological and topographic factors have conspired to make this so. Most important, perhaps, is that this area lies at the northern extremity of the ranges of what are essentially Mexican species, so birds of the Southwest U.S. can be seen alongside more exotic subtropical ones.

Topography is also an important part of the story. Approaching Portal, Arizona from Rodeo, New Mexico you travel through the rocky Chihuahuan Desert, slowly climbing in elevation. Cactus, agave, and mesquite are scattered around. Near Portal, Arizona you start to encounter cottonwoods and other tall trees, and by the time you are driving Forest Road 42 toward South Fork Cave Creek you are in a stunningly diverse riparian forest with pine, sycamore, oak, maple and others: this is a Madrean pine-oak forest. The topographic map above gives some sense of the changes encountered while traversing the Portal area.

Vista Point, near Cave Creek, Arizona
A View from the Vista Trail, Coronado National Forest, Arizona showing a pine-oak forest extending up to the bare volcanic rock of an arid canyon. The distribution of plants and animals varies dramatically by elevation and distance from water. Canon EOS 7D/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Natural light.

Scattered around the forest floor in summer are trumpet-shaped pink to coral to red flowers–hummingbird food plants. At one point, I turned and came face-to-face with a Magnificent Hummingbird. The bird hovered in front of my face for a full second, looked me over, and shot off into the forest, perhaps in search of nectar. At lower elevations I noticed Scarlet Bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) and Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), giving way to unfamiliar flowers at higher elevations. The botany of this area will take years to comprehend . . .

Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Arizona
Yellow-eyed Junco at Barfoot Park, Coronado National Forest, Arizona. Yellow-eyed Juncos are another primarily Mexican species. This bird nests in coniferous (or Madrean pine-oak) forests at elevations of 5,900-8,200 ft and eats mostly seeds (in cool weather) and arthropods (in warm weather). Barfoot Park is at an elevation of 8169 ft and is dominated by lofty ponderosa pines. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Likewise the incredible diversity of summer bird life, especially flycatchers, will take years to fully appreciate. With further study and (at least) annual pilgrimages to this area, I hope to become familiar enough with the natural history of the area to use season, elevation, and habitat to identify birds and help understand their activities. In any case, the Cave Creek area is certainly one of the crown jewels of American birding.

Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything.― Wyatt Earp

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas in Summer

Male Rufous Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Male Rufous Hummingbird on Dead Agave Flower Stalk at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Photo taken at the observation blind, Tom Mays Unit. The feeders draw swarms of Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope hummingbirds in summer. Photo taken in late July. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

No other habitat on earth holds as much wonder for me as the desert. Franklin Mountains State Park is a consistently great place for desert birding and seeing the flora and fauna of the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have visited several times in hot and cool weather and hope to return at the earliest possible date.

Make no mistake: the rocky northern Chihuahuan Desert is a hard place, especially in summer. Common plants scattered across the rocky flats include agave, prickly pear, ocotillo, eagle claw cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and mesquite. The Franklin Mountains area is the only place to see Southwest barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) in Texas. Stream channels contain Desert Willow, sometimes haunted by nectar-seeking hummingbirds.

Quail are also associated with stream channels. Gambel’s (a.k.a. Desert or Arizona) and Scaled Quail are common resident birds at the Tom Mays Unit. These birds are often comical to watch as they come strolling along a gully in small groups–until they notice you . . . . They will then shift around for a bit, and nonchalantly walk the other way!

Male Gambel's Quail at Franklin Mountain State Park, West Texas
I can see you, and I don’t like it: Male Gambel’s Quail at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

House finches and sparrows (Canyon and Spotted Towhees, for example) are an especially important part of the avifauna year-round. Green-tailed Towhees and Brewer’s Sparrow visit in the winter. Black-throated Sparrows are conspicuous year-round and will approach the observation blind closely at the Nature Walk Trail of the Tom Mays Unit.

The observation blind is a fiberglass affair with wooden benches inside. Although ergonomically unsuited for tripod use, the blind is remarkably cool even when temperatures are blistering outside and provides just about the only shade in the area.

Despite the harshness of the area, we can’t wait to return to Franklin Mountains State Park: hopefully we will get some better shots of the more camera-shy denizens of the park, namely Pyrrhuloxia and Verdin.

Singing Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Singing in July: Black-throated Sparrow at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“It is that range of biodiversity that we must care for — the whole thing — rather than just one or two stars.” – David Attenborough

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.