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!