Category Archives: Birds

More Birds of Arizona

I love these birds because they are willing to pose proudly.  When you find one they are very easy to photograph.

These photos are actually from previous years in Arizona.  This year I photographed this species before the glorious male plumage shown here. Good looking males should be allowed to show off!

A couple of years ago such a heron was a frequent visitor at our neighbour’s house. This bird was spotted near the Phoenix zoo.

I can’t get enough of these wonderful birds. This one was photographed at one of our favourite places–Usery Park in Mesa Arizona.

A lot of people don’t like grackles, but we should be careful about applying human standard to birds. Often their standards are better than ours.

Another of those wonderful wrens. These are much bigger than “our” wrens back home.

This vulture is common in Manitoba as well.  They look so beautiful in the air. On the ground not so much

Barn Owls and Gray Hawks

 

 

We saw these owls a couple of years ago. Owls may lay up to 14 eggs during years of rodent abundance, but fail to breed when rodent populations crash. Eggs are laid at intervals and incubation begins with the first egg, thus the hatchlings differ in size and the number raised to fledging depends on the food supply. Owls are smart. Like so many animals that are not given the credit they deserve. 

Usually only the female incubates and the male brings food to her; both sexes feed the young. Incubation is relatively long, being 32-34 days in the Barn Owl. Owls reach maturity at one year.

 

Gray Hawks are not found anywhere in North America other than Arizona or southern Texas

 

These are magnificent birds and we were privileged to see them flying free  in the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.

Harris Hawk

 

I claim to be a flower child, but the truth is I love birds too. We stopped at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson on our way home this year.  I try to go there every year.  They have a show nearly every day where you can see raptors in flight. Free flight they  call it. It is truly amazing to see them flying and perching so close. These photos however are from previous years. I like them better.

These birds are imprinted on their handlers but are free to fly away. Sometimes they do exactly that. Usually they come back because after living with humans who deliver food to them every day they realize they have it pretty good in the Museum so they come back. The “Museum” by the way is mainly outdoors so they are not captive in the sense of being in cages.

This hawk prefers thorn scrubs for its habitat. Like many hawks the female is larger than the male. The likely reason for this adaptation is that in this way they don’t compete as much for prey.

These are one of the few birds that cooperate in groups. As a result they hunt together. This is what we saw at the Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.  Cooperation is a very helpful technique in deserts where one Harris Hawk might chase a rabbit into some scrub and then flushes it out so others in the group can capture and kill it. This is the only hawk to hunt cooperatively. They also cooperate in the raising of the young, again, the only hawk species to do this. Nature is not just about competition. Cooperation is important too.

This hawk is rare in Manitoba. I have not seen it here but it is fairly common in the American south.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 2

This hummingbird was a lifer for me. That means I had never seen it before. Though is was in an aviary at Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson. The word museum is really misplaced.  Most of what can be found there is outside. These birds flew freely, made nests and did what birds do, but they were confined to this aviary.

This is one of the more colourful hummingbirds with its iridescent breast feathers and bright red bill. I kindly posed for me.

This stunning male hummingbird pose very close to me. In fact I took a large number of photos that appeared to be out of focus. I could not understand why, until I realized I was too close to it and had to step back a bit.

Another stunning bird that i had never seen before. This was a good day.

I think this is one of the most beautiful birds in the world. About 15 years ago I saw one near Mitchell.  It is a fairly rare visitor to Manitoba. This was a great day for a bird brain brain like me.

Birds of Sonoran Desert Part 1

I am a flower guy, but actually enjoy birds about as much as flowers.  I find most things in nature interesting. This common bird of the Sonoran Desert has a beautiful melodic song.

 

This duck is very common and were it not for that I think the male would be more appreciated for his outstanding handsomeness.  Sort of like human I suppose.

I found this mother sitting on her eggs in my neighbour’s yard

This spectacular male was very illusive and this was the best shot I got of  him. With such beauty you would think he would want to show it off more.

 

Sometimes common names are not very helpful. He is called the ring-necked duck but it is the bill around hi s bill that is prominent. That makes it hard for a fledgling birder like me.

Sky Islands

There are many sky islands in Arizona.  Madera Canyon was one of them. Madera Canyon is located on a sky island. We went there after the debacle of Tucson’s Festival of Books. Sky islands are  incredible mountain ranges that rose up abruptly out of the desert lowlands without  foothills.  The mountains seemed to be  emerging out of the earth as if by magic.

Later I learned more about this phenomenon.  I learned that such mountains usually had an elevation of between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. I also learned that these mountains which looked like islands in a sea of grass or sea of desert scrub actually had an abundance of wild life.  These islands include most of Arizona’s biotic communities. They are among the most bio-diverse ecosystems on the planet. They are often the meeting place between desert and forest and everything in between. It is precisely that diversity that attracts wild life, especially birds. That is why these sky islands contain well over half the bird species in all of North America.  Not just Arizona. They also contain 29 bat species, more than 3,000 species of plants, and 104 species of mammals.

 

Sky Islands are havens of biodiversity. That is really their most important feature.  When you move into these “islands” in the desert there is an astounding range of biodiversity.  As Gary Paul Nabhan said, “In fact the “sky islands” of southeastern Arizona and adjacent Sonora are now recognized by the national Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of the great centers of plant diversity north of the tropics.”

The reason for that diversity is of course the great variety of topography in the state. That produces a wonderful variety of life, both flora and fauna. As Nabhan said, “When we compare our desert with others, the contrast is striking. Overall, the Sonoran Desert has the greatest diversity of plant growth forms–architectural strategies for dealing with heat and drought–of any desert in the world.”

The Sonoran Desert is certainly not the bleak and barren place that many expect–and sky islands are the apexes of diversity.

What makes Madera Canyon so special is the creek at the bottom. It traverses  4 life zones and many habitats between the desert floor and the mountain tops.  It has become world famous for its diverse flora and fauna. According to the Friends of Madera Canyon, “the variety of climates within 10 miles is similar to that found in driving from Arizona to Canada!

Southwestern Arizona and this canyon are spectacular places for people who love wildlife and wild plants. This area is ranked the third best birding area in the US!  It contains some 400 birds species and especially 14 of Arizona’s 15 hummingbird species. That is more hummingbirds than any where else in the United States. But today we saw none at all.

It was interesting that the more we gained in altitude the more deciduous trees appeared and the less cactuses.   I have learned that usually in Arizona the higher the altitude the higher the precipitation so the more diverse the vegetation. Trees need the added the moisture on the higher elevations. Of course, if the mountain is too high, as in the San Francisco Peaks then there are no trees at all. Just snow. Trees, like all life is finicky.  Like Goldilocks, things have to be just right.

The landscape of southern Arizona seems dry—it is dry.  But it does get rain. In fact this region gets about 11 inches (280 mm) of rain per years. This is enough rain to allow a surprising amount of vegetation to flourish. Even wild flowers abound.  That seems impossible. It looks so dry and nearly barren. But the land is not barren—far from it.

On the day we were there an enthusiastic birder showed me a photograph of an Elegant Trogon (Trogon elegans) one of the rarest birds in the United States. A couple of years ago my brother-in-law Harv and I went in search of it but did not find. He has seen it a few times. Me never. Darn! The birder showed me a photograph he had taken of it. I was really jealous.  Later I went in search of it. I found another birder who had found it and he told me exactly where to go, but I missed it. I am an incompetent fledgling birder.    We spent some time sitting on a bench with camera and binoculars in hand. We saw a lot of birds of different species, but surprisingly no hummingbirds. Usually in the past we saw a large variety of hummingbirds here. I was puzzled by their absence.

House Finches are interesting birds because they were released in the eastern part of North America by people who brought them from Europe in the 1940s and now they have spread over most of North America including Arizona and Manitoba.

 

Acorn Woodpeckers often drill small holes in trees in the autumn to insert their acorns. Often their “granary trees” are used over and over again and contain thousands of acorns. Aren’t birds weird?

Mexican jays have co-operative breeding where the young from previous years help the parents to raise the new young.  Nature is not just competition, sometimes it involves cooperation.

 

Birds and Anthropocene: Not all Doom and gloom

 

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

We drove to Gilbert to participate in the monthly meeting of the Desert Rivers Audubon Society. We went last year to one of their meetings and really enjoyed it. Tonight they had a talk by Arizona State University Professor Dr. David Pearson. His topic was “Birds and the Anthropocene: The Future of Biodiversity”. It was fascinating. Dr. Pearson looked at the issue from a new perspective. In other words, he wanted to beyond the doom and gloom of species loss. It is easy to go down that path. I know, I do it all the time.

The notion of the anthropocene is designed to capture the fact that the era of human impacts is upon us and we as a species have had such a profound impact on the planet that our impact is comparable to the global geological forces of the past. I recently blogged about the precipitous decline in animals (not just birds)  The numbers are stupefying. The big question though is what can we do about it?

Dr. Pearson began with a startling proposition: “Don’t dwell on the past if you want to conserve the future.” That is not intuitively true. After all should we not learn from the mistakes of the past? Of course we should, but that does not mean we have to be stuck in the past. We need a new approach. The problem that we have to take into consideration is that so much has changed that we must learn to adapt.

Pearson suggested we consider conservation and ecology but with a new focus. We have to change our focus. The most important first step is to realize that we must give up our search for the pristine. The pristine no longer exists, and it ain’t coming back any time soon.  That is why we have to forget about the past. It will only serve to depress. There is no pristine left anywhere on the planet. Human impacts can be seen on every continent. Even in Antarctica the human effects are obvious and easily discernable.

What worked 50 years ago won’t necessarily work today. Too much has changed. So we have to change too. So we have to forget about the pristine and forget about achieving it. Think outside that box. We need a new ecology. We cannot fix the past. We need knowledge. We have to be smart. Yes we have to avoid the mistakes of the past, but we also need to learn new ways of doing ecology. We have to realize that we can’t save everything. We need triage. Really that means we must prioritize what needs to be done and what can be done. We must also understand that money is always a factor. It is never unlimited. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, we have to practice smart ecology. We have to practice ecology that knows its limits too.

We have to work with the state of nature that we have, even though it is far from the pristine nature we would like to have. We can’t undo the past so what do we do?

Around the globe the number of species that have been lost for good and the habitat that has been lost for good are staggering. But concentrating on this doom and gloom won’t be help. It might even make things worse, because if things are hopeless people tend to give up.

Even in Kruger National Park, one of the finest national parks in the world, they have had to adapt. As a result much of it is now fenced! I remember when I was there, only a few years ago, they were just talking about fencing it. The notion seems abhorrent, but they had to adapt. We will have to adapt too and accept some things we don’t want to accept.

We have to reconsider what is natural. The natural is what is caused by nature, not by humans. But humans affect everything. Humans everywhere affect everything.

One of the things Pearson emphasized is that we can’t just concentrate on National Parks. We have to do conservation work elsewhere as well. We have to look at secondary habitats. In some of these places we can actually make a difference, and sometimes at a surprisingly small cost.

Since no habitat is able to escape human influence we have to be willing to go where humans have already had an effect. For example, we must look at urban ecology. This may sound counterintuitive, but we have to be willing to work in areas where humans have already had a profound impact. We have to practice ecology in our cities.

A single generation from today, by 2030, the population of the world’s cities will likely grow by 2 billion more people. That will be nearly 10 billion people. At present, about half of the humans on earth live in urban areas.

In short, the entire planet is becoming more urbanized, a phenomenon which is already having a profound effect on the natural systems that maintain breathable air, drinkable water, and fertile soil for agriculture.

But large areas of green spaces exist within cities. Lawns, parks, golf courses, and nature preserves created decades ago and now surrounded by development help filter pollution in air and water, produce oxygen, mitigate heat absorption by asphalt and concrete, and provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

In the past quarter century, scientists have recognized that understanding the interactions of the living and nonliving components of these urban ecosystems is vital to the future of all life on earth, including ourselves.

Dr. Pearson said one day he took his students at Arizona State University on a walk through their campus. They were amazed by the wildlife they found right there. He said before they were done 50 other students joined his class, intrigued by what they were looking at. We all have to take a fresh look at the environment. Even the environments in our cities.

We have to look at the costs and benefits of urbanization. There are a lot of hidden costs. They are only hidden though until we look. The costs of urbanization include the following: pollution has increased, more floods have been created, water has been affected, air quality has been affected and that has affected people living in cities, people’s stress has been increased, people have become alienated from nature, and garbage has accumulated. The list could go on and on.

Of course there are benefits to living in cities too. Otherwise so many people would not live there. Many people think the costs are worth the price. In fact since more and more people live in cities that must mean that more and more people think it is worth living in cities, notwithstanding the enormous costs. The benefits include better access to education, jobs, entertainment, culture, sociability, and efficiency of services, to name again just a few. Often life is just plain more comfortable and for many more enjoyable than outside the cities. Apparently the benefits outweigh the costs. At least to many people. That’s why so many choose to live there. We have to work with that.

One of the facts about living in a city is the presence of heat islands. It is hotter in the city than outside the city. People must learn that green islands in the city are not a luxury. They help modify the ill effects of city living.

Humans in cities have to do things to improve city life. Cats are a good example. Every year in the United States domestic cats kill 2 billion birds. This is contributing to the serious decline of bird populations. Humans should keep their cats inside or tied up. Cats can learn to accept that. Cat owners must be responsible. I admit to some guilt here. I used to have cat pets and always let them roam around the neighbourhood and I knew that my cats killed birds. I did not like it, but I let them out. If someone complained I promised to speak to the cats. Attitudes like mine have to change.

Riparian areas are marvellous adaptations inside cities. There are 2 astounding examples very close by–the Riparian Reserve at Water Ranch (where I took the photograph of the owl., though it is captive) and the Veterans Oasis Park. Both are wonderful green areas inside the city. And both help recycle water in a region that badly needs clean water! This is win/win at its finest. Dr. Pearson said he proudly shows pictures of these 2 places around the world when he gives presentations at conferences. I have been there many times and am always amazed at the wildlife inside a major city.

As Dr. Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.

The entire story is not grim. For example, in the past hundred years in Arizona perhaps only 1 or 2 plant species have gone extinct as far as we know. Even though many exotics have been introduced they have not muscled out the locals. Plants have been able to survive.

Next I will blog about species that are not declining. How is that possible?

Astonishing Species Decline

 

Chris and I went to hear a Professor from Arizona State University talk about the amazing decline of birds and what we can do about it. Before I bog on what he said, I wanted to give some information, about the general problem of species decline. It is not a pretty story but the Professor did not concentrate on doom and gloom. He actually had some suggestions.

We all know birds (and other animals) have been seriously impacted by human activities inside and outside cities. The Living Planet Report of the World Wildlife Fund of 2018 delivered shocking news. It reported “On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years.” You have to be careful in interpreting such figures. They are more complicated than at first they appear. But it is not difficult to understand we are losing a lot of wildlife. In addition the report said, “The top threats to species identified in the report link directly to human activities, including habitat loss and degradation and the excessive human use of wildlife such as overfishing and overhunting.”

As Damian Carrington reported in the Guardian, “Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, …, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.”

This is an incredible report and not many people are talking about it. They are talking about Trump and the Mueller report, but that is not nearly as important as this. As Carrington said,

 

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by the WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”

This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

According to Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, “We are rapidly running out of time.…The Living Planet Index has been criticised as being too broad a measure of wildlife losses and smoothing over crucial details. But all indicators, from extinction rates to intactness of ecosystems, show colossal losses. “They all tell you the same story,” said Barrett….”

Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.'”

However, as Professor Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.

Next I will blog about how we should react to this decline. Besides crying that is.

Hummingbirds: How Smart are they?

 

 

After our adventures on the highways we did make it safely to our rented home in San Tan Valley Arizona. Our first Arizona friends to visit us were the hummingbirds. They arrived the first day we were here and went directly to the same spot we had our feeder last year before we had time to set it up.  How smart is that? I don’t think anyone has fed them here for 9 months!

As we were reading in the backyard, we saw an intense aerial display that could match any of the dogfights in either of our World Wars. Two Anna’s Hummingbirds conducted this military exercise. They flew after each other for so long that mostly they had no time to dine on the nectar we provided. That is not very smart! I did get a couple of photos of one of them in one of the few moments when he stopped to drink, including the image above.

Humans have a strong tendency to think they are better and smarter than everything else. Many of us believe that God made this world for humans to rule. The world is subordinate to us. Sometimes however, humans should learn a little humility.

I have watched a few astonishing nature shows on television about hummingbirds. One of them was about  Andy Hurley and his research partner Sue Healy who study hummingbirds. In particular, they study rufous humming birds, astonishing little birds with brains the size of a grain of rice. Yet even these birds are smart–very smart. Their hearts can beat at more than a 1,000 beats per minute! Their wings beat at more than 70 times per second! All of that requires the expenditure of an enormous amount of energy. How do they get that energy? Well they need to be smart to find it.

         Hurley and Healy found that in the lab birds like this do surprising things, but not nearly as surprising as the things that the birds do in their environment. That is where their intelligence really shines. They set up a number of fake flowers for the real birds. Each a different colour. They created a pattern of cardboard disks on top of sticks or poles stuck into the ground to resemble flowers. These were artificial flowers filled with a sucrose solution that resembles nectar.  The birds were actually offered slightly better food than they would get in the wild, in order to keep them interested. “Being smart birds they recognized a good thing when they saw it.” They kept coming back for the nectar of the gods. “Not only do they see it; they remember it,” Hurley said.

Because male rufous hummingbirds are so territorial, the same bird comes back to the cafeteria over and over again. As Hurley said, “A Male rufous hummingbirds has hundreds if not thousands of flowers in its territory. As a result, he has to remember where good food is, andwhere he has just visited.” That takes serious smarts! As Healy said, “they seem to know where a flower is after one visit. One visit! And we are still asking ourselves how do they do it?” Remember that is one visit among hundreds or even thousands of flowers! That also takes serious smarts. No doubt this is far beyond my capacity. But that is not all. They are even smarter than that!

As David Suzuki, who presented the show, said, “Its not just bird brain power, its biology. Hummingbirds have such a high metabolism they cannot afford to waste precious energy looking for food.”

People need a meal every 3 or 4 or 5 hours. “Hummingbirds are thinking I need a meal every 10 minutes! They have to make decisions that are really important, and if they don’t do it well they die. ” If we miss MacDonald’s we can always go to Wendy’s down the street. It doesn’t much matter to us. We have the time to make mistakes and correct them. Hummingbirds don’t have the luxury of much time. They cannot make a lot of mistakes.

Hummingbirds have another big problem–that is biodiversity. Normally that is a good thing for all of us, but for hummingbirds in the wild that can be a serious obstacle. In the wild, unlike the nectar Café the scientists could create, flowers replenish their nectar at different rates. In the experiment the scientists mimicked this diversity. The question then became can the hummingbird figure out which fake flowers are empty and which are filled with sucrose solution? The scientists were shocked at how well these tiny birds with their tiny brains did in the wild.

For half the flowers, after a bird visited, the scientists waited 10 minutes before replenishing. The other half of the flowers were refilled after 20 minutes. So a bird came in, visited 3 or 4 flowers, then went away and came back 10 or 15 minutes later, and then the bird must decide which flowers have not yet given up nectar and which ones will have it already. That is no an easy test. I would not want to take this examination, particularly if my life depended on it. Hummingbirds have no choice. They take such tests every day, over and over again. As a result the scientists  saw a hummingbird that had already sipped from 2 flowers. Then when it returned it headed straight for a new one. After a day of doing this, the hummingbird had a remarkable ability to separate out the 10 minute and 20 minute flowers. The bird must treat them differently.

Scientists call this episodic memory. I am glad I heard this expression. That is because I know I will forget it. That’s because I have so little of it. “They have to remember not just the what, and the where, but the when.” As Suzuki said, “this is a cognitive skill once thought to belong only to humans.” How wrong can we get?  How stupid are we? At least in comparison to these little birds with their minute brains.

Hurley described this well, when he said, “I would need a clipboard and pencil and 8 different stop watches for hours and hours and hours. Yet the birds are able to do this, seemingly without effort. They are smarter than me.They are astonishing creatures and we have underestimated them–forever. As Healy said, “These birds have extraordinarily small brains and yet they do things that we find phenomenal.”

Naturally, that brings up an important question, ‘when it comes to brains does size matter?’  Humans are a good example of species where the size of brains does matter. Humans have very large brains for the size of their bodies and humans have an astounding capacity thanks to their brains. Well some of us at least.

The question was, ‘can a hummingbird outsmart a human?’  It seems unlikely. Andy Hurley is still amazed by hummingbirds after studying them for more than 25 years. Hurley said, “I’ve been humbled by these birds.” That was a lesson he wanted to pass on to his students. Humility is good.

Hurley did an experiment that required his students–smart University students–to forage like a hummingbird at the University of Lethbridge. He set up a memory test with candy instead of nectar. This one was to test the students. He had 8 paper cups.  4 of the paper cups were visited by students earlier. He asked the students to go to the cups that they had not yet visited to determine if they had candy hidden underneath them or not. One would think humans could do this easily. After all, humans have huge brains, and university students are thought to be the best of the best. The Students did pretty good. They got it right 75% of the time. This was the same as hummingbirds!

This made Professor Hurley say to his students, “You have brains that are 7,000 times larger than hummingbirds. My question is what are you doing with all those neurons? Why are you not scoring better than an animal that has a tiny, tiny brain?” The students chuckled. They chuckled at themselves that is.

Why are hummingbirds so smart? According to Professor Hurley, “the answer is that there is intense natural selection of hummingbirds to get this right because if they don’t they die.” Now humans have figured this out. They are pretty smart too.

The Birds of Ottawa

 

 

It seems weird but I met my sister Barb and brother-in-law Harv in Ottawa. They live in Steinbach but were also in Ottawa when we were. They invited us to join them on a birding outing not far from where they were staying.  This is a picture of Barb’s hand with a chickadee that arrived to eat seeds from her hand. That is my kind of birding.

 

This is a close-up of a chickadee.

 

This is a white-breasted nuthatch.

 

This is an impressionistic photograph of the maple leaves along the Mud Lake Trail where we walked.

 

The male Wood Duck is one of the most beautiful birds in North America.

 

Squirrels were also plentiful and fought over seeds left for them.