Hummingbird extravaganza

We had lots of opportunities to photograph hummers in flight while we were in Arizona. I must have taken 1000 photos of them — with about 10% success. Here are a few examples. Click on any of the images to enlarge them so you can see the colors of the birds in more detail.

Anna’s Hummingbird, female or juvenile. The bright magenta hooded and throated males were very uncooperative in posing near flowers..
Another Anna’s hummingbird — I could stop the wing action in bright light with a shutter speed of 1/2000 second. These tiny sprites weigh about 4-4.5 grams (0.14-0.16 ounces).
Black-chinned Hummingbirds really do have black chins and an iridescent purple gorget to go along with their black throat. They are even smaller than Anna’s hummers — about 3 grams (0.11 ounces).

Broad-billed Hummingbirds are equally tiny, just 3.5 grams (0.12 ounces), and are vigorous defenders of flower patches and feeders. Their iridescent green and blue plumage shimmers in the light.
Even though the female Rivoli’s hummer is more than twice its size, Mr. Broad-billed hummer isn’t about to yield. Rivoli’s hummingbirds weigh 6-10 grams (0.2 – 0.35 ounces), about the same as Kinglets, BrownCreepers, or Red-breasted Nuthatches weigh.
The male Rivoli’s hummer is one of the most striking of this southeastern Arizona group: when the light catches it just right, those iridescent feathers on its throat flash a brilliant teal color, and the emerald green of its neck and back are equally stunning. This used to be called Magnificent hummingbird — for obvious reasons.

A day late and a dove short

I should have posted this composite image of White-winged Doves coming to and leaving a perch yesterday — when it was National Pigeon/Dove day. Oh well….hence, the title of the post.

White-winged Doves are one of the most numerous birds in the desert southwest, and they are especially attractive in flight with their black and white accents.
Dun-colored plumage matches the background of the desert floor, but how about those beautiful orange eyes with their blue eye shadow!

These doves are native to central America and Mexico, but expand northward into southern most CA, AZ, NM, and TX during their breeding season. They time their arrival with the blooming and fruiting of the saguaro cactus, feasting on its nectar, pollen, flowers, and seeds. In fact, the tiny seeds of the saguaro are the only ones the doves will consume, because they are so easy to pick out of the cup-shaped fruit.

The saguaro cacti were just beginning to bloom in late May in southeastern AZ. This particular cactus was about 12 feet tall, with 3-inch flowers only on its top. The nectar and pollen in the flowers attracts bats, birds, and insects, ensuring lots of pollination and fruit set.

Many dove species are particularly successful in hot, dry desert environments — they are the only birds that can pump or suck up water with their bills immersed so they can rehydrate quickly, and they are strong flyers that can search for waterholes within a wide radius of their nest. Once well hydrated doves can evaporatively cool themselves by panting, even at air temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). Amazing survivors!

Morning desert visitors

Our morning photography sessions in the Alan Murphy Arizona photography workshop began at 4:30 a.m. with a drive into a canyon in the foothills southeast of Green Valley, AZ. A short hike down a steep hill brought us to an almost flat spot where we set up our cameras in a tent blind while workshop leader Alan Murphy and assistant Dano Grayson “decorated” the site with branches, flowers, and perches and loaded them with bird treats.

Alan (left) and fellow participant Lee Anne put the finishing touches on a perch decorated with yellow flowers while Dano (right) straightened a tall ocotillo skeleton perch.
The camera blind was far enough away from the perches to encourage bird visitors, but close enough to allow us to get great close-ups of most of them.
The ocotillo perch was a favorite of the Acorn Woodpeckers and Mexican Jays, both attracted to the peanuts and nutty suet stuffed into the holes and cracks of the woody stems.
The Phainopepla male visited only briefly, but lined up on this branch with the sunrise light in the background for a lovely pastel glow.
There is no doubt that Hooded Orioles are one of the most striking birds in the Arizona desert landscape. They are a brilliant yellow in Arizona, but the birds in Texas and eastern Mexico are bright orange — I wonder if it’s their diet.
Black-headed Grosbeaks were easily the most common visitor to the feeders in this canyon. Many individuals looked like they hadn’t finished molting to their breeding plumage, and males far outnumbered the females which have a black and white striped head and less orange on their breast.
A favorite at both the morning and the afternoon blinds out in the desert floor was the Brown-crested Flycatcher. This bird is the western equivalent of our midwestern Great-crested Flycatcher — they look and sound almost identical to each other.
Tiny Lucy’s Warbler frequently swooped in to grab a bite of orange or suet. Their signature brown cap is just barely visible.
On the opposite side of the size spectrum from Lucy’s Warbler, Mexican Jays spent little time perching but immediately went to the suet or peanuts, grabbed something, and took off.
Nothing like a free meal…

The chase is on

As any fan of morning cartoons from the 1950s knows, Roadrunners are very fast runners (more than twice as a fast as the average human), and they use that leg speed to run down and capture slower moving prey. We had a demonstration of that late one afternoon in our Alan Murphy photography workshop near Green Valley, AZ.

Roadrunners don’t often need to fly, but in this case, it spied a lizard wagging its tail on a dead cholla trunk. I noticed that when the sun hits the Roadrunner’s feathers just right, they are iridescent.
Roadrunner vs lizard, part 1 — landing on the perch.

Lizards don’t usually perch this high on a dead cholla trunk, but they do climb into the middle of bushes or align themselves vertically on a bare stem in the middle of the day to avoid the direct solar radiation. However, in this case, the lizard is more or less a “sitting duck” on this high perch.

Roadrunner vs lizard, part 2 — the attack. Lizard obviously sees the bird coming and begins its escape. This is a test of bird vs lizard reaction time and accuracy of strike. But both species have a variety of maneuvers they can use to capture or avoid being captured.
Roadrunner vs lizard, part 3 — the grab. Oops, it looks like the Roadrunner may have missed a good hold on the lizard, or conversely, the lizard has wriggled itself out of the bird’s grasp.
Roadrunner vs. lizard, part 4 — the miss. Score one for the lizard because it got away. Roadrunner immediately abandons perch and drops to the ground for the chase.

Down on the ground, the Roadrunner definitely has an advantage. They can sprint at top speeds of 26 mph, but are also capable of chasing over long distances at just under 20 mph (note: the average “fit” human can run a mile at 6-8 mph).

Roadrunner vs lizard, part 5 — the chase. Now the advantage is for the Roadrunner because the fast-twitch, oxidative fibers in its leg muscles will outlast and outsprint the mostly fast, but fatigable muscle fibers of the lizard’s back legs. Full-out running posture of the Roadrunner is usually more erect with its wings pressed to its side, but the bird is closing in on the lizard here — not trying to win a race.
Getting closer to the grab, the Roadrunner lowers its head and retracts the wings to become a sleek arrow, darting toward its prey.
Roadrunner vs. lizard, part 6 – success! Another delicious meal snagged for its chicks, waiting back in the nest. Photo by Peter Relson, another participant in the photo workshop.

Roadrunners are opportunistic in their hunting; they can capture (and eat) a wide variety of animals such as grasshoppers and tarantula hawk wasps, tarantulas, scorpions, lizards (even venomous ones), snakes (even small rattlesnakes), small birds and nestlings, small mammals, some fruits and seeds from cactus and sumac. It is one of the few predators that can consume venomous prey!

While watching hummingbirds at a feeder last year in Portal, AZ, we saw a Roadrunner dash up to the feeder, leap into the air, and snatch a hummingbird while it was hovering. Needless to say, Roadrunners are amazingly quick!

Evening visitors at a desert oasis

We set up for our late afternoon photography sessions with Alan Murphy at a private home site about 13 miles south of Green Valley AZ, where a man-made pond drew in the wildlife as the heat of the day finally waned.

Water is not required for the survival of some desert animals: many lizard and bird species can save water by making a concentrated urinary-fecal paste instead of losing water as urine; and some desert mammals can make a highly concentrated urine that minimizes their water loss from that avenue. But most animal species will utilize fresh water for bathing and drinking if they have access to it.

A pair of Roadrunners roam this home site and nest here. They were unperturbed by our presence and came right up in front of us to drink in the early evening. Being well adapted to the desert aridity, Roadrunners don’t really need access to fresh water because they get enough water from their animal prey and can excrete excess salt through specialized salt glands located below their eyes.
Roadrunner male and female look alike, so the only way to be sure which member of the pair you’re photographing is by their behavior. This individual was “acting” like a male when the female was around by drooping his wings and waving his tail.
Gambel Quail are another well-adapted desert species and get some moisture from eating succulent green vegetation. They can tolerate air temperatures higher than their body temperatures (104 F) as long as they have some access to water or green vegetation, but will become dehydrated and lose weight on a diet of dry seed alone. Only one of the pair of quail drank at a time, while the other one “stood watch”.
Desert cottontail rabbits can also live in this arid environment without access to fresh water. However, they are attracted to the succulent vegetation that grows near water sources. Rabbits typically avoid the heat of the day under a bush and emerge only when the air temperatures are lower and the evening or morning humidity is higher.
A pet Gila Monster placed near the pond immediately went for a swim — after “tasting” the environment with its tongue. Their huge swollen tail is actually their fat store, which can be used up as a fuel source when animal prey become scarce. Fat metabolism also produces water as a byproduct.
Most desert reptiles don’t need to drink water because they are so efficient at conserving water loss through their scaly skin and concentrated urinary paste. But Gila Monsters consume a lot of water in their diet of small mammals, lizards, frogs, and insects.

After sunset, we set up our cameras to capture photos of bats flying across the pond by focusing on a particular spot, and then shooting continuous 20-sec exposures for the duration of the night (that’s 3 shots per minute, 60 minutes per hour, for about 12 hours = about 2000 shots). Bats flying across the pond would trigger a strobe light that provided the illumination for the images, and on the first night we tried this, I managed to get 63 images with bats, or parts of bats, in them. Not bad for a first try.

This is likely to be the Long-eared Myotis, a small bat found in the western U.S. that lives in habitats ranging from arid shrublands to subalpine forests. They feed primarily on insects, gleaning them from the ground or trees, or hawking them from the air by using echolocation. Flying requires high metabolism and thus high water loss in these animals, so bats are dependent on pools of water to replenish their losses. In this particular image, it looks like the bat might have dived into the water and kicked up a large number of water droplets when it took off. Notice that the membranes of its wings are so thin, you can see the skeletal supports.

“The” Bird

This was my fourth trip to southeastern Arizona — each time we have visited hoping to see the Elegant Trogon that nests in the canyons of the Chiricahua mountains near Portal, AZ. What is so special about this bird, you might wonder? This is the only Trogon species found north of Mexico — a tropical visitor bearing the brilliant colors of the Tropics. Sometimes we have visited too early before they arrive, sometimes we are too late, arriving after the breeding season. But this time was perfect — the Trogons were already nesting, and other people were seeing them, and especially the male regularly. We had three days to accomplish the task, and dutifully went out early in the morning and late in the afternoon and early evening in search of Trogons to photograph.

Day 1 – find a nest (we had heard about from another photographer)

Trogons are hole nesters, using sites originally excavated by woodpeckers and flickers who have the appropriate equipment (chisel-like bills) to create cavities in the soft wood of the sycamores that line Cave Creek. This mid-elevation pine-oak forest with sycamores lining the creek is the perfect habitat for these birds to find nest sites and feast on the insects and fruit in the area.

We did find the correct tree, but not the correct hole. We were told by others who had seen both the male and female at this location that the nest hole was at the lower highlighted spot — it actually was much higher up in the tree (top highlight).

Day 2 – another long wait at this nest site right on the road. We did find the female sitting on a branch near the nest — but no sign of the male, and no vocalizations from him indicating his presence even nearby. Trogons sit quietly and inconspicuously (even the brightly colored male) on high branches, twisting their heads about, looking for insects or fruit.

A very pretty bird, even if not garishly colored like her mate. These birds are very silent when they swap places in the nest, sharing the duties of incubating the 2 or 3 eggs the female has laid there. Male and female trade off regularly during the day (females usually incubate overnight) for the three week incubation period.

Day 3 – We were feeling a little desperate by now, since this would be our last day at Cave Creek, and gave up on the roadside nest after seeing the male fly away down the canyon about 7 a.m. So we hiked a mile or so up the canyon to another nest we had heard about, found the nest hole and sat down on some rocks to wait for the occupants of this territory to show themselves.

Two hours later, the female popped her head out of the nest hole, as if to say, ”time to switch”. She peered around, didn’t see her mate, and retreated to the hole again. More waiting…but this time we knew there was a pretty good chance the male was going to show up.

At last, he arrived, and it was worth the wait! We estimated we had spent about 8 hours over the three days trying to photograph one of these birds. Persistence pays!

This bird is well-named — Elegant, he is, with his brilliant emerald green and bright orange colors. Trogons perch rather high and have a very upright posture. To catch that beautiful eye, you need to wait until they look down.
After perching for a few minutes, the male called out his greeting with a series of what sounded like a barking dog. The female exited the nest, sat for a few minutes on a different branch, and the male flew over to the nest hole.
He’s a beauty from the front or the back, with his emerald back and coppery-colored tail.

Elegant Trogons are a real draw for birding enthusiasts and photographers, and interest in them has spurred local birders in this region to survey their population during the breeding season. Currently, it is estimated that about 50 pairs breed in southeastern Arizona.

Multi-shot extravaganza

We had numerous opportunities to photograph birds in flight at Alan Murphy’s Bird photography workshop outside of Green Valley, Arizona this past week. There were so many good opportunities that I wanted to capture their flight in just one composited image. In case you’re not familiar with this technique, I overlaid successive images taken of their flight onto the image of the right-most bird in the photo — in this case using the double exposure tool in SnapSeed.

A Gila Woodpecker in action — their normal flight is flap, glide like a bullet in a sleek aerodynamic shape, but this particular take-off featured a nice banked wing spread.

Alan has perfected the set-up for capturing birds in flight by placing entry points to feeding sites, so that birds fly directly across in front of us from one perch to another on the same focal plane. With cameras set at 1/1000-1/2000 second with a capture rate of 20-24 frames per second, we can capture 6-10 decent images of flight.

A male Pyrrhuloxia (desert Cardinal), whose color, shape, and vocalizations resemble those of the Northern Cardinal, on the move from one perch to another. You rarely get to see the beautiful colors in this bird’s wings unless you capture them in flight.

And just for fun, I tried my luck capturing the take-off of the golden paper wasp from the small pond in front of our blind…and luck it really was because I only managed to do it once.

Golden paper wasps came to the pond for an afternoon drink. Their long legs resting on the water don’t break the surface tension of the water, allowing them to just rest on it while imbibing. Usually a photographer gets no signal that the wasp is about to take off, but Alan said they usually drink for 23 seconds, so I counted to 22 and started shooting.

Flamingos (dancing birds?) of the Spanish Marshes

Where the confluence of two rivers, Tinto and Odiel, empty into the Atlantic in southern Spain, a huge coastal marsh system has developed over tens of thousands of years. Ancient civilizations, like the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans recognized the rich fishing grounds and mudflats that supported such a wealth of diversity of life, including wading birds, shorebirds, raptors, hare, deer, wolf, and lynx, and they built hunting lodges and port cities on the edge of the marshes. Today, the bustling Andalusian city of Huelva (claimed to be the oldest city in Europe) lies in the center of more than 17,000 acres of marsh protected in the Odiel Biosphere Reserve.

Las Marismas (marshes) of the Odiel and Tinto rivers are renewed twice a day as the high tides return to bring nutrients inland from the sea. This is what nourishes the more than 300 species of both resident and migratory birds that stop over here on their way from Africa to breed in Europe. (Map from “Nature-watching in Europe“)

Rare European Spoonbills were discovered to be breeding here in large numbers in the 1970s, and this led to the declaration of the area as a UNESCO reserve in 1983. As a result, the Odiel marshes have become one of the premier wetland habitats for European birds, but the area is more than just marsh. It features salt pans (natural and man-made), lakes, forest, heathland, sandy shore, tidal channels, and of course, the rivers — diverse habitat for a multitude of species.

Odiel marshes are the perfect habitat for these European (white) Spoonbills that use their long flattened beak to sweep the shallow waters for crustaceans, mollusks, worms, and tiny fish.
In addition to the iconic Spoonbills and a wide variety of shorebirds feasting on mud-dwelling invertebrates, the Greater Flamingos breed here in great abundance. The shallow salt pans are filled with brine shrimp which forms the bulk of their diet. The commercial salt mining operation here actually provides more habitat for birds to use for foraging in a set of about 16 rectangular pools, some of which you can see in the background.
Flamingos are filter-feeders. They turn their heads upside down in the water, pushing the water in and out with their tongues over their overly large lower bill that is lined with horny plates that trap the tiny shrimp.
Greater Flamingos are actually white birds with accents of pink (unlike the Americas variety). But the extent of pink coloration is determined by the carotene in the shrimp in their diet, and there is plenty of that here.
Our guide, Manu Mojarro, showed us how prolific the brine shrimp are in these salt pan waters where the salinity is many times more concentrated than sea water.
In order to separate the shrimp from the salt water, flamingos pump water over the plates of their lower mandible about 20 times per second, and must consume about 270 grams of food per day (approx 1/2 pound). Their shrimp diet is supplemented with fly larvae, mollusks, crabs, and small fish, which they stir up by swishing their feet around in the mud.

Greater Flamingos gather in the hundreds to breed in these marshes on a small island where they build their mud mound nests right next to each other–like the ones in the photo below from Algeria.

View of the Greater Flamingo colony at Ezzemoul, northern Algeria, from a paper by Samroui and Laid, 2013 in Avian Biology Research.

Finding a mate in a dense crowd of hundreds or thousands of individuals must be challenging, but flamingos are noted for their dancing skills and the collective group ballet that is used to pair individuals up. Older flamingos with longer necks might have an advantage here, but the entire group performs a synchronized dance to rev each other up for the grand finale.

Sir David Attenborough narrates the action…

The word Flamingo in Spanish is “flamenco” — is it just coincidence that the flamenco dancer’s moves strongly resemble that of the bird’s during its mating dance?

Live action at the Vulturama drama

A short (1 min) video captured the interaction of Griffon and Cinereous Vultures coming to bait left for them at a private hide near Monfragüe National Park in the Extremadura region of Spain. White Storks also tried to capitalize on the feast, with little success. Previous visitors to the hide a couple of weeks ago had to wait three hours for the vultures to arrive, but they were already camped in the trees overlooking the “feasting” area, and came to the bait within a minute.

This is a large file, so it might take a while to load, especially if your internet is running slowly. Hover your mouse (PC) or touch the screen (i device) to access the menu in the bottom right corner where you can zoom to full screen (right-most icon), view in 1080p resolution, or slow down the action (left-most item indicated by 1X). The noises you hear in the background are our cameras.

A variety of food was placed at several locations for the vultures: pieces of chicken, pig, or sheep carcass, eggs, and rabbit. Notice how quickly the vultures react to the Stork’s discovery of a piece of rib cage, and how quickly the Stork yields to the much larger Cinereous Vultures.

The fly-in gave us (photographers) lots of opportunities to capture big birds in flight — always a treat.

Griffon Vultures have arrived – in huge numbers.
A Cinereous Vulture joins the action — that wingspan is 8-9 feet, the longest of any Vulture species! Females (larger than males) can weigh up to 30 pounds.
Egyptian Vulture incoming…a much smaller vulture weighing about 5.5 pounds with a 5 foot wingspan.
The Ravens preferred the eggs over rib meat and had no competition for them from other species. Who knew they could open their mouths so wide, enough to accommodate the fat end of the egg!

A tale of two kites

Two large, graceful raptor species glide over the plains of the Extremadura region of Spain, but the population of one species, the Red Kite, is in serious decline, while the other, the Black Kite, is expanding its range and quickly becoming the most numerous raptor in Europe. Inquiring minds want to know why…so I consulted our fabulous bird guides (Alan Davies and Ruth Miller of birdwatchingtrips.co.uk) for an explanation.

Red Kites are elegant flyers, with long (almost 6-foot) wings for their up to 3-pound body size. Truly a gorgeous bird with their cinnamon-colored bodies, brilliant white under-wing patches, and black wing tips.
Black Kites are smaller in body mass (up to 2.5 lb) and body length with a shorter wingspan (~5 feet) than Red Kites and have a wedge-shaped tail (instead of forked one like the Red Kites). They also vary greatly in color, ranging from very dark brown-black to lighter brown with reddish highlights, which confuses the casual observer like me. But the top (dorsal) side of their wings is definitely darker than that of the Red Kites.
Feathers that cover the wings of the Red Kite (over the flight feathers) have darker centers and lighter margins, giving them a sort of striped look. In contrast to similar-sized Buteo hawks (like our Red-tailed and Red-shouldered) of North America, adult Kites have pale eyes and juvenile birds have dark eyes.
Body and flight feather coverts of Black Kites are more homogeneous in color than those of Red Kites.

But there is more than just morphology that differentiates these two species — behaviorally, they are quite different as well, and this is part of the reason for the difference in their abundance in the Extremadura region.

Both Kite species depend heavily on scavenging on carrion of sheep or cattle carcasses and roadkill, but also hunt live prey, gliding down and snatching them off the ground and effortlessly moving back upward to soar to a perch to eat what they have grabbed. Red Kites particularly like a diet of earthworms in the spring — strange food for such a large bird. As scavengers, Red Kites seem particularly susceptible to poisoning, from illegal baits set for other predators like foxes, which somehow Black Kites either avoid or are less affected by.

Black Kites are widespread and common. They range from Europe to Asia in the temperate zone, and can also be found in sub-Saharan regions of Africa, parts of the Middle East, India and southeast Asia. In the winter they form large gregarious roost, and often flock to carrion in large groups, much like vultures.
Red Kites have a much narrower range than Black Kites — in fact, Spain is the southern end of their distribution which spans primarily the northern parts of western Europe, including the UK and parts of Sweden. Red Kites also roost communally during the winter, then migrate south to Extremadura and Donaña National Park to breed. However, breeding success in Donaña has declined drastically in the last 20 years, with a 90% reduction in the number of chicks produced there.

Lastly, Black Kites are a highly opportunistic species, changing their foraging strategy to suit the “prey” (including carrion) availability, and they seem to be less affected by human disturbance, even nesting in close proximity to roads and houses.

The nest of this Black Kite was right outside the roadside restaurant where we had just eaten lunch.

A number of reasons have been suggested for the difference in the success of these two, very similar species: susceptibility of the Red Kite to poisoning, disruption of breeding habitat for the Red Kite, availability of natural prey for the Red Kite, like mice and rabbits who are also limited by conversion of habitat to agriculture, and lastly, climate change that has resulted in drought and vegetation changes that make the landscape unsuitable for Red Kite survival. Among the laws of nature, it’s “adapt or die” to change. And the Black Kite seems to be the more adaptable.