Saturday, August 27, 2016

Arizona Feathers, Scales, Tails, Shells, and More (Part 1)

Male Greater Earless Lizard in Oro Valley, Arizona
My occasional encounters with snakes and lizards while chasing down birds ignited my interest in reptiles, or "scales and tails" as some might call them. Spending time in nature cultivating one interest naturally leads to interest in other forms of life inhabiting and adding variety to our earth. A recent trip to southeast Arizona with my adventurous friend Eric Peterson allowed both of us to enjoy a splendid mix of birds, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, landscapes, and healthy doses of Mexican food to keep our engines fueled.

The short flight from Salt Lake City to Tucson passed quickly. We picked up our rental car and drove to a Walmart to pick up a temporary cooler, ice, drinks, fruit, and some snack foods. From there we headed south toward our first destination, the Kubo Bed & Breakfast (B&B) in Madera Canyon. Whitehouse Canyon Road just below Madera Canyon is where we were able to locate one of my favorite bird species of the trip, a Varied Bunting. It was nice to get a colorful male for my first-ever sighting of this species.

Male Varied Bunting Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I captured several images of the male Varied Bunting perching on the hillside below us. The image below shows a little more of the coloring on the chest and offers a little more perspective on the relative size of the bird (about 5.5") since it wasn't cropped as much as the image above.

Male Varied Bunting Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Blue Grosbeaks are much more common in southeast Arizona than they are in Utah. We encountered several brightly colored males along Whitehouse Canyon Road.

Male Blue Grosbeak Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Eric spotted a neonate Western Diamondback Rattlesnake basking in the middle of the road as we drove along Whitehouse Canyon Road. Being new to the world it had just a single button for its rattle. It's difficult to see in this image, but it is just beyond the black and white banding of the tail.

Neonate Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I captured video of the small snake as it moved away from us and into the grass on the side of the road, all the while keeping a close eye on us. Some ants and insects crawling near the snake give a relative indication of the young snake's size. The quality of the video will be best when viewed at 720p or 1080p HD

Seeing Jack Rabbits in the deserts of the western states is still fun for this Kentucky boy even after living in Utah now for several decades. I captured this image to share the harsh reality of living in the wild. I've hosted a tick or two, for a day or two, as a result of playing in the woods, but this rabbit is hosting a colony of ticks and some of the blood-thirsty beasts look like they should have popped by now.

Tick-infested Black-tailed Jack Rabbit Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We saw over 30 species of birds without much effort as we spent some time around the Kubo B&B and drove up and down the canyon our first afternoon and evening. Magnificent and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Bronzed Cowbirds, Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers, Hepatic Tanagers, Mexican Jays, Bridled Titmice, Painted Redstarts, and Yellow-eyed Junco were a few we do not see in northern Utah.

Here are two sides of a male Broad-billed Hummingbird frequenting the nectar feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.

Male Broad-billed Hummingbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
Male Broad-billed Hummingbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
This Yellow-eyed Junco was going up and down the roadsides near our B&B collecting insects. I figured it was collecting those insects to take them back to a nest to feed young birds. Otherwise it would have consumed the bugs posthaste.

Yellow-eyed Junco Madera Canyon, Arizona
Nocturnal birding did not disappoint us after enjoying a nice dinner in Green Valley. We were able to hear Mexican Whip-poor-will calling at the top of Madera Canyon. We heard, saw, and photographed Whiskered Screech-Owls and then finished our nocturnal birding efforts with the world's smallest owl, the Elf Owl. This tiny owl is between 5 and 6 inches tall. They breed during the spring and summer months in Arizona and then head back to Mexico for the fall and winter.

Elf Owl Madera Canyon, Arizona
After we finished owling we visited with some gentlemen across the road from our B&B who were collecting insects that were drawn from the darkness of the night to bright lights suspended next to draped white sheets.  Here's an image from my phone in case my explanation of their setup failed to create an appropriate image in your mind's eye.

As we were talking we caught a glimpse of a Ringtail (aka Ring-tailed Cat) that was climbing over a wood pile next to one of the lodges. It was my first time ever seeing one of those racoon-related mammals because they are elusive nocturnal critters. I was not prepared for the brief encounter so I have only the image in my head to remember that sighting.

After visiting with our temporary neighbors and before going to bed we had one last activity planned for our first day in southeast Arizona. We did some cruising along remote roads to look for snakes that were absorbing heat from the asphalt as the desert air was cooling. We found another Western Diamondback and captured some photos and video of the snake before safely removing it from the road.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
The snake didn't want to be removed from the road so it warned us with its rattle. Here's a short video of the snake just before we moved it into a nearby field.

Little did we realize that on our way back to our B&B we'd have one more surprise. It was July. It was the rainy season. And it was high time for America's largest toad to be out looking for love. It's always fun to run across Sonoran Desert Toads during the rainy season since they spend much of the rest of the year hidden below the surface of the desert to avoid the arid heat. We spotted our toad in our headlights as it was hopping down the road. These toads can get up to 8" long and can weigh close to two pounds when full grown. They can secrete toxins from their skin to deter predators.

Sonoran Desert Toad Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Day one was a complete success in terms of the variety and number of encounters we had with critters of the southeast Arizona desert.

Day 2

After a good night's sleep I awoke early and went over to where the gentlemen were attracting bugs the night before to see if birds were taking advantage of the man-made insect buffet. The curiosity paid off. Sulpher-bellied Flycatchers were on the scene making their squeaky baby toy noise between eating bugs and perching in surrounding trees. Acorn Woodpeckers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, nuthatches, juncos, and an assortment of other bird species were feeding and calling from nearby perches. I particularly enjoyed seeing a Hepatic Tanager with its multicolored plumage. I captured an image of the tanager eating one of the bugs.

Hepatic Tanager Madera Canyon, Arizona
Just down the road from our B&B was the Santa Rita Lodge where Magnificent, Broad-billed, and other hummingbird species were taking advantage of nectar feeders. Mexican Jays, Acorn Woodpeckers, and doves were just a few of the species gorging themselves at the seed feeders. I don't have many images of Bronzed Cowbirds so I captured a couple for future reference and to share here. One image shows the ruff (thick neck feathers) just as the bird was relaxing the ruff from a full display of those feathers.

Bronzed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona

Bronzed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona
One of the Brown-headed Cowbirds caught my attention as I watched is at a feeder. The upper bill was overgrown and twisted, but that did not prevent the bird getting sufficient food. It turned out that this was just the first of two Brown-headed Cowbirds with elongated bills that we'd encounter during out trip.

Brown-headed Cowbird Madera Canyon, Arizona

Madera Canyon, Arizona
I stopped to capture the image to the left with my phone as I was driving down Madera Canyon because my boss in Utah thought I was crazy to spend a vacation in the 100+ degree heat in an Arizona desert. I told him we'd be spending a fair amount of time in the mountains where it was cooler, but we wasn't buying it. This probably isn't an image he had in mind when he thought of my Arizona trip.

Our destination for the end of day two was Beatty's Guest Ranch in Miller Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains. We planned to stop at The Paton Center for Birds in Patagonia on our way over to Miller Canyon, just outside of Sierra Vista.

As we were driving to Patagonia I was watching for raptors, hoping to pick up a Gray or Zone-tailed Hawk. What a pleasant surprise we had when we spotted an adult Gray Hawk perched on a power line along South River Road, just before we connected with and made our turn onto Highway 82 (Patagonia Highway).  We had to drive past the hawk and do a u-turn to get back to it. This put the bird on the driver's side of the vehicle so Eric was able to get a few nice shots. The bird flew before I was able to capture an image, but I did manage a long-distance shot after the bird perched on the stump of a dead tree. The image has been deeply cropped to show a little more detail of the bird's field marks.

Adult Gray Hawk Santa Cruz County, Arizona
Gopher Snake Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We also came across a Gopher Snake that was crossing the road on our way to Patagonia. It put itself in a precarious position after we pulled over to take a look at it. We carefully pulled away without harming the snake and then watched it crawl to a safer place.

Some Black Vultures flew overhead just as we were about to continue our drive to Patagonia. I captured a couple of images for documentation purposes. Someday I'll get a closer shot of one of these vultures.

Black Vulture Santa Cruz County, Arizona
We found our target Violet-crowned Hummingbird rather quickly after arriving at the Paton Center for Birds in Patagonia. The lighting wasn't great, but this image will suffice until a future encounter.

Adult Violet-crowned Hummingbird Santa Cruz County, Arizona
I spent a little time looking for reptiles around the Paton Center. I initially thought the lizard below was a Desert Grassland Whiptail, but upon closer look I'm calling it a Sonoran Spotted Whiptail. I can see light spotting between the stripes on the back of the lizard. Grassland Whiptails shouldn't show those spots between the dorsal stripes. The ranges for both species overlap so attention to detail becomes necessary, especially for a novice "herper" like me. What's unique about Sonoran Spotted Whiptails is that every individual is a female (parthenogenetic). The offspring, from unfertilized eggs, are clones of the mother. Let's hope this doesn't develop among humans or men will become redundant. I prefer to remain a necessary component of the human equation.

Sonoran Spotted Whiptail Santa Cruz County, Arizona

We didn't stay at the Paton Center for long after getting our target hummingbird because we wanted to get over to Miller Canyon, where we would spend the night a Beatty's Guest Ranch. As we made our way to Miller Canyon we spotted a Zone-tailed Hawk. I had been scrutinizing every vulture-like bird I saw flying as Eric was driving us to our destination. I caught a quick glimpse of black and white tail bands on a particular large, dark raptor that was flying over an agricultural field and called out, "Zone-tailed Hawk" so Eric would slow down for a look. We did a u-turn and relocated the hawk and watched it course over fields in search of prey for a few minutes before it disappeared behind a hill.

We arrived at Beatty's Guest Ranch in the early afternoon. We met the owners, paid our fee for the night, and packed our gear up to our quarters.  We stayed on the upper floor of the building to the far left of the phone image below.

Beatty's Guest Ranch Miller Canyon, Arizona
Here is a phone image I captured looking down the canyon from inside our lodge.

 After dropping off our bags we took a short walk up to a shady hillside where we sat on benches while watching lots of hummingbirds visit a number of well-supplied nectar feeders. This area has controlled access so it can only be enjoyed by those who pay a small fee or stay at the lodge. We saw at least six species of hummingbirds there, but my favorite were Broad-billed and Magnificent. 

Male Magnificent Hummingbird Cochise County, Arizona
Yarrow's Spiny Lizards were the lizard species of the hour during our lazy birding session at the nectar feeders.

Female Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Cochise County, Arizona
Male Yarrow's Spiny Lizard Cochise County, Arizona
We enjoyed our only Italian dinner of the trip in Sierra Vista with Eric's friend Jan. They became acquainted years ago as members of the Doberman Pinshcer Club of America. 

Always the birders, we did what we could to locate owls, poorwills, and whip-poor-wills as we made a slow drive up the dark canyon to our lodge. It's not much to look at, but below is an image I captured with my phone when a bio luminescent Glowing Click Beetle landed on Eric's shirt. The beetle has two spots from which it controls the intensity of its luminescence. Google that beetle name and you'll be able to see and learn more about the unique beetle. We saw a number of them flying along the road that night.

We heard an Elf Owl and got visuals of several Whiskered Screech-owls along the upper end of the canyon. We'll close out this post as we did that evening with a couple of images of a Whiskered Screech-Owl.

Whiskered Screech-Owl Cochise County, Arizona

Whiskered Screech-Owl Cochise County, Arizona
We finished Day 2 feeling like we'd had another successful day. As is often the case in the canyons of southeast Arizona during the monsoon season a clamorous and productive rain storm blew through during the evening. I rather enjoyed the storm knowing I was safe and dry for the night. I could only imagine what we'd experience during the remaining four days of our trip as I recalled the events of the first two days before drifting off to sleep. More to come in my next few posts.