Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Shining robe

Blog neighbour Chas Clifton, also recently back from southern Arizona, asks: "The Phainopepla has no common name? Really?" Until I refreshed my memory with a glance at Peterson's Western Birds, I was calling Phainopepla nitens by the family name, silky flycatcher, and I doubt I'm alone. Phainopepla's a pretty cool bird name, though: Greek for "shining robe", a reference to the iridescent plumage of the male—and the specific epithet, nitens, also means "shining", this time in Latin.

The female's plumage, a matte grey, is more subdued than the male's glossy black, which serves her well while nesting.

The phainopeplae (that's plural, right?) I observed and photographed were tolerant but not excessively confiding. The nest above, in a mesquite overlooking a dry wash in an Oro Valley neighbourhood, took some finding.

[Phainopepla with Pusch Ridge in background.]

[Phainopepla with chain link fence, somewhat less picturesque.]

Although, as the name silky flycatcher implies, they do eat insects, these birds subsist primarily on berries, and they are the primary propagators of Phoradendron californicum, the hemiparasitic desert mistletoe. At the excellent website of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Kenn Kaufmann notes, "Few other birds in North America have such an intimate relationship with a single plant species." He goes on to say, "At times they congregate by the hundreds when food is abundant, such as when elderberries are ripening along rivers at the edge of the desert. When food is scarce, they virtually disappear. Their numbers vary tremendously from season to season. As long as the mistletoe is in fruit, however, there will be at least a few Phainopeplas around. A classic winter sight in the desert is a lone Phainopepla perched atop a mesquite, its spiky crest raised, trim and alert, ready to chase away any other birds that might approach the clumps of mistletoe in the branches below it."

[Beneficiary: Gila woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis) feeding on desert mistletoe in palo verde.]

I never did get a good flight picture showing the phainopepla's rather mockingbird-like wing flashes, but enjoyed the time I did spend in their company. Here's to a good berry crop and nests full of silky flycatchers.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Driving for hours through empty country at night will play tricks of scale on a tired mind. You may know that the reassuring, steady thrum of the engine is really thousands upon thousands of explosions happening mere feet away. You may comprehend that that tiny dot of coloured light, miles away across the silent plains, is a bustling truck stop, noisy and redolent of diesel fumes. You may come to understand that the city of red lights on the horizon is a place where no one lives, just row upon serried row of giant turbines on slow blink, each lazily rotating blade a cleaver capable of slicing through the metal box in which you travel. But you will perceive the whole as peaceful, hypnotic, even hallucinatory.

As a photographer, you may want to capture some of the wildlife along the way: the owls, the kangaroo rats, the jackrabbits, the javelina. Instead, you'll remember the way you perceive their movement from the car: the almost imperceptible fluttering of ear tufts in a breeze too light to sway the twigs of the cottonwood in which a great horned sits watching; the headlong, almost suicidal bounding of k-rats in the headlights, inexplicably always toward the road; the easy lope of hares down the back-road verge—not one of them is as fast as the car, but somehow they are winning as a relay, always another one taking its start from in front of you, mile upon mile upon mile; the surprisingly delicate tiptoe steps of a herd of javelina crossing the road in a Sonoran desert neighbourhood, like a street gang in ballet shoes.

You will, eventually, remove the key from the ignition, open the door, and step from the car into the cool of the darkness. You will stand, and stretch, and shake your head, trying to dispel the exhaustion. And, gazing up at a sky scattershot with uncountable stars, you will remember the drive, the monotony distilling into singular moments to which you alone are privy, which could happen on no other planet in all that vastness, and you will want to strap right back in and do it all again.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pygmy huthatch

Watch Sitta pygmaea at work, even for five minutes, and then tell me you have trouble with the concept of "a charming little dinosaur".


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Rock squirrels

A common, easily-observed denizen of the Southwest, the rock squirrel has been variously classified as Sciurus variegatus, Citellus variegatus, Spermophilus variegatus, and Otospermophilus variegatus. This taxonomic indecision doesn't seem to have resulted in any identity crisis for the squirrels; they're quite confident to be themselves.

In fact, where acclimated to people, they are cheeky little beggars, approaching people quite closely. (At one point, while I was lying on my belly for a better angle, a squirrel I was trying to photograph spotted me, ran directly toward me, and climbed across my back.)

This can be problematic, as plague—Yersinia pestis, the Black Death itself—is firmly established in parts of the Southwest, and frequently carried by fleas on rock squirrels.

Apart from any disease risk, handouts of junk food tend to be bad for individual squirrels. Their normal diet includes fruit, nuts, and seeds, but also meat and eggs when they can get them. Many of the squirrels we observed were gorging themselves on juniper berries—check out the bulging cheek pouches in the second photo below.

In some ways, rock squirrels appear to be intermediate between tree squirrels and the other ground squirrels. Their tails, for example, are far bushier than those of most other ground squirrels, and while it's not something they do frequently, they can climb trees quite well. On the other hand, their "checkerboard" pelage, with fine barring or spotting on the mantle, is a trait shared by some other ground squirrel species, notably the California and Arctic ground squirrels.

Rock squirrels will retreat to their underground dens during cold snaps, but most likely do not hibernate. They are not colonial in the fashion of prairie dogs or some other ground squirrels, but do emit an alarm call (a loud chirp) upon spotting predators. These include coyotes, rattlesnakes, and several species of diurnal raptor, most notably red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, and golden eagles. Even human-acclimated squirrels are wary of potential threats, actively scanning their surroundings in the midst of daily activities such as grooming and foraging.

Just in case you haven't seen enough yet, here follows a gallery—a rogue's gallery, if you will, for there is something roguish about these critters—of rock squirrel photos. (All photos in this essay were made by yours truly, and if this seems like a lot, trust me when I say that I'm going easy on you people. There are dozens more where these came from.)