Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect

Barn Owl
It was a day off from road treks.  So I took my other half Pat to the Desert Museum near Tucson.  The purpose of this visit was to check out the new Warden Aquarium. 
Mountain Lion
I counted wild birds while working on my photography skills. And to be honest, I am getting to the point in birding where I just want to watch birds and not have to take pictures of them.  My number one rule is "Get a good shot of the lifebird".  Afterwards, just enjoy the observations.
Emperor Swallowtail on Hibiscus
And while I've seen all of these birds in the wild, it's not always easy to get up close and personal.  So I figured, why not cheat and get some great stock photos from these birds?  National Geographic does it as do many other wildlife photographers!  And how do I know???  After staying at many birder bed and breakfast places, the owners tell us what some of these photography gurus do:) I still prefer the wildlife shots but it's still nice to see the details.
Western Screech Owl
And so I had a blast:)
In the wild, as most of us know, it's important to stay quiet and completely still.
Moving a camera  up with its very audible "click" will scare away some of our elusive friends.
Today's challenge though was to capture the beauty and personality of the animal filmed.  It was about NOT taking that "zoo pic" but capturing the essence and personality of the subject.
I have an affinity for owls. Owls trump most birds except maybe the Harpy Eagle. Or the Toucan.  Maybe a parrot:)  Well....you get the idea:)
As I'm understanding the wildlife better, my fears are also quieting down a bit.  The Barn Owl flew near my ear and everyone went, "Oh my gosh guy!"  One time a Bobcat came running towards me and then turned to the side.  It didn't frighten me.  I'm always super careful but I'm learning to read animal and bird behavior better.  The Owl was just going after food.  The Bobcat was only running down the path to capture a mouse.
Now I've heard stories.  Canada and the northern parts of the United States have issues with Great-horned Owls going after "Soccer" Moms.  I couldn't figure out why this was happening until it was mentioned that while running, their ponytails looked like moving mice.  I laughed at first and then thought about it visually.  A head injury from owl talons is not cool.  So to those soccer moms out there, cover up!  And hide that ponytail under a baseball cap! Public Radio is so informative:)
There is a story out there just waiting to be written and I hope to write it for you all one day.  Arizona is/was home to several parrot species.  I will be studying these birds over the next year here in Arizona.  I hope to find some(beyond the lovebirds and monk parrots of Phoenix and Casa Grande). The Thick-billed Parrot is a rare treasure and if you ever come across one, consider yourself extremely lucky!  It is endangered and while there is a successful captive program going on around the country, these birds have lost ground to habitat destruction, poaching, and high predation from hawks like the Northern Goshawk.  The reintroduction to the Madrean islands looks to be highly unlikely.  Currently these birds are found in the Mexican state of Chihuahua and I'm thinking a trip there would be fun.
However, Western Screech Owls are common in Tucson.  Here's one below I recently took in the wild.  Not the greatest of shots, but these tiny owls are still a wonderful find!

I've been thinking about adding an owl box to my garden here at El Presidio.  The only issue?  3 feral cats that roam freely thanks to ghetto neighbors.  I love cats.  I love owls.  But if I saw an owl killed by a feral cat, it would be the cats end.  I'd capture it and have it taken to Pima Animal Control.  And bye bye feral cat.  They kill over 3 billion birds a year! We have 5 cats at our place and they are not allowed outside.  But they do get an entertainment window to watch birds.  It's a win win for birds and cats alike.
And so, the owl nesting box will have to wait until Greystoke, Tubby, and Bear no longer come around.
This spring I will be working on my butterfly garden again. This past summer, we saw so many of them around our property.  It's all about using the right plants:)
I can now relax my camera when it comes to the Barn and Western Screech Owls.
The little guy below was very curious.
I think snakes are cool(when they are behind glass).  This Mohave Rattlesnake gave me the shivers.  There's nothing worse than coming across a snake in the wild while birding.  I now have a first aid kit for that potential bite.
Mohave Rattlesnake
One trek I have yet to make is to the Aravapai reserve.  It's home to many of our Bighorn Sheep.
Bighorn Sheep
Soon our hummingbirds will have babies.
And as for the aquarium???  It was divine!  Check out the video below from my Iphone:) Until next time.....

Sunday, February 24, 2013

A True Spectacle

Plumbeous Vireo
Vireo.  A simple and yet complicated bird.  One that masks itself within other small birds like gnatcatchers, warblers, and kinglets.  It makes the game of birding a tricky one.  But the one thing that gives these birds away are the "spectacles" that they wear around their eyes.
And yet, they aren't the easiest to spot.  Lately my eyes catch slower and random movements.....and within those observations, I discover my vireos. They usually tend to be doing their own thing.  And that's when I find myself understanding the word "observation" better.  The more we observe behaviors; the better we become at counting birds. And I find myself beginning to look for those different movements.
Cassin's Vireo
Many times, it's just one hop, skip or flutter to the branch that makes me say, "Wait a minute, that movement is distinct from________________(fill in the blank with gnatcatcher, a warbler, flycatcher, etc)"
And I wasn't quite sure I'd be able to tell the difference between a Plumbeous or Cassin's Vireo.  The Hutton's Vireo can cause beginners to scratch their heads as they try and figure out if the Hutton's is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Hammond's Flycatcher. Of course, this is simple stuff to the expert eye but not for beginners who don't know what to look for!  And if you're looking at the appearances, it can be as confusing as a Sparrow.  However those days are over:)  I'm getting cocky now but when I'm in Guatemala this summer, I'll be starting all over again as a newbie:) Oh I can see the ID headaches already.....:) And I won't even talk about sparrows:) Child's play to some while for others(like me), hours sitting behind a book and screen looking for those"field marks!"
However, after many observation hours, these 3 become very distinct. Sound. Movement.  And of course the body/head shapes.  The Hutton's was my first greatest confusion from the vireo family.  But then I met my Plumbeous last year.  Was it really gray?  Or was it a Cassin's green?  After seeing both, I can now say, these two aren't difficult at all.
They are sweet acting little birds that for me are often found jumping quietly on a branch. A Kinglet will rattle away.  A Warbler "CHIP!".  But a Vireo?  Perhaps a quiet tweet.  But their gentle and slower movements cause me to pause and evaluate.
In Tucson, we have 3 vireos on our lists. Of course, there are many more vireos out there, but these are the 3 to look for here in the Old Pueblo.  If you put your spectacles on, you might actually be looking at a vireo:)  I wear my glasses at night.  Maybe that's why it's taken me so long to find them all:) Well not all....there are more many more of these birds in other parts not found here.  Until next time.....
Hutton's Vireo

Friday, February 22, 2013

Winter's Veil

My father is in town right now and it has been very busy. But as many of you know, Tucson had a huge snow  storm come our way.  In fact, it was the first big one I've ever seen here.  
 Tucson gardeners must wait until March 15th to prune their plants back because of strange weather events like this one.  While it didn't freeze here, the snow did kill some leaves back.
 I was tired of bringing my big camera.  So instead, I used my cell phone to get these shots.  We headed over to Saguaro National Park and drove the 9 mile loop stopping every once and awhile for some lovely views.
 Of course, I blame my Dad for bringing this weather with him from Wisconsin.  But then again, it was nice to have a snow day:)
 People often ask me why Saguaros stop growing at a certain altitude on our mountains.  It's as if there was an invisible line that said, "No Saguaros beyond this point!"  Here's the reason.  Saguaros can handle some snow but they can't endure long freezes.  Now we do get to freezing temps here in the desert during our winter but not long enough to harm this cactus. Long sustained freezes, however, are another story. And that's why Saguaro stop growing after a certain point on our mountains.  Too cold.
 But the snow would come and go on this day of winter magic.
 But remember, don't prune your plants back yet Tucson!  You must wait:)  I know you're dying to do it.  I know I am......but spring is just around the corner and March will be here soon enough.  Which of course means.....wildflower season, hummingbirds, butterflies, the dry heat??!! Well, let's not rush it. Stay warm:)  Until next time.....

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Radagast Factor

Antelope Ground Squirrel
Learning to "speak" bird and animal takes time. In this final two part series, I finish up my notes and observations about "talking to the animals".  While on a trek to Saguaro National park, I was hoping to find the elusive Crissal Thrasher.  Still a no show for me!  Maybe I have a new Nemesis bird!  While trying to call  out a Thrasher, I attracted this above Antelope Squirrel.  And for several moments we were chatting back and forth together.  He got super close to me and I forgot about where I was.  Kathie was with me on this outing and snapped me back to reality because the Thrasher was staring at me.  Oh how that must have appeared!  She had thought I was looking at a bird and it turns out, I was hanging out with a ground squirrel.
Maybe these are the steps into "crazy":)
Curve-billed Thrasher
Here's the Thrasher staring at me.  Don't judge me!:)
Sunset at Catalina State Park
I'm having too much fun out in the wild.  I never go home empty handed.  This post today includes two of our wonderful parks from around Tucson.  One is Saguaro(with Kathie) and the second set of pics come from Catalina State Park. All in search of the Crissal Thrasher! I should mention that the best time to find Thrashers is early in the morning or at sunset.  Now you can find them anytime really, but they make nice appearances at these times.  I feed one Thrasher here at El Presidio.  In fact, in Arizona, you can find Bendire's, Curve-billed, Crissal, Sage and Le Conte's Thrashers.  I have yet to find the last 3. And there are two others outside of our state that I still need to find.
On our trek through Saguaro, this Cactus Wren perched perfectly above the sign.  I had to take the pic:)
But the title of the post?
Sunset at Saguaro National Park-East
Well if you read "The Hobbit" or saw the movie, you might recall a certain brown wizard known as Radagast who was the protector of all things wild.  He was put on Middle Earth to protect the forest and the critters.  Many times he had difficulty understanding the outside world and couldn't relate to mankind, dwarves or elves.  He was considered by his peers as the odd wizard.  However Gandolf respected him.  Saruman not so much.
Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher
I don't think there is anything crazy about connecting with nature.  Whether someone is a tree hugger or a birder, it's one of the best ways to forget the negative outside world.  Commune with nature!
Townsend's Solitaire
And if you go alone, you may hear the "quiet" presence of life around you. Stop.  Look up.  Look down.  Look all around. And you may just find a Townsend's Solitaire staring back at you.

Here's a clip of Radagast helping Gandalf, Bilbo and the Dwarves out. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Whispering To Birds

Costa's Hummingbird
No matter where I go now, I see birds.  And they see me.  The magical part is that they don't run(or fly) anymore.  We just stare at each other.  In a two part write, I'll share some of the strange things happening to me while out in the field during my observations.
Northern Mockingbird
Learning a new language can be difficult for many people.  But for me, it's fun and easy.  That's why I teach it to kids and adults. It's what I do and it's what pays the bills.  But I never considered speaking "bird" or "animal" a real thing.  And yet.....
Bewick's Wren
I have been able to interpret calls, replicate some basic bird "pishes", and observe behaviors.  My voice, at first, only attracted Ruby-crowned Kinglets, but now I'm finding Wrens respond to me.  And finally, after many attempts, I was able to capture the Bewick's Wren perfectly on this branch.  And we sat looking at each other for several minutes, curious about the other.  I thought it was so cool.
Black-bellied Whistling Duck
I watch people interact with wildlife.  Black-bellied Whistling Ducks are quite humorous.  Two people walked too close to them and the ducks decided to attack the guy's feet.  And yet, when I was in their area, I was able to note that there was an imaginary border between us.  If I moved too close, the alpha duck moved closer.  It was fascinating!
As the swallows return to Southern Arizona, I am learning how to stand still and observe the swallows fly near me!
Hummingbirds are curious birds.  They are like the Chihuahuan dogs of the bird world. They are not afraid of anyone or anything.  To call a hummer out, wear bright colors on your shirts like reds or oranges.  Maybe pull out that old Hawaiian shirt from the closet.  If you feed hummers at your home and they've come to know you, they'll sit and wait for you to begin your morning.  And if you forget to feed them, they'll hover in front of your dining room window and remind you:)  Sometimes they'll feed right out of your hand.  Talk about cool!  Here is a post from my blogger friend Kelly.  She took a video of her buddy Homer.
And I expect as I learn more, my language ability will increase.  I've watched birders call before....and I laughed, but now I don't think it's so funny at all.  It's a real thing and some people can do incredible things with their voices!
So as time flies by, as it does, I will become a sponge and pick up as much as I can.  I don't know everything and never will.  And that's how I go about birding.  There's so much to learn.
Neo-tropic Cormorant
Sometimes, I'll take a lunch break.....
......and "poof".  A Hermit Thrush pops out of nowhere and stares at me eating ice cream.
Hermit Thrush
As I get up early, I walk to my feeders, and discover a hummingbird looking down at me......reminding me to get my butt moving.  They are the first to eat in the morning (as are the Curve-billed Thrashers).
I am dedicated and will learn the ways of the "force".  And so now I leave you in silence to enjoy the various birds from my walks around sunny Arizona. Remember to tread lightly:)

Female Northern Cardinal

Western Tanager

Broad-tail Hummingbird

White-winged Dove

Common Raven next to a Red-tail Hawk

Female Common Merganser(Northern Shoveler on the left)

Inca Dove