Peña Blanca Lake, Today & Past

Eighteen miles northwest of Nogales, Arizona is a man-made reservoir originally built in 1957 by the AZ Game & Fish department. It sits in the Pajarito Mountain foothills of Nogales and was a new adventure for me the other day. Everything was lush green and it did look like a thunderstorm was to descend on this 3800 foot area, but I wanted to see what was there!

It is only about 10 miles west of the exit where I had been on Interstate-19 and a good paved road. Beautiful scenery as I drove into the Coronado National Forest to visit this lake.

Few people were there which was wonderful for me as long as the rain did not start. I hiked part of the trail on its west side and saw fishermen on the reservoir’s edge in a couple of locations. With a “hello” wave everyone was able to do what they wished. A rest room is at the main parking lot; nothing else except at picnic areas there are tables.

I walked the trail and saw some birds. As usual I snapped some photos to be pleasantly surprised when home to identify new birds. I knew goldfinch and vermilion flycatchers, but was surprised by the other birds.

Now I will have to return to this lake and try for better photos as the last 2 birds were new ones for my life list! What a surprise to identify them now!

I always research an area to learn more about the place. October 2008 the reservoir was closed for 8 months to drain it. They discovered sediment on its bottom contaminated with mercury and the fish were picking it up, passing it through the food chain. A major concern, I would imagine, as fishermen enjoyed fishing there for trout, sunfish, bass and catfish. An environmental company from Phoenix put three 14-thousand pound pumps to run non-stop for 30 days to drain the lake. Forest Service officials estimated it would take 8 years for the lake to refill itself. As of my visit in 2020, yes, the lake looked full so the rainfall in the area was most helpful.

So of course one should ask, how did the lake become contaminated? In the 1800’s there were mining operations. In 1999, three mining sites were cleaned up south of the reservoir with the mine tailings, waste rock, making their way through the watershed to the bottom of the lake. The mercury contamination needed to be addressed and this was how it was done.

Beautiful lake and fishermen are here too.

Was I Surprised!

Just when I thought it was time to call it quits on my birdwatching … the sky was darkening where I had been so I left, the wind was blowing in another place so my photography would be less fun, and I was getting tired of driving. I thought I would make one last stop before heading home.

When I pulled into the Historic Canoa Ranch parking lot I saw people with their binoculars zeroed in on something. I also saw people carrying their zoom camera lens to the area. My luck told me just get out there, see what was going on and worry about the right camera lens later. If there was a bird it was sure to fly off by the time I get there! Or maybe not!?!

Juvenile northern jacana

With the best of intention for physical distancing and wearing a mask, I slowly approached a woman to ask what everyone was looking at along the shoreline of the lake because I saw nothing. With specifics from her, there it was … a juvenile northern jacana! My last birding stop resulted in another bird on my life list! WOW!

I did not have my big zoom lens so I creeped around to find a good location for a photo with a smaller zoom. One of the photos actually caught a look at this bird’s extremely long toes. It continued to casually hang out and no one bothered it which was wonderful to see!

I left the birdwatching to get home and read more about this bird. Apparently for this bird’s size it does have extremely long toes and in the field guide it says the bird may stay around for awhile. Cool; others may happen upon seeing it too!

Bird Documented in a Photo!

Most birds I observe are flying by so quickly I only see their overall body shape. I consider myself an advanced beginner birder. My challenge, and goal set for myself while bird watching now, is to catch sight of the bird’s head, specifically its eyebrow and eye ring. For some birds it will be the difference in being one bird or another. I am improving in noticing beak, wing bars or not, and tail shape, but have to look closer and faster to see more and then picture it all as I consult my field guide book.

The other day another bird watcher, 6 feet away from me due to Covid-19 physical distancing, told me I was looking at a MacGillivray’s warbler. I would have loved to add the bird to my life list, so I asked how do you know it is that bird, I only see its rear end? Notice its split eye-ring. Even as I used my binoculars the bird kept its rear end toward me so I saw no eye ring. I knew I would never be able to identify this bird from its tail end, so I did not add the bird to my life list.

This past month I have seen birds, photographed some, and later identified them thanks to Cornell Lab’s eBird and Merlin Bird ID. Female birds are often drab-looking and it is difficult to catch subtle differences between species. Other times I know I am looking at a new bird and yet I have not perfected the note-taking necessary to remember what it is I am looking at, so a photograph is my go-to method of capturing my sighting.

Digital cameras are fantastic! Years ago I used to budget money to purchase film, more money aside to develop the film, and finally more money to print some of the photos. Now-a-days I can take hundreds of photos on an SD card. I look forward to the time at home to see what looks like a good picture and to delete many other photos.

Here are a couple of birds I observed, photographed, and when home I used Merlin Bird ID to help me identify these two different species of female hummingbirds.

When bird watching you always need to be ready. All of a sudden I saw a bird I knew I had never seen before and it was so cute! I had to capture a photo of it and later discovered with Merlin Bird ID it was a pygmy nuthatch.

Pygmy nuthatch

While looking through all my photographs, I discovered another bird that looked different to me. Unsure of what this drab female bird would be, I put the photo in Merlin Bird ID and it identified as a blue-throated mountain gem. I knew these blue-throated hummingbirds were in the area, but during my observations I was looking for the blue throat of the male. The female is not so colorful, but I did notice an eyebrow or facial stripe I had not seen before, so I snapped a photo or two. I also listed the bird in eBird for my life list, yet received an email questioning if I did see the bird.

Blue-throated mountain gem, female.

The blue-throated are the largest hummingbirds species in the US and I waited to hear back from eBird staff to learn if they agreed with the Merlin ID. Fantastic news, yes they agreed with the identification! I am so thankful to have had the photo and now have also learned how to add my photos to eBird!

No doubt, bird watching and bird photography are lifetime hobbies. In time I can only improve with patience while learning both skills. Wish me luck!

Bird Loves Water!

My escape to the mountain forest provides me with relief from the hot dry desert temperatures. Thankfully within 25 miles I can be at a higher elevation with a 30 degree cooler air temperature!

I like walking along or in a creek bed in a wooded area with my tripod, camera and binoculars. It is fun despite any little black gnats wanting to bother me. I am looking for birds. I capture a few photos of birds in trees, but my best are when I find a puddle of water in a creek bed. Today is one of those days!

In the tree sits a female black-throated gray warbler. (I learn its identification later in the evening when I do my research.) Water is below the bird. Other birds flew in and out of this area, but what will this bird do? She seems to look my way to see what I am going to do. So we both wait.

Finally she flies down to the water and again seems to be watching me, or so I think! No one else is around and she can enjoy the water.

Now for some bird fun in the water! I love it, but should have also changed my shutter speed to something faster to catch those water droplets in mid-air and the feathers flying all over, but instead I enjoy the bath time activity! Bird watching took priority over my photography.

Finally a chance to jump back onto a branch and relax!

I hope she had as much fun as I did!

What Is The Red Thing In the Tree?

When birding, I watch for all activity, especially anything moving since it could be a new sighting for me. On this day, I was happy to see a red-faced warbler, black-headed grosbeaks and a mountain chickadee. While I might want to tell you more about the birds, I have a story to tell you. I asked myself, what is the red thing I see on the side of the tree? It’s moving and it is not a bird!

The fun thing about bird watching for me is being outdoors with the excuse to look for birds, but in reality I just want to see nature and whatever activity is happening. Through tree branches I watch the movement of what looks like a red apple. Could it be an apple? How is it moving up, down and around the tree? Finally a squirrel appears and I see the apple being moved up and down the tree while held in the squirrel’s mouth! Aha! Tree branches and power lines were blocking my vision, but now I see it all.

The next few minutes were interesting and funny as the squirrel did squirrel around to seek out, what? I could imagine the squirrel thinking about the best place to put this apple. Where will I put it so I can come back later and continue to eat this sweet thing? The squirrel decides on the crook of a tree and leaves it there.

I am thinking to myself I have to get these photos. I had no plans to be photographing birds this high in a tree, but I wanted a photo of this squirrel and the apple. I was also thinking, does this squirrel really think this is a safe place for the apple? I am distance away and that red apple just seems to pop out with such color to be easily seen here in the forest. It has to be an invitation for another!

No surprise, it was a few minutes later when a common raven discovered the apple. He flew in, checked it over and after a few minutes knocked it to the forest floor. The squirrel and raven had a bit of a tangle down on the ground, but the raven scared the squirrel away and enjoyed the apple.

What was funny about this whole wildlife encounter was the fact I had seen all of the action from the start and then worried about the Granny Smith green apple I was eating in the minutes after this activity. The raven was back up in the tree and sat there the entire time I ate my apple. I honestly kept it hid from the bird as I was sure it would have flown my way if he saw any piece of my apple! What a wonderful sighting today! I love nature!

Raven sat and watched as I ate my green apple.

Birds New to Me!

My goal has been to improve my photography skills on birds in flight, yet I was distracted on my latest birding adventure by the number of birds new to me. First some birds in flight:

At first I knew I was looking at a different woodpecker and that it was not my favorite acorn woodpecker. So I took a photo and finally identified it as an Arizona woodpecker.

Then I saw yellow colored birds and wanted to see what they were. I have goldfinches at my home feeder, but one was a lesser goldfinch and the other a hepatic tanager.

The next 2 birds were new to me. I thought they had the strangest head shape when I first noticed them, so immediately researched them for identification: black-headed grosbeaks.

Wow, then I really saw some beautiful colors! Both of these birds, new to me, are now on my life list: Lazuli bunting, with the light blue color, and the Varied bunting, with multiple colors.

My early morning trip to Madera Canyon was well worth the effort. I still have to work on my photos of birds in flight, especially as the hummingbird wings need a 1/4000 second shutter speed for me to really capture their action and be in focus. But to discover these other birds was great fun too. Well worth my hours at the canyon!

Birding By the Roadside!

Due to the Bighorn wildfire burning almost 120,000 acres of land just north of Tucson, AZ through the months of June and July, the Coronado National Forest trailheads will be closed to hikers until possibly November 1. Businesses in the town of Summerhaven hoped for the 25 mile road to their town to open quicker than it did, but once it was open to more than just residents and employees, locals headed to the mountain town at the start of August. In support of local businesses and to escape the desert 100+ degree heat, Summerhaven was a treat in many ways! Although physical distancing and wearing face masks, due to the pandemic, are required, I drove there also to look for some birds. The rule though is with forest areas off-limits, one must stay on the roadside pavement at all times.

I stopped at some spots along the road where parking was allowed and eventually worked my way to the town of Summerhaven. I bought some items at the local grocery store and just had to indulge in their fudge! A couple of other businesses were open, but I was happy with my treat and also seeing the following birds: yellow-eyed junco, Steller’s Jay, acorn woodpecker, and painted redstart. One really does not have to be in the middle of a forest to see birds. With some patience, birds can be seen along a roadside! The acorn woodpecker and Steller’s jay though were seen by a business that does put out peanuts for the birds.

I headed toward Ski Run Road where the temperature dipped to a wonderful 65 degrees. Along the way, and as I did while driving to Summerhaven, I noticed burnt areas from the wildfire. Ferns are the fastest growing plants in those charred areas.

Trailheads are closed to all of us because the soil is no longer being held in place by the forest growth once there and we are entering our monsoon, heavy rain, season. I was thrilled to see some birds, support a local business, eat some fudge, watch people ride the chairlift at Ski Valley, and see others picnicking/relaxing in the cooler temperatures on the mountain. My ride down the mountain was eventful. It started to rain the largest raindrops ever seen and hailed some good-sized hailstones! Just when I thought I could finish my lunch somewhere along my way home, that was not going to happen in this storm. Darn, back to the heat sooner than I had hoped!

Rain and hail!

Bird Photography Takes Work!

Taking time off the tennis and pickleball courts to learn about birds and photography has been my escape during the pandemic. It allows me to be outdoors, easily physically distanced from others, and on my own timeline. During the hot summer southwest USA days, one needs to be up with the birds to capture them in the trees or on bushes. Those locations are most natural for a photo.

I do not have hummingbird feeders at my home so I decided to go where I know there are some feeders. My challenge has been to capture a photo of a bird flying toward or away from a feeder AND to have a sharp image! Ah yes, therein lies the real challenge that I must continue to work on!

But when one sees 3 different hummingbirds in one day with one being a new bird for my life list, I do not care if it is not the sharpest photo in town!

Two hummingbirds: rufous on left and magnificent (rivoli’s) on right.
Female rufous hummingbird for my life list!

Obviously I need to work on this project some more. Feeders are nice to have but my goal still remains to capture each bird in flight. I was watching a couple of broad-billed hummingbirds flitting around a bush also and was so excited when one landed for a moment. Whew! a photo in focus!

Broad-billed hummingbird.

Proctor Trail, Madera Canyon, AZ

The ceremonial opening of the newly repaired Proctor Loop Trail in Madera Canyon was on December 3, 2019. Thanks to day permit fees and donations from Friends of Madera Canyon this 3 year project resulted in a trailhead with a short paved handicap accessible section. Just off the parking lot, there is an honor wall.

The short paved section has informative nature signs and you’ll see bird watchers, people walking their pet on a leash, hikers and all handling the gradual slope with ease. Most of the trail is in the shade which is nice for an August day, but do not expect to see the “secret waterfall”.

Further along the trail you discover the trail is not paved, but a foot path with good signage so you know where you are. You’ll also see bat houses for any of the 17 different species found in this area. An upper loop to other areas in the canyon is with some climbing and crossing bridge and walkway.

I was here to watch for birds and in the shade I had my challenges, plus with others on the trail the birds were not as accommodating as I had wished. But I did see bridled titmouse, turkey vultures, flycatchers and many silhouetted birds. I couldn’t figure out what caught the mule deer’s attention; it was totally oblivious of me! They certainly know that are safe in this environment!

One can drive the 3 miles up the start of the canyon which is all part of the Santa Rita Mountains, fourth highest of the Sky Islands in the Coronado National Forest. The range rises 6,000 feet and has plenty to offer hikers, birders, star gazers and campers. There are 3 picnic ares, 5 trailheads and a campground. Someday I am hoping to see the elegant trogon. I want to see if that bird is really as beautiful as pictures I have seen of it!

Chuck Ford Lakeside Park, Tucson, AZ

I stopped by to visit another city park in Tucson, AZ. Here in the desert one does not often see water, but this lake supports bass and catfish so anyone who fishes is happy. I was here to do some bird watching. Between all the trees and shoreline there were birds to be seen. Excessive noise is prohibited so it really is a quiet park.

Plenty of wildlife seen: Black crowned night heron, roadrunner, tricolored heron, cooper’s hawks – actually 3 of them, many mallards and hummingbirds and plenty of other birds, and turtles.

The following is not a good photo, but it is the first time I have ever seen a hawk pull its tail feathers up! There were three Cooper’s hawks in the tree. It was a very hot day, 100+ degrees Fahrenheit. They were hiding and I guess I got to close!?! They had wonderful shade and thus the photo is grainy.

Cooper’s hawk with tail feathers up!

The park has plenty of places for people to sit and relax, plus a playground, ball park, and activity court with various games.

Funniest looking bird was hanging out with the mallards. I really cannot explain its look.

Another park for me to check out during the various seasons!