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


Cinnamon Teal: Small, Solid-colored Ducks

This 11 inch duck has North American and South American populations and they are separate from each other. In North America this species is found in the west – especially around the Great Salt Lake and Malheur Basin. We also find them in the marshes south of Hill City, north of Idaho Falls, and in the canals in our area. Almost all Cinnamon Teal winter in Mexico and Central America. The Great Salt Lake is an important staging area.

It is a dabbling duck – feeding close to the water’s surface by submerging its head and raising its rear in the air. This duck favors shallow, alkaline wetlands surrounded by herbaceous cover. It feeds on aquatic plants, pondweed and rush seeds, and aquatic insects and mollusks. Nests are found in grassy areas or on islands. The female lays 8 to 10 eggs and like all baby ducks, the hatchlings are precocial.

This solid colored duck does have blue wing patches that are most visible when in flight. Its red eyes are characteristic of many water birds.

This is one of the more common ducks, and certainly the most common teal, that we run into on our photographic pursuits.

A Cinnamon Tea. A Small, Solid-colored Cinnamon colored duck

Cinnamon contrasted against the blue

The Cotton Rat: Pest or Prey

I sit all day in a bird blind, on a private ranch, in southern Texas. It is April and the neo-tropical bird migration is in full swing. It cost a tidy sum for the privilege of sitting here, and I hope to get my money’s worth. Not only birds visit the feeding area in front of me, but a few mammals. One mammal that is a frequent visitor is a Cotton Rat. I discuss the occurrence of the rats with my host, who educates me to its relationship with the area’s Bobcats.

The Cotton Rat is named for its habit of building its nests out of cotton. This can be a major problem for cotton farmers. This rodent is found in southern Arizona, southern New Mexico, southern Texas, and into Mexico. It likes tall grass areas or cultivated fields. Like most rodents, it is very prolific – having 5 litters a year of 7 to 10 young at each nesting. The young leave the nest at 2 weeks of age and start breeding at 6 weeks. Wow! What a reproductive machine!

They are omnivores: eating grass, sedges, domestic grains, insects, and eggs. This 9 to 11 inch (1/2 pound) rat can be a real concern for agriculturists. Populations erupt over several years, but then crash – disease being the major cause. Coyotes, and especially Bobcats, find them as a major food source where the rat occurs. Bobcat populations of those southern areas rise and fall in direct relation to the rat’s population cycling.

Besides serving as prey, there is another benefit derived from this very pugnacious and quarrelsome rodent. They have proven to be useful in influenza virus research.

Sigmodon fulviventer in a feasting mode

The great hunt for BLUE GROSBEAK

By Dave Hanks

We have made many excursions south into Blue Grosbeak country,
hoping all the while to get lucky. This brilliantly blue-colored bird comes up
from Mexico as far north as the mid to southern U.S.A. It is distinguished from
the Indigo Bunting by its larger size and rusty shoulders – both species being a
very luminous blue. The quality of the blue is related to the quality of the
habitat and seeds available.

This grosbeak is 11 inches long with a large, silver-gray, seed-eating beak.
The female is a light brown but does have the rust-colored shoulders. The male’s
color is not as big a factor in the female’s mate selection as is his ability to
sing. His song consists of a continuous warble and sometimes a low buzzy “bzzt”.
Their nest will be found in a bushy tangle at about 1 to 3 feet above the
ground. Two broods are raised each year where weather permits.

I have had a “love affair” with all grosbeaks and a resulting drive to
capture them all on film. Catching the blue one was disheartening, until one
April in a campground in west Texas. Two elderly women, who knew I was seeking
the species, one morning came rushing in their pajamas to report that the birds
were coming into their campsite. They invited me to try my luck at their place.
I sat there for two hours to no avail. However, upon return to our camp, luck
was now with me. Two birds were coming to water in a pan, that Carolyn had set
out, on a regular basis. Thus the resulting, featured picture was captured.

DNA tests have shown the Blue Grosbeak’s closest relative to be our Lazuli
Bunting. This is the western counterpart to the Indigo Bunting, which is found
in the east.

(Colors resplendent in the early morning sun)