Phainopepla or “The Black Cardinal”

by Dave Hanks

The Phainopepla only looks like a Cardinal in its body configuration and crest. It is actually in a different family – a family known as silky flycatchers. They are closely related to waxwings. The erect crest, deep red eye, silky black body, and white wing patches (seen when in flight) give it a distinctive aura. The female is a brownish-gray, but still quite distinctive. She shows evidence of the white in her wings while perched – which the male doesn’t. I personally think that the female of this species is as attractive as the male.

This bird is found in the arid regions of the south-western USA. They prefer vegetative tangles in trees, such as old Mistletoe, in which to nest. They have a special relationship with mistletoe. They not only nest in it, but feed upon the berries and spread the seeds. This black flycatcher also eats a great quantity of insects.

Their flight is fluttery but direct, and their call is a low-pitched, whistled “wurp.” They will raise two broods a year. The second nesting occurs after they have moved into habitat that is cooler and wetter.

Whenever we find ourselves in the arid regions of Southern California, we almost always experience this bird. My wife is always calling to me to come and see a bird. The bird is usually gone by the time I arrive. The bird in this picture was an exception. He sat there patiently and allowed me to photograph him.

This male is perched in Mesquite

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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

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!

FLASHES OF RED & BOBBING WHITE RUMPS!

If I could give another name to “Indian Summer” it would be “The
Time of the Flicker”. The late autumn months are full of much woodpecker
activity in our yard. Especially plentiful is our county’s largest one – the
RED- SHAFTED FLICKER (12 ½ inches long). It’s such an appealing bird with its
poke-a-doted belly, black chest crescent, and red moustache. When in flight, it
flashes the orange/red under parts of its wings and tail (thence its name) and a
conspicuous white rump patch.

As I step outside each morning in autumn, I’m greeted by these birds in
undulating flight – wings flashing color and that white rump patch bobbing up
and down as they scurry to a distant perch. The yard “teems” with an abundance
of these birds.

Flickers like open woodlands and suburban areas. Snags (standing dead trees)
or soft wood trees such as Aspen are preferred when drilling nest cavities.
Their long beaks and tongues facilitate the procurement of ants and other types
of insects – whether on or in the bark of a tree, or on the ground. They also
like fruit and we often see them feeding on our elderberry bushes. Their call is
a loud wik – wik – wik – wik and wick-er, wick-er, wick-er, and a single, loud
klee-yer.

The eastern variety (Yellow-Shafted) has yellow under-parts, a black
moustache, and a red crescent on the back of its head.

 

The Great Horned Owl – Fighter or Lover?

It’s mesmerizing to fall asleep, or awaken, to a soft hooting in
the early evening, or in the wee morning hours. Such is a common occurrence at
our house. These love calls begin in late fall and result in the laying of four
eggs in late winter. Incubation is started at once and results in separate
hatching times for each egg. This situation is known as a “stairstep” family and
whether all, or part, of the young are raised depends on the food supply. The
biggest baby is always fed first and it will survive even if the others don’t.
When the young fledge, they are ½ again larger than the adults. This allows for
an adjustment period when they are learning to fend for themselves.

The GREAT HORNED OWL is not only “tender” with its own but is very formidable
with others. They can take prey as large as a skunk and I have seen young cats
(in our yard) that have been torn in half. A smack on your head with their
talons could be very injurious.

They are identified by size (22”), a white throat, and ear-like feather
projections. They are quite adaptable and wide spread across North America and
are important rodent controllers. Mice and voles make up the lion’s share of
their diet. Other bird species will often “mob” them during daylight hours. Our
yard and lower tree plots are to their liking and we get to witness the raising
and fledging of young each year.

 

Deferred Maturity

by Dave Hanks

Young song birds hatch, fledge, and are ready for migration. The young birds usually resemble the female parent. However, by the following spring the males acquire their adult breeding plumage and assume parenthood. Their development is relative simple and quick. However, most raptors and gulls go through several stages before reaching sexual maturity. Large birds like eagles or buzzards have 4 to 5 stages of development. Hawks usually have two stages to go through over a two year period to reach maturity.

Buteos are large hawks with broad wings. The FERRUGINOUS HAWK (pictured) is the largest American Buteo. Only the Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, and female Snowy Owl weigh more than this hawk. Ferruginous Hawks go through three stages after the nestling stage: juvenile, sub-adult, and finally adult – three years from hatching to adulthood. This species has been known to live for 20 years (determined by re-catching banded birds), although the majority die within a 5 year period –which allows a five year old bird two opportunities to nest.

Ferruginous Hawk’s first year mortality is estimated at around 66% and adult mortality at about 25% per year thereafter. This ground nesting bird is preyed upon by Coyotes, Golden eagles, and Great horned Owls. Jackrabbits rank high on this species food list. When prey sources are at a low, many hatchlings will die of starvation. Illegal shooting of adult birds has also caused a problem to this not-so-common species.

This magnificent hawk has been used as a falconry bird in its native range.

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A young Ferruginous in the sub-adult phase

 

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