Boyce Thompson Arboretum, Superior, Pinal County, AZ

July 29, 2015
With only one bird outing in the past six weeks, I looked forward to my visit to Boyce Thompson Arboretum (BTA) with Lois L. and Julie C. on Wednesday, July 29th.  The Arboretum, at 2400’ elevation, provides unique habitat for hot-climate trees, shrubs and cacti in the Sonoran Desert. It’s the oldest and largest botanical garden in Arizona and is located a short 25-minutes from where I live, east of Phoenix.  

Still unable to drive with my right foot in a hard cast, Lois picked me up about 5:30.  Driving east on Route 60 toward Gonzales Pass through the Tonto National Forest brought a few sprinkles from low hanging dark clouds. The overcast sky, but no precipitation, remained for the first hour of our birding that began in the middle of the picnic area at 6:05 a.m. 

The flat sole and open toe of my hard cast was not conducive to walking trails, so we opted for another SIT.  Prior to sitting, we scanned the high snag tree just below the administration building to the north of us.  I was bummed: lots of bird silhouettes.  Not my strong skill by any means, but a really good study in bird size and shape.  The three Phainopepla were easily identified by size, shape and crest.  Two smaller “black” birds intrigued me; the shape, large bill and relatively short tail spoke “Varied Bunting” to me. As I was describing the bird to Lois, she kept saying, “No.  Look again!”  Then looking at my bins, she said, “Look lower.”  

Wow!  I went off my “blackbirds” onto two Brown-crested Flycatchers but by the time I swung back to my smaller birds, two Western Kingbirds flew in and my smaller birds were GONE. Although two Varied Bunting had been reported seen at BTA the previous day, I doubted my first birds of the morning would have been such a rare sighting.  But, then again, why not?  Later, though, an employee told me the buntings were still present and hanging out between the Demonstration Garden and the Picnic Area.  Won’t count them because I hadn’t raised my camera until after the above sequence of sightings so I don’t have even a bad photo from which to ID them.

Birds that remained in the snag tree after my initial sightings

Brown-crested Flycatcher returned (above the WEKI)
The fully leafed-out trees and mesquite surrounding our sit area gave many “yellow” birds full cover when they came close.  Most of them were Lesser Goldfinch (by voice and size).  So, after an hour of listing many “heard-only” birds such as Yellow-breasted Chat, Bell’s Vireo and Gila Woodpeckers we moved our chairs to a location in the southeast corner of the picnic area overlooking Queen Creek. In July, with no rain to cause it to run freely, it was a dry wash, but we set our chairs on the moist flat surface of its bank where we looked southward across the desert and the Arboretum’s “High Trail” toward Picket Post Mountain.

Ah!  Good move!  Highlights from this much birdier area included Western Tanagers (3 males)  and Western Kingbirds (4) providing a show for us as we continued to sit perfectly still and quiet.

One of three male Western Tanagers that seemed to be flycatching from this fallen dead limb beyond us

Several Western Kingbirds liked the same snag branches for fly catching

This Western Tanager came closer to us

The WEKI came closer, too

Viewing each other

No photos of this memorable action:  An Ash-throated Flycatcher flew right toward us and in so close to Julie, I thought it was going to grab a bug from her hair!  That was a thrill for all of us. It veered off slightly and nabbed its big bug in the air — crunch.  

Julie needed to leave a bit earlier than Lois and I, so we walked with her the short distance to the Hummingbird Plaza which was buzzing with Anna’s Hummingbirds but we detected no other hummers.  

After Julie departed, Lois and I walked the short distance to the Australian Pavilion that provided shade as we again sat still for about an hour and watched birds come and go from what I think were wolf berry bushes. Phainopepla tried to protect it as their territory, but the Western Tanagers showed up again, including a female who was smart enough to dive in deeply, away from the other birds, to feed on the ripe orange berries.

After six weeks being housebound and unable to drive, I can’t express how much I appreciated the outing to BTA with my birding friends.  Fortunately, the morning clouds got burned off by the sun so that the colorful birds lifted my spirits tremendously.  For hot summer birding, we all decided that a SIT is not a bad way to enjoy ourselves in the natural world and all that it delivers sensually.

Lois joined me for lunch back in Apache Junction at an unlikely top-notch organic restaurant in a “dive”.  Called, Handlebar Pub and Grill on Apache Trail, we each enjoyed a grilled southwest panini.  For her “side”, Lois chose sautéed and grilled asparagus with feta cheese and I chose grilled snow peas and carrots in a balsamic reduction.  (@$8.00)  Bicycle handlebars on the ceiling and front sign clear up any confusion about the name.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to continue birding at least once a week into August. Earlier in the year, I thought my birding may have reached a rather “crazy” level of chasing Year Birds, but now, birding is pulling me out of holed-up doldrums into another way of enjoyment.

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Post-Surgery Birding -- At Last!

July 21, 2015

Color me crazy but it felt really good to get up early for my first post-bunion surgery Birding!

Friend, Lois L. picked me up at the house at 5:30 a.m., to go to Granite Reef Recreation Area along the Lower Salt River.  I was glad she was interested in my new approach to birding — sitting still and focusing on bird activity as opposed to counting the number of birds seen.

My hard cast, or boot, made of felt and velcro would pick up every weed, grass and twig if I walked through Granite Reef from east to west and up to the berm as usual.  Today, I never left the picnic area and walked mostly on the concrete sidewalk.  

At 6:00 a.m., a male Vermilion Flycatcher was already sunning and preening at the top of one of the mesquites in the bosque when we sat down at a concrete picnic table. It flitted around from tree to tree but mostly perched and preened.  Later, when it flew and perched at the top of a mesquite toward the river, a female Bullock’s Oriole quickly moved in and sent it on its way out of that tree.  

Vermilion Flycatcher (male)

Interestingly, no birds had issued alarm calls as we walked slowly (peg-legged, for me) over to the picnic table.  Apparently we didn't pose a threat to them; perhaps they recognized my hat??  The birds went about their business in fairly close proximity to us. Two Abert’s Towhees were not only scratching on the ground, they flew high up in the trees for seeds and spent some time knocking the seeds to the ground while they were up there!

We wouldn’t see the female Vermilion until an hour later when Lois set up her comfortable chairs in a shady area.  The female was fly-catching about 25’ in front of us from its perch on a picnic table and then from a sign by the parking lot — not carrying food to a nest.  We saw no young Vermilions in the mesquites but the male and female not being present at the same time, made me wonder if they might be working on a second brood, taking turns at the nest.

A photographer (Bernie Howe) arrived and also stood still east of our post. When he finally moved closer to the river to talk to another photographer, they both missed out on our best sighting of the morning — the kind of action that thrills me.

Lois and I had started toward the car when I saw a black bird that was not a Great-tailed Grackle (the dominant blackbird at that location) fly in and perch on a low branch close by.  Below it and a distance away was a browner bird, a female, also not a grackle.  Ah!  The shoulders on the black bird gave me the first clue and then its red eyes became visible — the “Darth Vader“ Bronzed Cowbird in pursuit of the female on the ground.  He flew down, puffed himself up and shook his feathers.

Male Bronzed Cowbird shaking its feathers toward female in mating display

Female Bronzed Cowbird taking note of him

The male followed at a discreet, unhurried but focused distance as the female walked to the base of a nearby mesquite.  He stopped several times to puff up and shiver his feathers. When he reached the base of the tree, the male flew up about a foot and hovered like a helicopter (kited) over her for at least 20 seconds before slowly landing upon her.  And, then, it was over.


Looking back at the female:  "Thank You"

Because counting is my habit, I noted 22 species at Granite Reef before we pulled away at 7:30.

Thanks to Cindy Shanks' posts on Facebook of wild horses at Butcher Jones Beach, we drove out there hoping we might catch a glimpse. Did we ever!!

Turkey Vulture on the beach!

Note the Cowbirds!

Swim Time

Swim followed by Dirt Bath to get rid of mites and other bugs

Play Time

Shimmering young colt

See ya later!

What a gratifying morning!  And, I'm so glad Lois was up for this kind of adventure.  (15 species of birds at Butcher Jones without trying; and approximately 35 wild horses)

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Turkey v Bald Eagle as our National Bird and Symbol

July 4th, 2015
Cabin fever has set in as I enter my third week of non-weight-bearing on my right foot.  My handy little knee-caddy enables me to get around well in the house, but steps outside plus hot weather, create no real incentive to scoot around outside.  Crutches were hard on my wrists when used correctly; hard on my shoulders when used incorrectly! 

It amazes me how much bird-associated "stuff" I do during the day, including reading and culling and sorting photographs.  The photos remind me of some special sightings that I skim over when I'm birding so frequently.  This pause is proving valuable for me so I thought I'd share my series of photos about our National Bird that wasn't!

Ben Franklin, as you may know, favored the Turkey, an American native, as our national symbol but he was in the minority and as far as I know, never spoke out in opposition to the selection of the Bald Eagle.  He did, however, express his opinion about the two birds in a letter to his daughter.
He thought the Bald Eagle was a bird of bad moral character.
“He does not get his Living honestly.  You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk [osprey]; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”   . . .He is a rank Coward: The little King Bird . . . attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District.”

He thought the native American Turkey was a much more respectable choice:  
“He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”

The gobble of the native turkey is very distinctive and, to me, sounds more assertive than the call of the Bald Eagle (usually substituted in movies by the call of a Red-tailed Hawk).

Just this past May, I had the good fortune of coming upon a Gould's Turkey displaying for a partner.  With no other turkey in sight, was I the "intended" viewer?

While the Wild Turkey can still be found in every state, it is comprised of various subspecies.  Gould’s Turkey inhabits the southeastern portion of Arizona in higher altitude areas known as “Sky Islands” . . . forested mountains that rise up from the wide desert.  The Gould’s is the largest of the turkey subspecies with longer legs, larger feet and larger tail feathers and wings than all the other subspecies.  It also has pure white tips on the rump and tail feathers as seen below.

A Tom Turkey in Madera Canyon strutted its stuff for me while I photographed, from beginning to end, its “display” used to attract females.

Male turkeys have a long, dark, fan-shaped tail and glossy bronze wings. As with many other species of the Galliformes, turkeys exhibit strong sexual dimorphism. The male is substantially larger than the female, and his feathers have areas of red, purple, green, copper, bronze, and gold iridescence. 

A piece of trivia for you:  turkeys have 5000 to 6000 feathers.  It's head is featherless and its wattle (a fleshy appendage) hangs below its throat.  Males typically have a "beard", a tuft of coarse hair (modified feathers) growing from the center of the breast. 

Date:  May 18, 2015.  Sky Island of Santa Rita Mountains.


Thank you, Tom!  You made my day that day - and have re-made it today!

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P.S.  As I continue to process photos taken earlier this year, I found one of a Wild Tom Turkey showing the feathers growing from the center of the breast, taken at Santa Rita Lodge on March 8, 2015, 

Tom Turkey showing tuft of coarse feathers growing from mid-breast.  Santa Rita Lodge, Madera Cyn. 3/8/15

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