20 March 2011

Paper Wasps

Well, spring has definitely sprung here in the low desert, with numerous bees, wasps, and spiders now active.

One of the more conspicuous visitors to the yard is the Paper Wasp.  In fact, they've enjoyed my yard so much one decided to take up residence in the frame of my front door!

Paper Wasp

The photo shows a wasp tending to a newly built nest.  The nest looks a bit like paper (thus the wasp's common name).  If you enlarge the photo you will see small white eggs in each of the chambers of the nest.

Paper wasps are known for building there nests on man-made structures, often in conspicuous locations.  Why?  I have no idea but I'm certain some scientist somewhere has given this thought.  It certainly doesn't seem like a good survival strategy to build where people will see you!  Any theories from anyone?

17 March 2011

Green Herons

Green HeronOne of my favorite birds of Arizona is the Green Heron (Butorides virescens).  As I've talked about before with other Herons, many 'outsiders' are surprised to find such a strong heron population in the desert southwest.  While I don't think there are more herons here than in other areas of the USA, I do think they are easier to find since they are drawn to the relatively few water sources.

The photo at right is of an adult from the Gilbert Water Ranch in Gilbert, AZ.  Female and male Green Herons are nearly indistinguishable.  They average around 18" length, though often appear much smaller when crouching with their neck coiled.

Green Heron
Green Heron
The picture at right is somewhat atypical of where a Green Heron would normally be seen.  They are best spotted on shorelines, often on low overhanging branches, waiting for small fish to swim by (see photo below).
Green Heron
Green Heron on Man-made Lake Edge

Part of my love of the Green Heron comes form an experience I had at Gilbert Water Ranch in May of 2007.  The ponds all had very little or no water, and the Egrets and Herons had to share close quarters.  I found a small clearing in some vegetation surrounding the pond, and crouched down and waited. 

After a few minutes, a Green Heron took a few steps out of the brush just about 5 feet away from me. It proceeded to go on a fishing bonanza as I watched and attempted to photograph it.  I was so close my lens hardly would focus - I had to lean back on my heals to get a few extra inches away.

Green Heron with fish
Green Heron with fish

13 March 2011

Broad-Billed Hummingbird

Arizona boasts some of the most diverse landscape and habitats in the entire United States, and this is reflected in the number of hummingbird species that occur in the state.

In the low desert, Anna's, Costa's, and Black-chinned are most common.  Migration season brings Rufous Hummingbirds with relative frequency.  Move into the Southeastern Sky Islands, and you'll see Blue-throated, Magnificent, Calliope, and Broad-tailed with frequency.  With luck, you'll add Plain-capped Starthoat, Lucifer, Violet-crowned, Berryline, and White-eared.  In this laundry-list of birds, you may even see Allen's during migration, if you are skilled enough to distinguish it from Rufous.

Adding in today's subject, the Broad-billed (Cynanthus latirostris), and there are 14 species that visit Arizona!

Broad-billed Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird, Boyce-Thompson Arboretum, AZ
The Broad-billed is another Hummingbird that can be seen in the low desert backyards, but is most often seen in riparian or canyon habitats.  It is a stunning bird, with a bright orange bill and blue and green iridescent feathers.  

The Broad-billed is generally nondescript in other aspects aside from its appearance.  It is known to be a "mild mannered" hummingbird - much less combative than other hummingbirds.

Broad-billed Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird, near Tucson, AZ

10 March 2011

Wood Ducks - Eye Candy of the Fowl World

I think its safe to say that no American duck rivals the beauty of the Wood Duck (Aix sponsa). The male's gaudy colors make them unmistakable, and even the females boast a striking white eye patch.

Male Breeding Plumage Wood Duck
Male Wood Duck - Breeding Plumage

Wood Ducks are also quite an interesting duck from a behavioral standpoint.  While many ducks congregate in large numbers, especially on wintering grounds, wood ducks are rarely seen in groups.  Pairs are probably most common.  Additionally, and counter-intuitive for ducks, they feed mainly on seeds (Sibley indicates Acorns being a preferred food), but are known to also eat berries and insects.

Wood Ducks derive their name from their nesting location - tree cavities and occasionally man-made boxes near ponds, swamps, and lakes.  Uniquely, Wood Ducks also have claws to help them perch in trees.

Wood Ducks are easy to identify, and are found in most of the eastern half of the USA and along the west coast.

While my photos for this post are from Nebraska and Washington, Wood Ducks occasionally show up in the interior west, and here in Arizona are rare but increasing visitors in many locations of the state, ranging from Willcox to Prescott and Oak Creek and even Bullhead City.

Wood Duck Pair
Wood Ducks - Female (left), Male non-breeding (right), Omaha, NE
Wood Duck
Female Wood Duck, Juanita Bay, WA

06 March 2011

Saguaro Spines

Shortly after we moved to Arizona we decided we had to have The Icon of the Desert Southwest - a Giant Saguaro cactus - on our property.  We bought one that was just shy of 8 feet tall, and had it planted in December of 2006.

The planting process was very interesting.  Saguaros of this size weight hundreds of pounds, so a special truck delivered it in a horizontal position.  The truck tilted upwards to position it nearly vertical, and it was lowered into its hole.  The Saguaro was wrapped in thick carpet at the points where the truck contacted the plant - both to protect the plant and the workers.

Amazingly, the cactus had virtually no roots.  They placed it in the hole and packed dirt around it.  I'm sure I was like most Saguaro purchasers - skeptical that a plant with no roots that is 8 feet tall could withstand a breeze, but withstand it did. Apparently they are so heavy and have a nicely center of gravity that they can stand quite well until new roots grow.

Saguaro Spines

Saguaros are amazing plants, growing to huge heights (some to over 50 feet), in an inhospitable climate, and produce millions of seeds.  Some individuals live over 150 years!  But one of the overlooked but amazing things about the Saguaro is its thorns (spines).  They grow in clumps, called aureoles, and are amazingly sturdy and rigid.

In fact, after the Saguaro was planted, a few of the aureoles had fallen off.  I made the mistake of stepping on one in my running shoes, and it pierced right through the sole and into my foot!

As for our Saguaro, it is now about 11 feet tall and presumably has grown a massive root system. Also, it produced flowers last year for the first time (indicating it is about 35  years old.  Unfortunately, the flat lands we live in are relatively devoid of Saguaros, and thus, Saguaro pollinators.   Last year's crop of 7 or 8 flowers didn't get pollinated - here's hoping to this year!

Saguaros are amazing wildlife plants in Arizona.  Gila Woodpeckers excavate nesting cavities, which are in turn used by Elf Owls and other birds in subsequent years.  Bats and other pollinators seek out the flowers, and many birds nest in the joints, including Cactus Wren and Verdins.  Ripe fruit are devoured by White Winged Doves and others.

White-winged Dove on Saguaro
White-winged Dove Eating Ripe Saguaro Fruit

03 March 2011

Red-Tailed Hawk

The low desert is an important wintering ground for a number of hawks and falcons.  A drive down country roads near agriculture fields usually reveals hawks perched on top of power polls or berms in the fields.

In fact, this time of year it is quite hard to miss Northern Harrier, American Kestrel, and today's featured bird, the Red-tailed Hawk.  And with a bit of luck you may also spot Prairie Falcon, Ferruginous Hawk, and perhaps a White-tailed Kite.

During the Phoenix Area Aquatic Bird Count I had to drive from the far eastern developments of Maricopa southwest-ward towards some canals.  This took me across a nice stretch of undeveloped desert and farmland.

Along this drive I noticed a nice looking Red-Tailed Hawk sitting on a berm adjacent to a stretch of agricultural land.  I pulled up nearby, and turned the car off (even an idling car creates too much vibration for a crisp photo.  I stayed in he car to use it like a blind (which can be very helpful when roadside birding).

Red-tailed HawkBut as is often the case, the hawk was very jumpy, and at the sight of my window unrolling it got into an alert posture.  The movement of raising my camera was just enough to force it to fly (see right).

Well, I can't say that I really needed another nice Red-tailed Hawk photo, so I'm not too upset about only getting fly-away shots.  Regardless, Red-tailed Hawks are amazing birds to observe.  There are so many plumage variations (some of which lack the red tail) that I still like to take every chance I get to study them.

Speaking of the red tail, as you can see below, this one certainly had it!
Red-tailed Hawk Tail