Near Willcox Arizona is a water treatment/wildlife refuge called Cochise Lake. When I arrived in late morning only a couple of mallards floated in the middle of the water. As I’d made quite a detour to find this place, I was disappointed by the lack of vegetation and birds. But as I drove slowly away on the dirt track, this raven called out to me, croaking in guttural tones.   Here I am!  Look at me!  I am bird! I stopped the car, got out and had quite a visit with this raven who seemed eager to interact.

Ravens are famous for their intelligence, curiosity and playfulness. Inky black ravens soar gracefully overhead, walk on the ground with a swagger, and show off with acrobatic barrel rolls in courtship and play. Myths and stories attest to their smarts, and as scientists come up with ever more sophisticated problems for them to solve, ravens continue to amaze with their clever solutions. 

Ravens are usually seen alone or in pairs. They mate for life and the pair bond is very strong. The couple often hunts together, able to trap prey more effectively working as a team. Juvenile birds do hang together in social groups until they are old enough to choose a mate between the ages 3 to 7 years.  During this time young ravens form friendship bonds, hunt cooperatively and roost together. Outsiders are treated with suspicion and often chased away.

As omnivores, ravens eat just about anything. If the portion is too big, leftovers are carefully cached for later. Since their dietary range is so large, there is no template for a young raven as to what food looks like. They follow their parents to learn about the many tasty tidbits to be found or hunted. Their innate curiosity serves them well when they set out on their own. Ravens check out pretty much everything in their environment, because you just never know what might taste good. They are especially attracted to shiny things – bottle caps, jewelry, bits of glittering glass, but will investigate anything unusual in the landscape.  This use of inquiry ensures that in any situation unusual or rare food will be discovered.   

Cardinal Red

Male Northern Cardinal bathing

The brilliantly colored Northern Cardinal must be about the easiest songbird to identify. This pair was attracted to a backyard feeder near the Dragoon Mountains in Southeast Arizona, where I stayed recently. The feeder was situated next to a large brushy shrub and that seemed a perfect arrangement for the cautious birds. They also enjoyed a puddling bubbler at the base of a tree, bathing and splashing despite the chilly morning air. 

The cone shaped beak is a clue that Cardinals eat seeds, the sturdy bill can crack the hardest shells.  Cardinals also eat berries, fruit, leaf buds and insects. They appreciate sunflower seeds at feeders.

Both male and female sing a pure, clear noted song any time of year. In Arizona, Cardinals live mostly in riparian regions, but a friend has reported seeing them in the South Mountain area near a golf course. 

The males’ red feathers are cheery, and I found the females’ olive coloring really gorgeous. Note the coloring on the bills, female’s orangey-red, male mostly red while juveniles have grey or black bills. 

Northern Cardinals may raise several broods in a season, starting in late March. They nest in brushy shrubs and trees, just 5-10 feet up. The 3-4 eggs are incubated about two weeks and just 10 days after hatching the young fledge. 

Female Northern Cardinal waits her turn at the feeder
Perky topknot and lovely coloring

Pincushion Cactus

This week I ventured up a wash that leads deep into South Mountain Park. Unlike many washes that are rocky and impassible, this dry streambed is level and sandy for some way.  I’ve come across owls up here before, both Great Horned, and Long-eared, so I was keeping a sharp eye out. And I did see two owls, one on my way in and one coming home! In both cases I spooked the hunters from their day roosts in trees along the upper shoulder of the wash, so caught only a glimpse as they sailed off and away from me. As thrilling as this is, I am sorry to disturb them!  

This pincushion cactus was more willing to pose for photographs. But I consider it no less a miracle to see. What are the chances I would happen up this wash at exactly the time this little cactus put out its pretty blooms? 

Less than six inches tall, the pincushion cactus often grows from cracks in rocks, and it’s usually found in the shade of other plants. The setting of buds and the bloom of the flowers are stimulated by rains, so can vary year to year. Its surprising that this pincushion has such a nice set of flowers given the very small amount of rain we’ve had this winter, and the complete lack of monsoons last summer.

The stem of the pincushion is covered with a spiral pattern of protrusions called tubercles, one spiral goes clockwise and the other counter clockwise. On the tips of these tubercles are small bumps called areoles from which grow a profusion of white spines. Long hooked spines add yet more in defense. 

I hiked up this particular wash last year and saw this same pincushion cactus. In early February, it was already ringed with smooth red fruits. The fruits are edible and quite tasty, but you wouldn’t get much of a meal! The flower blossoms are pollinated by bees drawn by their sweet nectar.

The scientific name for the pincushion is Mammalaria grahamii or Mammalaria microcarpa.  There are 25 named Mammalaria species in the Sonoran Desert region.

Pincushion with fruit
Flower close up



Sandhill Cranes

The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge is run by Arizona Game and Fish, and they estimate more than 25,000 Sandhill cranes are currently wintering over at the area. The cranes congregate near the marshy shoreline, a sprawling crowd of 3-foot-tall birds, each preserving its own bit of personal space. Beyond the cranes and the marsh stretch miles of grassland edged with distant blue mountains.   

The cranes spread their massive wings and rise up from their roosting area every morning at daybreak, flying to fallow agriculture fields. They probe the rubble with stout bills, gleaning leftover corn, as well as insects and any sprouts of greenery. After a morning of feeding, the cranes fly back to the marsh. 

I arrived about noon, and by then thousands of Sandhill cranes were already on the ground, some wading in the water, some standing along the banks. High overhead, incoming cranes appeared as dark specks in the endless blue, a scattering like pepper corns. Gradually small groups or pairs dropped lower, circling overhead, honing in on where they would land, calling out to announce their arrival. Wings outspread, they spiraled ever more tightly downward until their long legs reached to touch land.

There are six different migratory populations of Sandhill cranes on the continent. These gathering in Arizona are likely from a couple of different populations. The Mid-Continent population has breeding grounds in western and central Canada, western Alaska and northeastern Siberia. These cranes winter in northern Texas as well as central and northern Mexico, and southeast Arizona. A Rocky Mountain population also contributes to Arizona’s winter residents. 

In optimal situations, tail winds and thermals boost the birds on their journeys, and they cover up to 150 miles per day. The cranes can fly 50 miles an hour in good conditions, but in some cases must labor along at only 15 miles per hour. 

Sandhill crane pairs mate for life, and the youngsters often stay on with the family group for a year or two. Breeding does not start until cranes are two to eight years old. The young hatch covered in down and soon leave the nest. By early winter they appear adult-like, lacking only the red crown patch.

Sandhill cranes communicate via an extensive language of trumpets, bugles, rattles, honks, moans, purrs and hisses combined with posturing that includes bows, feather ruffled bows, stretches, stabs and kicks. The Unison Call is a duet sung by courting males and females, and accompanies elegant dance moves – leaps, head pumps and tosses of vegetation.  Guard Calls used with Tall Alert Posture defend nesting territory or warn of predators. Rattle Calls allow individuals to find each other in migration.  Chicks peep and trill.

The Sandhill cranes will stay at Whitewater Draw until early to mid-April, resting and feeding in preparation for their next migration.  

Juvenile in middle does not yet have a red crown patch
Graceful drinkers
Afternoon is rest time

Gilded Flicker

Male Gilded Flickers sport a red moustache

I once visited a church in Mexico where workers on scaffolding were hammering paper thin sheets of gold onto the interior walls, “gilding” them. Gilded Flicker have similar glory hidden away on the undersides of their wings. This is a flamboyantly colored bird, and the beautiful yellow undersides of the wings and tail are only part of the story. 

We commonly see these large woodpeckers on the ground in our yard in the warm season. They visit us because of our ants, ants being their favorite food.  That makes Gilded Flickers one of my favorite birds! These residents of the Sonoran Desert typically live near saguaro cacti, where they excavate their cavity nests. 

In April the female lays 3-4 eggs inside the cool, dim, unlined nest. The parents take turns incubating and later feeding the young. After about a month the meal train stops, forcing the young out of the nest and into the practice of finding their own food.

Last November I looked out the window and saw two Gilded Flickers on the ground in the backyard. They were dancing, stretching their necks to the sky and then bowing to each other and shuffling in circles together. I grabbed my camera and took some pictures through the glass – they are not great photos. But they captured this play time the two birds were enjoying. After the dance they took turns hiding behind a pot or a plant and then popping out to startle the other, a combination of hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo. 

In the winter when ants and other insects are not active Gilded Flickers eat winter fruits and seeds. They are closely related to the more widespread Northern Flicker. 

The dance
Female Gilded Flicker calls

The call of the Gilded Flicker rings loud and clear across the desert. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Gilded_Flicker/sounds

Not So Bad: The Butcher Bird

Loggerhead Shrike

They call Shrike the butcher bird, but that seems a bit unfair. After all, pairs are monogamous, and every spring the male sings to his female and brings her choice tidbits to eat. They search together for a perfect nesting site and work in tandem to gather twigs, rootlets, strips of bark and grasses. Females actually build the nest, lining it with soft flowers, lichen, feathers and fur. 

These robin sized birds are fascinating and fearsome because they are meat eaters. Their menu includes other birds, even those equal in size, rodents, reptiles and insects. But unlike, raptors that have fierce talons to do the dirty work, Shrikes must kill with an ancient adaptation called a tomial tooth. This is a notched space at the end of the beak that fits rather perfectly between rodent vertebrae.

Another method Shrikes employ to get a meal is to skewer their prey on a sharp thorn or even a prong of barbed wire. The food items may be eaten immediately cached for a later meal.

When I see Shrikes in the desert near my home, they are usually perched up high, and that is how they hunt, scanning the ground below with their excellent eye sight. It is said they can make out details from 70 yards. The Shrike is strong as well as fierce, and capable of carrying its own weight in flight. 

All About Birds, the Cornell Ornithology website points out another more endearing characteristic of Shrikes. Before breeding season, Shrikes have been observed gathering together for a short meeting of sorts, perhaps sorting out territories, cementing pair bonds or helping direct new arrivals to nearby available territories. 

Nest Building 101

This Curved-billed Thrasher hopped down into the interior of the cactus, apparently working on a nest. She seemed to be using her beak to place and move materials around.  Later, I went past the cactus again to check on her progress. There was no sign of a nest!  Was she practicing? Measuring? 

Researchers in Edinburgh were the first to publish a report that indicated nest building is a learned behavior, not instinct. Their observations revealed that nests are better designed and more efficiently constructed by birds that had built previous nests.  There were also variations in the actions that individual birds used that indicated their behaviors are not automatic.

As stated in Ecology and Evolution Journal, bird nests are multifunctional structures that require considerable cognitive ability. Most basically nests are containers for eggs and a space to raise young. But they are more!

Nests must minimize predation on the young. Site selection is the primary tool here, with the local abundance of predators having an influence. Ground nests may be the safest in areas with lots of raptors. Here in the Sonoran Desert, several species place their nests in thorny cacti to deter predators. The nesting area must also offer nearby sources of food and nesting material. 

Nests are designed to reduce parasites. Fresh greenery woven into the nest cup and replaced daily has a biocidal affect on parasites. Feathers lining a nest can hold bacteria that produce antibiotic substances.  Urban house sparrows and house finches have added cigarette butts to their nest cups. How did they know that the cellulose acetate in cigarettes repel parasites?

Every nest is a microclimate designed to protect the young from the elements. The outer nest material provides structural support for eggs and parents, but also thermoregulatory effects. The inner nest cup is all about providing a dry warm microclimate. Feathers keep nestlings warm, but birds use less of this insulation as the spring temperatures warm. Overhead shade is important, as is positioning in relation to prevailing wind.

In some cases nests attract mates. Since nest building burns energy, those that can build the largest nests, or the most nests, appear superior. Nests can serve as signals to potential mates and potential competitors….see how great I am!

Curve-billed Thrasher nest in Teddy Bear Cholla

Hummingbirds At Home

Female Costa’s Hummingbird on Desert Spoon in January

When we added a small patch of native plants to our front yard, we not only enhanced a previously bare space, we invited in hummingbirds. Now when we step outside the front door, we often notice Costa’s hummingbirds, colorful and entertaining neighbors.

Experts say a male Costa’s only pairs with a female long enough to ensure his legacy.  After courtship and breeding, the male goes his own way. The female sets to work, building a nest, laying eggs, incubating and feeding the youngsters. A female hangs out in our front yard year around, feeding on Chuparosa nectar in the winter, and Orange Bells (Tecoma hybrid) around the corner in the summer. When not hovering near a blossom or zooming away from our interruptions, the Costa’s perches in what seem to be customary places.  

The Chuparosa’s twining stems embrace an adolescent saguaro, fifteen years old but just four feet tall. A Cassia’s dense growth provides shelter and presumably an insect buffet, but it is on the spiky blades of the Desert Spoon that the hummingbird perches, overseeing her Chuparosa and drawing warmth and shelter from the east-facing wall. 

The Ironwood tree, just across the driveway, provides more perfect hummingbird domain.  I often see the female perched on a low branch, blending perfectly into the grey-green palette of leaves. In this tree she finds shelter, nesting space, an insect population for snacks and baby food, and a good view of that Chuparosa plant, covered now with deep red blooms, juicy with nectar. 

When she turns her eye to this winter food source, she can’t help but watch for the glistening purple cap of the Costa’s male. It seems soon she will begin to construct a nest, bringing tiny twigs and bits of leaf, and binding them with spider webs into a walnut sized cup to hold her precious eggs. 

Female Costa’s fluffed up for warmth in Ironwood Tree
Chuparosa, Saguaro, Cassia, Desert Spoon and Brittlebush are all plants to attract wildlife
Costa’s male