almost forgotten

I completely forgot about photos taken at Zion National Park on the evening we arrived because they were on a different camera card than all the other photos from the trip. The ladies at the campsite next to ours were enjoying the sunset hour sitting by the creek watching a small flock of Avocets wade in the swiftly moving water.  The birds were motionless for a long period of time until a hiker on the opposite side of the creek started moving upstream toward them, and they took off.

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

Just stopping by in southern Utah on their way to breeding grounds further north…

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

The rusty brown head color is a signal that these birds are ready to breed. Non-breeding birds are entirely black and white. Differences in the intensity of the brown color is most likely a result of the extent of the spring molt in the head and neck feathers.

Avocets, Springdale, Utah

They weren’t ready to move on quite yet, because as soon as the hiker passed by, the birds settled back down on the creek.

American Avocets are one of four species in the world, all of which are easily recognized by their slender, upturned bill which they use to seine back and forth in shallow water for small invertebrates. The rushing creek was most likely a resting spot, not suitable for foraging.

Cardinals mixing it up

In many cases close (geographic) encounters between two different, but closely related, species results in accentuation of their differences — in song, or behavior, or even their distinctive markings.  It’s possible that a female’s choice of mates plays an important part in driving what can often be subtle changes between the two species.  However, in southeastern Arizona, Northern Cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) and Pyrrhyloxia, or desert cardinals (Cardinalis sinuatus), are playing a little fast and loose, and it looks like they might be sharing more than habitat.

Before I get to the evidence, let’s review the players in this story.

(1) Northern Cardinals have been expanding their range from eastern North America northward toward Canada as well as southward into the deserts of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  Although they tend to stick to the wetter habitats in riparian areas, they often forage and even nest in drier desert habitat, especially where people have been feeding birds, providing lots of seed and bird baths.

male Northern Cardinal-

Most everyone easily recognizes this emblematic, cheery red bird, with its black mask, bright red feathers, and wide, straight, orangey-red bill.  Newly molted male Cardinals have grayer feathers on their back, but the tips of those feathers wear off during the winter, making spring Cardinals bright red all over.

(2) Pyrrhuloxia are less well known, occurring only in the extreme southern parts of Arizona, New Mexico and parts of Texas, as well as most of Mexico.  They prefer the desert scrub and mesquite habitat, foraging for seeds and insects on the desert floor, but will also visit the lusher gardens with bird feeders and bird baths where they no doubt meet up with their close relative, the Northern Cardinal.

male Pyrrhuloxia-

At first glance they look completely different from their cousins, with mostly gray plumage, mottled with red in the face and breast in the male only, a much bigger crest of head feathers which they keep erect unlike the Cardinals, and a yellow-orange beak with a distinctive bend in it.

Cardinal and Pyrrhuloxia

Pyrrhuloxia and Northern Cardinal males looks distinctly different (photo by Angela McCain,, from Edinburgh, Texas)

female cardinal vs

Female Cardinals are a bit browner and the Pyrrhuloxia are grayer overall, but there are distinct differences in beak shape and coloration between the two species.

At the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson, a captive adult Cardinal mated with a captive adult Pyrrhuloxia, and hybrid offspring of this original pair now populate the aviary and freely interbreed with one another.  The hybrids share characteristics of both species, with intermediate plumage (grayer than Cardinals, redder than Pyrrhuloxia) and slightly curved beaks.

Cardinal-Pyrrhuloxia hybrid-Sonoran Desert Museum

A Cardinal-Pyrrhuloxia hybrid at the Sonoran Desert Museum has grayer plumage on its back and a slightly decurved upper beak.

The ability to produce viable, reproductively capable offspring means that these two supposedly distinct species, really aren’t different at all!  Differences in their habitat preferences and their former separate geographical distributions probably kept the two “species” isolated from one another.

But an aviary is an unnatural situation, in which partnering mistakes might be inevitable. More important is whether interbreeding in these two closely species has actually been observed in the wild?  Perhaps. Hybrid “Cardhuloxia” have been reported from Baja California, Mexico, and I’m wondering whether there has been some gene sharing going on in southeastern Arizona as well.

Male Northern Cardinal -Portal AZ

This male possible Cardhuloxia hybrid seen in Portal, Arizona, has an unusually long red crest, a much grayer than usual plumage on its back, and a distinctly un-Cardinal-ish song.

Glittering gems of the desert

Birders that visit southeastern Arizona in the spring are treated to the dazzling displays of brilliant color and iridescence by the smallest of the many avian migrants from Central and South America — the hummingbirds.

Anna's Hummingbird-

A male Anna’s Hummingbird looking straight forward at another male would present an intense and intimidating glare of brilliant pink.

Broad-billed Hummingbird-

The many-hued iridescence of the male Broad-billed Hummingbird coupled with his bright red bill must make him very attractive to the ladies (and to human fans of hummingbirds).

The flash of color seen on their throats and heads is a product of specially constructed feathers that contain layers of elliptical plates that reflect certain wavelengths of light.  In the absence of direct sunlight on these feathers, they look black, but in direct light, they shimmer with brilliant color.  (Read more about iridescence in bird feathers here.)

Magnificent Hummingbird

The throat and head of this male Magnificent Hummingbird don’t look all that magnificent…

Magnificent Hummingbird

until you catch the bird in just the right light, and then the flashes of color are truly magnificent.

More than 15 species of these glittering gems pass through the cooler canyons of the southwestern deserts, attracted to seasonal blooms of flowers, and all the sugar water feeders in residents’ backyards.  Eventually, they will migrate to higher latitudes and altitudes, such as the flower- and insect-rich meadows of the Rocky Mountains to breed.  But for a few weeks, hundreds of birders come to southeastern Arizona to enjoy their displays.

Female Magnificent Hummingbird

Female Magnificent Hummingbird Backing away from a feeder, tongue still extended.

Female Anna's Hummingbird

Female Anna’s Hummingbird, maybe not as “pretty” as her mate, but every bit as fun to watch.

Male Blue-throated Hummingbird

Male Blue-throated Hummingbird, aptly named. The largest of the hummers in southeastern Arizona, these birds stay and breed there. Some may even overwinter there, if there is a constant supply of sugar water available.

Woody builds a home

On a morning walk around Cave Creek ranch near Portal, Arizona, we happened upon a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers working on their nest hole.

Female Arizona Woodpecker

We saw the Female Arizona Woodpecker dart into the hole, and she poked her head out a few moments later.

Arizona Woodpeckers are unusual in that they are brown and white, instead of black and white, with the male having a small patch of red on the back of its head.  They are really inhabitants of the Mexican oak and pine forests, but make it into just the southeastern tip of Arizona in the Chiricahua mountains.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

The male of the pair seems to be the more energetic nest constructor, entering the hole for long periods and emerging with mouthfuls of sawdust.  Isn’t is amazing how they get that hole so round, like it was drilled with a 1-inch drill bit?

Male Arizona Woodpecker

Just exactly the right sized hole for this bird. They are about the size of Hairy Woodpeckers.  Those stiffened and pointed tail feathers are what help keep them propped up vertically on trees.

Although they are obviously good at drilling holes, these Woodpeckers forage primarily by flaking off the bark from oak, walnut, or sycamore trees to probe for insects or larvae under the outer layers of the bark.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

Spitting out all those wood chips must be difficult.

Male Arizona Woodpecker

A beautiful and rare (in the U.S.) bird.

Old friends in new places

Cave Creek ranch in the Chiricahua mountains near the New Mexico border is an idyllic haven for birders and hikers.  The scenery is pretty incredible too.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

The view from my porch looks out over the creek and up into the rocks.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

We’re set for an early morning hike up Cave Creek, to see if we can find some new birds we haven’t seen before.

Cave creek near Portal, AZ

Like the creek in Madera Canyon, sycamores line the banks of Cave Creek, stretching their limbs far and wide to create wonderful shade.

Sycamores can grow to be giants, but occasionally a limb snaps off, and we find animals taking advantage of the nook created by the amputated limb.

Great Horned Owl

This Great Horned Owl created a nest cavity in one of the huge clefts left after a limb dropped.  We also found a western Screech Owl seeking refuge during the daytime in a similar cavity in another sycamore.

Desert animals are often pale in comparison to others of their kind in other climates, as this Great Horned Owl is.  But there is more to the story than just differences in color.

Animals in this part of the U.S. seem to be entirely different geographic races of their parent species, and the extent of differences in their DNA, their color, their song, and their behavior have led scientists to begin splitting the southwestern desert species off from their representatives in other parts of the U.S. and Mexico.  That’s great for birders that like adding species to their life lists!

Coue's white-tailed deer

The white-tailed deer are much smaller than their relatives in my backyard in MN. In fact, they are technically known as Coue’s white-tailed deer, a dwarfed race, or is it a different species?

Hairy woodpecker, Cave Creek, AZ

Here’s a familiar bird, a male Hairy Woodpecker, but it looks quite different from the MN variety, as it lacks the spots on the wings, and has a broad white stripe down its back.  Would a MN female Hairy Woodpecker refuse to mate with this bird?  If so, then they would be considered separate species.

Brown Creeper, Cave Creek, AZ

Brown Creepers have been divided into four groups now, one in Mexico, and three others in the U.S. divided into eastern, Rocky Mt, and Pacific races.  Differences in song and plumage have been known for some time, but recent DNA analysis has confirmed the separations.

We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.

On a trek for a Trogon

In the cool canyons above the desert floor, riparian woodlands thrive along the banks of streams flowing down from the mountains.

Madeira Canyon

We stopped at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon southeast of Tucson for a few days and enjoyed finding some unique birds flitting in the sycamores that line the creek.

Madera Canyon

Sycamores trees along the banks of the creek are a valuable resource for forest birds; their soft wood makes drilling holes easy for Woodpeckers and sapsuckers, and branches that drop in windy weather leave gaping holes for nests of rare birds like the Elegant Trogon that we set out to find on this trail along the creek.

As we hiked up the canyon, keeping our ears and eyes alert to signs of Trogon, we were rewarded with a couple of other birds unique to this part of Arizona.

Painted redstart

The first of these Painted Redstarts we saw played cat and mouse with us, making me really work to get its photo. Then as we hiked higher along the trail, we saw them everywhere.

Painted Redstarts aren’t that closely related to our American Redstart, though they have the same annoying habit of calling continually from hidden locations.  They are only found in parts of southeastern Arizona and south western New Mexico, and are members of the group of Whitestart warblers (named for their habit of flashing white tail feathers as they fly) that inhabit Mexico and Central Mexico.

Painted redstart

Another visitor from Mexico was found probing the litter beneath the trees, the Yellow-eyed Junco. It looks just like our Northern Juncos, but what a standout with the bright yellow eye!

Yellow-eyed Junco

These are not common here, but whenever we heard scratching noises on the forest floor, it was usually a junco.

And the bird we came to see, the one that frequents these trails in montane riparian woodlands, the one sighted just days before 50 yards from a bench overlooking the creek, the one we brought two cameras with big telephoto lenses to capture in all its splendor —  was nowhere to be seen (or heard).

Elegant Trogon

Elegant Trogon from Friends of Madera

Angry bird

Every now and then, territorial birds get a look at themselves in a car mirror, and get very upset with the presence of an “intruder”.  I was amused to see a Pyrrhuloxia (desert Cardinal) fighting with its image by continually attacking the mirror image with its beak and feet.

Pyrrhuloxia fighting its mirror image

Face-off with the intruder

Pyrrhuloxia fighting its mirror image

Take that!

Pyrrhuloxia fighting its mirror image

And that!

Pyrrhuloxia fighting its mirror image

The other guy just won’t give up…

A birdie morning

Walking around the Sonoran desert in early morning with the local wildlife  inhabitants, we came across quite a few new friends.  A small sampling of what we saw…

Phainopepla, Sonoran desert

Phainopepla, the silky flycatcher, looking somewhat like a black cardinal, dart around bushes and cacti hawking for insects.

White-winged dove

White-winged doves, the largest doves in this desert, are quite common.  The distinctive blue patch around the eye is a sure sign this dove is ready to mate.

Black-tailed Gnatcatcher

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are quite a bit smaller than Chickadees and move three times as fast. Their buzzy call gives away their presence, but even so they are hard to spot.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wrens are everywhere, buzzing from the tops of the Saguaro as well as skulking through the bushes looking for insects, or even fledgling House Sparrows to feast upon!

Hooded Oriole

Hooded Orioles look a lot like the Altimira Oriole I saw in south Texas, easy to spot with that bright orange color and typical Oriole chatter.

More to come in the next few days, if the internet connection holds up. Continue reading

Why don’t woodpeckers get concussions?

A female Pileated Woodpecker has been excavating many large holes on a neighbor’s tree.  At first I thought (and hoped) she was excavating a cavity for a nest, but no such luck.

female Pileated Woodpecker-1

The female Pileated has a black whisker stripe behind the bill, while the male’s is red.  She has been a regular visitor to this tree for most of a week, and has enlarged the excavation noticeably each visit.

From the extent of damage along the length of one of the trunks of the tree, it seems more likely that she is just digging for insects, and these particular insects live pretty deep in the tree and are spread out in many pockets of the wood.

female Pileated Woodpecker-

She has worked her way down the trunk about 6 feet. Other woodpecker species have also checked out her work and drilled a few of their own holes in this long stripe.

If you haven’t watched a Pileated Woodpecker go about their excavation, it bears some description.  They open up a wide cavity by judicious pecks with their chisel-shaped bill at just the right angle to flake off large chunks of wood.  Hit it from the right and down, then from the left and down, repeat once or twice, and a big wood chip goes flying.  The pile accumulating at the bottom of the tree grows each day the woodpecker visits (always the female), and she works at it for 1-2 hours at a time.

female Pileated Woodpecker-

She closes the nictitating membranes (white covering) over her eyes just as her head makes contact with the wood.

Every now and then she stops, looks into the hole, flicks out her tongue and snags some hapless crawling thing, and then continues the destruction.

female Pileated Woodpecker-

Her tongue protrudes from the tip of her beak as she probes into the most recent patches of her digging.

female Pileated Woodpecker-

She seems to have uncovered a whitish cylindrical mass, perhaps a larva buried deep in this wood.

She hammers away for extended periods of time with an acceleration force of 1000 x g  — an impressive feat when you consider that humans can withstand no more than about a 100 x g acceleration.  So, how do woodpeckers avoid getting concussions from all that hammering?  It turns out they have multiple safeguards against injury from chiseling wood.

  • First, it should be noted that woodpeckers typically excavate rotting wood, which tends to be softer after decomposing fungi have been at work. The beak penetrates the wood, rather than stopping at the surface with collision impact.
  • Second, woodpeckers strike the wood at an angle, giving it a glancing blow, and the beak makes contact for just micro-seconds, which lessens the impact. Because bottom bony part of the beak extend further than the upper part, the brunt of the blow is transferred to the lower part of the bill which is not connected to the braincase.
  • Third, woodpeckers have unusual skull anatomy that acts like a shock absorber, with elongated (hyoid) bones and muscles that support the tongue wrapped around the back and top of the skull.  Cranial bone of woodpeckers is spongey and composed of plates that slide over one another to absorb the force of a beak strike.

A diagram of the Flicker’s very long tongue shows how the tongue support (hyoid bones) curves from below the beak around the back and top of the skull.  Not only do the hyoid bones and muscles act like shock absorbers for the skull, but the spongey nature of cranial bone with diffuse air pockets embedded in the bony layers helps absorb the impact of the blows. — 12/10/13

  • Fourth, and importantly, reduced fluid cavities in the woodpecker brain mean it does not slosh around in the cranial cavity as the human brain does upon impact with an immovable object.  It is the impact of brain tissue with cranial bone that causes concussions in humans.  With the woodpecker brain tightly encased in spongey bone and restrained with hyoid muscles and bone as a seatbelt, the brain is well-protected from concussive forces.
woodpecker helmet

The woodpecker helmet — Toronto Star sports page, Oct. 27, 2011.

It’s amazing what we can learn from the “lessons of nature”.  With what we now know about woodpecker skull anatomy, perhaps sports helmets of the future may incorporate some of the features that protect bird brains from concussion.

Chickadee take-offs and landings

I’m working on a system of capturing flight in the small birds in the backyard, using what I learned in the Alan Murphy photography workshop in January.  So far, I have only enticed the chickadees to use the set-up, and they really don’t like it as much as the birds in Texas liked theirs.

Black-capped chickadee

The set-up works great for birds that are relatively still, i.e., just landed and having a look at what’s available on the stump.

But because I don’t want to sit out in 30 degree F weather with wind chill, I’m photographing the birds from the comfort of my porch, shooting through window glass as the birds fly straight toward me (that means they are out of focus until just before they land — not a great technique!).  In addition, the background is rather ugly right now, owing to leafless trees and bushes back behind the stump.

But here are some of the interesting take-offs and landings I captured so far to illustrate Chickadee flight acrobatics.

Chickadee landings

Landing attempt #1 — pretty typical – outstretched feet, wings used for brakes. The bird is not very square coming in, but corrects nicely.  Stuck the two point landing in the middle of the stump.

Chickadee landings

Landing #2 — Look ma, I can land with just one wing…

Chickadee landings

Landing #3 — bird approaching too fast, had to use both wings to stop, unlike Landing #2.

Chickadee take-off

Take-off #1 — Usually chickadees fly in, pause, pick up a seed and dart off.

Chickadee take-off

This bird landed, but didn’t like what it saw, and immediately took off again, or rather fell off.

Let me explain briefly how difficult this is, especially if you don’t have lightning fast reflexes.

  • First of all, I shouldn’t be shooting through glass.  Second, I should have set up the camera perpendicular to the birds’ flight to the feeder, i.e., in the same plane of focus as the feeder.
  • Set up the camera on a tripod, focus on the middle of the stump (where you expect birds to land), hook up a remote shutter release that you hope is sensitive enough to fire when you really want it to, but not when you get excited about birds flying overhead, or leaves flying across your field of view.
  • Set the shutter speed for 1/4000, f-stop to 5.6-8 (higher for better depth of field), and let the ISO set itself (AUTO) to whatever the light conditions are.
  • Keep your thumb lightly pressed on the remote shutter and your eyes on the birds in the bush.  Then start firing the shutter as soon as a bird leaves the bush headed to the feeder.  Hopefully, some of the landings are in focus.
  • Now comes the tricky part — you have to anticipate when the bird will leave and start firing the remote shutter again as they hunch for take-off.  Very challenging for those without those lightning fast reflexes.

I hope to get better at this technique and capture a variety of birds coming to the feeder, but not until it’s warmer weather for sitting outside.  If you photographers out there try this and are successful, please let me know how you did.