Sunday, August 21, 2011

Hummingbird rescue!

In the yard this morning, as I watched the chickens scratching, pecking, and dirt bathing, I noticed a male Broad-billed Hummingbird that seemed in distress. He flitted from one feeder to the next, trying each of a half dozen in turn without staying long enough for a decent drink. When he finally sat a moment and turned his profile to me, I saw the problem: a crusty black bump at the tip of his bill.

I ran inside and found Tom. "There's a Broad-billed out there with something on his bill! Can you help me trap him?"

Tom watched out the window until the bird reappeared. "The remote control on the trap is still not working," he said. (It got soaked in a ferocious thunderstorm last week and hasn't been the same since.) "Why don't we try luring him into the chicken coop?" Brilliant.

We hung two feeders, one in the doorway and another inside, and within minutes the desperate bird tried to drink from both feeders before flying toward the back of the coop. With a little gentle corraling from Tom, our patient was soon in hand.

The bump is the head of a bee or wasp, shackling the bill and
preventing the bird from feeding properly.
Up close, I confirmed that the lump was the hard carapace of an insect, a bee or wasp. Only the head remained, impaled on the bill. The bird couldn't insert his bill into most feeders or flowers, nor could he open it to catch insects. I'd seen this sort of thing before both in person and in photos, but what I'd never seen until now was injury to the bill from the carcass.
A ring of raw, swollen bill tissue on the body side
of the insect's head is a bad sign.

A hummingbird's bill is mostly living tissue, vulnerable to damage from the sharp edges of the insect's exoskeleton, decomposition of its tissues, or both. This bill looked bad, as though the tip might be necrotic. Removing the bird's handicap would not be easy or painless. A pang of dread clutched at my heart.

Armed with high-power reading glasses and banding forceps, I performed the removal as gently and quickly as possible. The bird cried as the crusty carcass came off in bits, and I kept apologizing for the pain I was causing him (he couldn't possibly understand, but it eased my own pain a little). Once it was off, a little blood welled up in the ring-shaped wound—a sign of healthy underlying tissue. He stopped crying and experimentally licked out his tongue. Definitely a good sign.

I washed the wound, applied a thin film of antibiotic ointment to the top and bottom of the bill (taking care to avoid the edges where it might get into his mouth), and gave him a long drink from a feeder. To recognize him if he visited us again, Tom and I banded, measured, and weighed him. He felt like nothing in my hand, and the scale confirmed that he had been slowly starving. Just 2.8 grams, compared to 3.2 to 3.7 grams for healthy, unencumbered male Broad-billeds that we have banded recently.

The wound looks awful, but the pink color and slight bleeding
are signs of healthy tissue.

Back outside, he lay in my hand for a few seconds before departing. Hummingbirds are tough, and this little survivor is welcome to stay in our yard as long as he needs to recuperate.

Hummingbirds and Butterflies (Peterson Field Guides/Bird Watcher's Digest Backyard Bird Guides)Attracting and Feeding Hummingbirds (T.F.H. Wild Bird Series)

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


On this hot, dry, and windy June afternoon, the chickens were restless. Despite my efforts to make them more comfortable—watering patches of dirt for bathing, setting out a bowl of iced apple juice—they wanted more relief and knew where to find it. One by one they hopped up onto the porch and stood by the door, looking longingly through the glass. 

It was uncomfortable for me, too, so I went back inside, locked the dog in the bedroom, and invited the girls into the house. They ate and drank from Sibella's bowls, scavenged the kitchen floor for crumbs, and visited me in the study as I worked at the computer. Pearl was muttering to herself a lot and couldn't seem to get comfortable on my lap. Only when I noticed her trying to mold a nest out of the folds of a serape draped over the dog's chair did I realize that she had an egg to lay and needed to return to the coop.

With bowls of frozen peas and corn as bait (lightly thawed as a cool treat), I lured the girls out the door into dim orange light filtering through a dense column of smoke. Fragments that were once grass leaves, now carbon ghosts, spiraled down to land on the deck. The plume from the Monument Fire, 22 miles to the west on the southern end of the Huachuca Mountains, had been drifting across our neighborhood since yesterday afternoon. In less than an hour it had increased so dramatically in breadth and density that it sent a jolt of fear through me. I hurriedly shooed the chickens into their run, grabbed my car keys, and headed west to see how far the fire had spread.

The Monument Fire in the Huachuca Mountains, as seen from near Bisbee
It was an eerie scene. Smoke billowed up from a broad front on the southeastern corner of the mountains, reducing the sun to a glaring red eye. From my distant vantage point I could see no flames or firefighting activities, but it was clear that the fire was burning the oak woodland and pine-oak forest homes of many of our favorite birds and approaching the houses of people we know.

The order came down this afternoon that residents of the southeastern canyons of the Huachucas would need to evacuate. Human residents will take refuge in the homes of friends and relatives, motels, bed & breakfasts, etc. Livestock will ride out the fire at nearby ranches. Untold numbers of wild creatures will find no sanctuary while the fire rages. Many will not survive, and many that do will have nowhere to return to once it's out.

Residents of the Chiricahua and Huachuca mountains have reported wild refugees fleeing the fires. Bird activity around the town of Portal in Cave Creek Canyon has been very high, and a colleague who lives in the Huachuca foothills reported seeing a desperate-looking Black Bear at his backyard water feature as he was preparing to evacuate.

A hungry Western Tanager
We live too far from the Huachucas or Chiricahuas to expect fire refugees, which is a small blessing. We already have our share of drought refugees, birds and other wildlife desperate for food and water.

This spring, unprecedented numbers of Wilson's Warblers, Western Tanagers, and Black-headed Grosbeaks swamped feeding stations and concentrated along the San Pedro River seeking what little water and food were available in this parched landscape. In our yard, Mule Deer stripped a young mulberry tree of most of its leaves, and Javelinas (a.k.a. Collared Peccaries) ate all the new growth from our few prickly pear cacti that survived the brutal February cold snap. Rock Squirrels were eating all the seed, fruit, and peanut butter dough we put out for the birds, so we began live-trapping them for deportation well beyond the edge of town. We've relocated eleven so far. Cages, netting, and vigilance are the only reasons any of our vegetables have made it this far.

The drought and fires extend well into Mexico, which may be responsible for the appearance of a number of local and regional rarities: a Yellow Grosbeak in Ash Canyon, a Berylline Hummingbird on the San Pedro River, Lucifer Hummingbirds at several unusual locations, and various eastern "vagrants" at others (possibly stranded, unable to find enough food to fuel the next legs of their migrations).

Drought is such a slow-moving disaster that it doesn't make headlines until fires break out. Climate change, too, creeps so slowly that Big Fossil's lobbyists and the politicians they own have had plenty of time to quibble, bluster, and stall, effectively thwarting efforts to avert this disaster in the making. It beggars belief that anyone can continue to scoff in a year of record-breaking storms, floods, droughts, and fires, yet some do.

The past year has fulfilled climatologists' predictions of greater extremes, including wet summers in the Southwest followed by rainless winters and springs. This is a perfect recipe for devastating forest fires. Summer rainfall stimulates abundant growth of grasses, annuals, and shrubs that, once dried, provide ideal fuel, and winter/spring drought creates ideal conditions for catastrophic fires.

It's vitally important to understand that fire is an essential element in many western forests. Southwestern forests in particular need periodic fires to recycle the nutrients in leaf litter and other debris that doesn't decompose in the dry climate. Keeping fire out of these forests is a recipe for disaster, yet that's exactly what we've been doing (first incidentally, then actively) for more than a century.

That said, the fires currently burning are not the kind we need. Natural fires are sparked by lightning from the first dry storms of the summer "monsoon" and usually quickly extinguished by the rains that follow. The current fires are all of human origin, ignited weeks ahead of the rains during our driest, hottest, and windiest time of year. This means weeks of valiant efforts to manage the fire, keep it away from structures and ecological jewels, and "encourage" it to burn in a way most conducive to forest hygiene. Weeks of flames sweeping and/or creeping through our "sky islands."

This is all I can bear to write tonight, but there's more of the story to tell. I'm going to go watch the moon rise and think about Part 2.

Update: I just heard from a friend that the fire jumped Hwy 92 late this afternoon, and that a number of structures have already been lost.

  Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Cycle of Fire)  Tending Fire: Coping With America's Wildland Fires  Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Anna's in the snow

A male Anna's visited our hummingbird feeder during this morning's mini-blizzard. He could barely hang on as the feeder swung in the wind and snow pelted his face. Not wanting to make his morning even more stressful, I waited until he left to put out fresh, warm sugar water.

It's been a grim winter for Arizona's hummingbirds. Many died in the Big Freeze of 2011, and many others had to be rescued. Hummingbirds in Tucson and Phoenix, where temperatures rarely stray below freezing, seemed more affected than those wintering at higher elevations. Here at 5000 feet in the foothills of the Mule Mountains, our two or three Violet-crowneds and handful of Anna's managed to ride out the January cold snap, but most disappeared after the all-time record low on the second night of the Big Freeze (0° F./-18° C.).

The following morning's weather was much improved, so I'm hoping that they rode out the worst and departed as soon as possible, as hummingbirds wintering in much colder climates have been observed to do. We're still hosting at least one female Anna's in addition to this male, but there's been no sign of a Violet-crowned since the first day of the freeze (at 8 a.m., during the second feeder change of the day). Even with a bustling clientele of Northern Cardinals, Pyrrhuloxias, Green-tailed Towhees, Gambel's Quail, and many more, the feeding station seems forlorn without an occasional flash of violet blue.

It will be weeks before I can tell how much of our hummingbird garden survived, but in the meantime I'll be escaping waaaay south of the border (Belize and Tikal) for a couple of weeks, leading a birding and natural history tour for SABO.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Eared Quetzal reported in Madera Canyon

A male Eared Quetzal with a
madrone berry
near Madera, Chihuahua, Mexico
Here's a little something to spice up winter birding in southeastern Arizona: An Eared Quetzal was reported yesterday afternoon from Madera Canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains.The description was given as "about 200 yards past the Kubo Cabins.....just beyond the stream."

These globally-rare relatives of the Elegant Trogon and Resplendent Quetzal are extremely rare and secretive inhabitants of southeastern Arizona's "sky island" mountain ranges. Though they aren't known to undertake long-distance migrations, several years often pass between sightings.

The last reports of this species in Madera Canyon were from late October through mid-November of 2007. The quetzal was elusive, but vigilant quetzal seekers found other unusual to rare species in the same area (the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect). Andrew Core summarized some of these sightings on his blog, using Google Earth to create highly detailed maps.

Since Eared Quetzals are both greatly sought-after and highly sensitive to human presence, here are a few tips that may make the difference between success and failure for would-be quetzal watchers (updated from posts to BirdChat in December 1999 and BIRDWG05 in 2005):
    Good Birders Don't 
Wear White: 50 Tips From North America's Top Birders
  • Dress in muted, natural colors right down to your shoes, socks and hat. Browns, mid-tone grays, tans, and natural greens are all okay, but avoid white and very light pastels, bright colors, and light blues such as faded denim. If your wardrobe doesn't include any camo, muted plaids and checks are the next best thing.
  • Eared Quetzals are more often heard than seen, so prepare by studying recordings of the bird's calls ahead of time. Xeno-canto has three samples: the first includes the tremolo (a territorial song) and squeal-chucks, the second is mainly tremolo, and the third is mainly squeal-chucks plus a distant flight cackle (and the raspy calls of Steller's Jays). Be aware that the most commonly heard callsthe squeal-chuck and the flight cackleare signs of alarm. If you hear either of these calls, chances are the bird has seen you and/or another observer and is in evasive mode. Chasing a frightened quetzal is counterproductive. The best strategy is to freeze in place until the bird calms down.
  • In areas where the bird has been sighted, move slowly and as little as possible, stay in the shadows, and keep noise to a minimum. The best strategy is to pick a likely spot, especially near a fruiting madrone (a broad-leafed tree with scaly gray bark and bright red berries), and sit as still as possible in the shade of a nearby tree. Eared Quetzals are extremely stealthy for their size and can fly in quite close to you without you realizing it, so any sudden moves or sounds may result in lost viewing opportunities for yourself and others.
  • Eared Quetzals are very active feeders, plucking fruit on the wing. If the bird approaches a position near a fruiting tree but remains out of sight, be patient - you'll likely have several viewing opportunities once it feels comfortable enough to feed. If you feel you must move to get a look at the bird, do so slowly and quietly, staying as concealed as possible behind vegetation and out of bright sunlight.
  • Prepare for a long wait by dressing in layers, wearing sunscreen on exposed skin, and bringing water and snacks. I guarantee that a good look at this exquisite and globally rare bird is more than worth it.
If you're not a subscriber to BIRDWG05 (the Arizona-New Mexico listserv), you can read the most recent messages at Jack Siler's

UPDATE 1/7/11: Searchers yesterday report no quetzal encounters. This is pretty typical for these shy and mobile birds. With persistence and luck, someone may find a fruiting madrone that the bird favors, making the search not such a needle-in-a-haystack proposition.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Panic at the playa

It was early afternoon in the southern Sulphur Springs Valley, and the last few hundred of Arizona's largest flock of Sandhill Cranes were returning to their roost at the playa lake at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area after breakfasting on waste grain in nearby farm fields.

Suddenly, chaos erupts as thousands of cranes take to the air in seconds!

Normal crane chatter rises to a deafening clatter as a multitude of voices raise the alarm.

What could have caused this mass hysteria?

The answer comes gliding through, slicing the panicked flock in two: A Golden Eagle, one of the few predators an adult crane has to worry about.

This scene plays out almost every winter day at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, one of the lesser-known jewels in Arizona's birding crown.

The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes  On Ancient Wings: The Sandhill Cranes of North America (Natural History)  Crane Music: A Natural History of American Cranes