Thursday, January 31, 2013

Curve-billed Thrasher

I can’t look at a Curve-billed Thrasher without thinking, why wasn’t he ever made into a Muppet character.  He would have been a marvelous Muppet, but sadly, it never happened.

This Curve-billed Thrasher is real and he lives in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona.  He uses his curved bill to ‘thrash’ around in the desert litter for insects, seeds and berries.  He sings a free form song full of whistles and squeaks and tweets.  He is a joy to listen to and never too shy to belt out a tune while perched atop a cactus.  He sings in the morning, all day long and even after the sun goes down.

This unfortunate fellow has a thorn up his nostril…ouch!  Lacking the means of grasping it with his foot, he may have to endure the pain for a while.  I wanted to pull it out, but I doubt he’d stand for it.

Nor do I have any doubt where he picked up that thorn.  Curve-billed Thrashers nest in the thorniest cacti, the cholla. Chollas are the stickiest, prickliest, most inhospitable cactus you’ll ever find in the desert.  The slightest brush against it will displace one of its arms onto your arm. Trying to remove it breaks it into two pieces, now both attached to you…then four...then eight.  Eventually you’ll look like a pincushion, feel like a fool and hurt badly. 

Why Curve-billed Thrashers choose this cacti in which to nest, I don’t know.  They certainly aren’t immune to the jabs of the thorns.  Maybe they’re confident enough and surefooted enough to navigate the dangers of such a prickly home…tricky.  I’m sure a nest robber understands what he’s up against and gives it careful thought. 

Widespread and common, the Curve-billed Thrasher has no fear of loosing his position in the desert.  
Either Muppet-like or evolved-to-perfection, it’s worth a desert stroll to find one.  Just stay away from that vicious cholla.


chol-la: (Spanish) ‘skull, head’, pronounced: choy-ya)

UPDATE, CORRECTION: I've been told by my nephew, Brian, that the Curve-billed Thrasher was likely the model and inspiration for the Muppet Gonzo. I didn't know that...thank you, Brian.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Leucistic House Finch

January is not the best month of the year to go looking for birds, but I was here in the Chihuahuan Desert searching for them anyway…I had some luck.

Most birds have summer ranges and winter ranges resulting in huge shifts in bird populations. The colorful songbirds are now in South and Central America waiting for summer to return up here.  Only the winter residents remain behind to search out and enjoy, but now a pale reflection of their summer-selves is all we get.

I was fortunate to notice one unusual bird on this trip though, a leucistic bird.  My older brother, Kenn, and I were driving down dusty Coffman Road on our way to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in SE Arizona.  That area is known for thousands of wintering Sandhill Cranes, but we were looking for any kind of birds. My winter birding trip has been rather Bird-Lite, to co-opt a phrase.

There is no posted speed limit on gravelly Coffman Road, but being rough and rippled, common sense keeps you below 30MPH.  Passing a ranch house on the right, I saw two trucks, a man, a woman, two telephoto lenses pointed upward, one helicopter and a dog. None of those peaked my interest more than the two cameras pointed into the trees.  I invited myself in. 

Fifty feet beyond the ranch house, the man and woman were watching something in a tree.  I purposely stayed back, to avoid scaring away whatever it was, but I eased my way towards them eventually. Walking slowly and speaking softly, I asked what they were looking at, as I didn’t see anything special in the tree.  They told me, in unison, “Right there, on the dead branch, a female House Finch.”  
A House Finch, I thought!
A House Finch…common and boring…a House Finch!
Not so! 
Perched proudly in the desert sunshine, twenty feet overhead, normal in size, shape and proportions, but all white, a female, leucistic House Finch.

Five feet away, on the same bare branch, her possible mate…red faced and pudgy.  I never asked them how they knew it was a female, if it was all white, but I accepted their credentials as superior to mine.

According to Tom Whetten, the man on the scene, a retired Arizona Game and Fish information education program manager out of Tucson, this House Finch is pretty special. She was the first one he’d seen in his lifetime and I’m guessing he’s seventyish.  It was an all white bird absent the normal bold streaking of a female House Finch.  She’s even more than uncommon…she is rare.   

 This is a typical female House Finch)
 He describes her this way, “If it were solid white with white eyes it would be an albino, but because it has some color and the eyes aren’t pink, its leucistic. 

This was all new to me, so I looked up the meaning of leucistic:
Leucism is a condition characterized by reduced pigmentation in animals caused by a recessive allele. Unlike albinism, it is caused by a reduction in all types of skin pigment, not just melanin.

Okay, that’s different.  After I made all the pictures I needed, she flew away and we continued down the road.  I’ll take a leucistic House Finch. It’s something new I’ve learned today.  In January, when uncommon birds are hard to find, I found a real rare bird.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Burrowing Owl

Keeping an eye on his surroundings, including us, this Burrowing Owl stood guard at his burrow’s entrance. We kept our distance, as he kept watching us…to our mutual liking.   

We were standing on the edge of a dry, twenty-acre, irrigation excavation in Gilbert, Arizona.  My neice, Lori Block Eidson, brought me here to see the Burrowing Owls. 

The Burrowing Owl’s status is endangered in Canada, threatened in Mexico and a species of special concern in the United States. They’re protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in all three countries.  Protecting a species sometimes involves moving a colony of Burrowing Owls to a more safe and secure location when development threatens their survival. 

Burrowing Owls get their name from their preference of nesting sites.  The site can be an abandoned prairie dog burrow, but here in Zanjero Park near Phoenix, with a cotton field to the south, a highway to the north and a high school to the east the owls live in single family, plastic, public housing.

With all the natural prairie dog burrows bulldozed, their new home is a five-gallon bucket buried four-feet deep with a six-inch plastic drain tile extending to the surface at a forty-five degree angle.  When introduced to their new homes, they adopt the plastic surrondings politely. They seem to be thriving.

Spartan looking, but in keeping with the natural habitat of Burrowing Owls, they enjoy long sightlines for predators and prey alike. When chasing down a scorpion, lizard or beetle to catch by foot, they find the artificial landscape acceptable. 

Like the larger owl species they hunt small mammals mostly at night, but it’s normal to see them outside during the day, too.  Known to gather dung for baiting their burrow entrances, they eat the dung beetles it attracts.   

Poised and ready to exit down the drainpipe at the first sight of danger, this Burrowing Owl’s transition from rural-life to city-life seems to have gone well.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

White-nosed Coati

Occasionally I come across animals other than birds.  The White-nosed Coati is one of those animals.  You may have seen one in a zoo or, if traveling, in Central or South America.  I saw this one in the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona.  Southwestern United States forms the northern border for the coati. The coati is a member of the raccoon family.    

Raccoons are common in Wisconsin and so is the coati in his homeland.     
A big male coati could weigh eighteen pounds and by guessing, this one looks to be that size.  Males are solitary and I will leave it up to you to guess the gender of this one.  It was alone.

Due to the solitary life style of the males, they were singularly called ‘coatimundis’ and once thought a separate species. 

Contrarily, the females lead a highly social life of up to twenty-five individuals apart from the males, except during breeding season.

The coati has a thick skin and non-retractable claws and claimed to be a formidable fighter against predators such as the jaguar. 

He can climb a tree if an escape is prudent and returns to the ground headfirst with flexible wrists that rotate backwards. 

His nose isn’t deformed it’s pliable. He searches the leaf litter for invertebrates and seeds, but eats a wide variety of foods.  His tail is long, but useless for gripping.  It's used more for balance or signaling others, ‘This is my food and you stay away’.    

Happy to be foraging in the daylight, this one wasn’t shy and stayed around for a while.  He was quite entertaining and made a different sort of Feather Tailed Story for me.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Cooper’s Hawk, Madera Canyon

I was nearly past this Cooper’s Hawk before I saw him. Close to the road and perched low in a tree, he surprised me.  I slowed the truck, made an illegal  U-turn and returned to him with only a small, scrubby tree standing between us.  
   Luckily, there was no one else on the road except bicyclists during my early morning drive up Mt. Wrightson.  Early, but already I’d seen three guys on bikes slowing cranking up the mountain through Madera Canyon. Having been in bike shoes before, I knew they were thinking of the fourteen-mile coast they were going to enjoy at the end of this day.  

The Cooper’s Hawk probably knew I was behind the tree…they’re not dumb.  They hunt birds by sight and the nearly leafless tree wasn’t disguising me. To get his picture though, I had to show myself, so I hoped I wasn't in his comfort zone.

Walking in a zigzag pattern, he didn’t startle.  He expelled a few loud, hissy calls, but not directly at me.  I didn’t know what to make of his vocalizations.  If he was upset, he wasn’t frightened.  

I zigzagged through the scrubby grassland, each time getting a bit closer to him.  He remained unconcerned with my presence…good!  I got to where I had to stop advancing or he wouldn’t fit into the frame anymore.  That’s unusually close.  He tolerated me politely, to a point of ignoring me all together.  Satisfied with my pictures, I retreated. As I drove away he was still perched in the truck’s rearview mirror.

A few hours later I saw him again or maybe it was another Cooper’s Hawk, I can’t say.  Appearing suddenly, as is Cooper’s Hawk style, all the other birds vanished.  Attempting a bird-lunch, but missing…his cover was blown.  

In need of some feather realigning from his thrashing through the underbrush, he rested for a while. Soon he was ready to try another lunch venue.  He flew away. 

I’m glad I saw him, I’m glad I stopped and I’m glad he stayed.  For a bird that doesn’t benefit one bit by allowing me access to him, he was certainly gracious to me today.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Red-naped Sapsucker

I drove up Mt. Wrightson as far as I could drive. Madera Canyon Road takes you fifteen miles up into the Santa Rita Mountains. The trail map posted on the bulletin board shows where you are and where you could go. Beyond this point there’s only a steep footpath. When I saw the Red-naped Sapsucker, I knew I didn’t need to go any further. 

He was dutifully drilling holes into an oak tree.  Aware of my presence, but only mildly concerned, he went about drilling holes for half an hour as I watched.
I wasn’t looking for this bird when he politely presented himself to me.  Somewhat shy and only twenty-feet overhead, he circled around his worksite, intent on hiding from me.  Out of sight now, but with constant drumming from the back side of the limb giving him away.  His black and white backside provided camouflage against the tree, but his red head and red nape clearly blew his cover. 

After each series of rapid chisel blows, he’d stop to check his progress and take a predator check.  A Cooper’s Hawk would take a Red-naped Sapsucker in a second. He was aware of it and was rightly wary.  Not wanting to add stress to his life, I remained calm, so he’d stay relaxed, making us both happy.   

The purpose of his drumming was to create a series of quarter-inch holes circling the limb. These wounds to the tree filled-up with healing sap and became a food source for the Red-naped Sapsucker.  He’d lap up the sap with his tongue, a tongue with a hair-like tip to it.  Sort of paintbrush-like…evolved to the task.
The tree survives these small intrusions and the sweet, sticky sap occasionally traps a tasty insect too…a protein source for the sapsucker.  He returns to milk the tree for sap whenever he’s hungry.  

In time the wounds heal over.  His hole chiseling also provides benefit to others like ants, bugs and hummingbirds.  They all enjoy a sap-sip, but he eats first and few would challenge his weaponry.  Everyone seems to benefit, except maybe that clumsy, unfortunate insect.