Category Archives: Birds

Arctic Terns


We saw a colony of Arctic terns in southern Iceland. One of these birds attacked me. I guess I got too close to its nest. They are very protective.

One of the most fascinating aspects of birds is their ability, often truly amazing, to migrate, often over amazing distances, and in amazing circumstances.    Why do birds, unlike most animals migrate in the first place?  How do they navigate?  How do they know where to go?   How can they migrate so far, often under very adverse conditions?  In fact, to me the very notion of migration is a vast mystery that I will never understand, no matter how much I learn about it.   Just as one example, among many, some species of shorebirds, a relatively short time after giving birth to their young abandon them to their own devices while they fatten up for the long migration.  Then the adults head south many thousands of miles away, often to South America.  Amazingly, the young, who have never been anywhere in their short lives other than northern Canada, fly south on their own without any guidance from the adults, and turn up at the same place as the adults some weeks behind the adults.  How do they do it?  It is very difficult for us mere humans to fathom such incredible abilities.  It is a profound mystery.

Why does the Arctic Tern migrate literally from one end of the earth to the other, and then later back again?  What drives the bird to do that?  Why do they travel so far to go from one seemingly inhospitable place to another?  I will never understand these things, but will never tire to trying.

Some recent information about Arctic Terns is just downright amazing. The Arctic tern is justifiably famous for its astonishing migration. It is one of the most astonishing stories in a natural world filled with astounding stories. It flies each year from its breeding grounds in the Arctic in the spring and then back again after the summer. The shortest distance between these two points is 19,000 km (12,000 mi). This is the longest migration of any animal in the world! It flies about 2 times farther than scientists earlier believed because its route is not straight. It meanders.

Recently scientists have been able to install very small transmitters onto them so that their track could be monitored. One Arctic tern followed a zig-zag pattern from Greenland to Antarctica and back again each year and in the process racking up 44,000 frequent flyer miles (or 71,000 kilometers), as National Geographicdescribed them.  This is 4,000 miles or 6,440 km more than its nearest competitor the sooty shearwater. The researchers who found out this new information estimated that because the birds often live to be 30 years old over their lifetime they travelled about 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) which is equal to 3 trips to the moon and back![1]

Until recently scientists could not find a tracker light enough to be carried by a tern. Now they use one that is 1/20thof an ounce or 1.4 grams. The researchers also learned that terns often stop for month in the open Atlantic Ocean possibly to “fuel up” on small fish and crustaceans before continuing their awesome (for once that word really does apply). Even more surprisingly, they don’t take the shortest route. Instead they zig and zag literally across the ocean and back again! Some wondered why they would zigzag so much. For example, the terns from Greenland don’t fly straight up or down the Atlantic. Instead they “hopscotch from Antarctica to Africa to South America to the Arctic.”[2]Even though this is a detour of several thousand kilometers because they zigzag across the Atlantic Ocean, The birds appear to be following huge spiraling wind patterns in the atmosphere, avoiding flying into the wind,” according to Carsten Egevang one of the researchers.[3]

Though scientists are not sure why these amazing birds take such a long journey nearly from pole to pole, they believe it must be that the terns find rich feeding grounds in the waters of the poles. Why else would they do it?



[1]“World’s Longest Migration Found–2X Longer Than Thought,”National Geographic(Jan 2010)”


[2]“World’s Longest Migration Found–2X Longer Than Thought,”National Geographic(Jan 2010)

[3]Carsten Egevang, “World’s Longest Migration Found–2X Longer Than Thought,”National Geographic(Jan 2010)

Birds of Arizona

This has not been a great year for wild flowers. In fact it has been a rotten year for wild flowers.  However, the birds have come and presented themselves. I captured a few images. If anyone notices that I have misidentified any birds please tell. I know I am an incompetent birder.


Black-crowned Night Heron



Western Tanager


American Avocet


Black-Necked Stilt


Great Egret


Northern Cardinal


The cardinal broke a cardinal rule. That rule is that birds will only come close to me when I am a long way from my camera.  This time, we were sitting down for lunch and this guy showed up very close by.  Very obliging.  The stilt and the avocet were photographed last year.

Miracle Spring Water

Ring-necked Duck in “Reclaimed water”

Watching television I was stunned by a TV ad. The ad was from  television evangelist Peter Popoff  who did not ask for money. In fact he offered to give something away for free. There was a miracle right there. The product was “Miracle Spring Water.” “God’s plan for us has always been to be in health and prosper. He’s using the Miracle Spring Water to do just that.” A woman on the ad claimed, 2 days after she tried it she received $2,500 and then 2 days later $30,000! One young man said it changed his whole life. Another person said right after drinking it he got a new car! Another said that her relationship with her mother remarkably changed after imbibing the elixir. He asked people to call for a free bottle with absolutely no obligation. “You are next in line for a miracle.”

I didn’t call. Of course, I suspect that callers will be contacted eventually to buy something. After all people who believe in miracle spring water will believe anything. It is like wearing a sign “Gullible” on your forehead.

Canadian Singer/Songwriter Roy Forbes (formerly Bim) said if you don’t believe in miracles you may be taking bad advice.” Do you believe in miracles? Then I remembered I had seen miracle spring water that day–at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler Arizona where spoiled wastewater has been recharged into creeks and a lake that lures birds from all across the state while providing a recreational for many people . Birders (Chris says we are bird brains)  like me. Fathers fishing with their children. Families enjoying a picnic beside the pond. That is miraculous spring water.



Chris and I went to Usery Park to look at birds. The highlight was the Rosy-faced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis) [formerly the rosy-faced lovebird (Agapornis roseicollis), also known as the rosy-collared or peach-faced lovebird. This is a species of lovebird native to arid regions in southwestern Africa such as the Namib Desert.

They had beautiful green, rose, and orange plumage. They are common in the pet industry. These birds are descendants of escapees from someone who owned them. They are not native to Arizona but this group has been here for years and seem to be enjoying life in the Sonoran desert. Most exotic birds are not able to survive in the US, but these found congenial conditions in the Phoenix area. Many people welcome them, as does Usery Park where we photographed these.

I love these birds

Burrowing Owls



I went on an Owl Walk with Desert Rivers Audubon Society at Zanjero Park in Gilbert. This was a lot of fun and we saw 4 Burrowing Owls.

Burrowing owls are small owls that usually inhabit dry, open areas where grasslands, rangelands, agricultural lands, and  deserts and scrublands are found. They are very small owls–not more than 12 inches tall. They also have relatively long legs and short tails. They are mainly brown with many white or tan spots. They also have white “eyebrows” above their yellow eyes.


These owls like to build or occupy homes underground. The ones in Florida usually build their own burrows. However most other burrowing owls occupy abandoned homes of others such as ground squirrels prairie dogs, badgers, foxes, or coyotes.

Many of them have found a home in Gilbert, especially in Zanjero Park where volunteers have erected tunnels for them with large plastic pipes. There are about 15 of them in the park, though we only saw 4. I was quite happy to see that number in the wild, but I was disappointed that none of them perched on a branch. Photographs on boards or plastic tunnels are not very pleasing. But you gotta dance with the girl you brung.

The park is rather dull looking right beside a major highway. Someone said the government was thinking of building a major access to the highway right there. This would completely disrupt the owls. On one side is a farm that no doubt provides tasty rodents to the owls. The way things go around here that farm may not last long either. These owls need protection.

The owls are federally protected by treaty and legislation in both Canada and the United States. They are endangered in Canada and listed as threatened in Mexico.

According to our guide from the Audubon Society burrowing owls from Canada leap frog over these owls to Mexico. These owls they believe have migrated from the northern plains in the United States, not Canada.

Even though the setting was poor for photographs I did get some shots. The birds were very cooperative. Although they did not perch on a branch, they did stand in front of or near their burrows and were not very disturbed at people near by. I had a lot of fun. I want to go back and try again for better environmental shots.

Birds of the Sonoran Desert


Black-throated Sparrow

I am a wild flower guy.  But this is the worst wild flower year in Arizona in at least 15 years and perhaps ever. So I have been forced to adapt.  Instead of wild flowers I have pursued birds. I love birds too, but unlike flowers, they don’t often stay in one place. That makes photographing them tricky.

“In many experts’ view, dinosaurs never really went extinct. Small ones, whose scales were modified into feathers, can be seen almost anywhere you look.”[1]

Any creature that lives in the desert has a big challenge–how to survive. Surprisingly many creatures do survive here. Some even thrive.

At first that sounds hard to believe. After all water, which is absolutely essentail for any animal to survvie is hard to find. Added to that, it is often hot here and as it heats up so does evaporations, tending to elminate what little war was here in the first place. As if that is not enough an animal’s need for water increases as the temperature increases. I can testify to that. Sometimes, on a hike, I have thought water was not required. That is always a mistake. I try to make sure I always have water along, and usually I need it.

Finally, when it is hot it is difficult for organisms to maintain their correct body temeprature. So how do they do?

The answer is that every creature that tries ot live here must have a survival strategy. And it must be a good one. That applies to mammals, insects, and birds.

The most common strategy is avoidance. Like lazy boys who hate work do their best to avoid it, so animals of the desert try to avoid the heat. Many do that by sleeping during they day. Usually there are more animals active at night than during the day.

The birds that are nocturnal like owls or crepuscular (dusk-to-dawn) have an advantage. For example. Owls use this strategy. Despite the challenges I was surprised to learn from a veteran birder, that out of the 50 states in the United States Arizona had the third highest numbers of distinct species. Only California and Texas beat it! And both Texas and California have long coasts with wonderful sea birds and shorebirds. Even Florida and Alaska which are both famous for their birds, have less varieties that can be found there.

Why is that? The answer is diversity. Arizona has diversity of terrain. It has mountains, it has plains, it has grasslands, and of course, it has deserts. Add those up and that makes birds. Surprisingly many bird species.Despite the challenges I was surprised to learn from a veteran birder, that out of the 50 states in the United States Arizona had the third highest numbers of distinct species. Only California and Texas beat it! And both Texas and California have long coasts with wonderful sea birds and shorebirds. Even Florida and Alaska which are both famous for their birds, have less varieties that can be found there.

According to, California has 664 species of birds, Texas 644, and Arizona 555. Manitoba by comparison has a paltry 390.

Why is that? The answer is diversity. Arizona has diversity of terrain. It has mountains, it has plains, it has grasslands, and of course, it has deserts. Add those up and that makes birds. Surprisingly many bird species.


The House Finch was introduced in the eastern USA and over time has expanded its range from their to most of North America, including both Manitoba and Arizona.

Contrary to what I just said, the Cactus Wren is not shy and will stand still for a photograph, unlike my even more lovely grand daughters.

[1] Douglas H. Chadwick, Enduring America, (1995) National Geographic Society, p. 96