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Spot the bird (easy)

Yes, I realize that this is a very easy Spot the Bird.  Although it was hiding among the lower branches of a mesquite, the bird is very easy to spot, here in the photo.  But, driving past, not so easy.  And it doesn’t think it’s easy to spot.  The bird, a Greater Roadrunner, thinks it is well hidden, lurking like light leaking through leaves, looking for lizards.

<< Greater Roadrunner (photo A.Shock)

I spotted this bird in our neighborhood, where it’s been around recently, causing me to hope it’s taken up residence.  Go ahead, click to enlarge.  It’s even easier to spot.

Posted by Allison on Oct 5th 2011 | Filed in birding,birds,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (0)

Lousy pix but exciting bird!

Another update: going onto day three of “Bill” at the feeder.

Update: as of Tuesday late afternoon, the BBLH is still at our feeder, defending it against the local Anna’s hummers, happily zipping about under the pine and between our yard and the neighbor’s.

A series of rapid, smacking clicks and a rich chip caught my ear as I was making mugs in the studio, and I looked up to catch a dark emerald at the hummingbird feeder under the Palo Verde.

A glittering green hummer with no light feathers on its belly? This was worth risking the mugs drying before I could get rim coils onto them, so I went out with my binox and little camera to stake out the feeder. I didn’t have to wait long: a male Broad-billed hummingbird is working our backyard. If I lived in Tucson, this wouldn’t be exciting. But this is a species that usually sticks to Sonoran desert foothills and southeastern Arizona; they can be found 50 miles east of here (for instance, in the oasis of Boyce Thompson Arboretum), but only once have I ever seen one in the low desert, and that was several years ago at the Desert Botanical Garden, a couple of miles from here. This is a species whose range is usually shown as just coming up into the southwestern US from Mexico. So, this little guy is a “yard bird” for us… a never-before-seen species for our property.

(All photos A.Shock, click to enlarge!)

Perhaps the unusual cold pushed it down into the Metro area from the foothills: our Chuparosas were in full bloom when last week’s extreme cold hit, killing almost every single spray of nectar-filled blossoms, and it’s even colder up around Superior — the food sources higher up must be few and far between. This little guy is aggressively holding his own against the Anna’s who are the more usual residents.

I managed to get some lousy pix, but here they are anyway — I’m too excited by having a Broad-billed hummer in the yard to self-edit! And in fact, the blurriest photo — of the speeding little glinting shuttlecock coming in fast to chase a competitor off of the feeder — is my fave. We’ll see how long he hangs around.

Posted by Allison on Feb 7th 2011 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,natural history,yard list | Comments (2)

The key is the beak

A while back, I posted the latest Spot the Bird, a shot of a Mexican wetland that contained hard-to-see birds.  It was a tough one.

Here’s the key.  The hidden birds are three Black-bellied whistling ducks, visible in the sea of green only by looking carefully for their bright coral-red bills, a tag of chestnut plumage, and surprisingly, their gray cheeks which stand out more than you’d think.  Enlarge the B&W version of the photo on the left, and look for the color splashes inside the yellow oval.  Two of the ducks are together on the left, and one, the most diffucult to see, is on the far right.

Well, OK, they’re still hard to see. Here’s a color-heightened, tight close-up to help.  Disregard the bright brown clump of leaves in the middle of the field of view.

(Photos A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jan 21st 2011 | Filed in birding,botany,natural history,spot the bird | Comments (0)

The Year’s First New Bird

Last post was the New Year’s first bird — a frosty Costa’s hummingbird — but this one is the Year’s First New Bird, and it’s a hummer, too.

We just returned from Baja California, and in the mission village of San Javier on the dramatic east side of the Sierra de la Giganta in Baja California Sur, Xantus’s hummingbirds (Basilinna or Hylocharis xantusii) were much in evidence. They’re pretty little birds, medium-sized for a hummer (about the size of Anna’s) and colorful, sporting a bright red bill, buffy chest and belly, azure and emerald green upper-parts, black throat, blue-black forehead, a white line behind the eye, and a cinnamon tail.

Behind the Misión San Javier de Viggé-Biaundó, in the three-hundred year old olive grove planted by its founding Jesuit missionaries, Xantus’s hummers zipped back and forth, feeding on chuparosa flowers sprawled over the bulky stone walls (photo right), perched in the thin tips of the olive branches (below), and scolded each other. This is a hummer that lives no where else on earth but central and southern Baja California, and we had tried unsuccessfully to see it once before on an earlier Baja trip, so it was delightful to get so many good views.

(All hummer photos thanks to E.Shock and his magic big little zoom lens, in difficult light conditions with tiny moving targets! Click to enlarge.)

The man whose shares his name with the bird had an interesting history: Xántus János, John Xantus de Vesey (left), was a Hungarian exile who came to the US in the middle of the 19th century, and worked with Hammond and Baird (also names familiar to birders and biologists). He had a short-lived consulship in Mexico — according to Wikipedia he was dismissed for ineptitude — but was there long enough to collect a specimen of this endemic hummer.

In his lifetime, Xantus’s name was also attached to a blenny, a croaker, a gecko, a pelagic crab, a murrelet, a wrasse, a night-lizard, and several plants. In addition, according to an anecdote recounted to me by a Baja historian, during his consulship Xantus left quite a few of his own chromosomes in the local gene pool, along with his Hungarian family name Xántus, which reportedly can still be found as a surname in Baja.

Posted by Allison on Jan 14th 2011 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,etymology/words,field trips,natural history | Comments (0)

Killdeer overshadows rock

A looming Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) casts a long shadow in the late afternoon sun, standing on a bermed farm road east of Phoenix (photo A.Shock).  Despite its scientific name, it was being silent, and not vociferus at all.  And despite its common name, ungulates don’t have to worry, but you invertebrates? — quake in your lowly, mud-coated exoskeletons.

Posted by Allison on Dec 15th 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,close in,natural history | Comments (1)

Owls dislike Autumn because…

…it’s hard to hide in bright, falling foliage if you’re a flying tiger…

Here’s one of a pair of Great Horned Owls we happened upon yesterday in a cottonwood grove along the Verde River east of the Phoenix metro area.  We were scouting for Tuesday’s official Christmas Bird Count of the Rio Verde area, and accidentally flushed the pair from their day-roost just before midday.

The owls flew a short distance then resettled, each in a spot they felt was secure.  One hid well, disappearing from view, but the other became a shadowy shape in golden foliage.

Great horned owl (Photo A.Shock) >>

It evidently felt sufficiently concealed, since it didn’t fly again, despite our nearness and a raven and a cooper’s hawk hassling it.  Look carefully — even through the screening leaves, you can pick out the owliness of its outline: a solid, chunky form with wispy cranial tufts. “Stink eye” — no one likes their nap interrupted — can be deduced, but not actually discerned in the photo.

I’ve classed this as a Spot the Bird, of sorts, just because.

Posted by Allison on Dec 13th 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,field trips,natural history,owls,spot the bird | Comments (1)

Key to the Goldfinches Spot the Bird


Here are the three goldfinches in yesterday‘s Spot the Bird, highlighted in color for ease of viewing.

Posted by Allison on Sep 21st 2010 | Filed in birding,birds,natural history,spot the bird,yard list | Comments (0)

Spot the bird: Lesser goldfinch fressing

We planted sunflowers in the garden for the goldfinch; it seems to have worked.

Now that the flower heads are mature and seedful on the stalks, the bushes are crowded with Lesser goldfinch. There are lots more flowers in bloom, which will keep the hungry finches supplied into the fall or even early winter. The thin stems don’t seem to support the weight of larger birds, so the lil yellow finks have the crop to themselves. The LEGOs (LEsser GOldfinch) also love herb seeds, “Mexican Hat” (Ratibida columnaris) seeds, and the nyjer thistle we hang for them from mesh feeders. They are cling feeders, and often feed hanging head-down.

Here are a couple of photos from this morning of male and female Lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) chowing down on the seeds from the ripe sunflowers. In the top photo is an easy-to-see first-year male, nearly completely molted into his adult male plumage. The picture to the left is a “Spot the Bird” since the little bodies blend in so well, due to both color and size; I counted three goldfinch, two males and a less colorful, olive-y female, but there could be more. I put up a big file, so please enlarge it to see better. (All photos A.Shock)

Lesser goldfinch are the default goldfinch of the western US. If you live east of the 100th parallel (roughly), you’ll have the dapper American goldfinch (called Carduelis tristis on account of its “sad” vocal note), who is slightly larger and yellower and who uses its noticeably pink, conical bill to open seeds. Lawrence’s goldfinch (C. lawrencei, no points for etymology there) is the most uncommon of “our” goldfinches; most of the population lives in arid California grasslands, but they roam a bit, and a few show up in Arizona and other western states most years.


According to Choate’s American Bird Names, the genus Carduelis is derived from the Latin word carduus, thistle, goldfinches’ favorite food the world around. The species name, psaltria, is from the latin word for “lutist” because of its musical singing. They do have a bright, cheery song, lengthy for such a small bird — LEGO is the smallest of the three North American goldfinches — and they chatter delightfully in groups in the palo verde trees after the morning feeding session is finished. If you have a tough time keeping the species name “psaltria” in mind, try this mnemonic: psaltria sounds a bit like (although is totally unrelated to) “paltry”, which means small.

By the way, there is no correlation to bird body size and song duration or (relative) volume; it’s just humorous when a little beak opens up and lets out a long stream of warbly, chatty notes. The Winter wren is another small bird with a mighty song.

We interrupt this flamingo…

…to bring you a tiny owlet.  From Pink to Dink, with hardly a blink.

Friday morning, I came home from delivering E to campus, and blissfully opened the back door to let in the first blast of coolish late summer air.  Instead of the usual morning quiet, the back yard was chattering with angry bird sounds: MOB!  Two Curve-billed thrashers, three cactus wrens, one Costa’s and two un-ID’d hummers, a verdin, a handful of Lesser goldfinch, and a couple of Gila woodpeckers, all shrieking in the upper branches of the messy African sumac right outside the bedroom door.

I stood under the canopy of snaggly twigs and miscellaneous branches for a while, with binox, until I saw the reason for their agitation: the Real Cranky Owlet.  A tiny, tiny owl, with a round head, staring down on me with enormous outrage.  I ran in to get binox and camera, and when I got back outside, it was sitting there still radiating high dudgeon.

It took a bit of hunting to find a window through the leafy snarl, but I finally got the owl in clear view.  At first I thought: it’s a recently fledged Western Screech Owl, too young for cranial tufts (ie, “ears”), wedged up in the twigs, trying to pretend it hadn’t been spotted by half the shouting avifauna of the yard, and one quarter of the interior mammals.  I’d recently been hearing a WESO calling at night in the yard, and we get them around here occasionally (well, they’re probably here all the time, but we hear or see them occasionally).  It was a likely candidate.

<< radiating high dudgeon

But… I looked again, without my binox: it was clearly not a screech owl — the bird was SO TINY!  As any birder will tell you, size is one of the hardest characteristics to judge in the field, and an easy place to go wrong. Comparisons are invaluable. The thrashers mobbing it were considerably bigger than the owl; it was about the same size as the Cactus wrens, although in a vertical format, rather than horizontally arranged like the wrens; it was approximately sparrow-sized.  There’s only one owl that dinky, in the desert or anywhere: the Elf owl (Micrathene whitneyi, en français chevêchette des saguaros, en español tecolotito anano).  The supercilious white “spectacles”, the reddish blotches on the breast, the size of the eyes in the smallish head: it was an Elf owl in our yard! I was able to get a couple of poor snapshots — tough light to boot — which I’ve posted here, magnified.

Like the Western screech owls, Elf owls may be in the neighborhood regularly; we live in an “older” (by Phoenix standards) subdivision with naturalized desert landscape, including mature saguaros with woodpecker holes.  But I hadn’t heard an Elf owl or seen one around here, and believe me, it wasn’t for not listening, or not looking in every saguaro hole I know about. So, since the Elf Owl population in our part of the state is seasonal, it’s also possible that this individual could be a migrant, moving out of its breeding area to its wintering zone, passing through our yard.

detail, Elf owl in saguaro vase (Allison Shock Three Star Owl, stoneware, 14″) >>

The sumac probably seemed like a good day roost.  But, unfortunately, it turned out there were not only hecklers, but a paparazza, and the tiny owl flew a few yards to lose itself in the denser, thorny canopy of the nearby Texas Ebony.  The hecklers followed, but I didn’t. (All photos A.Shock)

The yard’s been hopping, recently.  Click here to read an assortment of posts about what we see right outside our doors, birds and other things.

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