Spring fling?

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.

Usually, Mr. Cardinal would be offering his mate a food morsel, but Mrs. Cardinal seems to be busy with a seed already. So, it looks like he’s offering her a drink (in the form of snow) to wash down the seed.
She doesn’t look at all interested in his gift.
So, he ate it himself.
Ho hum, waiting to see what he brings next…

Meanwhile…the backyard still looks like this

The bird feeder stands above my head in the summer, but right now its at chest height. Sooooo much snow. When will it end?

Wildlife extravaganza at Whitewater Draw

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.

Looking toward the western mountains, Snow Geese rested on a small pond.

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.

Looking toward the south, hundreds of Sandhill Cranes were flying in to join others resting in a crop field.
Cranes were doing a lot of flying on this day — back and forth from field to marsh, providing numerous opportunities to photograph them in flight.
I almost think the amount of flying, often in formation, might be their “practice runs” to get in shape for spring migration. Migration is kind of like a marathon race for birds, and they must build muscle strength and endurance just like human long-distance runners do before setting off to the north.
Despite the long wingspan, which is great for gliding, these birds are powerful flyers with deep wing strokes, and they can power by you very quickly. They average 25-35 mph during migration, but can fly up to 50 mph, and can cover 300-500 miles per day during migration.
Coming in for a landing, lowering the landing gear (legs), as they glide to a stop.
Motionless gliding…
The same two birds as above, just about to land.

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.

Getting a drink of muddy water, after all that flying around.

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.

The darker morph of the Snow Goose used to be considered a different species (the Blue Goose), but in fact is just a rare color variant.
A pair of American Widgeons swam by. The male has a striking white stripe down his forehead (which looks like it might be a bald spot—but isn’t), and a bright green-bronze patch of feathers above his eyes.
A pair of Gadwall were also in the same pond. The male looks plain until you see the beautiful steel gray pattern of feathers on his breast.
I saw many male Shoveler ducks but rarely any females who might have been foraging elsewhere.
American Coots on the bank — this one showing off his lobed toes which are great for propelling the bird through water. But on land, coots walk like humans do when they are wearing snorkel fins, with exaggerated lifting of their feet in order to step forward.
A beautiful little Vermillion Flycatcher was hunting bugs in the weeds next to the pond.

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.

Raptors, antelope, deer, and ducks at the Mexican border

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.

Pronghorn Antelope leisurely crossed the road right in front of us. It looks like the male is wearing a radio collar. Pronghorn were reintroduced here, and are now considered to be a desert subspecies.

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.

At another location on the refuge we discovered a much bigger herd of over a dozen antelope. I’m not sure if this group is composed of one male (antlered) and a harem of females, or the other antelope just haven’t regrown their horns yet.
I got too close to the antelope and they began to run away, Note the mule deer in the background that look like they’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Buenos Aires has both White-tailed deer and Mule deer, shown here. They are easily recognized by their over-sized ears. These two were coming down from the wood thickets to drink at a pond.
Much of the refuge is a huge expanse of grass permeated by mesquite trees (now leafless), with an occasional cactus to remind us that this is a semi-desert area. This landscape will be even more beautiful when the trees leaf out and new grass is growing.
The most numerous raptor on the refuge is the Red-tailed Hawk, and most of the ones we saw were juveniles with light eyes and brown (not red) tails. The birds were amazingly tolerant of our presence, and let us drive right up next to them on the road.
The next most common raptor we saw were Northern Harriers, but all of them were females (brown plumage). The gray plumaged males may have been elsewhere on the refuge, or perhaps they don’t overwinter here at all.
In one of the wetland ponds, we found a few Green-winged teal (females) and a Sora foraging on the vegetation in the shallow water.
The male Green-winged Teal showed off his gorgeous head, lit up nicely in the morning sun.
This was the least shy Sora I have ever seen —usually I get only a glimpse of their body as they scuttle through waist high weeds. This one was out in the open, intent on finding something in the shallow water.
Loggerhead Shrikes were also seen frequently near the road. I have no idea what they could find to eat at this time of year when most insects and reptiles are dormant. Perhaps they can catch the small finches that forage for seeds by the side of the road.
A beautiful landscape, made more attractive by the absence of humans here.

Hidden gems

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.

It was a very overcast day, and windy and cool as well. But the wildlife was abundant here, especially water birds of all sorts. A couple of hawks rested in the tree surveying for potential prey below them.

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.

A juvenile (light eye color) Red-tailed Hawk sat quietly while we drove past it.
Northern Shoveler ducks were one of the most common ducks here. This male is ready already decked out in his beautiful breeding plumage.
A little Pied-billed Grebe dived in the pond in front of us.
I think these were Violet-green Swallows, diving and swooping en masse over the surface of the water. Perhaps there was an insect swarm there.
A flock of Golden-crowned Sparrows were finding some luscious seeds among the early spring grasses.
This Western Meadowlark male was digging around in a litter pile, and finally found a grub of some sort.

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)!

Wild (and not so wild) life in Valley of Fire

A second day of exploring the Valley of Fire was even better than the first, with lucky encounters with lots of wildlife, especially a couple of tame Bighorn Rams that had no fear of approaching me on their way to find better forage.

We started the morning with good views of the black Cardinal of the desert — the Phainopepla, consumer of mistletoe berries and primary disseminator of its seeds.
A sweetly, but softly, singing Solitaire — another bird of dry places. This one was not solitary, it had a mate close by.
A pair of desert burros, basking in the morning sun, neither of which wanted to come closer or turn their heads for a better photo.
The female, disinterested in us and the male several yards away.
But suddenly, as we turned into fire canyon road, Bighorn Sheep appeared on both sides of the road, munching their way from place to place. They would have walked right up to me if I hadn’t moved.
They hardly ever raised their heads to chew, but just kept pulling vegetation from one plant to the next.
Finally, one lifted its head. Both sexes have horns throughout life, but those on the females never grow very large, nor do they curl around like those of the males.
In a different location, near the campgrounds, two large rams foraged along a rock wall. The two apparently keep the campers entertained every evening, but seem to be are completely separate from the rest of the herd.
The ram’s horns look like they have been trimmed and prevented from curling around. These weapons in a a mature ram 10-15 years old can weigh as much as 30 pounds,
That swelling on the ram’s forehead above its eyes and below the horns is probably the bony reinforcement designed to absorb the impact of from clashing heads with another ram during the rut.

On our hikes, I began seeing animal shapes in the rock formations.

A ram…
A dog…
And the famous Elephant rock, seen near the entrance to the park.
There are many petroglyphs in the park, depicting the animals native Americans saw living here—maybe they saw animal shapes in the rocks here too.

A sunset spectacle

We drove from Guymon, Oklahoma to Socorro, New Mexico with the sole purpose of visiting Bosque del Apache around sunset to see the multitudes of Sandhill Cranes and Snow Geese assemble for the night on the marshes of the reserve. Luckily for us, we stumbled on said assemblage while driving the north loop of the wildlife drive.

The cranes were much farther away than the last time we visited here, but it was easier to capture them flying into the marsh to join the others.

Here’s a link to the post from a previous visit to this area three years ago.

Long wings, lots of effortless gliding in golden light.
A few cranes were vocalizing, making their ancient-sounding rattle call, announcing that this is the place to settle for the night.

By far the most abundant birds in this marsh are the Snow Geese, which seem to gather in the thousands to feed, and fly off in the dozens to hundreds. I rarely saw them in small groups.

With barely enough light left for photography, another huge flock took off from the marsh to go elsewhere for the night.
and the sun sets on the marshes of Bosque del Apache…

Westward, ho!

We’re on the road again, heading west for a very special 100th birthday party celebration. Heading west, we will be stopping at several points of interest to explore, and the first site on the journey is Tall Grass Prairie Preserve, west of Emporia Kansas.

On a cloudy, foggy morning, it’s hard to appreciate the sweeping landscape of rolling prairie here, especially in the winter when everything has turned brown.

In 1878, Stephen Jones, a wealthy cattle rancher from Tennessee, acquired some of the 10,000 acres now in the preserve, to start another cattle ranch in Kansas. He built a magnificent 3-story, 11 room house, an enormous 19,000 sq ft barn, and miles of stone walls to enclose his cattle pastures.

A stately mansion was completed in 1881, and several outbuildings were added in successive years: smokehouse, outhouse, icehouse, carriage house, chicken house, etc.
The 60 X 110 foot, 3-level, 18,000 square foot barn is one of the largest limestone barns in Kansas. It had a lower floor for the stables, a main floor storage space for hay and wagons, and a unique third floor for hay and grain storage that could be accessed by loaded wagons pulled by teams up the ramp. There was so much space inside, the team could be turned around or proceed to the other end of the barn to exit!
5-foot high limestone walls surrounded every pasture, eventually totalling 30 miles of construction.
The Lower Fox Creek School, also built of limestone, was constructed on land donated by Jones in 1882. The one-room structure accommodated 1-19 students in all grade levels, and was active until it closed in 1930.
There wasn’t much wildlife around on this dreary, chilly morning, except two crows in a tree.
Apparently the crows were so chilled, they didn’t move when I crept up to photograph them.
Like many native prairies that still remain, this Kansas tall grass prairie had a rocky, limestone substrate which made it unsuitable to plow for crops. Flint nodules of micro-crystals of quartz are embedded in the limestone here, and are the reason that this area is known as part of the Flint Hills.
Strange, twisted forms of the exposed limestone rock make interesting photos.

Next, it’s onward to Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Coyotes in the backyard

I haven’t seen coyotes in the backyard for several years, and I’ve never seen a pair of them hunting together.

The pair of coyotes walked back and forth across the far end of the backyard with their noses to the ground — smelling for mice under the snow. Yes, they can smell that well! I noticed that the one in front was limping, and its walking posture was quite different from its mate.
The larger of the two might be the male. It has a flat back even when the head is lowered to the ground.
The presumed female has an injured right rear leg — it looks broken, but she still uses it to push off. Her hunting posture was hunched as a result of the injury.
The side view of the injured coyote shows how she holds the right rear leg up as she moves.
Her mate moves much more easily over the snow, never stopping to look around.

There are still a pair of foxes in the neighborhood here, although I don’t know where their den is. Usually, coyotes won’t tolerate foxes in their territory and will kill them or drive them away, so I hope this coyote pair decide to move on to another area — I like having the foxes visit with their kits in the spring.

Buck in the backyard

The deer herd has been running through the backyard frequently, but they don’t usually hang around — they’re always on the move…to somewhere else. But a few days ago, the big buck visited, sampled the greenery, and sat down for a nap.

A big, healthy looking male, accompanied by a much smaller “spike” boy who kept his distance.
This buck has at least 8 points, but I wonder if we will see him again next year.
The backyard is well covered by snow, what vegetation remains above the snow are inedible stems, so I guess deer resort to munching on evergreens at this time of year.
And after eating a little of those indigestible needles, it was time for a rest and some rumination. Big males like this one are probably in a nutritional deficit at this time of year, and may survive by catabolizing their own body mass slowly throughout the rest of the winter.

Naughty bird

Of course I love watching birds in the backyard, but I don’t especially love what some of them do to my house. The woodpeckers are at it again, drilling holes into the redwood siding of the house and the garage. The little Downys do a lot of damage by themselves, but this morning the local Pileated Woodpecker got into the action, and started hammering on the garage with some serious blows.

Incoming male Pileated Woodpecker. There has always been a resident pair of Pileated Woodpeckers in the far backyard, and they are frequent winter visitors near the house to check out the bird feeders.
He looks around, doesn’t see what he wants at the bird feeders, and moves on to the garage. The male has a red mustache (this bird), while the female’s is black.
The little holes in the siding were made by the Downy Woodpeckers, but the much bigger chisel bill of the Pileated could make short work of tearing out huge chunks of the siding. So, I had to chase him off.