Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Desert snow

We woke up this morning to this:

After one of the worst "monsoons" on record and a virtually rainless fall, we'll take our precipitation any way we can get it. Melting, it registered .35" - not too bad.

It's the chickens' first snow, so I let them out to scratch around in it.

While supervising their explorations, I noticed that the hummingbird feeder was caked with snow. The feeder went dry while we were away for a few days, and I hadn't seen or heard a hummer since we returned, but I dutifully minced through the slush and brushed the ports clear. I hadn't taken three steps back when a male Anna's appeared out of nowhere.

Within a half hour a female Anna's and a Violet-crowned also came to drink, so I guess they've forgiven us for neglecting them while we were away watching other hummingbirds.

The chickens are only allowed out when we're there to supervise. We love our chickens, but we also love our raptor neighbors and don't want to lead them into temptation. We haven't noticed regular visits from the Cooper's Hawk that used our water feature as her personal spa the last two winters, but the local Red-tail is a proven bird hunter. One morning as I stepped out to check on the chickens, a flutter caught my eye. There was the Red-tail atop a nearby utility pole. Hey, neighbor, I thought. Another flutter, and a double-take: the hawk wasn't alone.

He can have all the pigeons he wants, and I've never caught him eyeing the girls, but better safe than sorry.

City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers
A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors  A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America (Peterson Field Guides)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sleepy girls

The chicks are bringing out my dormant maternal instincts. While slaving over a hot computer, I felt a pang of guilt about leaving them in their tub so long. I scooped them out and carried them into the home office hoping they'd just fall asleep in my lap while I worked. They tried but had trouble getting comfortable (I'm just not fluffy enough). Spying an old knit cap stuffed into the bookshelf, I tucked them inside where they soon fell asleep. Gradually Pearl, Grace, and Bonnie got too warm and wormed their way out of the cap until they were piled on top, leaving Joni tucked inside with just her fuzzy blond head sticking out. They stayed that way for more than an hour, until after Tom returned home from work (and brought me the camera). —SW
City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden 
Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers Raising Chickens For Dummies


It's the dry season here in southeastern Arizona, which means it's also fire season. Last week alone lightning from some out-of-season thunderstorms sparked blazes Wednesday in lower Carr Canyon, Thursday at the base of the Santa Rita Mountains, and Friday just across the border in New Mexico. The photo shows the plume of smoke from the second fire, officially known as the Melendrez Pass Fire, as it looked from near the San Pedro River on Saturday.

Fire is a vital force in our ecosystems. Debris that might take years to decompose in this arid climate is reduced in minutes to nutrient-rich ash by low-intensity ground fires, and even tree-killing blazes allow light to reach the forest floor and stimulate sun-loving grasses and wildflowers (great for hummingbirds and butterflies). Unfortunately, our fire cycles have been thrown so out of whack for so many decades that any fire has the potential to become catastrophic, burning woodlands and forests right down to sterile mineral soil. To reduce this hazard and protect homes bordering public lands, the Forest Service has been putting substantial resources into thinning operations in some of the more popular canyons, removing debris, flammable brush, and low-hanging branches that fires can climb into the tree canopy ("ladder fuels"). They've even burned some of the debris piles, so it's not like a timber harvest operation that impoverishes the ecosystem by removing biomass along with all its nutrients.

Thunderstorms are a mixed blessing, especially this time of year when they produce more electricity than precipitation. If we're lucky, we won't have any more until the monsoon pattern develops, adding enough moisture to the storms to douse any fires they start.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Bucket o' chickens

So we've got chicks. Now comes the hard part: Getting a coop and run built before they outgrow the house. In the meantime, they're living in a cat-proof tub in the living room:

The chopsticks through the corners of the hardware cloth top lock it down so that our indoor-only kitteh Bart (whose middle name is Evil) doesn't decide to see if dey haz a flavur. So far, he hasn't shown as much interest in them as in the House Finch fledglings that have been hanging out around outside the living room window, but we don't want to take any chances.

For now, the chicklets seem pretty comfy. We're letting them out three or four times a day to bond and exercise. They're so much fun to watch, but they wear out pretty quickly at this age. Here's Joni having a loll while her sisters snuggle:

Tom is new to poultry, despite having been a foster dad to wild things ranging from quail to otters, but pet chickens were a big part of my childhood. There was Herman, who started out as a gaudily dyed Easter chick and grew up to be a ferocious White Leghorn rooster, Jicken (pronounced with a French "j"), a gorgeous Dominique rooster that my mom named for his floppy, beret-like raspberry comb, and Cluck, a very lucky White Leghorn battery hen who came to us in a large box labeled "YEAR'S SUPPLY OF EGGS." I used to love going to the Fort Worth Livestock Show during poultry week to soak up all the incredible diversity among chicken breeds, and we'd like to have some of that diversity in our little flock. Maybe we'll adopt a couple of tribble-like Silkies, a mop-topped Polish, a sleek, satiny Sumatra....

To keep this from morphing into a poultry blog, we'll keep the chicken posts to a minimum here (but hey—at least they're birds). Chickens are really hot right now, though, so we may start a new blog just for our close encounters of the gallinaceous kind.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

26: The poultry anniversary

Tom and I just celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary. Our gift to each other was chickens, specifically four "Americana" or "Easter Egger" chicks less than 48 hours old. They're not a pure breed, but they should lay the famous blue-shelled eggs of their Araucana ancestors.

I picked them out at a local feed store with an eye toward eye candy. Clockwise from the left are Bonnie (red), Grace (black), Joni (blond) and Pearl (multicolor).

Extra credit if you figure out how we chose their names. As you can see, they're already bonding with Tom (though I think I heard Joni the prima donna cheep that he should use conditioner on his beard). --SW

Ooh! Ooh! Blue purple! Blue purple!

That was Tom's brother's response on seeing a male Varied Bunting for the first time. As a law professor, Bob was seldom at a loss for words, but a sunlit view of this spectacular songster against the San Pedro River's brilliant green cottonwoods totally tied his tongue.

Unlike their more cold-tolerant Lazuli cousins, Varied Buntings arrive right around the end of the spring birding season. We just saw the first of the season in our yard this week, perhaps the same one that stopped by last summer for a sip at our dripper:

If they were more regular visitors to our yard, it would be tempting to swelter in the photo blind for a few hours in hopes of getting a more flattering portrait. —SW
 The Sibley Guide to Birds

Monday, May 25, 2009

Blue wave!

I just stepped out the door to check on a couple of recent transplants in the garden when a male Blue Grosbeak whizzed by about a foot from my face. I watched him land in a mesquite at the edge of the road and realized that there was another male sitting on the opposite side of the same bush...and another in the mostly-dead ailanthus. Then a female popped up out of the bottom of the same bush and a fourth male zoomed in for a landing between the first two. Wow! —SW


Five male Great-tailed Grackles sky-pointing
Patagonia Lake State Park
May 13, 2009

Another memorable moment from last week's Fiesta de las Aves activities. —SW

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The pause that refreshes

Male Blue Grosbeak
Las Cienegas National Conservation Area
May 11, 2009

Photographed on the Cienega and Grassland field trip during Fiesta de las Aves. —SW

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Moon of the Giant Asparagus

Palmer Agave, Agave palmeri
Huachuca Mountains April 29, 2009

Every year I'm caught off guard by the first agave bloom stalks. The first ones appeared at the end of April, and it seems like they're all over now. This signals the beginning of the end of the plant's life, as it puts everything it's got into its massive flower stalk, but the nectar and pollen are a boon to nectar bats, hummingbirds, orioles, doves, and insects of many kinds. —SW

Friday, May 22, 2009

New life

Vermilion Flycatcher nestlings
San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
near Casa de San Pedro Bed & Breakfast

May 12, 3009

An update on the photo I posted on May 6: A week later, the nest held three plump, healthy-looking, and well-camouflaged nestlings. They were hunkered down in the morning chill when we first passed, looking more like nest debris than baby birds. I was pretty depressed to think that the nesting had failed, but my spirits rose when we came back by at the end of the walk and saw Dad fly in with some chow for the kids. On May 19, they were very close to fledgingpretty good for a nest so close to a busy trail. —SW

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Bipolar weather

Southeastern Arizona's dry season is usually locked in by late May, but the heat arrived a little early this year. Last week, Tucson was setting records with temperatures over 100° F., and even high, cool Bisbee was sweltering in the high 80s and low 90s. Then a high-pressure system settled in over the Four Corners - the typical "monsoon"pattern that draws moisture inland from the Gulf of Mexico. Clouds gathered, providing a welcome break from the almost-summer sun, but a few light sprinkles yesterday weren't much more than a tease.

Imagine my surprise walking out the door early this morning into drizzling rain and temperatures in the 50s. It rained off and on all morning in Miller Canyon, so I spent much of the morning's walk drying lenses on my binoculars and the spotting scope (I didn't even bother bringing the camera), but my small group and I were rewarded for our perseverance with views of several Red-faced Warblers, Painted Redstarts, singing male Hepatic Tanager and Black-headed Grosbeak, a Greater Pewee, and a pair of Spotted Owls.

Back home after the walk, I dried myself off, dug around in the closet for my fleece jacket and the fuzzy cap I crocheted this winter, and heated up a can of French onion soup and a cup of Mayan chocolate instant coffee—none of which would I have imagined doing in late May in southeastern Arizona.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Committing to the future

Nesting female Vermilion Flycatcher
on the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area
digiscoped from approximately 30 feet away

After the economic and emotional roller coaster of the last few months, it does wonders for my morale to see neotropical migrants settling in for a new nesting season. They didn't spend the winter worrying whether bulldozers spared their nesting habitat for another year, whether there had been enough rain to provide food for them and their families, whether some evolving pathogen to which they have no immunity is waiting for them with the next mosquito bite. Even if they were wired for worry like us humans, there'd be nothing they could do about it. There's a lesson in that.

Take time this spring to lose yourself in the hormone-fueled passion of a singing male or the serenity of a broody female, reacquainting yourself with the essence of life and putting in perspective all the petty complications of human existence. --SW

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bad crown days

With so many other birds in their breeding finery, who could blame the Gambel's White-crowned Sparrows for feeling a little self-conscious? Their crowns are full of pinfeathers now, but those skunk-skin caps should be sleek and gorgeous again by the time they reach their nesting grounds in the Great White North. —SW

Monday, April 27, 2009

Off duty

A Mexican Spotted Owl snoozes in an oak in Scheelite Canyon. —SW

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Golden spurs

The Golden Columbines (Aquilegia chrysantha) are just beginning to bloom in upper Miller Canyon, but this beauty was blooming in mid-March among palms and organ pipe cacti in a canyon on Rancho Los BaƱos, about 60 miles south of Douglas in northeastern Sonora. —SW

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Caterpillars on the march

Southwestern tent caterpillars (Malacosoma incurvum) are maturing and dropping out of the trees along the San Pedro River, providing a boon for northbound migrants. As Tom likes to say, these fuzzy eating machines are nature's way of turning cottonwood leaves into warblers. As unpleasant as it can be to have creepy crawlers and their poop raining down on you on a bird walk, it's peculiarly satisfying to watch a tiny Wilson's Warbler slamming a python-sized caterpillar against the ground to subdue and tenderize it before squishing out the good parts like toothpaste from a fur-covered tube.

Not everyone is as appreciative of southwestern tent caterpillars as we and the migrating birds are, though. When they emerge in spring and start stripping the cottonwoods and willows of their tender new leaves, some people freak out. We've gotten panicked calls asking why someone isn't doing something to halt the destruction before the caterpillars kill the trees. Well, the trees are in danger, but it's not from the caterpillars. The defoliation happens every spring, and healthy trees can recover quickly once the cats stop eating and go into the pupal stage. Stressed trees whose water supply is being sapped away may not be able to recover, though, and the annual caterpillar invasion may push more and more trees beyond the point of no return as more and more residential wells drain the aquifers that feed the San Pedro River. —SW

Friday, April 24, 2009

An Earth Day treat

The week of Earth Day is a great time to be birding in southeastern Arizona, but White-eared Hummingbird isn't on the list of anticipated delights. On Earth Day, this studly male was putting on a show for visitors to Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon. He's about three weeks early, but based on his use of the same perches this is the same male that I videoed last summer.

Though you can't see the brilliant green and violet from this angle, it's currently his most flattering angle. From the front he's got a pinfeather sticking out of his crown like a tiny unicorn's horn—a bit goofy looking. —SW

Ballroom dancers of the mudflats

American Avocets at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area on March 13, before the playa lake dried completely. Migrating pairs renew their bonds with an elaborate courtship ritual, the grand finale of which is a graceful side-by-side pirouette with the male's bill laid gently across the female's neck and his wing across her back. —SW

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Frisky stoat

BBC News has a video sure to delight my mustelid-loving husband. There might have been Bridled Weasels doing the same thing in southern Arizona today after last night's snowfall.