Not just another Nuthatch

Calls of familiar bird species sound quite different in the Arizona woodlands than they do in the Minnesota backyard, and there’s a good reason for that — the birds themselves are different.  Take White-breasted Nuthatches (WBN) for example.

In the eastern U.S. and Canada, we hear a nuthatch advertise its presence with its familiar, nasal “yaankk, yaankk” call.  But in more western forests, the call is fainter, faster, more repetitive, and higher — more like “yirr, yirr, yirr”.  Now this may be entirely too nerdy for consideration here, but the birds even look different.  Can you spot the differences?

white-breasted-nuthatch-eastern form

A white-breasted-nuthatch-Carolina form

white-breasted-nuthatch-western form

A white-breasted-nuthatch-Rocky Mountain form

Look at the amount of black on the top of the head, and the color in the feathers that cover the wings (called wing coverts).  The eastern, Carolina form of the WBN has black edging on the feathers that cover the wings; the Rocky Mountain form has none of that. The eastern form has a much wider black stripe on the top of its head, and less white between the black stripe and its eye than the Rocky Mountain form.

So what?  Well, these are the kinds of differences, including the differences in the call, that allow birds to discriminate more carefully about who they will or won’t mate with during the breeding season.  And there aren’t just two forms of WBN, but likely as many as four, according to the latest poll by ornithologists in the know.


Not just any nuthatch, but an Eastern, Carolina, White-breasted Nuthatch, thank you.

A key geological event that formed the basin and range regions of western North America is probably responsible for the differentiation of subspecies (forms) of many bird species, like the White-breasted Nuthatch.  Three distinct forest regions developed during glacial cycles in the U.S. and Canada in the past 14 million years, resulting in eastern (east of the Rockies), interior west (Rockies to the Sierras) and Pacific coastal (Sierra crest to the Pacific Coast) forests.  Geographic separation and then specializations by interbreeding populations in these regions have produced the distinct differences in the birds.

The differences might seem slight to some of us, but to the birds (and to the ornithologists that catalog them), they may be enough to separate them into three or four distinct species.

The hills are alive…

Winter rains bring the California oak woodland back to life, with the greenest of green grass and herbs carpeting the oak understory.

Oak woodland in hills along I-680, east bay region of Northern California

Oak woodland makes up the landscape along I-680, in the east bay region of Northern California.  

The hillsides are a mosaic of coastal live oak, an evergreen species that retains its leathery leaves, and the deciduous valley and blue oaks whose bare limbs reflect the gold light of the setting sun.

Deciduous oaks at lake Sonoma park, California

Drought-tolerant Blue Oaks are often found on hill tops, whereas Live Oaks populate more mesic north-facing slopes and lower hillsides near water.

The winter rains seems to have arrived a little earlier this year.  Early rainy weather usually doesn’t fool these deciduous species; they won’t leaf out again until late February, after they have flowered.  At least that’s the way it is supposed to work.

However, unpredictable climate changes can disrupt normal patterns, leading to insect blooms before avian migrants return, or plants flowering before pollinators are present.

California oak woodland

The long-term effects of aseasonal rain/drought on the oak woodland ecosystem here are unknown, but it’s been nice to hike in the cool weather and gorgeous scenery of the rain-soaked hills of the east bay region of Northern California.

From Sedona to Sonoma…

I’m still celebrating my 7 decades with still more travel to beautiful places, this time with younger daughter to wine country in Sonoma, California.  It’s post grape harvest and peak color time in wine country.  The wineries line Dry Creek road along the way to Lake Sonoma, so frequent stops for tasting and photos are in order.  A more pleasant journey could not have been arranged than this relaxed meandering in a tranquil and scenic landscape.

Vineyards, Sonoma, CA

Vibrant orange and yellows of the vineyards contrast with the greens of fresh, newly emerging grasses.

Vineyards, Sonoma, CA

The expanse of vineyards stretches across the landscape almost as far as a midwestern corn field.

Vineyards, Sonoma, CA

Sunset lights up those gold-red grape leaves.

And the wines were remarkable…every one we tried.  It turns out that drought is hard on grape productivity but wonderful for enhancing the flavor and texture of the wine.  As my daughter told me, the grapes need to be tortured to make the wine great.

butterflies in the desert?

Even though the landscape looks (and feels) arid, southern Arizona seems to be a mecca for butterflies, perhaps because of the diversity of vegetation and flowers there.  Although we were busy photographing birds, the colorful four-winged flyers demanded our attention as well.


The Queen butterfly is a close relative (same genus) of the Monarch.


Adults sip nectar from a wide variety of flowers, but the larvae usually feed on a species of milkweed (Asclepiadaceae) that contain toxic chemicals that the adult butterfly retains, making them distasteful to predators.


Painted Lady butterflies were one of the most numerous species in the gardens at Ventana Canyon Lodge in Tucson.


The Texan Crescentspot butterfly is a small, narrow-winged butterfly found in Mexico and throughout the southern U.S. Its distinctive crescent moon-shaped spots on the hind-wings make it easy to spot.


Before I looked closely, I thought this was just another checkerspot butterfly but the distinctive antennae and large eyes make this a type of skipper — a white-checkered skipper.


Another butterfly with a distinctive name: this is the Southern Dogface, one of the many species of sulfur butterflies. I assume the black pattern on the top side of the wings gives it the distinctive name.


The Tailed Orange butterfly grows its “tail” (a pronounced point on the lower edge of the wing) in the late summer/fall months. Earlier in the year, this butterfly was a more brilliant orange, with distinctive black markings on the topside of the wings, and no “tail”.  


There were so many of these tailed orange butterflies feeding on this late blooming Salvia, they almost looked like dead leaves hanging down from the vegetation.  The species is unique in having not only two sexual morphs (male and female black patterns on the top side of the forewings), but two seasonal morphs (one with and one without tails) as well.

Another good reason to visit beautiful southern Arizona!

Bridge of Travertine

Arizona is a land of many beautiful vistas, and some remarkable natural features as well, including the world’s largest natural travertine bridge, located at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, northeast of Phoenix.

Travertine natural bridge, Tonto State Park, Arizona

From above, the natural bridge arch forms the ceiling of a massive limestone tunnel.

Travertine, formed by rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate and solidified almost to the hardness of marble, surrounds the entry to a huge tunnel, almost 200 feet high and 400 feet long.  Water flowing over the boulders of travertine at the tunnel entrance makes it especially slippery and hazardous for all the hikers that visit this natural wonder.

Travertine natural bridge, Tonto State Park, Arizona

Travertine natural bridge, Tonto State Park, Arizona

View from the inside of the travertine tunnel looking out

Travertine natural bridge, Tonto State Park, Arizona

Life exists only at the mouth of the tunnel. It’s dark and sterile inside the high arch.

Travertine natural bridge, Tonto State Park, Arizona

Caves along the side walls of the limestone canyon near the arch make good refuges, and were probably used by early inhabitants here.

The natural bridge was discovered by a Scotsman (David Gowan) in 1877, as he hid from the Apache Indians tracking him.  He was so impressed with the area that he moved his family here from Scotland and tried to claim the land by squatters’ rights.  They lived near the arch until 1948.

Happy hikers

The happy hikers….

Another gorgeous redhead

While visiting Madera Canyon south of Tucson the other day, we spotted a Woodpecker chowing down on pyracantha berries.

Red-naped Sapsucker

A Red-naped Sapsucker hanging upside down to get at the best berries.

They must have been really tasty because soon the whole family was busily harvesting these berries.

Red-naped Sapsucker

You can just barely see a patch of red on the back of the birds head that gives it the name “red-naped”

They breed throughout the montane western U.S., but winter in southern Arizona and Mexico, which seems like a sensible strategy to me!

Red-naped Sapsucker

A really handsome bird is the Red-naped Woodpecker!

As their name would imply, Sapsuckers drill holes to get tree sap flowing, which they then lap up with their brushy tongues.  Insects attracted to and trapped in the sap are harvested along with the sap.  But fruits are a favorite part of their diet too, which seems odd for a Woodpecker.

In an Ash Canyon backyard

Southeast of Tucson, the vegetation changes to an oak grassland and pinyon pine mix, and the tongues of mountains dipping down to the grassland valley create canyons well worth exploring for their scenic beauty as well as the wildlife they harbor.

Ash Canyon, Arizona

The oak grassland habitat of Ash Canyon area, southeast of Tucson.

In the backyard of MJ Ballator’s amazing garden at the Ash Canyon B&B, dozens of feeders of all types and sizes attract most of the avian wildlife and some of the mammals as well.  A few examples of what we saw over the couple of hours we spent there…

Mexican Jay

An extended family of about 30 Mexican Jays patrols the backyard, helping themselves to suet, peanuts, and more.  They are larger (and prettier) than the western Scrub Jay.

Acorn Woodpeckers

Acorn Woodpeckers are in charge here. They dominate the feeders, even excluding the jays from their favorite suet feeder. Males and females differ in the amount of black on the top of their head. Males on the left have more red, females on the right have more black.

Ladderback Woodpecker

Ladderback Woodpecker male, molting a few of its crown feathers

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker (male) — close relative of our eastern Red-bellied Woodpecker

Curve-billed Thrasher

Curve-billed Thrasher

Bewick's Wren

Bewick’s Wren

Inca Dove

Tiny Inca Dove

White-winged Dove

Much larger White-winged Dove



Audubon's Warbler

Audubon’s Warbler, the western equivalent of what we usually refer to as Yellow-rumped Warbler, but now considered a separate species (again).

and there were more, too many to include.  We missed the best time to visit here by over a month.  In September, visitors can find all 15 species of hummingbirds that reside or migrate through southeastern Arizona.  This is a must visit place!!

The Sonoran desert “chickadee”

Wherever I travel in the U.S., it seems there is always one chickadee species or another that fills the commonly seen, small insectivore niche.  Not so in the Sonoran desert — but there is a distant relative, the Verdin, that fills the same role.


It’s bright, gold head and chestnut spot on the shoulder make Verdins easy to spot.

Like their chickadee relatives Verdins hunt incessantly for small insects probing crevices, in between leaves, in among cactus thorns, flitting from place to place before you can focus the camera.


Verdins are members of a bird family (penduline tits) that is distributed mostly in Eurasia and Africa — it is the sole representative of the family in North America.  One of the family characteristics is the woven, hanging nests built for their chicks, and the Verdin also builds an enclosed, globular nest, but places it in the middle of thorny cactus as added protection from predators.  In fact, they build two types of nests, one in which they raise their chicks, and a smaller, well insulated nest in which they roost during colder winter months.


Looking in the leaves and hackberry fruits for a meal?


Nothing escapes this bird’s notice.


Got it!

Verdins are permanent residents of the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, and seem to thrive in those hot, arid landscapes.

(all photos by Steve Chaplin, who loves lugging that heavy 400 mm lens around much more than I do.)

A pair of cardinals

Not a mated pair of Northern Cardinals, as the title might imply, but a pair of closely related cardinal cousins — the Northern Cardinal and the Pyrrhuloxia or Silver Cardinal.

Northern Cardinal

I really didn’t expect to see cardinals in the Sonoran desert, but Ventana Canyon outside of Tucson has a rushing stream that runs all year (as well as an 80 foot waterfall), so there is an amply supply of lush vegetation and insects to keep any bird happy.


Hidden in a thorny mesquite bush, this male Pyrrhuloxia sports a long, red crest, and has a red face and breast stripe in contrast to his metallic gray body.

Pyrrhuloxia look like their closely related (same genus) cousins, but have a much bigger, parrot-like beak.  They are truly well-adapted desert birds, able to eat a wide variety of seeds and fruits, as well as insects, and tolerate the extreme heat of the Sonoran desert summers well.  Their summer diet of insects even enables them to remain somewhat independent of water, as they rarely visit waterholes then.

Pyrrhuloxia may mate for life, and though territorial and asocial during the breeding season, they join up in huge flocks of 1000 birds during the winter.  What a sight that must be!!