Birding is such hard work

We sit quietly in chairs placed strategically near bird feeders, waiting expectantly with cameras on laps and binoculars glued to eyes, searching for that iconic shot of some new bird we’ve never seen before, or a better shot of a bird we have seen many times before. When we’ve exhausted the possibilities at one site, we get in the car and move on to the next one. It’s such hard work…(not). But it’s the thrill of the hunt for the best shot that keeps us going from place to place.

From my chair I could see hummingbirds coming to any one of six feeders (two shown here), but most were too far away to get good close-ups of the action. Oranges, jars of grape jelly, platforms with seed, and containers of suet mix were spread out in the trees in front of us — a real bird buffet. All we had to do was sit and wait for birds to show up.

In Portal, Arizona, in the foothills of the Chiricahua mountains, you are welcome to visit the backyards of the local residents to sit and photograph the birds that visit their feeders. At this particular backyard, a Roadrunner (lower left of the photo) walked through the backyard looking for an unwary bird to capture. It made a half-hearted attempt to lunge at a hummer on one of the feeders in the photo above, but gave up and moved on. We heard it had grabbed and eaten a Cactus Wren just a half hour before.

This is a collage of the Broad-billed Hummingbird’s approach to the feeder. If the bird catches the light just right, it shows off it’s beautiful iridescent blue and green feathers. Photos taken at 1/2000th of a second stop the rapid wing action as the bird hovers in place. Click on the image to view it in full screen.
Even though the feeder is large in comparison to their size, hummingbirds aren’t very tolerant of others trying to feed at the same time they are. Here, a female Blue-throated hummer feeding on the left is much larger than the approaching make Broad-billed Hummingbird, and just her presence there is enough to make him hesitate to settle on the feeder.

Sky Islands and flat tires

We were 3 miles from our destination at Cave Creek Ranch in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona when a rear tire on our Highlander went flat (note to self: avoid driving on gravel roads!). And although this was a major inconvenience for my husband who had to drive 60 miles to the nearest Walmart to get a new tire, it meant we could stay at the ranch an extra day.

We had a nice view of the mountains from our room at Cave Creek Ranch, Portal, Arizona. The golden-leafed Sycamores were just past their prime color, but still added vibrancy to the landscape.

The Chiricahua Mountains rise 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them an “island in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along the gradient from hot dry, desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, and this means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity. And like animals on oceanic islands, Sky Island animals are restricted to their mountain environment, and may become locally endemic, not mixing or interbreeding with the rest of their parent species.

Chiricahua mountain oak and sycamore forests, often riparian, give way to higher elevation juniper and pinyon pines in the Cave Creek area.

Such”sky islands” occur in a number of locations in North America, but this one in the Chiricahuas is particularly interesting because it attracts more southern-distributed Mexican and Central American species like Trogons, Mexican Jays, coatis (raccoon relatives), Jaguars, Mexican wolves, javelinas, and some endemic races of white-tailed deer and wild turkeys.

Coues Whitetail deer is a diminutive subspecies of the eastern Whitetail that stands less than 3 feet at the shoulder. Large surface area of its ears helps it dissipate heat, but the deer stay primarily in the oak and sycamore woods and nearby grasslands at middle elevation in the mountains of southeastern Arizona and ranging south into Mexico. Their elfin size may be an adaptation to limited food supply in their range.
Similarly, Gould’s Turkey is a subspecies of the eastern wild Turkey, found only in the Chiricahuas and parts of southwestern New Mexico, but its range extends south into montane parts of Mexico. Gould’s Turkey is the largest of the 7 subspecies of wild Turkey, with longer legs, bigger feet, and all white tail feathers, compared to eastern wild turkeys. That must be a spectacle during the breeding season!
There are at least 5 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos, whose coloration varies among their geographic locations. This little bird, however, is a separate species of Junco — the yellow-eyed Junco, found ONLY in the Chiricahua Sky Island and the Mexican montane region. This is a good example of “island speciation”, in which its restricted Sky Island range cut off gene flow to other North American Junco populations.
Mexican Jays lack the crest of feathers seen in Blue Jays and Steller’s Jays, and resemble Scrub Jays but are much larger than their California cousins. They inhabit the oak woodlands in mountain regions of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico, and central Mexico, where they form large, loosely familial flocks searching for acorns, pinyon nuts, and small vertebrates for dessert.
Broad-billed Hummingbirds are another example of primarily Mexican-distributed birds that will nest as far north as the Chiricahua mountains, but they migrate back south to central Mexico mountains in the winter. Maybe this handsome male found enough nectar and insects at Cave Creek Ranch to stick around a little longer after the breeding season.
The Bridled Titmouse is another primarily Mexican montane bird that just makes it into the U.S. in the Chiricahua mountains. There are actually three Titmouse/Chickadee species in the Chiricahuas, and they divide up the habitat by their preference for trees on which they forage: Juniper Titmice on junipers, Bridled Titmice on oaks and sycamores, and Mexican Chickadees on higher elevation pines.

Quite a diverse place, those Sky Islands of Arizona!


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.