The birds of southern Arizona
My photos of Arizona birds with descriptions and other information
In this article, I will share with you some of the birds I know and love. I will include photos, descriptions, where they are found, something of their habits, and so forth.
This photo is the beautiful Broad-billed Hummingbird, Cynanthus latirostris. Notice how many different colors he has. Hummingbirds live off the nectar of flowers, and insects. Their wings beat so fast when they fly that they look like a blur. They seem to need to eat constantly to fulfill their huge metabolic needs. How they find time to set on eggs is a mystery to me! They are the world's smallest birds. Arizona has sixteen species of hummingbirds, which is very unusual. I have photographed fifteen of them. I went into more detail about the hummers of Arizona in a separate article: Arizona Hummingbirds.
All photos are mine.
This is the Gambel's Quail, Callipepla gambelii. These gentle birds mate for the long haul, and the parents raise the brood of young together. Once the young are old enough to run around (which is very soon), you can see entire families running across the desert together, especially when it is cool toward evening or in the early morning. I have seen up to 24 babies in a single family. These quail sleep in trees, but nest on the ground. The male quail has some of the prettiest coloring of any of the birds I know and love.
When I first got this picture from the developer, I went to a restaurant, and I was looking through my pictures. I was absolutely thrilled with this one! A couple of women came by, and asked me how much I would sell the photo for. I said, "Oh, a hundred dollars!" I didn't get any takers. :)
This is the Harris's Hawk, Parabuteo unicinctus. Their favorite food is rodents and small birds. These birds can sometimes be seen circling in the sky, looking for food. They have very sharp eyesight, among the best for any animal. I sometimes see these birds perched on the top of a saguaro cactus or a telephone pole.
Birds of prey are also known as raptors.
One day, I was out at Sweetwater Wetlands. There are four Harris's Hawks that live there. I saw one of them try to grab a Yellow-headed Blackbird, and he missed. After that, the other bird flew behind him, so there was no chance he'd get nabbed. Smart blackbird!
Clowns of the Wading Birds
This is the Killdeer, Charadrius vociferus. These are wading birds, who take their food from the water. Their antics are a lot of fun to watch.
Parents will sometimes pretend to be hurt, with a broken wing, or whatever, to lure predators away from their young.
This is the Hooded Oriole, Icterus cucullatus. They normally live more up in the mountains, where it is cooler. Their song is gorgeous! I often saw these birds in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains near Tucson. They liked to nest in the dead fronds of palm trees. I saw them one summer in the Tucson Mountains, the year the Catalinas had the Aspen Fire. The birds came into other places to escape the fire. I never saw them again.
White Winged Dove
We see these on our property a lot. They like to sit on top of saguaro cactus, as this one is doing. They are very fond of saguaro fruit. So am I. They usually get it first. :( The saguaro cactus is a tall, columnar cactus, that can grow to 150 feet in height or more. They grow about an inch a year, so that will give you an idea how old they must be. Unfortunately, they are dying out. But in the meantime, I frequently see white winged doves on top of them.
Cousin of the Cardinal
This is a relative of the cardinal, not nearly as colorful, but a lot less shy. I have had a real challenge photographing cardinals, but these fellows are much easier to catch. They like sunflower seeds.
Interlude - Links to my galleries
I have lots and lots of birds to share with you. I will add new ones from time to time. Please come back!
In the meantime, you can find out more about the birds of Arizona by visiting my web site:
I recently put up a couple of galleries of bird pictures on Flickr, and I will be adding to them.
I also have a gallery on Facebook.
I am a contributor to the World Bird Gallery.
If you are interested in becoming serious about birding in the United States, the best book I know of that will help you identify the birds you see is The Sibley Guide to Birds. You can get it at Amazon.
Becoming a Serious Birder
Since late 2009, I have been going out specifically to take photographs of birds. It has been very enjoyable, and I have many stories to tell. I have also become a part of the birding community.
I decided to post my lists on eBird. I haven't put all of them there yet, but I have put quite a few. My current life list (birds I have seen in the wild) has 243 species. I'll be adding another one next time. By the time you read this, the number might be even higher. Southeastern Arizona is regarded as one of the prime birding areas of the United States. The United States has about 800 species of birds, and about 450 of them appear in southeastern Arizona. We are seeing more and more species over time. What was once rare is now only occasionally seen, but no longer rare.
I have gotten some serious equipment, although there is much room for improvement, which is obvious when I see other people's bird pictures. But I currently have three lenses I use to make bird pictures. I had a 100-400mm, and I usually used this with a multiplier/extender of 1.7x, which makes it effectively a 670mm lens. Unfortunately, I broke that one, and haven't been able to find a replacement that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. I replaced it with a 100-300mm lens which I can't use my extender on because it makes things too dark. I also have a 500mm lens. I have a 600mm mirror lens, but since its depth of field is so poor, I don't use it for bird photography. And I recently acquired a lens that zooms from 650mm to 1300mm. That one is especially difficult to use because of lack of depth of field, but I have gotten some good pictures with it. I also like to use it for dragonflies.
I currently also have a Pentax K20D, which is a 14.7 megapixel camera. The nice thing about it is that if necessary, I can crop way down to a bird, and still have a decent sized image for some purposes. Keep that in mind when you look at the picture on this section.
Taking pictures of birds serves another purpose. It lets me look at the photos later, so I can identify birds I am not familiar with. This is especially important since I usually bird alone.
I'll add more stories to this from time to time.
This time, I'll show you one picture I took that I am especially proud of. This is a Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Stelgidopteryx serripennis. This image is full size; I did not reduce it. The bird was quite far away, and took up very little of the image. I took this with my 500mm lens, and it was hand held and hand focused.
The Rarity, sort of
In this location, anyway
Birds prefer certain habitat. They like certain temperature ranges as well. This is one reason they migrate. We get quite a few migratory birds going through Arizona. I have been truly amazed that there are literally hundreds of species that spend some time here, in what you would think is a formidable desert. But there are certain places some birds are likely to spend their time as opposed to others. One example is the Painted Redstart, Myioborus pictus. He prefers cooler forests. I most commonly see them in the mountains. But my first ever view of a Painted Redstart was in Sweetwater Wetlands, which is right on the desert floor. This means that bird is considered a rarity. Although he's on the bird list, he is designated as a rare bird, and apparently has not really been documented there. On this particular occasion, there were some birders standing near a tree, being very excited. I asked them what they were looking at, and they showed me. See the photo I took. Painted Redstarts are hard to photograph because they are so active. Anyway, I was apparently the first person to mention this bird to the listserv, and the next day, some people did go see him. After that, he was gone. Two of my photographs of this bird were published on the web site of Arizona Field Ornithologists.
When I first photographed this bird, it was at this location for only two days, and although on the bird list, there were no official records for it. The next year, people saw this species on at least three different days.
Leucistic Birds - Vermilion Flycatcher
A leucistic bird is a bird with a lot of white feathers. They're not albinos. There are various theories as to why they occur. The one I have seen most often is that it takes more energy to make a colored feather, so birds make white feathers to conserve energy. This is a leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher, Pyrocephalus rubinus. She has a little yellow under the base of the body just in front of her tail. A normal female is pale red there. This bird stayed at Sweetwater Wetlands for several weeks, and then disappeared. I was hoping she would come back next season, but she never did. I think these are much more easily seen by predators, so they probably get caught sooner rather than later. A lot of people saw and photographed her. She had a normally colored mate.
For more information on leucistic birds, read here:
Leucistic Rock Pigeon
Also known as a Rock Dove, its natural habitat is near cliffs. These are the common city pigeons that are very abundant in most cities. I found this particular bird at the intersection of Roger and Romero, in Tucson, Arizona. I had been birding, but I was actually not looking for birds at the moment. Then I saw this one. He's almost an albino. He actually has a pink eye. The only reason he is not an albino is that he has a couple of black feathers in the tail. Leucistic pigeons seem to be fairly common.
Leucistic American Wigeon
Wigeons are delightful ducks. They have a very cute little call. They also have very pretty coloring. While we cannot know for sure this is the American Wigeon (instead of the Eurasian Wigeon), the faint face pattern and the fact the other wigeons are rare, makes it a virtual certainty. I got this one at Fort Lowell Park in Tucson, Arizona.
This is what wigeons usually look like. The left bird is a female, and the one in the center is a male. The bird hiding in the shadows on the right is a Cinnamon Teal.
Domestic ducks and geese
People sometimes dump domestic ducks and geese at some of the ponds in local parks, because they can no longer care for them. Then other people come along and feed them. Sometimes they start awfully young!
Leucistic Black-chinned Hummingbird
This is a young leucistic Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilocus alexandri. His identity was revealed because he has one purple feather on his neck, on the left side. This one has visited occasionally at Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon, which is in the Huachuca Mountains. (If you ever want to go to a place that has lots of species of hummingbirds, and is a delightful place to stay on top of that, pay them a visit. Best time, I think, is during the summer rainy season, but be prepared for bad road, especially since the devastating fire there; visiting earlier in the summer works, too, and the road is usually pretty good.) The day I got this picture, it was almost dark, and he wasn't very close. But you can see what he looks like.
There are eighteen species of hummingbirds in the United States. Of these, sixteen appear in southeastern Arizona, and I have personally photographed fifteen of them. I have a separate article on hummingbirds.
This is what a Black-chinned Hummingbird normally looks like.
This is a Black-chinned Hummingbird in flight. I got this photograph in the Huachuca Mountains, in southern Arizona. There are several really good birding places for hummingbirds in the Huachuca Mountains, with another good one in Patagonia.
A REAL rarity
I wrote about a rarity before, but that was before I saw THIS one. The Baikal Teal was considered by many Americans to be extinct. There had been few recent sightings in the Americas.
Baikal Teals are named after a lake in Russia. They breed in Siberia and migrate to Viet Nam.
Prior to this particular bird arriving in Arizona, there had been records in Washington and California. This bird took the birding world by storm. People came from all over to see him. He stayed about two weeks, and hung out in the Gilbert Water Ranch, Gilbert, Arizona, with the Pintails. I went up to see him the day after his presence was reported. Later, someone wrote and asked for directions. This person was from another state. I told him how to get to the Water Ranch, and where to go when he got there. People who were there usually could tell you where he had been seen last. I told him when he walked along the trail, he should look for the photographers. :)
The day I went, I stayed for at least a half hour, and got multiple pictures. He was very placid, feeding with the other ducks the whole time. Whatever was in that water was VERY tasty!
Baikal Teal doesn't appear in Sibley's, although it is in the National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds.
As long as we are on the subject, I might as well show you who the Baikal Teal was hanging out with. I think this is one of the most elegant of ducks. I almost feel like he's wearing a tuxedo! It took me quite awhile even to see one, let alone get a decent photograph.
Here is a side view.
This is the most common type of hawk in Arizona. Experts say that if you don't know what kind of hawk it is, guess "Red-tailed" and you have a 50% chance of being right. There are so many different colorations of this bird that Sibley's devotes two pages, and somewhere around 46 illustrations, to it.
I got this photo near Picacho Peak, Arizona. For those of you who are history buffs, Picacho Peak was the site of the westernmost battle in the Civil War. There is a lot of farming country near there, and in particular, near the intersection of Baumgartner and Wheeler, the birding is quite good. I actually went there hoping to see a Crested Caracara. I saw one, but the photograph I got wasn't good enough to publish anywhere. Before that, however, I was just hanging around, seeing what I could see, and this hawk showed up. He flew around the area for several minutes, giving me time to take multiple shots. I was using my new 650-1300mm lens, hand held. This particular bird is of the lightest varieties, almost leucistic.
I searched for a Wood Duck for many months before I found this one. He was hanging out on a spit in the Santa Cruz River, near Ina, in southern Arizona. Once plentiful, this species was hunted to near extinction for its colorful feathers.This is a male. I didn't get a photo of a female until a couple of years later.
There had been some devastating forest fires in Arizona that year, namely, 2003. We had almost no rain in the winter, maybe 1 1/2" at most, which is well below our normally very low rainfall. The trees have not been managed for many years, and many of them are infested with beetles, and very unhealthy, so it doesn't take much to have a truly horrible fire. The more recent forest fires in Arizona, in 2012, destroyed fewer homes than in past years, but some were destroyed. One of the places I like to bird had about 1300 apple trees. They were almost all either burned or swept away by floods when the monsoons arrived. Mud filled some of the cabins. It will not be the place it was for many years.
The photo is of the Aspen Fire, the latest major fire in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It burned about 340 homes in Summerhaven, along with tens of thousands of acres. It will take many years to heal the damage, if it is healed at all. Many homes have been rebuilt. This view is from River Road, toward Sabino Canyon, and I was located just east of Swan Road. Notice the three broadcast towers in the foreground, to get some idea of the size of the fire.
The impact on birds was interesting. Obviously, some birds and animals do not survive, although most do. Fires in Mexico have driven more species north over the border, where we can see them. So we have had some unusual birds. I'll be talking about some of these. We also had some unusual yard birds the year of the Aspen Fire. This included at least one Oriole.
Podylimbus podiceps. These little fellows are very cute. They are the smallest swimming birds I am aware of. But they are said to be very aggressive. I don't know. I never saw one associate with anyone else. They are always strictly alone. This is one of several species of grebes I have seen in Arizona. I found this one at Sweetwater Wetlands. He is one of nearly 300 species that have been recorded there.
Pied-billed Grebe Baby
There was one occasion when I saw more than one Pied-billed Grebe together. That was when I saw a mother and her baby. The green on the baby is algae; he's obviously been diving for food.
Pied-billed Grebe Family
Here are the mother and baby together.
Recently, I went to the Holy Trinity Monastery south of St. David, Arizona. I hoped to see a Yellow-breasted Chat, and I did. I also heard a rarity: a White-eyed Vireo. They have a very distinctive sound. Once I was finished, I drove around to where they have a little oasis: a fenced area with lots of trees and a pond. I was photographing the pond, when lo! and behold, three young male peacocks showed up! Peacocks are actually birds of India, but widely kept as pets. In fact, I have had a few myself. Anyway, one of them was downright curious about me, and came right up to the car door and gave me a very good looking-over. I imagine he was no more than two feet away from me. I got his picture. The only reason I got this much of him was that I had a wide angle lens on my camera at the time.
Black-crowned Night Herons
There is usually at least one Black-crowned Night Heron hanging around Reid Park in Tucson, Arizona. On THIS day, however, there were FIFTEEN. I counted them. It turns out that a couple of children were fishing the lake, and when they caught a fish, they'd throw it up on land so the herons could have it. These are three expectant herons. :)
...and sometimes they had an argument over which one got the next fish!
I'll put up larger images when I have time.
This Black-crowned Night Heron decided to help himself. At Kennedy Lake, people often fish, and on this day, the fisherman left this fish on the shore, and the bird came along and decided to see if he could make himself a feast. He just couldn't get this fish into his mouth, try as he might. Eventually, he lost it in the water and gave up.
Speaking of birds who do amusing things...
I captured this fellow in Reid Park, Tucson, Arizona.
Then, a few months later, I found this fellow in Fort Lowell Park:
Sweetwater Wetlands, Arizona, USA. I am really proud of this photo. It was taken with a 1300mm lens, hand-held.
Found at Sweetwater Wetlands, Arizona, USA. These birds are a little harder to get good pictures of, in my opinion, because they are shy, and there aren't as many of them. But I think they are stunningly beautiful. Like all teals, these take food from just under the surface of the water.
Aztec Thrush is a rare bird in Arizona. They live in Mexico. I have only seen reports of him one year. He stuck around a bit, which meant I could plan a trip to see him. The bird was said to be hanging out by a choke cherry tree, which was nearly a mile up the Carrie Nation Trail. The trail is not an exceptionally difficult one, but the constant uphill travel in a higher altitude than I am used to usually takes a bit more stamina than I have at my age. Nevertheless, I planned a day, hardly slept all night, and woke up early. Thinking that I might find it easier to find the bird in the morning (even though I am definitely NOT a morning person, which is a bad thing if you are a birder), I went ahead and traveled to the beginning of the trail. As expected, it winded me pretty thoroughly. When there is a real rarity someplace, you usually know you are in the right spot because you find other people waiting there. Heck, we even had an experienced birding DOG, who was completely quiet and well behaved. I think we must have waited somewhere between an hour and two hours for the bird to show up. In the meantime, all kinds of distractions like noisy Mexican Jays also happened by. Anyway, I got him! As you can see. :)
These birds also live in Mexico and tropical regions. This is usually the only species of Trogon that visits the United States, and until recently, the only place you could see one was Madera Canyon. In the past couple of years, they have been seen in other locations, and I have also heard one at Patagonia Lake (though I didn't see that one; someone else got a good picture of him). They sound a lot like a distant yippie dog to me, or maybe a chicken. Their vocalization is quite distinctive.
Elegant Trogon is a bird nearly every birder wants to get on their list, or get photos of. Unfortunately, you are more likely to hear one than see one, and I did hear one several times before I got this one. This one showed up on the same day I got the Aztec Thrush, and in the same place. He liked the chokecherries, too!
I had my 1300mm lens on my camera at the time he landed on this little branch, and even with it zoomed all the way out, I couldn't get his entire body.
On my way down from that location, I was so tired I almost fell into the creek, which was running, and I did fall later, so I used my tripod as a walking stick over difficult places until I got back to the parking lot.
We were getting pretty persistent reports that this woodpecker was hanging out at McCormick Park, and I went there several times to try to find him. However, I had no success. Then I heard a report that said there was one in Madera Canyon. So I went up there, found the parking lot where he had been seen, and then just started walking in a particular direction. I walked up to a picnic table. And I prayed that God would let me see him. And I turned around, and there he was! He wasn't even 6 feet away from me! (That doesn't always work, by the way. The bird has to be in the vicinity and he has to cooperate.) I saw this one at the Whitehouse picnic area.
At the same time as the Red-breasted Sapsucker was being reported at McCormick Park, there was also a Red-naped Sapsucker. I didn't have a lot of trouble finding this one, and in fact, I photographed him on two occasions. The first one was when he was on this tree. He sure liked the sap in this tree! He was there a lot.
Below, another view, showing the beautiful pattern on his back. Different tree.
On the Way to Madera Canyon
Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona
This is along the road as you get close to Madera Canyon. You can see a bit of snow on the mountains, even though it is summer. There are many different birding sites along this road.
I found this one at Madera Kubo. I was sitting on the concrete bench, just resting, and he flew down in front of me and started foraging on the ground. He stayed a long time. Nice!
I usually see Yellow-eyed Juncos on Mount Lemmon. I rarely see them in Madera Canyon.
These delightful little birds are fun to watch. This one was apparently preparing a nest in the birdhouse at Madero Kubo.
These birds are large and noisy, and I have gotten many pictures of them. This is one of my favorite photos. I took it at the Whitehouse parking lot in Madera Canyon. I had driven up there and taken a little hike, and I got back, and I couldn't shift my car into gear. So I called a tow truck, and then sat and waited. While I was waiting, I got this photo.
I think they're called "Jays" because it sounds like they say "jay".
Lots of people don't like these birds, but I do.
African Grey Parrot
Psittacus erithacus. This bird is definitely NOT an Arizona species. The woman who runs the Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast in Hereford, Arizona, Mary Jo Ballator, has a pair she keeps as pets. When I first saw this bird, I thought it was an owl. I hope to get a better picture someday. But I'll take all the birds I can get, whether they're native or not!
Ash Canyon is noted for its hummingbird species. She has a beautiful set-up, and gets most of the Arizona species at one time or another. She also gets a lot of other birds.
Another Mexican Jay
This one was at Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast. This is the other favorite photo of this species. It is sitting on an agave stalk. The agave genus consists of about 25 species or so, of which the best known is the Century Plant (Agave americana). Many of them have terminal buds that grow out of the center of the plant. The plant will grow for 7 years or so without flowering, and then in a couple of months they shoot up this stalk that can be as high as 25 feet. Legend has it that if you listen closely, and it's quiet, you can hear them growing. Once they grow their flower stalk, they die, having poured all of the food in the fleshy leaves into the stalk. I am not sure exactly what species this is.
Other species of agaves have lateral stalks; they come out slightly to the side. These species will live and bloom again.
Famous Arizona bird
It would seem that everyone knows about roadrunners, including Wile E Coyote. Having the opportunity to see a real live one is quite a treat.
We see roadrunners in our yard occasionally. I found this one near the Picacho wastewater treatment ponds. Apparently people see them there frequently.
Roadrunners really do prefer to run along the ground, although they are perfectly capable of flying. They eat snakes and lizards primarily. They can easily catch and eat a rattlesnake without getting hurt, so I sure like it when there is one around.
Do we get gulls in southern Arizona? Yes, we do! I was totally surprised when I visited a lake west of Phoenix, and saw TWO species! Including those two, I have added 5 gulls to my life list (a life list is the list of all the birds you have seen in the wild in your lifetime).
This is a youngster, technically, an immature. Ring-billed Gulls are the ones I have seen most often, and about an equal share of immatures and adults.
Anyway, I saw this gull just yesterday (October 12, 2012) at Reid Park, which is smack dab in the middle of Tucson!
This gull showed up at Lakeside Park, in east Tucson. The person who reported it said it would be a one-day wonder, which means you better get out and see it today, because he'll be gone by tomorrow. The bird was true to his word. So I went over there, and walked down the hill to the side of the lake, and there he was, right in front of me! Notice the distinctive red bill.
On the other hand, this is a much more common water bird. We have them pretty much year round. At times, I have seen flocks of up to 35, though they are more plentiful in the winter.
Take a look at this bird's feet. I think these are the ODDEST bird feet I have ever seen!
I have been told the reason for these feet is that it makes it easier for them to walk across lily pads and other things on the surface of the water. Their favorite foods are algae and duckweed. Other birds that have unusual feet include the Common Gallinule and the Sora.
aka Common Moorhen. Just about the time I learn the name of a bird, they go and change it on me!
Their legs aren't naturally green. This bird has been swimming in algae-laden water.
Bad Hair Day
This is what is known as a Crested Duck. These are originally bred from Mallards. It's a genetic defect that leaves a small hole in the skull, and some fat grows through and produces feathers. This trait is fatal if the bird inherits it from both parents, but produces this effect when the bird has only one gene for this trait.
The hand belongs to a man who feeds the ducks every day at Fort Lowell Park in Tucson.
Sky Pointing Contest
These birds do this behavior only during certain times of the year. I think it must be some kind of breeding behavior, or it is a territorial show of some kind. I got the idea for the "Sky Pointing Contest" from another birder.
I always imagined Cedar Waxwings as birds that live back east and show up in snow-covered scenes. Imagine my surprise when I learned one was hanging out in a local park. The first year, I only got a photo of a juvenile, and the second year, I got an adult. Both were hanging out by the Mulberry Tree, feasting on ripe berries. I tried one myself. They weren't half bad.
For a Sonoran Desert bird, this one is common. Not as common as in Europe, however, where there are often flocks of millions flying around overhead. I suppose that's one reason these birds are hated by so many people. They're just too plentiful, and they have an impact on life. But I think they are gorgeous, and they have a VERY nice song. The ones on the right were at the Roger Road ponds, across from Sweetwater Wetlands. I found the single one at Santa Cruz Flats, but I have seen them in many other locations.
By the way, the word "vulgaris" in the zoological name, means "common".
A Murmuration of Starlings - UK
Starlings flock by the millions in some parts of Europe, and particularly in England and Scotland. They are truly amazing!
You may wonder how so many birds can fly together, synchronized, without running into each other. Apparently each bird keeps a certain distance away from each of about five birds closest to him. That's how they do it.
Great Blue Heron
I have seen this bird a number of times. They are quite striking. I could show you a gazillion photos of the bird as well, but I'll show you the one I got yesterday (in October 2012), because it is one of the better ones. I almost missed seeing him; I was looking for something else, and he was just a gray spot in the distance. He was totally laid back. These birds do sit quietly for long periods of time, doing nothing. I guess "bored" isn't part of their vocabulary.
Brown Pelican with Friends
I mentioned earlier that we get seagulls here. Well, we get pelicans, too! I have now seen this species of pelican in three different locations.
This particular bird was very NOT shy! There was a girl about six years old standing not four feet away from him, and it never bothered him.
His friends are Neotropic Cormorants - Phalacrocorax brasilianus.
Is that a yawn or what?!?!
We get a number of species of woodpeckers here, and I will show you a few from time to time. These woodpeckers are the most common.
This particular woodpecker, a female, loves this electric pole next to Sweetwater Wetlands. I see her there often.
Normally, woodpeckers eat insects they get out of branches, but on the other hand...
This next series was taken some years ago, when I still had a film camera. I found him at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and he was attracted to the hummingbird feeder. They sure like sugar water! Fruit, too.
Thief! - Gila Woodpeckers have a sweet toothClick thumbnail to view full-size
You'd be amazed at what we get in the desert!
Up to 30,000 Sandhill Cranes winter here each year. They hang out primarily at Whitewater Draw. One year we had a hard freeze, which destroyed the water pumps in Whitewater, so there was very little water. That resulted in the Cranes being more widespread, between Willcox and Whitewater Draw. I made a number of trips to try to get close pictures of them, but they were never very close (though they have been closer in the past). I even missed seeing the leucistic one the year before. Darn!
Last winter (2011-2012), I made several trips, and finally got them best at Apache Reserve. These two photos are of Cranes gathering in late afternoon to roost for the night. They have the most amazing air traffic control system I think I have ever heard. They knew a new batch was coming in before I heard or saw them, and two cranes on the ground would take turns bugling, at two different pitches, guiding in the newcomers until all had landed. There were up to 150 in each group, and by the time I left, I think it is reasonable to say there were around a thousand on the ground. We're not talking about small birds here. These birds are around four feet tall. The adults have a really neat heart-shaped red spot on top of their heads.
For these shots, I set up my 1300mm lens on a tripod. I rarely carry a tripod, but this time I knew it was important.
Mandarin Wood Duck
Mandarin Ducks are actually natives of Asia and UK, but are often kept as pets because of their beauty. We appear to have a small feral population near Phoenix, though I haven't seen them. This particular male used to live at the Reid Park Zoo. He was swimming in a pond open to the sky, so he was free to leave. He also had a mate. The last few times I went there, I didn't see them.
Here is a picture of the two of them:
At this point, with my limited budget for gas to travel to good birding sites, I wait for something unusual to be reported, locally, and then I go look for it. The Groove-billed Ani is a tropical bird that only visits the extreme southwest edge of Texas on any regular basis, with spotty records in other places. I actually went three times to locate this bird before I saw him. This is also typical: repeated trips, often without success at all. But this time, I was lucky. Sweetwater Wetlands, near Tucson, Arizona. November 23, 2012.
As is often the case, if there is another birder around, I am more likely to see what I am looking for, because they are more experienced and have better eyesight, or bins, or both. This time I think there were about a dozen of us, waiting and watching. I had been there for well over an hour when he showed up, and he stayed at least a half hour that I know about.
I think he could use to brush his hair, don't you?
These birds look so obviously red that it took me a long time to figure out why they were called GREEN Herons. It's because their wing feathers and their crown have a green iridescence to them!
The bird in the first picture was at Gilbert Water Ranch. He thinks he's hiding, so I was able to get closer to him. The second picture is from Sweetwater Wetlands. You can see the green iridescence in wing feathers, faintly.
Why Do They Do That?
Have you ever noticed that when a flock of birds sits on an electric wire, they all face the same direction? Maybe there will be one or two faced the opposite direction, but no more than that. Around here, Rock Pigeons and various kinds of doves do this. I imagine sparrows do, too, though I haven't seen any lately.
I've been scratching my head over this one for awhile lately. Perhaps it is because they come in together. Perhaps it is because they land into the wind. Perhaps it's because they want to take off into the wind. Perhaps they're socializing.
I have even seen a bird come in facing the opposite direction, land, and turn around.
In these photos, one of them has ONE contrarian bird, and the other has two or three. The rest are all lined up!
See what I mean?
Ruffled Feathers - Snowy Egret - Egretta thula
Ever wonder where the phrase "ruffled his feathers" came from? Well, now you know. Snowy Egrets have these wonderful plumes that will sometimes stand out a little bit, but this one was facing away from the wind, and there was a fair breeze. It blew his plumes allovertheplace!
Northern Cardinal - Cardinalis cardinalis
Most people are familiar with the beautiful Cardinal. Cardinals are widespread in the United States. They have a beautiful song.
This is my first successful photograph of a Northern Cardinal. Cardinals tend to be a bit shy at times. This Cardinal was sitting in a tree quite close to where I was sitting. I found this one at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Lately, I have seen them in a number of places, including Catalina State Park and Tohono Chul Park.
For more information about Cardinals, see this article:
Red-faced Warbler - Cardellina rubifrons
It took several trips to catch this beautiful bird. Each trip took nearly two hours one way, and involved driving a significant distance, partly through city traffic. On this occasion, I had a birder friend with me, who got there before I did, and told me where she had seen him. I then sat and waited, and he did show up. I am particularly proud of the photo I got of this bird.
Since this article is so long, I will only add to it from time to time. I need to start a new one.
Tips for Photographing Birds
As you might imagine, photographing birds can be challenging. I won't reveal all my trade secrets here, but I'll give you a couple of tips. It is wise to have a pretty hefty telephoto lens, but pay attention to weight, because you have to carry the dern thing! I don't usually carry a tripod, although there are times when I do, for particular special conditions.
The most important tip I can give you is that if you want to photograph a small bird, be aware that many of them will return to the very same perch repeatedly. This is true of warblers and small songbirds, and also hummingbirds. If you don't get the shot the first time, finish setting up, because the bird will be back.
Some people have very fancy equipment, which is expensive, and they can get superior results to what I normally get, simply because they have better equipment. Nikons and Canons and their lenses are expensive. The image stabilization is in the lens, and that is what makes them expensive. I use Pentax for historical reasons, and because I can use any old cheap lens because the stabilization is in the camera. This is a patented mechanism, so it is only found in Pentax.
Because birds often perch in vegetation, focusing is a problem if you want to do auto focus. For this reason, I almost always hand focus my shots. You have to develop the skill, but if you do lots of it, you will do better. Take a gazillion pictures and keep the best.
Birds in flight are another matter. Raptors such as hawks are fairly easy, because they tend to fly slowly, and often are not flapping their wings. You have time to focus. Ducks are intermediate. I find a spot where there are few trees because that will give me time to locate (in my lens) and focus on the birds. You don't want them to be too close or too far away. The best distance is probably, I would guess, around 20 feet away. I use relatively little zoom, maybe around 100mm to 200mm max. If necessary, I crop. Any more than that, and you will have trouble keeping the bird in your lens long enough to get anything. I hand focus, and use the focus beep to decide when to shoot. In my experience, swallows are the most difficult, because they fly very fast and change direction often. I don't consider photographing other small birds in flight.
Birding Hotspots - Sweetwater Wetlands
Sweetwater Wetlands is my favorite birding location because I can get to it easily on my way to do errands and things like that. It consists of a series of ponds, with a trail around them and in between, as well as some larger areas very suitable for shorebirds. The water comes from the water users in Tucson, and has been processed enough to put in these locations to seep back into the ground and replenish the groundwater. There have been 290 species of birds found there at one time or another. I have personally seen 100 species there, including several real rarities: a leucistic Vermilion Flycatcher female, a Solitary Sandpiper, a Painted Redstart, and a Groove-billed Ani.
To get to Sweetwater Wetlands, go to the intersection between Ruthrauff and I-10. On the west side of the intersection, turn south on the access road, and bear to the right, not going onto the freeway. Drive a ways down until you see Sweetwater Drive. turning right. Turn there, and drive down past a T intersection and look for the signs on the left.
You can find more information here:
is the Roger Road Waste Water Treatment Plant. To get there, drive past the entrance to Sweetwater Wetlands, and turn right after you pass the corner of the fence. These two ponds are also part of the Tucson Water processing system. They are inside a fenced area with a gate. You get a birder's pass at the gate. After leaving the gate, turn left and park on the right as you START to curve around. They are open weekdays during normal working hours (until 5 pm)
There are also interesting birds to be found if you drive to the end of Sweetwater, and then follow the path to the Santa Cruz River valley. A path runs alongside the rail, going either direction. There can be interesting birds down in the valley. It is the only place I have seen a Dickcissel, for example.
Speaking of the Santa Cruz River, there are birding opportunities near just about every intersection with a major road. Just go walk the path alongside the valley. I have birded near El Camino del Cerro, Ina, and Cortaro.
Birding Hotspots - Gilbert Water Ranch
Gilbert Water Ranch is located east of Phoenix in the town of Gilbert. It is my second favorite wetland birding area. They have a series of ponds which are somewhat larger than those at Sweetwater. The birds can be approached more closely because of how the vegetation is laid out, and there are a few blinds. The water is usually shallow enough so that it will have a lot of shorebirds, but deep enough so it will have ducks, egrets, and herons.
Gilbert Water Ranch can be reached either by going south on Greenfield Rd from US 60, or going north on Santano Village Parkway from 202 going east. Hang tight on Santano; it winds around and turns into Greenfield. The entrance to the Water Ranch is either just east of Greenfield south of Guadalupe, or south of Guadalupe east of Greenfield.
You can get more information here: Gilbert Water Ranch.
Tempe Town Lake is close by, but I have never been there.
Going further east on US 60, just west of Superior, is Boyce-Thompson Arboretum. There are a lot of songbirds there, and also hummingbirds. They also have an impressive birdlist. I haven't been there as often. For more information about this wonderful place, go here: Boyce-Thompson Arboretum.
Birding Hotspots - Madera Canyon
Madera Canyon is located in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. It is mostly a pine forest, with a number of locations where good birds can be found. I think I have only just started to find all the good birding spots.
My favorite birding spot is Madera Kubo, which is a small guest ranch. Corrie keeps food, suet, and hummingbird feeders for the birds. A person can park at the Amphitheater parking lot, hike about 1/10 of a mile, and then sit and watch for hours if need be. Generally, when you visit a private birding hotspot, it is customary to donate $5 for bird feed.
Santa Rita Lodge and Chuparosa Inn also offer hummingbird feeders, and Santa Rita Lodge offers seeds for larger birds.
Carrie Nation Trail is a little more of a challenging walk, but it is where you will find such birds as the Elegant Trogon. If a species is going to come up from Mexico, that is where you are most likely to find it, in southeastern Arizona.
Proctor Road trail also goes from the Proctor Road parking lot up to the Whitehouse parking lot, and beyond. There are other birds there. You will also find good birds in the grasslands leading up to the canyon. Since there are several climate zones in the mountains, you will find different birds at different altitudes.
To get to Madera Canyon, go south from Tucson on I-19 and get off at Continental Ranch Road in Green Valley. Turn left and go under the underpass. Watch for a sign a couple miles down pointing to a right turn to go to Madera Canyon.
For more information: Friends of Madera Canyon.
Birding Hotspots - Patagonia Lake and Patagonia
Patagonia Lake is a fairly large lake that provides boating and fishing, and is home to a number of species of birds. There is an entrance fee of under $10 for a day vehicle. They keep a list of what was seen each morning at the gate. They also often have Elegant Trogon. There are also other species that are rarely seen elsewhere. For example, it is the only place where I have seen male Common Mergansers. They have a few hummingbirds. On the eastern end of the road there is a birding trail that quickly drops down a series of steps into a grassy area with lots of trees. Birders will share the area with cattle that graze. Watch your step. It is usually muddy. There is no defined trail once you get to the grassy area. It is also a good place to locate many different species of dragonflies and damselflies. (The only other place I have seen many different species of dragonflies is Sweetwater Wetlands.)
Going east from the road to Patagonia Lake, you will pass a rest area that often has unique birds. The signs will say for you to slow down because it is a congested area. This is the only place I have seen Thick-billed Kingbird.
Continuing east, you will get to the town of Patagonia. Be aware that amenities there are pretty scarce. There is one private residence there that has a good crop of hummingbirds in season, and continuing on that road, you will find a Nature Conservancy preserve that has a number of species of birds as well. In the interest of keeping the nuisance at the private residence to a bearable level, I will suggest that you get in touch with the birders of southern Arizona to find out the identity and location.
For more information about Patagonia Lake: Patagonia Lake State Park.
Birding Hotspots - Huachuca Mountains
There are three really good birding locations in the area of the Huachuca Mountains, south of Sierra Vista. The first is Beatty's Guest Ranch. He always has the best selection of hummingbirds. His ranch is up the road into Miller Canyon, several miles. The best time of year to go is early summer, because the road is in good condition, and hummingbirds are plentiful. He also has Spotted Owls sometimes. That's a rarity worth seeing.
Below the mountains, another good hummingbird location is Ash Canyon Bed and Breakfast. Mary Jo also gets a lot of other small birds.
Also good is Battiste's Bed Breakfast and Birds. They get a variety of other birds and a few hummers. They have a fanstastic set-up that looks totally natural, with a blind, and you can get right up to the birds to the point where almost no telephoto is needed.
There is lodging available at each of these places. Be prepared to provide your own food at Beatty's, or you can buy a few things at their grocery store, and the cabins have stoves and refrigerators. They have fresh eggs, and apples in season, all organic.
Birding Hotspots - Whitewater Draw, Willcox
Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area is a nature preserve out in the middle of nowhere. They have a lot of nice water birds as a general rule. This is the primary winter dwelling place for up to 30,000 Sandhill Cranes (quite a sight even if you see only a fraction of them). Just how many Sandhill Cranes you might see depends heavily on how much water they can supply to the lakes. This depends in part on the availability of water, and in part on whether the pump is working. When we had the hard freeze a couple of years ago, it wrecked the pump, and it took them awhile to get the repairs made and replenish the water. This link discusses several good birding areas: Southeast Arizona Bird Observatory.
Willcox has a small lake called Cochise Lake. It's a good place to see water birds, and you can sometimes see Sandhill Cranes there. They have a few blinds, and you can get fairly close to the birds otherwise, if they're not in the middle of the lake. This page describes things to see in Willcox. On this web site, look for Willcox Playa. There is a description of how to get to the lake. If coming from the west, and you get off at the first exit to Willcox, you will go straight to the first traffic light and turn right, go across the tracks, and look for a rather obscure large dull green sign for the turnoff to the golf course and country club. After turning right there, just keep going straight until you get to the lake.
This link is more about the larger lake west of Willcox: Cochise Lake IBA. The third place you can see Sandhill Cranes is at the Apache Station Wildlife Area. You can reach that off Route 191. The entrance is close to the power station, but on the other side of the street, slightly north.
Birding Hotspots - Santa Cruz Flats
This area just northwest of Picacho Peak is home to many other birds you probably won't see elsewhere. It's the best place to see Crested Caracara. This is an area where you will want to do safari birding. This means birding from your car with the windows down. Pretzer Road, one of the best places to find good birds, is about 15 miles long, and most people won't walk that. The birds are more likely to stay put for a car than a person on foot anyway, because there is nearly constant farming vehicle traffic. They're used to it. If you go to Baumgartner and Wheeler, be very careful not to step on private property. Some of the residents no longer appreciate birders.
Take Picacho Highway (town of Picacho exist) south (you think you're going west, but you're not). Several of the roads that turn west off this road have good birds. I think the roads are a mile apart.
There don't seem to be any really good web sites about this area, but you might find this one interesting: Santa Cruz Flats Raptor Count.
Picacho's water processing lake is another good spot. I have been there once. I can't tell you off the top of my head how to get there, and the one road I took into the area is strictly one way, and if someone wants to come out while you are going in, or vice versa, one of you is going to do a lot of backing. There are other roads that go up to the lake area, though.
I'll discuss more hotspots when I get around to it.
Birds Around the World
I turn now to information about interesting birds from elsewhere...
Lyrebird - Other parts of the world have interesting birds, too!
The lyrebird is is the best mimic bird in the world, bar none!
Hoatzin - Archaeopteryx Mystery Solved???
The description and behavior of this bird, not to mention its appearance, sure sounds like an Archaeopteryx to me! The young have claws on their wings, and can climb tree branches like a monkey. I think I see the same claws on the adults, but I don't know if they still use them.
From the notes to the last video:
"'The Hoatzin is arguably the most enigmatic living bird in regard to its phylogenetic relationships. No satisfying evolutionary hypothesis has been proposed, and the situation has actually become worse with the availability of DNA sequence data.
Is this another example of a "living fossil"?
Saying the bird EVOLVED a characteristic is speculation, but the characteristic is very real.
A good video showing a Hoatzin in flight. The way they switch the orientation of their feet when they walk along the pole is interesting.
I'm not the only person who sees a resemblance between Hoatzin and Archaeopteryx!
I don't care much for the presentation, but it contains the best summary of a number of interesting facts about these birds.
What do you think?
The only difference between a Hoatzin and an Archaeopteryx that I have noticed is the shape of the beak. But we have already observed that finch beaks will vary within a species, depending on the environment and food available at the time.
Are the Hoatzin and the Archaeopteryx the same bird?
Purple Star and Lens of the Day
Folks, thank you from the bottom of my heart for your incredible and phenomenal support!
This includes all your comments, blessings, and squidlikes, too!
Let me know whether you enjoyed this article, and tell me about your own experiences with the birds of Arizona.
© 2009 Pat Goltz