Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Another video… note how the upper juvie decides to gnaw on a stick. These, too, are Mexican spotted owl(ets)…


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I thought i’d share this video i took today of two Mexican spotted owls (Strix occidentalis lucida)… they are, well, doing the owl equivalent of kissing, i suppose. Scientific folk call it allopreening. The male is on the right and the female to the left. As of today, they have two young owls out of the nest (fledglings). While watching (and recording), i could hear the male give some quiet, chittering calls, the female a few rising whistles (contact calls), and an occasionally raspy begging call from the nearby juvies. I’ve got quite a bit of owl photos, video, and information that i will try to get posted soon.

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When you spend your work days in the woods, it’s nice every once in a while to slow down and -on your own time- walk wherever you want and at your own pace. It lets you notice more. And find nests.

There was a junco in a currant bush giving quiet alarm calls as i walked past, and so i detoured a little to see what he was up to. Juncos are ground nesters, so i was curious about the currant bush… a nest up off the ground? The bird flitted away as i looked into the shrub, with no sign of a nest. But then a couple of steps later, a bird flushed out from beneath my feet. Under a fist-diameter fallen branch was a pretty little grass nest with four eggs cradled. My first junco nest of the year.  And not far from camp, either, so one i can check back on.

Late June seems late for a nest… juncos are known for having more than one brood a season. But then again things are a little slow here in the mountains (over 9600′) and it was a long winter. Snow was still accumulating occasionally into May, and the snowdrifts lingered for a long time. The raptors, though, already have their kids out. I saw a Cooper’s hawk out of a nest three weeks ago, and the spotted owls i’m studying this summer already have fluffy little owlets falling out of trees.

A little further down the path, and another bird jumped up from the ground next to me. This one was a little more interesting… I’d forgotten that Townsend’s solitaires also nest on the ground, and usually on rocky banks like those left beside old forest roads. This one was a little bigger, and the eggs were spotted and quite pretty.

Even more interesting, though, was the behavior of the mother… who lingered in a nearby tree and starting making calls that i’ve never heard from a solitaire. It was a raspy, descending call that almost sounded like a red-tailed hawk imitation. One that i ought to file away in the memory banks, but will probably have forgotten by tomorrow.

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spring in the desert

I’ve seen a bit of the interior West lately. The middle of March found me finishing up wolverine work in the North Cascades of Washington state. By early April, I had performed the reverse-migration of driving south to the Sacramento Mountains of southern New Mexico. To put it another way—I used to be 60 miles from the Canadian border, and I now find myself a hundred miles or so from Mexico.

To my surprise and chagrin, however, driving 2,000 miles southward has somehow pushed me backward into winter. Warm, sunny days in Washington and the balsamroot beginning to bloom, yet leftover snowbanks in New Mexico, sleet, and yes, yesterday morning—snow flurries.

storm, escarpment, and soaptree yucca

I suppose the elevation might have something to do with it. The Methow Valley sits at about 1800’, whereas Cloudcroft soars at 8650’. But still, it seems a little strange.

One of the pleasures of the desert southwest, though, is your ability to move. A 16 mile drive out of Cloudcroft drops one more than 4000’ into Alamogordo and the Chihuahuan Desert. Twelve miles south of Alamogordo is a quiet little piece of heaven called Oliver Lee Memorial State Park.

The park is nestled against the escarpment of the Sacramento Mountains, 12 miles south of Alamogordo, NM. There is something about the location—maybe it is the water flowing out of Dog Canyon—that seems to concentrate bird, animal, and plant life. On this day, sporadic rain scattered down on the park as heavy clouds lowered veils of rain down on the escarpment. It was beautiful and much better than sitting through the 4-6” of snow that was falling up top. And the birds were singing.

black-throated sparrow

By far the highlight of the day was wandering down the wash below the visitor center and catching two good looks at a male red-faced warbler in full breeding plumage. Not a common bird around these parts, and a striking bird.

Want a bird list? Here you go:

Oliver Lee Memorial State Park, April 23-24, 2010

Turkey vulture                                 red-tailed hawk

Sharp-shinned hawk                      white-winged dove

Mourning dove                                great-horned owl

White-throated swift                     black-chinned hummingbird

Broad-tailed hummingbird         ladder-backed woodpecker

Say’s phoebe                                     western kingbird

Violet-green swallow                    Chihuahuan raven

Verdin                                                 cactus wren

Rock wren                                          canyon wren

Ruby-crowned kinglet                  blue-gray gnatcatcher

American robin                               curve-billed thrasher

Warbling vireo                                 black-throated gray warbler

Orange crowned warbler            Virginia’s warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler              Townsend’s warbler

American redstart                         Wilson’s warbler

Red-faced warbler                          western tanager

Spotted towhee                               canyon towhee

Chipping sparrow                           black-throated sparrow

White-crowned sparrow             western meadowlark

Scott’s oriole                                    house finch

The second day at Oliver Lee was the hike up Dog Canyon, which I highly recommend. You get up into a canyon with high walls, and another watery section of canyon bottom just below where the canyon boxes out. Pretty there, with dripping water and maidenhair fern. I was hoping to find one of those places… you know, the pool-sized plunge pool below the pouroff… the place to ask a girl to marry you. But no luck. The hike is good though. You pass through several different ecological zones as you gain elevation, and get views of the desert and White Sands.

view of white sands from Dog Canyon

Oh yeah, and it is a historical spot. The visitor center is beside the ruins of a homesteader named “Frenchy” Rochas (1843-1894) who died under mysterious circumstances and did some impressive work with stone walls and irrigation. Nearby, too is the ranch house of Oliver Lee (1865-1941), a locally famous rancher and politician who even had a run-in with Pat Garrett. The book Tularosa is a good read about local history.

ruins of Frenchy's cabin

But all things must end. By the end of the weekend it was back up into winter at nearly 9000’. Someday soon the trees will leaf out, and it won’t be long until the mountain will be a pleasantly cool refuge from the blistering heat of the desert floor.

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This is an amusing time of year if you have a bird feeder and some goldfinches around. With spring in the air, the birds are in the process of molting out of their winter plumage (aka basic) into breeding plumage (aka alternate). When you are a drab olive in the winter, and a bright, canary yellow in the summer it produces some interesting molt patterns. These (male) goldfinches look a little, well, blotchy.

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The mornings get more and more loud each day. In the underbrush, spurts and sputters of song occasionally give way to the recognizable trill of the junco. Finches whistle and slur away from treetops. Flocks of robins move through, and the sound of Canada geese echoes back from the river. In case the growing warmth of the sun and the creeping spread of snowless ground hasn’t yet given me the hint, the birds early celebrations are a certain reminder. Winter’s back is broken.

Not dead yet, mind you. It will probably snow again. But it will be a last, weak punch.

And before the snow has even gone, before buds have thought about bursting, and while the grass roots gather their strength, there are already birds on eggs.

Great horned owls. Their sonorous hoots have been a common night sound for a month or so now, so I knew there was a pair scouting the area. And lately there have been sporadic calls during the day, so I knew something was going on.

The other day, a mid-day hoot from the female quickly followed by a response from the male. Bright sunlight, and me standing outside. Male? Female? you wonder? Well, you can tell the calls apart pretty easily. For one, the female has a higher pitch… so if you hear both birds call, the higher one is the female. And second–the female has more “notes” in her hoot. If I were to try to write it, I would give the male a “Who-ha-Whoot, Whooo, Whooo” and the female a “Who-Who-ha-Whoot, Whooo, Whooo.”

A week ago, at that mid-day call, I walked toward the sound and found the pair of birds perched together in a cottonwood. Nearby was a suspicious collection of dead branches near the top of a ponderosa pine. A few days ago, silhouetted above the nest, was the shape of a head and the diagnostic pair of  “horns.”

Already on eggs. Spring comes.

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I’ve recently fortified the “wild bird” mix of seeds at the feeder (mostly millet) with a heavy dose of black oil sunflower seeds, and have been rewarded with an influx of bird life out the window. Within a few days, goldfinches began arriving, and now i can sometimes count 50 or so lingering around the feeding area. These flocking birds are fun to watch, and pretty too.

They’re a bit jumpy. The whole flock will flush up, and then slowly return to their feeding. Sometimes a few brave ones linger, and it’s interesting, too, to see how quickly the birds start straggling back.

If you were a hungry bird, wouldn’t you be tempted to give out a warning call–flushing the flock– just to get yourself a better position at the feeder? Or when you hear the warning call for the third time in ten minutes, wouldn’t you be tempted to ignore it?

When you think about it, these are very complex decisions for a flocking bird. Is there the chance of being ostracized by the flock for giving false warnings? Does an honest bird get more respect from the others? How does a bird decide whether a warning call is a serious one or not? Linger at the food, or flush with the flock?

Although the biologists can throw theories at us about altruism, kin selection, flocking strategies, game theory, and the like, we are still humans and they are still birds. There is no way for us to ever truly know what it is like to be a bird sitting at a bird feeder. No way to know what goes on in that little head. A beautiful mystery.

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