Snow or not, the birds are “springing” into action. Decked out in their newly refurbished plumage, males are returning from “down south” to establish territories and are advertising their stuff to potential mates.
And if this attractive male does everything right, with appropriate attention and head bobbing, etc., he may be acceptable to the female.
In celebration of what is to come in the not too distant future…a shock of green to help you think “spring!”
In elementary school we learned that to get green color you mixed yellow and blue — and that’s just what birds do. There is no blue pigment in birds’ feathers either, but incoming light scattered off air pockets in the feather structures can be reflected to our eyes and appear blue. By adding this reflected light to the yellow light reflected from underlying (carotenoid) pigments in the feathers, the birds are doing just what we did in mixing our paints. This is illustrated below by a Broad-billed hummingbird as it approaches a feeder.
As they say in Eire-land
“May your blessings outnumber the shamrocks that grow. And may trouble avoid you wherever you go.” –Irish Blessing
The birdies seem to think it’s spring — cardinals and chickadees are singing in the backyard. A pair of Cardinals were courting on the tree outside my porch window yesterday morning, even while it was snowing.
The last stop on our 2023 tour of the southwest was White Sands National Park just northeast of Las Cruces, where the huge expanse of shifting sand poses tremendous challenges for life.
The immensity of this landscape is impressive. The National Park itself is 115 square miles, but the entire dune field is 275 square miles including acres of tall, stark dunes that look like the Sahara desert, inter-dune playas of plants interspersed in a sandy matrix, and even a lake and some small ponds!
The highest dunes are about 60 feet, and the depth of the sand is about 30 feet, and the sand is always moving. In fact, plants here are adapted to growing quickly through the sand that blows over them.
Cottonwoods are the types of trees one usually finds near sources of water, along streams and rivers, not in the middle of a desert. But this is not your typical sandy desert. The White Sands of New Mexico are a field of fine-grained gypsum, composed of calcium and sulfate grains, which can hold 60% more water than quartz sand.
The answer to how a cottonwood could survive here is that water absorptive property of gypsum. Winter snowmelt forms streams that feed the basin in which the dune field sits, and late summer rains add to the groundwater that is held in an aquifer only 12-36 inches below the surface. “Wet” dunes thus provide a reachable source of water for plants.
But gypsum lacks the carbon and nitrogen that plants need, so how do plants get the nutrients they need to grow in this desert?
Occasionally abundant rainfall can form a lens or puddle of fresh water in a bowl-shaped area, forming shallow ponds for a short period. Microorganisms can colonize the brackish pools and form a mat or crust on the surface as the water evaporates.
In other areas of the national park, high dunes dominate the landscape over a vast space. The road here has to be plowed to keep it relatively free of sand.
What a fascinating place to visit — especially on a bright, sunny winter day with white clouds over the white sand in an amazing landscape.
It was a short drive from viewing Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw over to the eastern edge of the Sulphuric Springs valley and up the northwestern face of the Chiricahua Mountains to the Chiricahua National Monument — which features more weird rock formations than any other place we have visited.
The formations here are the result of some intense volcanic activity about 27 million years ago that deposited a thick sheet of ash that hardened into rhyolitic tuff which subsequently has been eroding over time into strange and unusual formations.
An excellent narrow trail wound through the rock formations, allowing us to marvel at precariously balanced rocks and wonder what keeps them from falling.
This area of Arizona was the home of the Chiricahua Apache, who first settled here in the 1400s. They were fierce warriors, and adapted well to hunting (and terrorizing other tribes and settlers) from horseback after they relieved the Spanish of some of their horses in the mid-1500s. Apaches were nomadic people, following game from the valleys in the winter to the higher elevations in the Chiricahua and other mountains in the summer.
Balancing rocks could be seen at every turn in the trail.
About a mile down the trail we found the grotto, which looked like it had been carved by water running through the channel between rocks.
The Grotto trail is just one of many to explore in this unique national monument. This place is definitely worth a return trip for more exploration!
Northeast of the copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona and west of the Chiricahua mountains in the southeastern corner of the state is the Sulphur Springs valley, which has recently become a birding hotspot because of the huge numbers of overwintering cranes, geese, ducks, waterbirds of all kinds, and assorted other small passerines.
Originally this area was a cattle ranch with springs and runoff from a part of the Chiricahua mountains that run through the middle of the valley and eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico. But since the late 1990s, the land has been managed by Arizona Fish and Game and is designated a state wildlife IBA (important birding area). Tens of thousands of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese spend the winter here foraging in nearby crop fields and wading in the 1500 acres of streams, marshes, and ponds.
You can see some variation in the amount of red on the forehead of the cranes. The forehead is actually bald, devoid of feathers, and the red color is due to blood flow in this area. In territorial disputes or during courtship, the forehead may be flushed with blood and be a much bigger area with brighter color.
The Snow Geese were unusually quiet on this morning, resting on a small pond, rarely making a sound, and just sitting or sleeping. Perhaps they were digesting their early morning meal.
What an incredible morning of birding. It was amazing to see how many people knew about this place and were walking slowly around admiring the birds.
We’re on the road again, sadly on our way back to Minnesota, where I’m hearing winter weather is raging. We’ve decided to try to visit as many new places as possible on the trip east.
Running from the Mexican border to the tiny burg of Arivaca in south central Arizona is a 117,000 acre grassland preserve — the Buenos Aires national wildlife refuge, where the deer and the antelope definitely roam in numbers. An occasional jaguar has even been sighted here. And it also seems to be a haven for wintering raptors.
Buenos Aires NWR is a grassy, semi-desert landscape, but has some woodland features along the creeks and in draws. It supports quite a variety of large mammals (deer and antelope), and a great diversity of bird life that is attracted to the various water landscapes.
Amidst the vast expanse of California’s breadbasket of agricultural production in its Central Valley there are numerous “refugia” for wildlife. I was surprised to find that there are dozens of wildlife refuges scattered near the main artery of Interstate-5 in the Central Valley. We made a brief stop at one of these, the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, on our way north to the Bay Area, two weeks ago.
Kern NWR is at the south end of what was once a huge (at least 625,000 acres) wetland complex in the Tulare Lake Basin that was inhabited by hundreds (if not thousands) of migratory water birds during the winter. Today, 11,250 acres are protected in this area just north of Bakersfield, and visitors can drive a loop road around much of the open wetland areas.
But the most exciting find of the morning was the male Northern Harrier that we found coursing over the tops of some orchard trees along the roadside. We followed it along the road for quite a way, and I got several shots of the bird in flight.
What a beautiful little oasis among the crop fields. I would come back here (on a sunnier day)!