Thursday, March 31, 2011


At our home in Portal, hordes of elegant Phainopeplas have swarmed for months to drink at our tiny "fish" pond (aka lure for migrating Ospreys, though the fish which we inherited from the previous inhabitants have long since disappeared).

Suddenly, about four days ago, the Phainopeplas vanished!

A male Phainopepla brings mistletoe berries to his young.
(Pen-and-ink by Narca)

Phainopeplas belong to an interesting New World group of birds, the silky flycatchers. Only four species are in this tropical family, all of them lovely, and of those only the Phainopepla's range extends north into the US. Most are crested, with silky plumage. Phainopeplas perform eye-catching displays of aerial flycatching. They have ruby-red eyes and white wing patches, and they feast on the small berries of mistletoe (Phorandendron), algerita (Berberis), Lycium, and juniper.

More than 100 years ago, Gilman noticed their remarkable dual life: they appear in the Sonoran Desert in late winter or early spring, and breed there. As the heat intensifies, they then retreat with their fledglings to their cooler canyon fastness in Arizona and California, where breeding again commences in late spring or early summer. Whether the same individuals breed twice each year remains a mystery not yet completely decoded.

Miyoko Coco Chu (dissertation from UC Berkeley 1999) attempted to unravel the complexities of the birds' breeding and seasonal movements in California, where they move between the Colorado and Mojave Deserts, and the coast range. (Thanks to Carl Lundblad for bringing Chu's work to my attention!)

Phainopeplas are suspected to practice "itinerant breeding," like the infamous Red-billed Queleas of Africa. It is a very rare strategy among birds, and seems to occur when their food supplies are unpredictable and shift geographically in response to dramatic changes in local conditions.

Other itinerant breeders include Tricolored Blackbird and, it is speculated, the extinct Passenger Pigeon.

Both Phainopeplas and queleas specialize on foods that can shift dramatically during the breeding season, and both are regularly faced with the prospect of complete failure of their nesting efforts, due to drought and other vagaries. These undependable conditions very likely foster unusually flexible behavior, and Phainopeplas appear able to remain reproductive even when forced to abandon their early season breeding habitat in the low desert. Once they leave for the cooler canyons of desert mountain ranges, they may be able to bring off a second brood, or to attempt another clutch if the first one failed in the desert.

Here in southeast Arizona, by the time the Phainopeplas return to the canyons, the summer monsoons (in a good year) have brought good rains, allowing the food shrubs to produce berries for another generation of Phainopeplas.

So, our birds in Portal just left this past week. Has anyone in the low desert noticed an influx of Phainopeplas?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

All Smiles

Yesterday's field trip to Molino Basin in the Santa Catalina Mountains above Tucson was spectacular! Mary Klinkel ably led the group from SEABA (Southeast Arizona Butterfly Association), helped by Gary Jue and Mary Kay Eiermann. Weather couldn't have been kinder: warm and sunny, with no wind. Butterflies were nectaring at the bell-shaped flowers of Point-leaf Manzanita (a shrub in the heather family) and coming to damp sand and the edges of waterholes still present in the gulches.

Xami Hairstreak is exceedingly rare in Arizona.
(All photos by Narca)

The big highlight for everyone was a tiny Xami Hairstreak, the rarest of Arizona's breeding butterflies. Ken Kertell had been searching separately for the species today, and stayed with one until our group arrived on the scene. Xami caterpillars feed on succulents like Graptopetalum, which looked mostly withered, but was starting to send up some new shoots and leaves. Ken mentioned that Jim Brock thinks that, after a time, the caterpillars overwhelm the host plant, then Xamis disappear for a decade or more, and most likely recolonize from some other area. They are also known from Texas and Mexico.

Graptopetalum is the host plant for caterpillars of Xami Hairstreak.

Pipevine and Two-tailed Swallowtails, many Sara Orangetips, Desert Pearly Marbles, a Sleepy Orange, Brown Elfins, Gray Hairstreaks, Echo Spring Azures, Sagebrush Checkerspots, Texan Crescent, Golden-headed Scallopwings, Arizona Powdered Skipper, Sleepy Duskywing, and Funereal Duskywings rounded out the list of what most of us saw.

Sleepy Duskywing (Erynnis brizo) reflects a lovely blue fringe when it is very fresh and in the right light.

Sagebrush Checkerspots (Chlosyne acastus) were a real treat, too. I had only seen this species once before, in Death Valley.

Thanks to Mary, SEABA, and all the participants, who made the morning such a delight!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Scottish Highlands––This Autumn!

Calling all adventurers!

I invite you to join me on a Naturalist Journeys tour this fall to Scotland. We'll focus on the Scottish Highlands and (for the trip extension) on the remote and wild Outer Hebrides. Fall is a very fine time to visit here––the Highlands glow with autumn color, all the specialty birds are present in good numbers, and seabird and waterfowl flocks are staging for migration. Minke Whales ply the northern waters enroute to the Hebrides.

Scotland is a land of deep roots, and all the wildness of the ages still resounds in its bagpipe music. I've been drawn to return here time and again––alone, with family, with friends, guiding tours––and have explored its byways by rail, by bus, by ferry, by small boat, on foot, hitchhiking, by rental car (the stick shift is located where? on which side of the steering wheel?!). I sorta speak the language.

We'll be based for an entire week at the Mountview Hotel in the heart of Cairngorms National Park (Britain's largest park), and will use it as a jumping-off point to explore seabird colonies and quaint villages along the Moray coast. Here in the ancient Caledonian pinewoods and upon the heather-covered moorlands, the birds are a very fun twist on groups we're familiar with in North America: kinglets become Goldcrests, sporting fancy crowns. Our American Robin has cousins in the Redwing, the Fieldfare, and the Song Thrush. Crested Tits are as charming as a chickadee can be. Scotland has its own species of crossbill, which we hope to find. You may also hear Red Deer, bellowing as they rut in the woods. European Badgers burrow; Pine Martens haunt this ancient forest.

Along the coast, thousands of Greylag and Pink-footed Geese will be massing, joined by small numbers of Brant and Barnacle Geese, with rarities like Red-breasted Goose possible.

Western Capercaillie (Pen and ink by Narca)

And the grouse! Black Grouse will be lingering at their leks. Rock Ptarmigan will be molting into winter plumage. Imagine a Western Capercaillie, the size of a Wild Turkey, gorging on autumn berries! We'll be at the heart of their range in Britain. (Once on the shore of Lake Baikal, a Black-billed Capercaillie came exploding out of the thicket at my feet: just a little startling! But I've not yet seen the Western species.)

Then it's across the Minch! The trip extension is an exciting voyage by ferry to the Outer Hebrides, where we will base at a comfortable hotel on the Isle of Harris. The ferry is large and steady, and gives us an excellent opportunity to see migrating seabirds like Great Skua, European Storm-Petrel, and possibly Balearic Shearwater. Marine mammals like Gray Seal and Harbor Porpoise can also join the show. The rugged, evocative Isle of Harris defines "remote." We'll visit the Stones of Callanish, a stone circle thought to be 4500 to 5000 years old, and enjoy fabulous birding here at the "Outer Limits."

Scottish seabirds sketched in the field by Narca

Are you as intrigued by Scotland as I am? Check out the full itinerary on our website at, and give us a call! (Paste the website into your address line; I'm not getting the direct link to work.)

The dates are September 17-24 for the main trip, and September 24-27 for the extension to the Outer Hebrides.

Time is getting short for signing on, and you don't want to miss Scotland in autumn! I hope to see you there.

(No, I won't be driving!)

Saturday, March 12, 2011


The trailhead for Hellhole Canyon in Anza Borrego State Park sports this sign: "People have died on this trail." Well... that seems a little melodramatic... but in summer it certainly could apply, when the temperature can climb to 124º!

Even though today's temperature is a mellow 80º, hikers year-round do need hats and plenty of water on this 5-mile trek. Also Mountain Lions do roam here... and perhaps those of us who live with lions and rattlesnakes grow too accustomed to them, and careless.

Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa) adds sunny splashes to the wildflower display. (All photos by Narca)

Beautiful Desert Hibiscus (Hibiscus denudatus) is in the mallow family.

The trail is fairly level and well-maintained, as it mounts the wide bajada at the foot of Hellhole Canyon. Many flowers are peaking just now, and the wide fan is aflame with the reds of Chuparosa. Shortly after the canyon walls close in, a small stream of water cuts the trail, and in the distance I see a stately grove of California Fan Palm, the only native palm in the southwestern US.

California Fan Palm (Washingtonia filifera) at Hellhole oasis

California Fan Palms grow only at desert oases, where fault lines along the mountains' roots allow water to flow to the surface. Anza Borrego must have gotten a good recent rain, for the flow today is strong, and the sand on the open bajada is still damp below the surface. Ocotillo always flowers after a good, soaking rain, and it is in flower today, and fresher than the Ocotillo was yesterday in Plum Canyon.

Several of the fan palms show scars from a fire, but many have survived. Trunks are scorched, and their long skirts of old fronds are now miniskirts, no longer brushing the ground. I scramble over a boulder with a bedrock mortar, evidence that Native Americans gathered here to grind acorns and other seeds, in the cool shade of the well-watered canyon.

Bedrock mortar at Hellhole Canyon, still holding water from the last rain

California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) in flower

I'm early, and the sun hasn't yet topped the ridge, so I must wait for its warmth if I'm to see any butterflies. Only a single Mourning Cloak flies before the sun has hit the canyon bottom. A few Orange-crowned and Yellow-rumped Warblers forage in the palms and California Sycamores. Lesser Goldfinches are very conversational this morning, as they gather to drink and bathe.

Male Lesser Goldfinch (Pen-and-ink by Narca)

As soon as the sun hits, the Sara Orangetips fly––dozens of them, the only abundant butterfly today. Variable Checkerspots energetically zoom past, alighting occasionally to bask. On the return trail, only the orangetips and a few blues venture to flowers on the alluvial fan, beyond the water.

Variable Checkerspot (Euphydryas chalcedona hennei)

Like butterflies, lizards emerge with the sun's warmth. Several Side-blotched Lizards scurry away as I return downhill.

A Side-blotched Lizard (Uta stansburiana) has the confidence of a dinosaur, its small size notwithstanding!

One change is very striking: a new plant has invaded the low desert, which I didn't notice on my last visit, and it is already a scourge. The Saharan Mustard. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum's website gives a lot of information:

This very fast-growing invader is self-pollinated, so every flower sets seed––as many as 16,000 seeds on a single plant! Seeds disperse from broken, tumbling, wind-blown plants. This mustard smothers native plants, and quickly overruns a region with up to 100% coverage. It can form impenetrable stands up to 5 feet high. Then, adding insult, it carries fire into desert communities that don't normally experience fire and can't tolerate it. I probably pull up 100 of the plants growing right along the trail to Hellhole Canyon, but can see many more.

Seed pods of Saharan Mustard (Brassica tournefortii)

Back at the car, Noel has been photographing a pair of Loggerhead Shrikes as they return every couple of minutes to feed their four hatchlings. It is the second shrike nest we've found on this trip. This pair has so far outwitted a pair of Common Ravens that are malingering here, no doubt aware that the shrikes have a nest somewhere nearby. Nestling ravens grow up on a diet that consists largely of the young of other birds. These shrikes are wary of the ravens, though, and, with continuing alert parental care, the four nestlings stand a good chance of surviving. In general, shrike productivity is high. Noel says that a major issue causing declines of Loggerhead Shrikes throughout their range is collision with cars.

Loggerhead Shrike in its dense thicket of a nest shrub

Common Ravens are among the most intelligent of birds.

Shrikes are fascinating birds. Their display is unique: they don't sing complex melodies, or flash brilliant colors to woo a mate. Instead, they build a larder by impaling grasshoppers, lizards, mice and other prey on the thorns of mesquite, the points of agave leaves, or the spikes of barbwire, thus proving to potential mates what good providers they are. (The only Pygmy Mouse that Alan and I have ever seen was one spotted by Arnie Moorhouse in a shrike larder!)

Friday, March 11, 2011

Plum Canyon

We're in Anza Borrego State Park, which showcases the Colorado Desert of southern California. Colorado Desert is basically Sonoran Desert, minus the Saguaro, and with other differences in plant and animal species. It is the Californian expression of Sonoran Desert.

Not far to the north, the habitat grades into Mojave Desert, well-expressed at Joshua Tree National Park. The two deserts, although close to each other, have different rainfall regimes. Mojave Desert is a land primarily of winter rains, while Sonoran Desert receives both winter and summer rains more frequently, and is the lushest of the four North American deserts.

Here at Anza Borrego, Plum Canyon is accessible via a mile-long, primitive road, and a plum of a canyon it is! We've come in search of Sonoran Blues, a very local California butterfly, and one that I've not seen before. Noel is most interested in obtaining photos of the spectacular female, while I just want to see the beast!

Hillside at Plum Canyon (Photos by Narca)

Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi) is in the mint family.

We car-camp in Plum Canyon, which is out of the way enough that there is rarely another camper, although it is often visited during the day. The dawn light reveals masses of flowering Chuparosa and Desert Lavender, with California Barrel Cactus and Teddy Bear Cholla cloaking the slopes of the canyon. A short hike upstream brings us to the first Desert Dudleya, the host plant for Sonoran Blue caterpillars.

Desert Dudleya (Dudleya saxosa) adorns the walls of Plum Canyon. 

California Barrel Cactus (Ferrocactus cylindraceous)

Chuperosa or Beloperone (Justicia californica)

We split up in order to cover more ground, a strategy that pretty much guarantees frustration for everyone, as special critters may be seen by one party but missed by the other! And indeed, Noel spots a Western Tailed Blue, which I've never seen, and I find three Bramble Hairstreaks, which he has never seen. But we are both lucky with the grail species, for the Sonoran Blues are flying!

Bramble Hairstreak

Next challenge: yes, they are flying, but are any sitting?

Butterflying requires different strategies and a different nuance of patience from birding. We tramp the canyon for hours and catch numerous glimpses of our quarry. Finally we return to the cars, and just at the trailhead, a male and a female Sonoran Blue discover each other, and with no preliminaries at all, settle down to the serious business of making the next generation of Sonoran Blues.

Amorous Sonoran Blue butterflies

A male Sonoran Blue pauses briefly in his patrol of Plum Canyon.

Forty minutes later, the task has been accomplished, and the male quickly flits away, while the female lingers briefly, working her hind wings vigorously, after the manner of a hairstreak.

A female Sonoran Blue, ready to search out Dudleya to lay her eggs.

Au revoir, little friend!

Our butterflies live in a precarious world, where human activities and changing climate impact their seasonal cycles and their food plants. Even here at Plum Canyon, the last time that Alan, Noel, Jim and I visited, we found that a plant collector had been illegally digging up the Dudleya, the Sonoran Blue's host plant, no doubt for sale to rock gardeners. Noel's favorite side canyon had been ravished by the plant collector––and very recently, for the little holes still remained where the plants had been rooted. This trip, thankfully, we saw no evidence of illegal collecting.

For an outstanding article on the work which Art Shapiro at University of California, Davis, has been doing to correlate climate change with loss of butterfly species, go to this link:

Thursday, March 3, 2011


At the end of February, Wally, Jo Ann, Jim and Kris joined me for a day afield to Whitewater Draw, a state wildlife area north of Douglas, Arizona. Weather couldn't have sparkled more! And the birds were feeling both the warmth of the day (after rain and snow the day before!) and the tug of migratory impulses.

Several wintering species are still lingering, waiting till their northern breeding grounds thaw out. Chestnut-collared Longspurs touched down at Willow Tank for a very quick drink, then rushed off in typical mad hatter fashion, the flock eddying in a sort of constant Brownian motion. Several of the males were in full breeding regalia.

Lark Buntings by the hundreds lined the roadsides, the males starting to develop their striking black-and-white breeding plumage.

Resident species, like this pair of Great Horned Owls, are gearing up for breeding.

Great Horned Owls at Whitewater Draw
(All photos by Narca)

Waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes are still a spectacle at Whitewater. Today the cranes numbered in the thousands, far more than I had seen here just two days previously. A gray sea stretched north toward the horizon.

Sandhill Cranes with sleeping pintail at Whitewater Draw

A drake Green-winged Teal at Whitewater Draw

Other species are just arriving from the south. The year's first Cliff Swallow winged past: a surprise, since they usually trail all the other regular migrant swallows in our corner of Arizona. This one must have wintered somewhere well north of Brazil! The first Bendire's Thrasher of the year also perched, calmly regarding us, near the entrance to Whitewater Draw.

And I'm off, too, for a quick trip to Anza Borrego to chase butterflies. Sonoran Blue is very high on my wish list, and they are flying in Plum Canyon!

American Bullfrog at Willow Tank (here an invasive species)