Saturday, April 30, 2011

Red-faced Warblers

... Someone is watching us!

Red-faced Warbler (Photos by Narca)

Red-faced Warblers are truly stunning. They are arriving now in the Chiricahuas, although many of them are still foraging at low elevations or moving with big mixed flocks in the higher mountains. Soon they will settle down on their breeding territories in the higher Chiricahuas, where they are most likely to be encountered in montane forest near streams and on cooler, north-facing slopes.

Soon the females will arrive (as with many migrant passerines, the males arrive first) and very quickly will choose their nest sites and begin to construct nests in holes in the ground. 

Male Red-faced Warblers, like this one, are slightly brighter than females.

The BNA account by Thomas Martin and Patricia Barber mentions that males have never been seen helping the females to build a nest, although they will sometimes build an alternate nest nearby, which isn't used for breeding. Usually the nests are completely concealed, often by a roof of vegetation, a log, or a rock. Here the females lay their clutches of about 4 or 5 eggs. Occasionally an unrelated female will slip an egg into another female's nest.

Cover art for the Arizona Breeding Bird Atlas
(Acrylics by Narca)

The young warblers fledge about 12 days after they hatch, but remain dependent upon their parents for tasty insects for perhaps a week. Estimates suggest that 75% of broods are successfully raised to fledging––a high rate of productivity!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Owls, Tiny and Merely Small

Last night, Dave Jasper and I joined Gerry, Peter, and their friends from the West Midland and West Sussex bird clubs in Britain, in search of two of the special owls of Cave Creek Canyon––the Whiskered Screech Owl (a denizen of Mexico's oak-pine forests, which barely reaches the US) and the Elf Owl (imagine a lilliputian owl the size of a sparrow!).

The sycamores around the Portal post office are a traditional territory of Elf Owls, with generations of owls at that site having entertained and amazed generations of birders. This year we have a quandary. Last winter's storms broke off the branch which sheltered the most recently-used nest cavity. We have not known, until now, which cavity the Elf Owls would choose next for their chick-rearing.

As we approach the area at dusk, the Elf Owls are already vocalizing, and Dave and I home in on their calls. An owl drops from a high cavity in a nearby sycamore, and we can see the female's tiny visage at the new nest entrance. The male quickly returns to give her prey, most likely an insect he has caught.

An Elf Owl with Katydid Prey (Watercolor by Narca)

This new nest isn't quite as close and in-your-face as last year's, but it's easily visible from a public area, and thankfully not on the back side of the trunk. (These owls are quite used to seeing people, and not in the least fazed by their celebrity. The proof is in the owlets that fledge each year.) So, in Portal, the season's nightly Elf Owl show begins!

We continue up into Cave Creek Canyon to look for the Whiskered Screech Owls. Their habitat overlaps a bit with that of Western Screech Owls. The Whiskereds are usually higher in the canyon. When we arrive at a stopping point, we hear the Whiskereds as soon as we step out of the van. This territory, too, is familiar: it has also been used by generations of owls. I've never seen this nest, but Dave knows the nest site from his years of helping Helen Snyder to comb the canyon for owl nests––research that established Cave Creek Canyon as the place with the highest known density of nesting raptors in North America, about five times the density of the Snake River Birds of Prey Area in Idaho.

Soon Dave's flashlight (AKA torch to the Brits) catches the gleam of eyeshine from the calling Whiskered Screech Owl, and the group enjoys a lingering look at the lovely little owl, his beak clearly greenish-yellow instead of having the blackish cast of a Western Screech Owl's bill.

Whiskered Screech Owl at a Day Roost
(Watercolor by Narca)

The magic continues with an unproductive stop for Common Poor-wills, but with a magnificent field of stars overhead, here under some of the darkest skies in North America.

Sycamores in the deep of night (Photo by Narca)

I am also impressed anew upon seeing Dave's skills, acquired through years of guiding all the kids at Camp Chiricahua, applied so effectively to adults. (Hey––I fell into line! And so did the owls!)

Saturday, April 23, 2011


The last couple of weeks have been very full, all days afield with friends and clients. A few days ago on the road to Barfoot Park, high in the Chiricahuas, a faint buzzing like an angry bee announced the presence of a tiny Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Crotalus pricei) at our feet, doing its best to get out of the way. (We let it!)

Twin-spotted Rattlesnake (Photos by Narca)

Then today's hike with Alan, Carol Comeau, and John Roser on the Ash Springs loop brought a close encounter with one of the most beautiful of snakes, the Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake (Lampropeltis pyromelana). John spotted it: he tends to look down for snakes; I am usually looking up!

This mimic of the Western Coral Snake is usually diurnal and, when it emerges from under rocks, is on the move, for it actively searches for food instead of waiting in ambush for prey to pass by. Sonoran Mountain Kingsnakes feed mainly on rodents and small lizards. We see only a few each year, so this one was a treat!

Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake

We had been worried that the extreme deep freeze experienced by the region this winter may have killed many reptiles. A few species, like Clark's Spiny Lizards, may have been especially vulnerable because of their hibernation habits, and we have yet to see any of those emerge. But at least the state-protected Twin-spots and the fabulous Sonoran Mountain Kingsnakes seem to have survived the extreme cold snap.

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Cautionary Tale

B Alvarius's comment from last post reminded me of a modern day Tall Tale, set in the bootheel of New Mexico at what was then called the Gray Ranch, a fabled ranch sprawled across the Continental Divide, which 20 years ago was owned by The Nature Conservancy. TNC found a partner, a private foundation, to take over ownership and management, because the Gray was too expensive an acquisition to keep. Its cost impacted all their other programs, across the board, and finding a new owner who held the same vision for the land became a high priority. They were in the midst of that search when Alan and I arrived to live on the ranch as volunteers, helping TNC mainly with docent and science programs.

High on the list of prospective new owners were Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, just married. Indeed, they spent their honeymoon at the ranch. (Later, on occasions when Alan and I stayed in "their" room, it was rather like sleeping at an inn in a bed once occupied by Abraham Lincoln.)

Jane thoroughly charmed everyone at the ranch, mainly by simple kindness shown to all. Our friend Ben was thrilled to have the honor of taking her around the Gray, and showing her the flora and fauna. It was the time of year when the luscious, red cactus fruits were fully ripe, and Ben was explaining that they were edible, quite tasty in fact. Jane expressed interest in trying one, so Ben speared one with his pocket knife and set about peeling it. When he turned to present it to Jane, he was horrified to see that she had just plucked one and was popping it, unpeeled, into her mouth!

Cactus fruits are just as spiny as the rest of the plant. The spines just aren't big, and they are very hard to see. These minute glochids grow in clusters across the entire surface of the fruit. Unpeeled, a cactus fruit is big trouble! Ben said that they spent the rest of the day, to his utter dismay, trying to remove the glochids from Jane's mouth!

Flowering Cane Cholla, source of the culprit fruit
(Photos by Narca)

In addition to that folly was Ted's memorable comment. On a later trip, the TNC manager Geoff took him on a long 4-wheel-drive outing around the ranch's Animas Mountains. It is the sort of road that can break an axle, and it took them all day to reach the Culberson Camp at the southern end of the mountains, via the long route. (There is much quicker access, too!)

The Culberson is an old adobe with no electricity and with walls two feet thick. A windmill pumps water for the house. Originally the headquarters of the Culberson Ranch, it was incorporated into the Gray when George Hearst and his partner were cobbling together the immense ranch. The Culberson also served as the requisitioned headquarters of General "Black Jack" Pershing, when he was pursuing Pancho Villa across the Borderlands.

Alan and I lived at the Culberson during our year on the Gray Ranch, and we were living there when Turner visited.

When Geoff and Ted Turner bounced into the yard of the Culberson after their long drive through the wilderness of the Animas Mountains, Ted took one look at the old adobe and said, "You'd really have to get along with your wife to live here!"

Culberson Camp in winter, on the Gray Ranch

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sign of the Times

Last month, we stopped at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on our way home to Portal. The park newsletter was organized differently this year. Several wide columns sported headings such as:

"What To Do if You Have 1/2 Hour" in the park... "1 hour"... "2 or 3 Hours"

A half-hour?! Oh my. A little rushed, are we?

A young Organ Pipe Cactus, Stenocereus thurberi
(Photo by Narca)