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Fiery forest revisited

Exactly one year ago this month, the White Mountains of eastern Arizona were ablaze with the Wallow Fire, the largest fire in state history.  The human-caused fire scorched more than 530,000 acres in four counties in Arizona and one in New Mexico, significantly damaging or destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness habitat, as well as historic and residential buildings, water and timber resources, and range-land.

This weekend, E and I hiked and camped in the high-altitude mixed conifer-aspen, near-alpine grassland biome near Mt. Baldy, curious to see how the fire had affected some of the areas we know and love.  In the few days we were there we found big changes, but perhaps not as drastic as we feared.  We were able to camp and hike in favorite places, each scarred but not destroyed by the wildfire’s effects. The campground was only marginally burnt.  I would love to know if this close call was a natural quirk of fire topography, or if firefighters saved the campground.

<< aspen and ponderosa forest damaged by the 2011 Wallow Fire (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Our relief that things weren’t worse than they were is the result of a non-technical, tourist viewpoint.  For residents, both human and wildlife, the fire changed the landscape in ways that will not be restored in our lifetime. Blackened trees stand everywhere, some killed outright, others damaged and struggling.  Fallen trees — some reduced to a trunk-sized trail of ash — criss-cross the forest floor.  Some of the downed trees were felled as part of federal and state agencies’ safety strategies intended to make the most seriously burnt areas safer for hunters, hikers, and fishermen: many hazard trees near roads, structures, in campgrounds, and along trails have been cut down and piled into charred heaps by feller-buncher equipment and saw-crews.  Bright yellow signs posted at every trailhead and forest road junction caution people venturing into the back country that flames are not the only dangers of fire: once the fires are out, flash flooding, falling trees and branches, and landslides are the legacy of wildfire for seasons to come.

But not all of the forest suffered equally: crown-fire areas, where the flames jumped from treetop to treetop, burnt hotter than others and show more severe damage.  Ground-fire areas burnt spottily, while other places were only lightly toasted.  Some pockets were not touched by flames at all. Yet each of these places shows a welcome resurgence of life.

>> a foot-tall aspen regrowing in the shelter of a charred ponderosa trunk (Photoshopped edit, A.Shock photo)

Although Ponderosa pines appear to be hard hit in many places, aspen trees and firs growing alongside them often seem to have sustained less damage. In addition, 2012’s snowmelt and spring rains provided most areas with a green carpet of grass, re-sprouted shrubs, and young trees.  Elk cows trail gangly calves, and busy Barn swallows, Hermit thrushes and Brewer’s blackbirds have bug-filled beaks, carrying food back to their nestling broods.  A pair of Bald eagles has built a nest in the woods crowning a peninsula of a popular fishing lake: a joyful reason for an area closure, unlike the parts of the forest still closed to recreation because of severe fire damage.

<< watercolor sketch of small aspen that survived the fire (A.Shock)

The flame-colored sky in the background of the top image is reminiscent of the fires that swept through the area last year. But it’s just a mid-June sunset glowing behind the aspens and Ponderosa pines where we camped. Ironically, the blazing sunset is caused by smoke particles in the air, wafting from wildfires currently burning in Arizona and New Mexico — the Poco fire near Young, AZ, and the enormous, lightning-caused Whitewater-Baldy Fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest , now classed as the largest fire in the history of that state.

Secret rock


An outcrop in a high treeless field, slightly moister than the flat ground around it, sheltered ferns and flowers: golden columbine, and clusters of wild iris. The columbine was just starting, but the iris was spent, each stalk bearing a papery brown remainder of spring. All but this late blossom, which was still blue against the lichen spotted boulder. I’m glad we stopped — it would have been easy to just keep going. (photo A.Shock)

Posted by Allison on Jun 17th 2012 | Filed in botany,field trips,natural history,rox,unexpected | Comments (2)

Finding Birds in Paris (Spot the Bird, Île de France edition), Part 2

Our recent visit to Paris was shaped to some degree by the insistence of April on barging into May: cool temperatures and showers persisted for much of the trip.  We were prepared, and rain is not a problem that sweaters, umbrellas, and sturdy footwear can’t handle — except on the one morning we had determined to devote entirely to birding.  That was pretty much a washout, since the rain was heavy and steady.  Birding in significant rain offers specific challenges: wet, fogged eyeglass and optics lenses, using binox with one hand while juggling an umbrella in the other, soaked field-guide pages, and draggled birds whose plumage colors are impossible to determine, for instance.

<< The pine plantation at the northern end of le Bois de Boulogne was recommended for conifer-loving species such as Firecrest; however, the rains had rinsed the pines clean of birds the morning we visited (photo E.Shock).

We stuck with it because frankly it was such an outré experience to have the huge Bois de Boulogne to ourselves, except for a dogwalker leading at least a dozen dogs, the occasional die-hard jogger, two working women still on the job well into daylight, and a very few very wet birds, including what must have been a female pheasant daintily treading around condom wrappers along an obscure side-trail we’d stumbled on.  No sun = no bearings, and we walked in soggy circles until lunchtime, finally heading for the Porte Dauphine exit to search for a café (a goal that oddly matched the difficulty of finding birds in the park in the rain).

>> Sometimes you have to set aside these guides for Michelin’s Guide Vert, or the equivalent.

The weather made real birds a bit harder to come by than May sunshine would have done (see part 1 here, concerning real birds), but fortunately there are many birds to be found in a city as ancient and well-stocked with ornament as Paris.  The unexpected female pheasant above provides a good starting point for our sightings of grouse-like and ground-loving birds who weren’t driven to shelter by a few raindrops.

It’s not always possible to positively ID species in artwork, but it’s clear the four sturdy birds shown below are intended to be Red-Legged Partridges (Alectoris rufa), Perdrix rouge en français. Prominently displayed in the Cluny Museum, the panel is stained glass, separated from its building, where it was probably once the lowest element of a church window in Normandy, dated to “around” 1500 CE.

I’ve read that the partridge is common in medieval Church iconography on account of certain aspects of its lifestyle, as asserted by early chroniclers of natural history.  They believed that the female partridge steals eggs from other hens, and will incubate them with her own clutch.  Little good it does her, the story goes, because upon hatching the purloined chicks recognize the voice of their real mother and run swiftly back to her, making partridge life-history an optimistic allegory for the Devil stealing souls who flock faithfully back to the Church.  Odder still are the old beliefs that the mere passage of air from a male partridge’s wings onto a hen could cause her to be impregnated, and that male partridges forced vanquished rival males to submit to sex. These morally slack tendencies, along with the oft-repeated etymology of the word Perdix from Greek perdesthai (πέρδεσθαι) “to break wind” referring to the birds’ clapping wing-noise, were enough to brand the species as impure by experts such as Isidore of Seville (<< left, perhaps relying on Pliny the Elder for his natural history), and are said to explain why partridges appear in religious art as emblems of reprobate behavior.

In an admittedly brief search through modern ornithological resources, I couldn’t find much evidence for any grouse habits that would give rise to these beliefs, except perhaps the fact that a Red-legged partridge female lays fairly large clutches — on average about a dozen eggs — which might look to some like the result of theft stemming from matronly covetousness; or that the wing-clapping, oddly vocalizing lek behavior of male grouse of many species (see Capercaillie link below) might account for the air-born insemination story.  However, according to modern ornithologists, Red-legged partridge are among the most monogamous of the gallinaceous birds, and longer-term pair-bonding has been observed among these partridge pairs than in other notoriously promiscuous members of the grouse clan.  You would think this gap between nature and natural history might limit the usefulness of the species as a bad example, except no doubt the clergy, through instructive sermons and eye-level stained glass panels, was able to ensure that their version reached the popular ear.  Nevertheless, I suspect Partridges were of interest to the pragmatic people of the Gallic countryside less for their christian symbolism than for their tasty flesh.

People’s abiding enthusiasm for the succulent aspects of France’s fauna is made plain on this building, at 134 Rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement (photo E.Shock, click to enlarge). >>

Rain may have caused us to set aside our bird guides, but not our binoculars — I carry my small ones on trips like this because they’re handy for getting good looks at architectural detail like frescoes, stained glass on high, and gargoyles. With them I could see more clearly the partridges and other game animals found perched on flourishes and vegetal motifs in the ornate painted façade on the residence above what is now a celebrated cheese shop.  Originally the ground floor shop was a charcuterie-traiteur run by Facchetti, a butcher, who commissioned the frescoes in 1929 from the Italian artist Eldi Gueri.  He depicted bucolic pastel scenes of country life between the windows of the first floor, while the upper floors bear elaborate brocade-like brown and white patterns in the “style of the Italian renaissance”. They show game animals, including a pig, wild boar, deer, and a variety of birds, perhaps reflecting the varieties of saucissons and charcuteries Facchetti offered.

Among the birds are woodpeckers, pheasants, and grouse, including what must be a Capercaillie (upper bird to right >>) — a showy, giant, black grouse of Old World coniferous forests, depicted here with his tail fanned in courtship display, like his North American relative the Wild Turkey.  Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), le grand tétras en français, although a seriously excellent bird (check out its absurd courtship display here), is not now — nor ever was — native to the Paris metro area, except for the two mirrored images dwelling here in tinted plaster as idealized icons of the tasty abundance of the woods.  And the lower bird? — it has me stumped: perhaps a wood pigeon, with its longish tail and straight bill.  It’s not unlikely: one wood pigeon would make several meaty pies.  It appears to be paired with the bird below it (only partly visible in this edit) which is a dove, perhaps a turtle dove, to judge by the scaley pattern of its dorsal feathers.

On the same façade, the balcony birds look like woodpeckers, especially the one on the right with its crested head.  Are woodpeckers included here because they are a jaunty, spirited design presence, or does it mean they were considered fair game for the table?  I haven’t been able to discover an answer to this, although ornithologists and conservationists have for decades been working to diminish the long-standing Continental tradition of song-bird consumption by humans. These painted images are the only woodpeckers we saw on the trip, except for one quick glimpse of a real pic vert — the Green woodpecker (Picus viridis) — the Eurasian equivalent of our Flicker except largely green.  (Perhaps the green ones taste like mint?)

I remember from earlier travels in France that woodpeckers can be hard to find; they appear when they appear, or not — like woodpeckers anywhere. But unexpected sightings are one of the joys of birding, like this one: a two-foot tall street-art roadrunner.  Popularly known in France as “Bip Bip” after the familiar Chuck Jones cartoon character, the roadrunner’s French common name is Géocoucou, a more accurate handle than the folksy English name “roadrunner”, since phylogenetically the bird is actually a ground-dwelling cuckoo.

We wondered why a street artist had wheat-pasted the photo-image of a southwestern bird to a wall under the half-timbered shelter of a medieval Parisian alley.  No explanation was evident (to us) as to why it was posing among the sprayed graffiti.  As with ecclesiastical stained glass partridges, a viewer would just have to know what it meant, or be told.  But no St. Isidore of street art proposed to illuminate it for us.  How odd that of all of the bird imagery we’d encountered, the most recent one was the one whose significance I least understood. Still, I was happy to have spotted this bird.  It was as far from the desert as we were, yet it had found a home — even a temporary one, until the rain melted the soluble wheat-paste, or someone painted over it — in the heart of Paris.

(All photos A.Shock except where noted)

Etymological note: Choate, in his Dictionary of American Bird Names, primly avoids the earthy perdesthai etymology twice: first, in his entry for “Partridge”, by releasing nothing more airy than a fussy list of spelling variants in various European languages over time, and then again under the genus name “Perdix”, by reciting the tale of the youth of that name, Daedalus’ too-clever nephew, whom the craftsman nudged off a tower as unwanted competition.  But the boy was saved by Minerva (according to Ovid), who turned him into a bird — in fact, a partridge — just before he hit the ground.  Choate diminishes the force of this explanation by quoting MacCleod (of The Key to the Names of British Birds fame) who commented that the youth was more likely named after the bird than vice-versa, which seems to leave us inescapably with perdesthai, “to fart”, as the source for perdix, the Greek and Latin word for partridge, after all.

Finding birds in Paris (or Spot the Bird Île de France edition) Part 1

Let’s deal with this straight away: if you’re a birder tuning in to learn where to find birds in Paris, then, despite its clear title “Finding Birds in Paris”, I’m afraid this two-part post will disappoint.  It is not intended to offer technical advice about how many species of mésange you might see in the Bois de Boulogne (I’ve read that it’s seven, by the way, but personally I haven’t seen more than three), or where to find Tawny owls (I’ve heard le Cimitière du Père-Lachaise, but again, personally, I’ve only heard the soulful cries of Jim Morrison mourners there).

<< Nature is everywhere in the city: signs in the neighborhood parks explain this.

So, this isn’t an advice column.  This is because I’m no expert on the subject — I find Paris both easy and difficult to actually bird on one’s own, and the only advice I have is not news: keep your eyes and ears open, seek appropriate species in appropriate habitat (finding the habitat is usually the trick), and don’t expect to find anyone else with binoculars around their neck nearby to answer questions about where to find bullfinches.  Also, bring an umbrella.

Furthermore, there are no hard-to-detect feathery forms hidden in the photos: this post is only a Spot the Bird in the sense that I declare that Birds are easy to Spot in Paris, especially in May.  Some birds are so common they are virtually unavoidable: you’ll soon tune out the constant, frantic twittering of swifts overhead, the clap of feral pigeon wings (above), and the chirping of crumb-seeking sparrows.  Gulls abound on the Seine and soar calling above parks like le Jardin des Plantes which sit on its banks. Plane trees in the same parks host hungry families of great, blue, and long-tailed tits, as well as singing chaffinch. Leafy poplar tops may sport a magpie, une pie bavarde, or two.

>> Great tit, mésange charbonnière, (Parus major) foraging for nesting material on a stone wall in le Jardin des Plantes.  Yes, it’s primarily blue and yellow, a treat for us norte americanos who are used to our chickadees’ mute gray and buff body plumage, with only their jaunty black-and-white headgear to mark their alliance with more colorful old world family members .

Surrounded by pedestrians and traffic, mallard couples paddle in monumental water features like la Fontaine Saint-Michel, unruffled that Duret’s archangel looks like a cuirassed girl compared to the manly serpent-tailed Satan he’s so righteously vanquishing.  And underfoot, geometric, manicured lawns are studded with starlings, carrion crows, and huge lumbering wood-pigeons (left).

Most obvious in all of these urban niches is the ubiquitous merle, or blackbird, which like its close cousin the American robin, hops foraging in the green blades of parks and gardens, and whose melodic phrases ring through the gray-walled rues from rooftop chimney pots and aerials even before sun-up.

>> Blackbird, merle, (Turdus merula).

Unlike their less closely related namesake the American robin, small european Robins, les rouges-gorges, glide up to perch on low branches and garden walls, keeping a buttonlike eye — somehow keen and blank at once — on everything.

<< European robin, rouge-gorge, (Erithacus rubecula).  E shot this at Giverny, but we saw them in town, too.

But look closely — there are less common species, too.  One of those coots in the park pond may be a moorhen (below, right), one of the sparrows on the lawn a dusky Dunnock.  And check the glowering gargoyles overhead, perched in the involved stony heights of Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, and Saint-Sulpice: one may be a kestrel, looking down like a sharp-winged, keen-eyed angel (or, according to the chittering swifts, a quick taloned little demon).

Less forthcoming are the flashier birds, the specialty species: golden orioles, firecrests, black woodpeckers, and others.  These require more time and more amenable weather than we had to do a proper search.  Next time!

Fortunately, Paris has other birds to find.  In Part 2 of this post are a few of them — stay tuned.

Special note: many thanks to E.Shock, his zoom lens, and his willingness to share his images!  All the photos above are his, except the billing feral pigeons (which my less effective zoom could handle, since the birds were virtually at my feet).

Posted by Allison on May 18th 2012 | Filed in birding,birds,field trips,spot the bird | Comments (5)

A sketchy bird list

Not keen on enacting the Mad Dogs and Englishmen scenario, E and I lounged for a couple of hours during the heat of the day in the shade of a wild palm grove last weekend.

<< Southwest Palm Grove, Tierra Blanca Mountains, Anza-Borrego State Park (photo A.Shock)

This is a well-known oasis, and not terribly remote — but a destination doesn’t have to require too much hiking before you can expect to have the place primarily to yourself, especially if it’s slightly uphill. With only occasional others wandering through, we ate lunch and waited for the heat of the day to subside so we could march back across the desert to our campsite in the low sun.

E doesn’t sit still very well, but he was amenable under the circumstances: just feet from the moist green calm of the grove, the white desert glared through dark trunks, reminding us of the hot, spiny, and hard path home.  He read, and poked around the substantial grove with his camera.  There was plenty to look at: like windmills, palm trees have a quality which readily vacillates between stateliness and creepiness according to wind, light, and the observer’s mood.  At noon on a calm day, these palms seemed merely sleepy and obliging, providing shade and coolth to travelers, both human and animal.  I sat on a rock, choosing this outlier palm to scratch into a small Moleskine sketchbook with an excessively-finepointed pen, fussing over capturing the complicated but orderly rhythm of shadow and light on the pleated, fringed fans, and considering how to show the blackness of the trunk without losing the way the sun picked out its checkered texture. Slatted shadows wheeled around us as the sun rolled across the afternoon sky.

Sitting still is a wonderful way to see birds, especially at a frondy desert oasis with high perches for cawwing ravens and low cover for furtive Lincoln’s sparrows and simultaneously sneaky and showy Common yellowthroats.  Instead of keeping a list in a notebook, I wrote species’ names as they manifested in the palm’s portrait. It was possible to use a cramped scrap of background for this because bird diversity was low — the list was quite short, even with non-avian species like ants and butterflies included, and the few words provided the perfect coarse-textured, mid-range value for the desert beyond the grove.

<< Look closely, this isn’t just a landscape, or a portrait of a stately middle-aged California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera), it’s a bird list (click, twice, to enlarge).

Normally, previous years’ fronds cloak the trunks of Washingtonia palms to the ground, giving them a mammoth-legged look: sturdy, shaggy and brown.  But this grove had burned sometime in the past few decades, leaving the surviving older palms bare-legged and carbony black, smooth and manicured like well-behaved resort palms.  Little palms grew up around them, a decade or two old themselves, and bearing all their previous fans on their trunks naturally, indicating they’d sprouted after the last fire.

>> glowing spines (photo E.Shock)

We timed the return trip well, and eventually hiked back to camp with the low sun behind us.  It back-lit the cholla with a golden haze, and ignited the early Scott’s orioles perched on red ocotillo tips into melodious yellow flames.  But the orioles wouldn’t hold still for a photo, and there was no time for a sketch; darkness falls abruptly in the desert.

Posted by Allison on Mar 31st 2012 | Filed in art/clay,birding,botany,drawn in,field trips,natural history | Comments (5)

The desert between

It exhibits questionable judgment to leave Phoenix right now when the Sonoran desert is so beautiful, but we did.  In a fit of really-needing-to-get-out-of-town E and I enacted a spur of the moment plan for a busman’s holiday of camping in the Colorado desert*.  We took off down I-8 in the footsteps of Juan Bautista deAnza himself, headed towards a bit of California desert between our desert in Phoenix and the desert under the currently snow-capped Peninsular peaks east of San Diego (see photo below, be sure to click to enlarge).

<< our tent above Bow Willow (all photos A.Shock unless noted)

Between.  We arrived at the south end of Anza-Borrego State Park between weekends (it was spring break at ASU, so E was more or less at liberty mid-week).  The weather was a slice of unseasonable summer between winter and spring, topped by a dry blue sky between pacific storms and a tarry, star-salted night sky between moons.  It was a waiting wing of a moment, a pared-down parcel of between, when all that was in the desert was what was always there, the patient bare granite bones, the sun, cactus, creosote, and cool, rustling palms: the permanent residents.  Ephemerals — the summer-breeding birds and annual wildflowers — hadn’t appeared in any numbers, yet.

>> Overlooking the Carrizo Valley and the snow-dusted Tierra Blanca Mtns from the notch at the end of Smuggler’s Canyon

Arriving in any desert for peak wildflower bloom or migration at an oasis is serendipitous: we’ve managed it occasionally, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose — once for a songbird jam at Butterbredt Springs in the Mojave and twice for “jubilee” blooms in Death Valley only a few years apart.  These were times we effortlessly tripped over the attractions and high points, unable to look away from showers of jewel-colored orioles and tanagers and thick carpets of bright petals.  This between season was different: we had to look hard and close for things — the serendipity took more effort.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) being very splendid indeed; this one was about 10 feet tall  >>

But the desert seldom disappoints and though between, this trip was no exception.  The beavertail prickly pear, studded with fat pink-green buds, were clearly about to burst into glorious magenta bloom only after we were gone.  But the tips of the Ocotillo were in flame, and in the few days we were there their thorny bleached stems scaled over with green leaves.  Little fishhook cactus rocked coronas of creamy blossoms that looked glued onto their heads like fake straw flowers on a hat.  In places, a tide of tiny goldfields washed around the feet of gray wintery shrubs (see photo at bottom of post).  The mesquite and desert willows were still bare, but the Elephant trees (Bursera microphylla) were green with their incense-scented leaflets, and deer vetch, creosote, and desert lavender were all blooming.  Tangles of red-flowered chuparosa scrambled over granite boulders, and in tight crevices fronds of “resurrection plant” or desert mossfern (Selaginella sp) unfurled, instantly green and pliant after recent rains.

<< “Fishhook cactus” Mammillaria (probably) dioica.  They need no more than a fracture in rock for a foot-hold, and seem to require no soil at all.

Birds were also in a between season: Rock wrens and Black-throated sparrows, present year-round on the rocky hillsides, were ubiquitous and vocal, along with Cactus and Canyon wrens, Costa’s hummers, quail, and ravens.  There were only occasional passers-through: a Lincoln’s sparrow in the palm oasis; surprising numbers of Sage thrashers moving through the Bow Willow wash. But the summer visitors were barely starting to trickle in — we found a couple of male Scott’s orioles alternately singing their ringing song and molesting nectar-oozing Ocotillo flowers, a Common Yellowthroat working the dense understory at the palm grove, and an Ash-throated flycatcher k-brkk‘ed near the campsite.

A Black-throated sparrow; who says sparrows are plain?  (photo E.Shock) >>

Surprisingly, we were between when it came to snakes, too — we saw none, but I’m sure they were out.  On the other hand, lizards were plentiful.  Blue-bronze Granite Spiny lizards basked, and we were ignored hard by a harlequin Baja California Collared lizard sunning on a boulder right next to the trail.

<< Baja California Collared lizard (Crotaphytus vestigium) is a species of collared lizard found only in a small range in the US, as its name indicates.

The only disappointment of being between was that our transportation was between, too: we discovered after arriving that the truck’s four wheel drive wouldn’t lock in, leaving us with high-clearance passage but wimpy traction.  This wasn’t an emergency but it ruled out more remote, difficult roads — we could only go where two-wheel drive or our two feet could take us, which turned out to be plenty for the short time we had.  But we missed some interesting habitat like the Carrizo Marsh, and intriguing, fossiliferous geology that E is itching to check out.

We’ll have to get that 4-wheel drive fixed so that instead of between, next time we’ll definitely be smack-dab.

Low carpet of yellow wildflowers I know only as “Goldfields” >>

* The term “Colorado Desert” generally refers to the portion of the Sonoran Desert that lies within the state of California.

Posted by Allison on Mar 26th 2012 | Filed in birds,botany,field trips,natural history,reptiles and amphibians | Comments (5)

Tweaked titmouse: blame the weather

Today’s weather has been changeable, to understate the case.  After a week of early warmth, winter has barged back into the low desert in the form of a March Pacific storm, bringing intermittent rain, gusty winds, spotty sunshine, and nippy (for us) temperatures.

Folding clean laundry was the other option, so I chose fiddling on the computer, and this is the result: a highly-edited photo of a Bridled titmouse (Poecile sclateri) snapped up at Montezuma Well last fall, on the exciting fortuitous Tarantula Visit.  Overcome at the time by the thrill of encountering miniature possibly un-named by science marauding arachnids, the comparatively calm pleasure of a small gray bird was passed over until today, when I discovered some “lost” photos on my computer desktop.

<< Bridled titmouse (Photo shot by E and edited by A Shock)

These are the least plain of the titmice, which are known more for their jaunty demeanor than their subtle plumage, which is usually buffy gray and tan.  In fact, before it was split into “Oak” and “Juniper” species, the other western titmouse was officially known as the Plain titmouse.  But the Bridled not only sports a perky peaky head, but has a white face with ornate black “bridle” outlining it.  And look how much that natty head pattern looks like sticks silhouetted against the bright sky — the first and second rules of camouflage: break up your overall body shape, and blend in to the background.

We don’t see Bridled titmice — or any parids (chickadee-related birds) — in the desert very often: they mainly breed in oak-woodland or coniferous forests at higher elevations.  During the colder weather months, however, they can be seen down here, but not usually “in town”.  So spotting one of these guys uphill is always pleasant, and getting a picture of one isn’t easy: like all ‘dees they are dinky, chatty, busy, and speedy.  This was one of a pair foraging in low mesquite trees, gleaning twigs and bark for little joint-legged goodies, staying in touch with one another with continuous contact-calls.  To hear the Bridled titmouse’s punchy vocal efforts, click here.

Posted by Allison on Mar 18th 2012 | Filed in birds,close in,field trips,natural history | Comments (1)

Willcox at eye level

Like the Sandhill cranes, I usually visit Willcox in the winter.  That’s when the town hosts Wings Over Willcox, a birding and cultural event celebrating the cold season presence of Sandhill cranes, who dwell in the fields and wetlands of the Sulphur Springs Valley from October to March.  (below, Stewart St. in Willcox AZ.  Photo A. Shock)

In winter when the trees are bare and the lawns are brown, the city of Willcox Arizona looks very close to the earth: the houses and buildings in the older neighborhoods seem to sit right on the dirt, as if they’d pushed up through the soil like sensible angular mushrooms after a rain. It’s a down-to-earth kind of place, surrounded by ranches and farms, and snow-dusted peaks.

<< Sandhill crane eye, mounted specimen.  Very dinosaur-y, isn’t it?  When I see this eye, I’m glad I’m not a seed.

Except for the newer part of town, which is latched onto Interstate 10’s throat like a tick, the town has pretty much one of everything — just what folks who live here need, but no more: a couple of gas stations, a mechanic or two, a winery, a golf course, a handful of restaurants that may or may not be under the same ownership each time I return, or even open at all; schools, fire department, churches.  But down-to-earth Willcox also has a big sky feel.  This time of year that sky infuses the fields and grasslands with earnest birds, gleaning seeds from grassheads, foraging the fields for leftover crop — not only large cranes, but also lark bunting, meadowlarks, vesper, savannah, song, white-crowned and lark sparrows.  Raptors and shrikes follow the birds: the kestrels, merlins, and accipiters sharp-eyeing the sparrows, the larger hawks stalking rodents above ground during the sunny days; owls take over the hunt in the waxing moon nights. Ravens hang in high places cawing, opportunistically looking for a tidbit or some fun anywhere.  Birders and tourists flock here as well, to the festival and on their own, following all of it: cranes, owls, raptors, sparrows, and scope-toting tour leaders with fieldguides tucked into their khaki vests. (Photo above: twilight over the Sulphur Springs Valley outside of Willcox.  There are thousands of invisible cranes in this picture, standing in the yellow grasses in the mid-distance.  The black dots in the air low on the left edge of the image are cranes coming in to join them to roost for the night.  Photo A.Shock)

All of this activity is watched over by Willcox’s long history.  Once known as the cattle capital of the U.S., ranching and agriculture are still big here, although Interstate 10 has replaced the railroad as the town’s main lifeline.  But freight still rumbles through town, rolling between southern California and Texas railyards: the noisy calling of cranes in the fields is often momentarily drowned out by train horns, a more soulful, lonely sound than the busy clacking of the social birds.

>> Rex Allen also watches over Willcox. The Willcox native, known as the “Arizona cowboy”, was a Western singer and actor known for his folksy film narration.  His autographed images hang on the walls of just about every joint in town, from Tex’s BBQ Dining Car to the chain hotel lobbies.

Posted by Allison on Jan 15th 2012 | Filed in Events,field trips,three star owl | Comments (2)


Tens of thousands of Sandhill cranes winter in the fields and wetlands of far southeastern Arizona each year, and they have their own festival: Wings Over Willcox, held in mid-January by the historical community of Willcox, AZ. This year is the 19th Annual WOW Festival, and it’s part of SE Arizona’s celebration of the state centennial.

>> Dawn pinkens sandhill cranes standing in the icy waters of Crane Lake south of Willcox, AZ (Photo A.Shock)

There are tours to the local hotspots, not just for crane-sighting, but for other winter birding specialties in the bird-rich, high-desert grassland in and around the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Chiricahua Mountains, Whitewater Draw, Lake Cochise, and more.  Not all of the outings are bird-related: there are historical, agricultural, gastronomic, and archeological tours, too. Check availability for tickets here. There are also seminars by local experts on anything from photography to astronomy to more birds and birding, which I believe are free.

If your tour of choice is sold out, don’t despair. The cranes can be viewed (and heard!) flying in v-formation overhead often, but you can also visit places like Crane Lake (above) and Whitewater Draw at dawn and dusk to see flights of cranes leaving (morning) or returning (afternoon) to and from foraging in the agricultural fields during daylight hours.  Driving the public farm roads south of town at any time of day, you can luck into hundreds of cranes moving in a group through a field, or a fierce bird of prey like a Ferruginous hawk patrolling the skies or perched on a wire over the field margins.  Loggerhead shrikes are fairly common, as well: check out a previous post of mine for more photos.

<< three Sandhill crane magnets by Three Star Owl will be available at WOW for $16 each

Three Star Owl will be at the Nature Expo portion of the event, held in the Willcox Community Center, which is the headquarters for the festival.  The Nature Expo will be open from Thursday afternoon until Sunday, check my Events page for more specific hours and a link to a map and driving directions.  If you’re in the area, please stop by and say Hello — admission to the Nature Expo is FREE!

A word of advice to those planning on visiting: although sunny winter days in this part of AZ can be comfortable, Willcox is at 4200 feet above sea level, so night-time temps usually dip well below freezing this time of year, and if it’s windy or overcast, daytime temps will be brisk.  So if you plan to get out into the world on your trip here, dress for the weather!

Posted by Allison on Jan 6th 2012 | Filed in birding,birds,Events,field trips,natural history,three star owl | Comments (1)

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