Thursday, October 15, 2015

"Turaco Country" Arrives!

Dale Zimmerman's new memoir, Turaco Country, has been published, and the advance copies are here! The big smile on Dale's face says it all!

Dale Zimmerman with his advance copy of Turaco Country
(Photo by Narca)

Turaco Country meticulously illumines Dale's adventures and ornithological investigations in East Africa, and is illustrated with more than 900 of his beautiful photographs.

You can read in detail about this engrossing new book at It has received high praise from reviewers Kevin Zimmer and Noel Snyder. Sky Island Press is very proud of its first offering!

The bulk of the shipment should arrive at the Chiricahua Desert Museum the week of November 11, 2015, and your pre-ordered books will ship then. The folks at E.C.O. are handling all the orders and distribution.

After more than five years of work, the masterpiece is ready!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Grail Quail

After 20 years, that most excellent of quail –– the Montezuma –– has finally deigned to visit our Roundhouse. Grasses around and above us are now very thick, giving them plenty of protective cover.

A pair of Montezuma Quail, venturing onto new ground
(All photos by Narca)

For a couple of months, usually in the evening, I've been hearing their short, infrequent whistles, which manage to be resonant, burry, and descending, all within about a second's time. But hearing a Montezuma and seeing one are two very different propositions.

Finally! A pair has discovered the water dishes out by the bird feeders. Quietly and unpredictably, they slip in and out.

A demure female Montezuma Quail...

...and her harlequin mate

Montezuma Quail key their breeding to the rains. After dry winters, they wait till well after the summer monsoon has begun, unlike the Gambel's and Scaled quail, which nest in spring and early summer. This year, our winter rains were good enough that the Montezumas could breed early, though so far the three glimpses we've had of our new residents have been of pairs, so we're assuming that the females aren't yet on nests.

If you're searching for Montezuma Quail (not an uncommon situation for birders), they are easiest to see during breeding season when they are calling and after the young hatch, when the family groups are giving little contact calls.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Open Wide, Diamondback!

Among the delights of living in the southwest borderlands is the opportunity to watch interesting reptiles going about their lives. Western Diamondbacks are the most frequent rattlesnakes to visit our yard –– sometimes to drink, sometimes to battle each other for dominance, sometimes to mate, and often to ambush prey. They are nonaggressive towards us, but we do have to fine-tune our snake radar during the warmer months! Awareness of where we walk or reach quickly becomes second nature.

A Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus atrox, has captured 
an adult Gambel's Quail (All photos by Narca)

Yesterday a medium-sized Diamondback (about 4 1/2 feet long) caught an unwary male Gambel's Quail. We have a big surplus of unmated male Gambel's in the neighborhood, right now all of them giving their plaintive come-hither calls, in the effort to find a mate. Any step outside immerses us in a quailey surround-sound. So this Diamondback found a meal in an abundant species; and we were glad he hadn't caught one of our much scarcer Scaled or Montezuma quail. Diamondbacks often eat rodents, like woodrats, and even full-grown cottontails. Western Diamondbacks reputedly can go for two years without food in the wild!

Are you sure you can manage that??

A snake in the neighborhood gets noticed. In fact, one can stay coiled for days near water or seed, before a strike is finally successful. We've seen many more misses than strikes. When a snake does catch inattentive prey, the long process of swallowing attracts spectators –– here, a Canyon Towhee, among the most curious of birds.

Western Diamondback, watched by a Canyon Towhee 
(and by me, from our balcony!)

Bit by bit, the quail disappears

Black-tailed Rattlesnakes also wander through the yard, but they are more active hunters, and don't set up shop by the water dishes. Mojave Rattlesnakes are much more frequent down in the valley below us, at a slightly lower elevation.

For years, a very large rattlesnake, which we dubbed "Old Scarsides", visited us, but he disappeared several years ago. 

Nearly gone...

The most memorable email I ever received from a house-sitter reached us in Bolivia, from Dave Utterback, the noted bird artist who died in 2009. While house-sitting, he had left our front door open, and a woodrat got in. He managed to trap the woodrat, and put her in the freezer. Next day, a rattlesnake coiled in ambush by the seed feeder, and Dave tried to feed the woodrat to the snake, which showed no interest in the cold carcass. "So I warmed her up in your microwave, and then the snake ate her." Thanks, Dave.

If you're afraid of snakes, and would like to get past that, the next time you see one, just watch from a safe, respectful distance. Soon you may find yourself more intrigued than afraid! 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Rufous-backed Robins Visit Portal!

My glimpse of an interesting bird at dusk was confirmed soon after when Dave Jasper called to tell us that he had just seen Rufous-backed Robins by the post office in Portal that morning.

Rufous-backed Robin in Arizona Sycamore
(Photos by Narca)

Normally at home further south in Mexico, Rufous-backs most often frequent dry deciduous forest. Their behavior and diet are similar to those of their cousin, the familiar American Robin, though they are often shyer than ours –– a trait you'd never guess by the way this Rufous-back cooperated!

You can just make out the warm rufous tones 
on this bird's back and wing coverts.

The streaks on the throat are stronger and extend farther down
 on Rufous-backs than on American Robins, 
and they sport no white marks around the eye.

Isn't Portal grand in the spring?!

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Treeswifts––Pure Elegance!

Among many highlights of our recent trip to Cambodia and Borneo were treeswifts––the ultimate in avian elegance!

Related to swifts and hummingbirds, treeswifts comprise one small family of only four species. For a long time they confounded ornithologists, who placed them with swallows. Even their scientific name reflects the confusion: Hemiprocne, or "half-swallow". 

On this recent trek to Asia, we were delighted to see three of the four treeswifts: Crested, Whiskered, and Gray-rumped. 

Crested Treeswifts grace the skies of Tmatboey, Cambodia
(Photos by Narca)

Most treeswifts live in more open, edge habitats, where they swoop through the air like especially acrobatic swallows to catch their insect prey, but the lovely Whiskered Treeswift is a species of primary evergreen forest, where it works a different kind of edge. It soars in the spaces around the canopies of emergent trees, acrobatically scouring the upper edge of the tall forests for its food. Only rarely does it venture into second-growth forest.

Male Whiskered Treeswifts sport deep rufous cheeks...

while the female's cheeks are blackish. 
This pair was in the Danum Valley, Borneo.

Pairs of Whiskered Treeswifts stay in their year-round territories, where they nest at the tips of slender branches (probably as a defense against predation by snakes). Their small nests are built of bits of bark, leaves and feathers, cemented by their saliva. They lay a single egg, which completely fills the tiny cup.

I never tire of watching the graceful flight of treeswifts!