Saturday, April 30, 2022

Yellow-eyed junco (plus a note on Rose Canyon)

I got a great look at a yellow-eyed junco, Junco phaeonotus, also known as the Mexican junco, outside the general store in Summerhaven, Arizona, high atop Mount Lemmon. The bird was foraging on the ground at close range and in plain view, but by the time Jessa could bring the camera to bear, it had flown into a tree and was terribly backlit in the afternoon sun. I actually like the resulting picture, artistic and moody, but it is no way diagnostic.

Fortunately there was another junco near Rose Canyon Lake, and though dusk was rapidly falling, the camera compensated admirably for the low light, which was at least coming from the right direction now.

The hike back out of Rose Canyon, in the dark through bear (and probably mountain lion) habitat, and with my mobile making pitiful bleating low-battery sounds until I had the presence of mind to shut the damned thing off, l would like to forget—but I dare not. So, a memo to future me: 

You might think it's a ten-minute walk from the highway down to the lake, maybe fifteen. That's a delusion, Churchill. It's forty-five, easy. And "easy" is the downhill bit. To hike back uphill in forty-five you'll have to set a brisk pace that will leave you gasping. So please, you stupid forgetful git, don't save Rose Canyon for late in the day. Give yourself plenty of time. You can thank me later. And maybe Farrell won't have to give you grief.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Mexican jay and Steller's jay

As I believe I've noted before, the altitudinal changes on the Mount Lemmon Highway north of Tucson represent the ecological equivalent of a journey from Mexico to Canada in 27 miles. And here is a good representation of that phenomenon in two corvids.

Aphelocoma wollweberi appears in several of my field guides as the grey-breasted jay, but it is now (or should I say once again) officially the Mexican jay. This one was bouncing all around the Windy Point overlook—and I do mean bouncing; this is a spring-loaded bird—and Jessa was only able to get two photos, but both were keepers.

Cyanocitta stelleri, the Steller's jay, actually occurs in mountainous areas in Mexico and well into Central America, but the northern extent of its range includes Canada and Alaska. This is definitely not a bird you'd find in Tucson proper; this far south, they occur only at high elevations. The lighting may not have been the best when we encountered a pair of Steller's at Summerhaven in late afternoon, but at least the birds weren't overly frenetic.

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Gila woodpecker

Melanerpes uropygialis is the desert Southwest's equivalent of the red-bellied woodpecker (M. carolinus). A pair of redbellies visit our back garden in Lincoln on a daily basis, and Gilas are correspondingly common in and around Tucson.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Curve-billed thrasher

Toxostoma curvirostre, like other mimids, borrows extensively from other birds to expand its vocal repertoire. In Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, it is apparently known as cuicacoche pico curvo, the curve-billed songbird. 


Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Cactus wren

Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus is the state bird of Arizona and the largest North American wren.

Monday, April 25, 2022


The verdin (Auriparus flaviceps) is one of North America's smallest songbirds. This one, photographed by Jessa in the Sonoran desert south of Tucson, has a "creosote puff", the spent flower of the creosote bush.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Desert raptors

Here are some more Harris' hawk photos, again by Jessa, from our recent (well, early last month) trip to Arizona.

But unlike the "streetlight hawk" from yesterday's post, these are not wild hawks. Instead, they are "ed birds" from the raptor free-flight demo at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Jessa and I have been to ASDM two or three times, but this is the first time we've seen the raptor demo, and I have to admit I was impressed. The birds are flown with telemetry but without jesses and without being directly handled; instead, trainers slip discreetly through the designated area leaving tidbits on branches and giving subtle visual cues to the birds; so unobtrusive are they that I suspect some visitors never notice them. 

The Harris' hawks are presented as the finalé (I'm deliberately going out of order), and ASDM's website calls attention to "the only raptor species in the world that hunt as a family, using strategy (like wolves)". And that is, of course, impressive. I was a bit surprised, however, that the demo's narrator did not point out that this is unique to the Sonoran desert. The Harris' hawk is a widely distributed species, ranging as far south as Chile, Argentina, and Brazil. Throughout much of its range, the Harris' is a standard-issue, territorial, non-social raptor; the cooperative breeding and associated group hunting behaviour of Sonoran Harris' hawks (and captive-bred eyasses of Sonoran descent) evolved as adaptations to a particularly demanding environment. Then again, I'm not altogether sure how many of my fellow falconers realise this.

More interesting to me personally than the Harris' hawks was the grey hawk, sometimes referred to as the Mexican goshawk. This diminutive buteo, with its barred breast plumage and banded tail, does bear a superficial resemblance to the accipiters, and its relatively short wings and quick wingbeat make it more agile than most buteos. Its quarry tends to be small and predominantly reptilian, but I would love to fly one if I lived within the grey hawk's native range. In the United States, however, that is limited to a small area in southeastern Arizona and another in southern Texas—and in both places grey hawks are summer residents, migrating southward with the onset of cooler weather. 

A raptor with virtually no utility from a falconry standpoint, but interesting in its own right, is the crested caracara. It is a grand opportunist, living primarily on carrion but also pirating kills from other raptors and sometimes hunting small prey for itself. Despite appearances—notably the bare face and the "Elvis" crest—the caracara is a member of the Falconidae, more closely related to the true falcons than to the hawks. 

The great horned owl ("tiger of the desert") is not a desert specialist to the extent that the other species in the demo are, but they certainly do well in the Sonoran. 

This week will be an informal Desert Birds Week here at Flyover Country, featuring more of Jessa's photography and somewhat less of my writing, so please stay tuned. 

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Where the wild things are: Harris' hawk

It wasn't until, I believe, our third trip together to the Sonoran desert that Jessa and I finally saw a wild Harris' hawk. And we had been spending time in good, high-quality Sonoran desert habitat—camped on BLM land near Marana the first go-round (though our proximity to nesting great horned owls may not have helped our chances), and always spending as much time as possible at Picacho Peak, Tucson Mountain Park, and Saguaro National Park. In retrospect, maybe that was our mistake; that first Harris' was in a decidedly residential area on the southeast edge of Tucson, and subsequent sightings have usually been closer to civilisation than wilderness.

On our most recent visit, we were driving in from Gold Canyon toward Tucson, watching the transition from Chihuahuan to Sonoran desert—that is to say, we suddenly started seeing saguaros—and spotted this Harris' near Oracle Junction at the base of the Catalinas. Perched majestically on an ancient saguaro? Of course not; a streetlamp at the junction of two highways.


No surprise, no complaints. This is exactly the sort of location I would normally expect to find redtails (and we see our share of those around Tucson and its environs as well). Both species are looking for the same things: prey and perches.

[Photos by Jessica Farrell-Churchill.]

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Poules d'eau and dabchicks

At Silver Creek near Show Low, Arizona, Jessa found a pair of American coots and a pair of pied-billed grebes associating as a flock, swimming together and preening together. I was off fishing (with only moderate success in the howling wind), so Jessa got to spend some time with the birds.

In Louisiana, a coot is a
poule d'eau, a water chicken, but another folk name is mudhen. The bird's lobed toes are an adaptation for swimming, and I believe they may also help the bird "snowshoe" in soft mud. This one was a dry-dirt hen, no snowshoes needed, but Jessa's photos show the lobed toes well.

Grebes, though not at all related to coots, also have lobed toes. Grebes almost never venture onto solid ground, but one of them obligingly demonstrated for Jessa. Notice how far back the leg is on the body? That's why grebes confine themselves to the water: the stern-mounted legs provide excellent propulsion underwater, but grebes do not stand or walk well.

The pied-billed grebe is known colloquially as the dabchick or helldiver. I sometimes call them "peanut butter grebes", a habit I picked up many years ago and based on the informal abbreviation "PB grebe" that some of my Audubon companions used in field notes.

Silver Creek: not such a bad place to live if you're a poule d'eau or a dabchick, or even a peanut butter grebe.