Magic Sap Trees

by Dave Hanks

Sapsuckers are aptly named. They excavate tree cavities for nesting, and other birds use the holes after the original owners are done with them. They also drill series of small holes in a tree’s bark, which then becomes a source of sweetness for all to utilize. Cassia County has large populations of sapsuckers – Red-Naped ones. This woodpecker is especially evident at the City of Rocks. Its red chin differentiates it from other woodpeckers.

On a trip to New Mexico one winter, we camped in an out of-the-way place called Water Canyon. It was reputed to have wild turkeys, and my wife wanted to observe them. It was wintry, but that situation was disregarded. Snow limited where we could park our truck, but there was a spot just off the road by a forest service restroom. There was considerable bird activity around that restroom. We soon discovered the reason. An Arizona Black Walnut tree with brown, withered leaves that hadn’t been totally shed stood next to that outhouse. It was oozing sap and, as if by magic, a wide variety of birds were visiting that tree.

A Red-Naped Sapsucker would arrive at 20 minute intervals and work on two or three branches. There were dark areas on the bark and, with binoculars, I discovered that each spot was covered with tiny holes. Obviously, sapsuckers are not the only ones that love sap. White-Breasted Nuthatches were all over the tree. Ruby-Crowned Kinglets preferred a spot where a freshly broken limb made a large stain on the dangling branch. Other species invading that tree were: Common Bushtit, Mountain Chickadee, Bridled Titmouse, Juniper Titmouse, Stellar’s Jay, and Scrub Jay.

We didn’t find any Wild Turkeys, but it was great to get such a close-up glimpse and an expanded knowledge of sap holes. The time spent at the base of that “Magic Sap Tree” and all the many birds in it, made that short side-trip most rewarding!

His red chin identifies him as a sapsucker

Turkey Vultures: Environmental Clean-up Crew

When out in the sage, mountains, grasslands, or other wild places; you may notice large birds circling far overhead. Most folks would probably think that they were seeing some form of hawk. But the more likely scenario is that a most important scavenger is riding the thermals – the Turkey Vulture – a bird that feeds mainly on carrion and refuse.

This is a large bird (27”), larger even than our Red-Tailed Hawk. High in the air or at a distance, it has somewhat of a resemblance to an eagle. It has a black body, white beak, and a fiery red head. When in flight it holds its wings upward in a shallow V, with the wing-tip feathers spread like fingers. When in the air, the silvery wing under-sides are visible. Vultures roost in large trees and even on tall structures. Because they depend on riding thermals, they don’t leave their roost until the sun has heated the air.

The red head is devoid of feathers. This is a sanitation adaptation. It must stick its head into rotting carcasses and the baldness prevents “goo” from accumulating on the feathers. The suns rays are then able to shine on the skin, playing a disinfecting role. Also, their beak is not strong enough to tear open the hide. They must wait for the animal to rot or another scavenger to rip it open. However, their tongue is “rasp-like” and this aids in removing bits of flesh from inside the carcass.

Vultures are widespread over our continent, and though many people would find these birds to be ugly and possibly disgusting, they have an extremely vital niche. They rid the countryside of dead animals, thus, keeping the environment clean.

While not my favorite bird, I still find this species most interesting and easy to appreciate.

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Early morning & waiting for a thermal before lifting off

The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!

How many rocks could a Rock-Chuck chuck?

Rock Chuck or Wood Chuck, both are marmots. The correct name however, for our local marmot, is the Yellow-Bellied Marmot. The marmot is the only mammal to have a USA holiday named for it (Ground Hog Day).

This large (14” to 20”) rodent loves rocky terrain where they can lay in the sun and also escape predators when alarmed. One individual always stands guard and gives an alarm call. The call will vary according to the type of predator (hawk vs. coyote, etc). It may be a “chuck”, whistle, or a trill. Rock habitats must be close to greenery, as the animal lives entirely on green vegetation of all types.

Yellow-Bellied Marmots spend 80% of their lives in burrows – this includes nighttime, as well as hibernation which lasts from August through February. They are meticulous about keeping their den and bedding clean. Their hearty appetite allows them to put on a good layer of fat for their 7 month hibernation. Sleeping late, then eating vigorously, and finally resting on a rock in the sun conserves the energy that turns into a layer of fat.

The males are “harem-polygymous” and litter sizes average a bit over 4 pups. Males leave the colony, but females tend to stay with their mothers and become reproducers at 2 years of age.

This “bear-like” rodent has a golden to rufus coat, brown head, and a yellowish-red belly. Wood Chucks are found in the east, but Yellow-Bellies are a western, intermountain species.

They are most interesting to observe, whether sunning on a large rock or scurrying across a road or trail into the closest cover.

(A big one sunning – a favorite pastime)

Western Tanagers & an “invisible” experience

I have seen western movies where an Indian felt safe, amid a battle, because he claimed to be invisible. This is a situation that I’ve often wished for and strangely enough it has seemed to have happened a few times during my pursuit of wildlife photos. There is no other way to explain it. After pursuing bird after bird, only to have them “spook” and fly away, sometimes a lucky situation will arise.

One time in late July, when camping at Lake Cleveland, we found a shallow pond at one side of the campground. It was the result of snow-melt and was receding quite rapidly each day. In a “devil-may-care” mood, I stuck a stick upright in the mud of that pond. I then proceeded to place my chair a scant 20 feet from the stick. It was as if I wasn’t there. Sixteen different species alighted, either on that stick, or at my feet, before moving in to drink. Hairy Woodpeckers, Pine Grosbeak, and others; but the most noticeable were Western Tanagers. If you would have told me that this would happen, I’d have said that you were crazy.

The tanager is one of my favorites and his red head makes for a breath-taking sight. The bird needs a good supply of carotene in its diet to enhance the red coloration. Slightly smaller than a Robin, it has a black back and tail and a bright yellow body and yellow wing bars. The female is colored like the male – minus the red head.

This bird prefers the coniferous forests of the western United States during the summer months, but winters in central Mexico and further south. In the early spring this species always pays a visit to our yard, where it is much attached to the sugar water we put out for the Orioles

The Common Snipe: My Introduction to the Bird World

There he was, perched on a post in the marsh, close to the road. A strange, chunky, brown bird that was about 10” long with an extremely long beak. I was at a seminar at Utah State University and the professor, that morning, had taken us bird watching. “What is that?” I asked. “A Common Snipe,” the teacher replied. I was flabbergasted! Snipes were supposed to be a Boy Scout myth, but there one was just as big as life! I was “hooked.” Upon returning home, every bird seen now became a point of curiosity. Binoculars and a field guide became a necessity. Later on, we started photography. I discovered a truth: you can’t become aware of one facet of nature without becoming aware of all the others. Thus trees, flowers, etc. had to be learned about.

The Snipe is a stocky species of marsh and wet meadow. During courtship, in the early spring, the male rises high in the sky and makes a flight display called “winnowing’ – swooping through the sky in a series of loops with the wind whistling through his wings and tail. This causes an eerie fluttering sound. Perching on a post is a normal resting area. However, during nesting season, they are secretive and seldom seen unless flushed. They then explode up and away.

Classified as a shore bird, the long, straight beak allows probing in shallow water with a rapid jabbing motion for the small organisms that abide there.

On our first visit to the new state park – Castle Rocks, we were greeted at the entrance sign by a Snipe just sitting there and solarizing. This seemed to be a good omen and a fitting introduction to this newly opened area.

Cooper’s Hawk – A Bird Eating Bird

Hawks are very difficult to approach. This one was by a forest-service water trough in North Heglar Canyon. He seemed cooperative, and so I crawled on my belly and got very close to take this picture. He’s a young hawk and perhaps that is the reason I was able to get quite close. He was frequenting the area in hopes of catching other birds that were coming in to drink.

Cooper’s Hawk & its smaller look-alike, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk, are both predators that feed on other birds. “Sharpies” feast on the smaller species while Cooper’s will take birds the size of doves. Their falcon-type, streamlined bodies make swift pursuit possible. Exceptionally maneuverable through trees, they really “zoom” after their prey. We have an extensive bird feeding set-up in our yard, and these two hawks hang around in our trees. They make surprise attacks, scattering birds in all directions, as they swiftly appear out of nowhere. The reason why bird feeders need to be situated close to cover, is so a quick dive into a protected area is possible.

These two species are classified as Accipiters. These are medium-sized hawks with slender bodies, long tails, and short wings. These attributes give them great maneuverability in the tree habitats in which they reside. Cooper’s is 14” to 20” long. “Sharpies” are 10” to 14” long. Another difference is that the Cooper’s Hawk has a rounded end to its tail while Sharp-Shinned tail is squared.

Although we hate disturbance at our bird feeders, the appearance of one of these predators is always exciting. They are only doing what they are programmed to do. They are not nearly as great a menace as are the many stray house cats that we are plagued with – or the dogs that feel free to frequent our yard.

Orioles are “Sugar Daddies”

Spring and early summer are exciting times at our house. This excitement is caused by the arrival of BULLOCK’S ORIOLES. They nest in our yard. We are also excited by the Western Tanagers that stop-over, while waiting for more favorable conditions in their mountain-summering areas. We have developed a very “bird friendly” yard, but there is an added attraction that satisfies both of these species “sweet-tooth.” We place quart fruit jars, inverted on baby chick watering dishes, upon platforms. These platforms are mounted on pipes and each has a “slinky” (toy) hanging and encasing the pipe. We have found this to be the most effective method to keep squirrels away from the feed. The jars are full of sugar-water, mixed at a ratio of 6 parts water to 1 of sugar or even sweeter. It is readily accepted. Two quarts of this solution is consumed every day when the baby orioles have fledged.

We have as many as three pair of orioles building their hanging nests in our yard and raising their broods. As the young fledge, the yard comes alive with harsh calls, and orioles are everywhere you look. This orange, black, and white bird is a western version of the Baltimore Oriole and is actually a member of the Blackbird family. It is most definitely a “heart-stopper!”

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BULLOCK’S ORIOLE at sugar-water feeder

Badgers are unexcelled excavators

We have a Badger in our yard! I don’t know how it got here. I
don’t know why! But looking down, while crossing our corral fence, there it was,
face to face with me. It had burrowed a nice big hole under the concrete of the
cattle manger. It couldn’t have selected a more protected spot to dig a den.

The claws on a Badger are formidable. There are five on each foot and they
are very impressive. It’s no wonder that they are such master burrowers. They
have a flattened shaped body of 2 to 3 feet long. The short tail doesn’t get in
the way of digging, or get encrusted from the dirt that the Badger is constantly
working in. Badgers are nocturnal and are rarely seen in daylight. They may not
even emerge from the den in bright moonlight. Their burrows are recognizable by
their square-shaped openings.

They will run from an encounter; but, if cornered, can be extremely
aggressive. Their teeth are as formidable as their claws. Skunks, weasels,
otters, wolverines, and badgers are classified as mustelids – species that give
off scent. They are carnivores that prefer soft foods like baby rabbits, mice,
voles, snails, beetles, and even fungi and wind-fallen fruits.

One to five young are born in the burrow. This is usually in March. They
don’t emerge until 6 to 8 weeks old and stay with their parents until October.
Badger tracks differ from dogs in that 5 toe prints show instead of 4. They are
very capable of defending themselves and have little to fear.

I was lucky to get this one’s photo as it was excavating a burrow under our
manger.

CARDINAL COUSIN

PYRRHULOXIA (pie-rue-lox-ia) is a bird that looks as if its throat has been cut and the result is spread over its head, face, belly, legs, and tail. It is a species found in the thorny brush and mesquite lands of our south-west. This bird will feed in low shrubbery or along the ground where they can utilize the shadows. If you are well hidden, you can get quite close. It is sometimes confused with the female Cardinal but its short, thick, curved beak is diagnostic. A beak that allows them to utilize hard shelled food items.

PYRRHULOXIAS are eight and three-quarter inches long with a soft gray and red coloration scheme that makes a very pleasing contrast. Their song is a liquid whistle.

Since first seeing this species, it took on a high priority on our photography “must list”. During winter months, when we have been in the southern climes, we have worked to lure it to our hastily put up feeding stations. This specimen was in Catalina State Park – north of Tucson, Arizona.

If you visit Arizona or other surrounding states, look for this species. Seeing one will brighten your day!

The photo is of one feeding on black sunflower seeds scattered on the ground.
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