Arizona: A winter month bird bonanza!

By Dave Hanks

First, this southerly location receives visitors from Mexico – a country with birds not found in the more northern states of America. Also, its desert landscape causes many species to be in abundance in the less arid and lusher areas. Some special areas Carolyn and I would visit during winter months to do photography start at the top of the state and extend into its southeastern corner.

Just below Flagstaff at Cottonwood is Dead Horse Ranch. It has many water birds, many scrubland species, and River Otter. This spot has always been productive enough for a several day stay.

South of Phoenix is Picheco State Park with its desert adapted species. Further south at Tucson is a very rich area. The Sonora Desert parks, both west and east portions add more variety, and all three parks increase the winter picture bounty.

Perhaps, Catalina State Park, north of Tucson, has yielded the most variety: Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia, Cactus Wrens, Roadrunners, Goldfinch, Thrashers, and several Woodpeckers to name a few.

Further south, just north of Nogales, is Madera Canyon. This higher elevation provides a woodland habitat of Scrub Oak, Juniper, and Yucca. It sports four special species: Arizona Woodpecker, Bridled Titmouse, White-Breasted Nuthatch, and Scott’s Oriole.

From Patagonia Lake we travel to the Chirricahua Mountains and Portal in the southeastern corner. This is the real bird capital of Arizona. One can hardly get the feeders out before the birds that are waiting in the trees swoop down to feast. Peccary and Coati Mundi are two mammals that are there to experience also.

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session

Crissel’s Thrasher: An exciting discovery and photo session


Lewis: An Unusual Woodpecker

by Dave Hanks

Pink and green is an unusual color combination, but the LEWIS WOODPECKER is an unusual woodpecker. This bird is named for Meriwether Lewis, who shot a few specimens while on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and after returning home, gave them to the Philadelphia museum. There are very few American species that are pink or green. But, this one has a pink belly and a green back. This 11 inch bird, also, has a red face, and a white neck and throat – an interesting use of colors.

This is an unusual woodpecker, not only because of its coloration, but because of a habit of feeding in mid-air by catching flying insects. Berries and nuts are also eaten – the nuts stored in tree holes for winter consumption.

The Lewis Woodpecker is strictly a western species. Oregon and Northern California woodlands have been especially attractive to this species. These areas are abundant in open Ponderosa Pine forests, riparian woodlands (dominated by cottonwoods), and logged woodlands with standing snags – ideal for nesting. These are the habitats that the bird prefers.

There was a cottonwood tree (that has since been cut down) that was a favorite nesting site for Lewis Woodpeckers. It was on the upper entrance to the Harrington Fork picnic area – along Rock creek in Twin Falls County. We used to visit it every spring to see the woodpeckers. It was a sad day when it was no more. Since the loss of many special trees along Rock Creek, we have had to go further afield to find our pink-bellied friend. Once we visited a central Idaho campground, where the species was reported to have been seen. We were disappointed when the campground host told us that we were a couple of weeks late. But not so fast! I found one down by the river!

Loss of habitat has put this species in trouble. It would be a shame, if this neat bird became extinct!


Resting in a cottonwood tree by the Salmon River


Christmas all year!

by Dave Hanks

I can’t wait for the dawn when the sun lights the sky, To photograph beast or bird as each passes by!

I’m like a Christmas Eve kid thrashing in bed sleeplessly, Anxious to open those presents that are under the tree.

But I don’t seek presents wrapped with tinsel or bow. Nevertheless they are gifts that “set me aglow”.

There are never enough minutes in each safari day, To “shoot” all the species that come our way.

But those that I capture in each camera frame, Excite me like Christmas! It’s all just the same.

I can’t wait for the dawn when the sun lights the sky, To photograph beast or bird as each passes by!

SCOTT’S ORIOLE is a special gift. It is a southwestern species that combines yellow with the oriole black, instead of the usual orange. It’s a medium-sized oriole with a black hood that extends onto its breast and back. Its belly and rump are a bright yellow.

We have seen this species in the scrublands of southeastern Arizona, and in the juniper/scrub oak forests of Arizona’s Madera Canyon. Yucca is a plant with which it is closely associated. Yucca is used as both a nesting site and also its fibers and leaves as nesting material. This insectivore is one of the first birds to start singing each morning before sunrise, as well as throughout theday in summer – a real songster that will even sing in the winter.

Scott's Oriole Resting on a stump my wife provided for that purpose

Resting on a stump my wife provided for that purpose

BIGHORN and a Little Bit of Eden

by Dave Hanks

There is a place just north of Missoula, Montana in the Mission
Valley by the Flathead River – a place I love to visit. In fact, it would rank
in my top ten. It is the National Bison Range. In addition to the Bison, one of
the greatest attractions is the Bighorn Sheep that reside there.

The range covers several levels: from the river bottom, to prairie steppe, to
a steep climb into a mountainous terrain. There is a 19 mile road that you can
drive to view the area. However, once on the road you cannot turn back as it is
narrow and therefore one way. It is on the descent off the mountain (which is
steep enough to give one a thrill) that you will come upon the sheep. Groups of
magnificent rams are often within camera view. Their view and ours extends out
over the surrounding valley and the small town of St. Ignatius to the east.

Ovis canadensis stands 3 to 3 ½ feet high and weighs between 125 to 200
pounds. Its name comes from the male’s massive, spiraling horns. These can be
very impressive on the more mature animals. Bighorns are a grayish-brown with a
white rump. They are excellent climbers and in summer seek the security of
cliffs that are difficult for predators to transverse. They use the habitat in
conjunction with Mountain Goats – each utilizing it in a different season. Sheep
go up in the summer and down in to the valleys in winter, which is opposite to
the goat’s movements.

Bighorn, Bison, Pronghorn, Mule and White-Tailed Deer, Coyote, and sometimes
even bears are some of the mammals. There is a great abundance of birds and
wildflowers to experience. There is also a nice park by the river to rest in
after the drive over the mountain. The bird, deer, and turtle activity in the
park will add interest if one is inclined to picnic.

I marvel at the excitement and anticipation we experience each time we visit
this place. It has never disappointed us!

(At rest in the shade)

Twin Woodpeckers

by Dave Hanks

HAIRY and DOWNY WOODPECKERS are look-alikes. The major difference is their size. The Downy is 6 1/4th inches and looks very much like a miniature Hairy, who is 9 1/4th inches long. Both have white breasts, black backs with a white stripe down the center, black wings speckled with white, a white and black striped face, and a red spot on the back of male heads. They remind me of “Big brother and Little brother”. A role I was much aware of in my life as the youngest.

Both the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are found all over North America. Our south hills are replete with Hairy Woodpeckers. But, both species can be found at City of Rocks and Lake Cleveland. The Downy is more apt to be in your yard. In fact it likes our apple trees (that have some age on them) and we can hear a soft pecking away in our yard. Their drilling is much louder when attacking a telephone pole.

The Downy’s call is softer and higher pitched than the Hairy’s, which includes a loud, sharp peek and a slurred whinny. Rocky Mountain birds tend to be slightly duller, with less spotting on their wings.

All woodpeckers have four toes, bristle-like feathers over their nostrils (to keep wood chips out), and very long tongues for probing in hard to reach places and for lapping up sap. Their eggs are white, and both parents are involved in caring for the young.

Sitting by a nest cavity is futile. The birds know you are there and will wait you out. These shots came from patiently waiting in a blind. The Hairy photo was shot at Cabin Lake, Oregon: and the Downy in Raccoon National Park, Indiana.

Hairy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

The land of the one-eyed car

by Dave Hanks

The Alaskan Highway is paved all the way, but they are always digging up miles of it for repair. If you take a side road, you will drive on dirt and gravel. Rocks are always flying which crack windshields and break headlights. Many people combat this with huge screens that cover grills and cause rocks to ricochet over their cabs. At the end of the main highway at Tok, Alaska, most everyone stops to wash their vehicles at a gas station that provides this service free. After leaving Tok, if you jog a little to the south and then to the northwest, you’ll come to the Denali Highway. This is not what it sounds like. It is definitely not a paved highway. It’s more of a dirt –gravel trail. It’s a wilderness road! It is 135 miles long, with a scarcity of human presence that adds to the wildness.

The scenery makes the travel inconvenience worthwhile! A high mountain backdrop: the Alaska Range, the Chugach Mountains, the Wrangell Mountains, and 13.700 foot Mount Hayes add primitive beauty. There are small lakes everywhere, and the stunted, twisted Spruce; touch some inner primeval chord to leave a deep impression. The road is closed from October to May each year and few people travel it in summer because it’s poorly maintained.

It’s a wild place for wild things and we came in contact with three wild species that are only found in the North. The WILLOW PTARMIGAN (grouse that’s the Alaskan state Bird) is abundant. And RED-THROATED LOONS and OLDSQUAWS are present on the ponds. The Ptarmigan is the most familiar of the three. It’s noted for changing from its winter white to summer brown each year. The Oldsquaw is actually a northern sea duck. An interesting fact is that it has three annual plumage changes. It’s mostly white in winter, but with a dark front and white eye patch in summer. It has an extremely long, very thin, stiff set of tail feathers at all times. It can dive, when on the ocean, to 200 feet. The Red-Throated Loon has a red patch on its throat, therefore the name. I’ve always thought loon calls to be most haunting and both sexes of this species will call in unison.

This land of the one-eyed car has a mystic charm that seems to always call one back again.