It’s that time of year when the turkeys parade through the backyard — the Toms eager to show off their fine feathery plumes and the hens picking at scraps from the bird feeder and completely ignoring those beautiful displays of feather finery.
Despite cold rainy weather for the past few days, a few of the many migratory bird species that will eventually pass through this area have stopped by the backyard to grab a quick snack. Rain may have kept them grounded temporarily, but that’s not a bad thing when they need to replenish their fat stores with all the nutritious bird seed and suet lying around for the taking.
Foraging behavior in some birds is hard-wired; their neocortex is full of pre-programmed instructions, unlike mammals that rely on a suite of learned behaviors. The reason I bring this up is that there was a feeder full of lovely, fresh seed four feet above this bird, but rather than fly up there and grab a beak full, it painstakingly scratched through moldy mulch in search of the stray seed some squirrel hadn’t yet found.
In contrast, Yellowrump Warbers seem to adapt quickly to whatever looks edible in the backyard. They tried out the bird seed, the left-over peanut butter suet, and scratched around in the litter, perhaps hoping to scare up some errant bug. A few tried flycatching but nothing much was flying around in this damp weather.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
On a morning walk around Cave Creek ranch near Portal, Arizona, we happened upon a pair of Arizona Woodpeckers working on their nest hole.
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.
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.
I don’t think this bird feeder raider paid its $5 either.
what would you call this little animal?
However, the pig family, all 16 some known species, are native to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Until humans brought them to North America, there were no pigs in the Americas.
But there is a group of four species that filled the pig role (niche) in the Americas, and that is the javelina, or peccary, shown above. They comprise their own family, completely separate from the pig family, and are found primarily in central and South America. Only one species, the javelina, or collared peccary, makes it into the southwestern U.S.
Javelina root around in the litter and soil, like a pig would, looking for tubers, seeds, insect larvae, etc., and are especially fond of prickly pear pads which they have learned to eat without getting spines up their noses.
Peccaries once had a world-wide distribution, and fossils of extinct peccaries can be found on all continents except Antarctica and Australia, so why are they only found in the Americas today? It is thought that competition with the later evolving members of the pig family in Europe, Africa, and Asia may have led to their extinction there, leaving the American species as the only representatives of the peccary family.
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.
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.
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!
We met some new friends along the Cave Creek trail, but apparently our “old friends” may be new as well.
In the cool canyons above the desert floor, riparian woodlands thrive along the banks of streams flowing down from the mountains.
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.
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 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.
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!
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).