What to Know About Burrowing Owls

Once upon a time there were more burrowing owls in the Marana, Arizona area than now. Typically the burrowing owl, one of the smallest owls in North America, would live in burrows dug out by other animals, such as ground squirrels. With continued habitat destruction, declining numbers of ground squirrels, and land use change, there was a noticeable decline of these owls. So with local effort, “artificial burrows” were created with mounds of dirt, rock, buckets and pipe entrances to the underground with hopes of enticing burrowing owls back to the area. The owls may line the burrow with grass, feathers or other objects and enlarge the burrow as they need.

Man-made created burrows for the burrowing owls.

I have been watching for these birds and when I finally saw one it was not the best time for a photograph, but I took the photo since this was the first burrowing owl I had ever seen. Look closely at the photo above, toward the right side, to see the rear view of a burrowing owl!

In researching information about these birds, I was surprised to read of an adaptation found in them and other burrowing animals – they have a higher tolerance for carbon dioxide than other birds. The gas accumulates to higher levels there than found above ground. Since burrowing animals spend long periods underground, they have adapted to the situation.

They live in grasslands, deserts and open habitat and feed on insects, small birds and rodents. The breeding season begins in early March. Before laying eggs, they may carpet the entrance to the home with animal dung which attracts dung beetles and other insects that the owls catch and eat. The female lays 7 – 9 eggs. Male and female will sit on the eggs for 3 – 4 weeks. The parents feed, care and teach the young to hunt and kill. By end of summer the young have grown their adult feathers, know how to hunt on their own and are ready to leave their parents.

In my quest to get a better photograph of a burrowing owl, I was birding again in Marana and never quite sure what I will see. However, I was lucky to be talking with a person about my first sighting of a burrowing owl when he told me of a burrowing owl just .25 miles down a local road, hanging out near an irrigation ditch … at least he saw it there 2 days ago. I thought, what are the chances?

I decided to drive to the spot when I was done birding. Can you believe it!?! A burrowing owl was standing there! I used the side of my car as a blind so I would not cause it any stress. I watched it turn its head around and loved looking into its eyes. I could not imagine it standing out here in the open, especially since great horned owls, coyotes, foxes and raccoons prey on burrowing owls. What a stroke of luck for me!

Here are my photos:

The neck and head only moved.
Nice back of the head!
That is one serious look saying, stop destroying my habitat. I live here too!

Patagonia Lake State Park, Arizona

Two weeks ago I finally walked the birding trail at Patagonia Lake State Park. I was searching for an elegant trogon and while not successful in seeing one there were plenty of other birds!

A canyon towhee was one bird I thought, now you look a bit different from others so let me photograph you! It was wonderful for the bird to sit on the branch and allow me to photograph it. Other birds like the bridled titmouse were all over the place before I could get a decent photo. But the verdin won the movement contest! With all of its moving around I could only capture a photo while the bird hung upside down! I almost missed one bird. I saw some action at a spot. I took a photo even though it was the back end of what I guessed to be a wren. Fortunately its eyebrow is in the photo to know it is a Bewick’s wren!

Canyon towhee
Bridled titmouse
Verdin
Bewick’s wren

Plenty of woodpeckers were in the woods. I felt like it was practice in determining is it a Gila woodpecker or a ladder-backed woodpecker?

I saw this next bird and was not sure what it was till I arrived home to enter it into Merlin Bird ID, love that app! I captured a photo of an Eastern phoebe!

Eastern phoebe

Another little bird I have not seen in awhile is the next photo: ruby crowned kinglet.

Ruby crowned kinglet

And finally a bird I knew as soon as I saw it…hermit thrush! Always wonderful when I can actually identify a bird on the spot of observing them!

So many birds on that birding trail and the creek near it, along with an entire lake to check out. I saw 15 different bird species during the 2.5 hours on the trail. It is a great day trip for any time of the year! I’ll be back!

Travel in the Age of Covid-19 & Birding

There would have been no other time I would consider a drive of 2.5 hours to a site, spend 3 hours there, and then drive home, yet that is happening in my world these past months! I am doing my part in wearing a mask, physically distancing from others and trying to get our world back to what will be a new normal. As a result, my travel is a long day trip, with hopes of learning and seeing something new since that has always been my goal when traveling anywhere in the world.

My latest adventure took me to the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert, Arizona. The town of Gilbert made a commitment in 1986 to reuse 100% of its effluent water and by 1999 the Riparian Preserve was developed. It encompasses 110 acres of land. Seventy acres of the land have 7 recharge basins filled on a rotating basis with treated effluent to then percolate into the aquifer for future use. There is an observatory, 4.5 miles of trails, various vegetative zones, plenty of birding opportunities, a compass course, and one side of the property borders the eastern canal of the Salt River Project where people were bicycling and walking.

Some basins had no birds, some had no water and some basins had hundreds of birds. I loved walking the entire place. My goal was to check out this place and see the birds. I saw four birds new to me in Arizona: roseate spoonbill, least sandpiper, American avocet and snowy egret (notice black bill, black legs and yellow feet) … photos follow:

My most exciting time during my visit was watching a female belted kingfisher and a great egret (notice yellow bill). I discovered the egret looking to the sky and I wondered what it was watching; then I discovered it saw a belted kingfisher. I had never seen this happen before so I was amazed! The belted kingfisher would fly over the way from a good distance from the water’s surface and then literally dive-bomb into the water, catch a fish and fly off … unless it missed and then in a few minutes you could see it happen all over again. The bird returned. I was fortunate to get the photos I did since this bird had to be diving at a huge speed. Then I was wondering if I could anticipate where it would hit the water’s surface and get that photo … probably not … what a photo it would be! The bird did not return so I never had a chance at my guessing game.

Great egret, scroll back and see the difference to the snowy egret.

I saw 31 different birds. Two birds I had not seen in years: long-billed dowitcher and black-necked stilt … so I will include them here.

It was a long day, but worth it! Thankfully people of Gilbert had foresight in reusing the wastewater. There is little doubt Arizona will have a water crisis in its future unless basins around our homes collect rainwater to water our landscape, water tanks are connected to rain gutters, and other plans are developed so our rivers will someday flow again. May we be reminded of the words from Theodore Roosevelt, “The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak, so we must and we will”. Thank you to all who do his/her part.

Never Know What You Will Discover…

I was searching for a particular grebe. While I did not find the bird I was looking for, I did get to visit Sahuarita Lake Park in Sahuarita, Arizona, so I guess that was a plus. This manmade 10 acre lake opened in 2001 is enjoyed by many people. You’ll see people walking, fishing ….need a license… boating (no motor, and only sunrise to sunset) and enjoying the outdoor space. There are restrooms, ramadas and an outdoor amphitheater most likely used frequently when we are not in a pandemic. The lake is slightly more than a mile in length and 12 feet deep at the max, yet the fisherman are catching catfish, trout, bass and sunfish. Be sure to check what the fishing regulations are so you are not reported.

I did observe pied-billed grebe, ruddy duck, American coot and rock pigeon. In researching rock pigeon, I added a new word to my vocabulary: cere. Rock pigeons have this off-white deposit of calcified keratin protein above their nostrils where the cere meets the feathers of their face. I did not find the bird I wanted, but I learned something new today and know I will return to this area another time.

Often, I never know what I will discover when I go on some of my wanderings. I do ask myself if there is anything in particular I am searching for. And it is not always about birds, but life in general. Have you recently asked yourself what you are searching for? The start of a new year is a good time to do so, but not a necessity. Ask yourself, what are you searching for, and then go for it! Even if you do not find it, you may discover something else … and that is not really so bad, most the time! A new year can have some new looks! Take joy in the newness. Keep your life fresh!

I only took one photo of the park since I had a zoom lens on my camera for bird photography. But here’s a nice look while I stood along the walking trail about halfway down the side of the lake. If you are in the area of Sahuarita, Arizona, stop in. I wish you a safe and healthy new year

What is that bird on the pole?

Lakeside Park, Tucson, Arizona is a popular local fishing place and I discovered a particular bird thinks so also! I did not know this at first. My attention was on the the vermilion flycatcher, Say’s phoebe and yellow-dumped warbler. Then a snowy egret (notice its black bill) at water’s edge.

This urban lake is part of the Tucson Municipal Fishing Program. The lake is about 14 acres and fairly shallow at about 15 feet, yet 35 feet at its deepest places. An urban fishing license is required, no gas-powered boats, no swimming or wading, and no feeding the birds. This park is very popular especially with people fishing for bass, catfish and rainbow trout.

Once I decided to leave the park, I packed up my gear and drove away from the park. After rounding a street corner, I noticed a bird sitting on the bank of lights for the baseball field. I pulled into the parking lot and grabbed my camera, hoping the bird would not be spooked by the children playing below or me trying to move into position for a photo. Photo taken and then it flew! It is rare to see osprey here, but it made sense as these birds love fish too! In doing more research about this bird, I read it will position their catch with the fish head forward to to have an aerodynamic flight. Now I know to hang out and see if the bird returns with fish. That would be interesting to see since any osprey I have seen I did not take time to notice that detail. Learning something new every day!

It’ll Take a Lifetime!

How many things do we put our mind and body into wanting to accomplish even if the “thing” would take a lifetime? Continued education on many subjects has always been of interest to me, just as my dedication to the many thousand tennis strokes, hundred pickleball strokes and other activities I wanted and needed to learn. In college I thought my basketball and field hockey skills would be fantastic if only I took a lifetime working on them! Instead, we pick and choose what and where we wish to put our energies. For me, at the moment, it is to learn about birds and bird photography. (To this day my basketball and field hockey skills are not good.)

I was thinking about things that seem to take forever to actually happen … does everything require a lifetime!?! I had been on the trail and people would always ask, did you see that bird or did you see this bird? No wonder it is a life list to record the birds you see … it’ll take a lifetime! Are my birding skills getting better? Am I at the best locations and at the best time to see certain birds? My very early morning hours where when I was younger and needing to be at work. Now do I really need to be up with the birds? I guess I need to dedicate myself to the process and get up early too! Or may be not.

Thank goodness I discovered the other day that an early morning rise was not necessary to see a bird I have been looking for the last few weeks. It was 3:30pm, late afternoon in my book. Besides enjoying the birds I saw few human beings, another plus! A cinnamon teal made an appearance.

Cinnamon teal

A bird usually heard from the cattails and never seen was now dipping its head into the stream’s water. The bird is a sora!

sora

But the bird everyone else observed the last few weeks and I had never seen in my lifetime was the wood duck. I visit Sweetwater Wetlands whenever I am on this side of town and I look for these birds. I could only envision their beautiful look from what I had seen on postcards and field guide books. With each person asking if I saw the bird, I was determined that my sighting will come. It did and it was late in the day, not like 7:30am as others mentioned was the time they had seen the ducks.

Wood ducks swim away.

Black-crowned night heron flew in so the wood ducks swam away. What a fortunate sighting for me and it did not take a lifetime!

Black-crowned night heron.

I think the Audubon bird life list is about 9,000 birds. There are some people who travel the world looking for specific birds to add to their list. I remember one woman wanting to see a California condor while she was on a hiking trip I was guiding at Grand Canyon National Park. The following week she was flying to the west coast of Africa to see some of the 150 birds not yet on her life list. (She did see the condor.)

I saw 100 birds along the Amazon River in Peru in 2017. I wonder where I have the list of them; maybe in my travel journal? And what about the birds seen before I started my current life list? I understand I can add historical sightings… hmmmm…maybe I will. I have to be sure to add in the Eastern USA common loon I saw in the late 1970’s. I hiked in 4 miles to an Adirondack lake just to find and to see that bird. It took a few times before I did see the bird, but it was worth it. All the other times I had only heard the loon’s haunting call while I was tenting on an island in another lake. And now I see some loons do winter in Arizona, yet they do not have the call of the loon as the one on the east coast. Interesting. With all the birding done in my lifetime so far, I may be lucky to record 300 birds? Who knows, but when I read about people viewing thousands of birds, wow! I have a lifetime yet to fill, so I best get going!

In Search of a … oh, It’s a Scaup!

I am actually searching for an elegant trogon and a wood duck, yet I enjoy seeing and photographing new birds for my life list. It is not my life list that motivates me. It is seeing a new bird and photographing it because it is such a challenge for me to accomplish getting a good or very good photo of the bird! During this pandemic it has been my goal to learn as much as I can and to practice bird photography. Thanks to on-line courses, books and gear I am putting all together along with patience to search for birds. And then, are they in the right light? Can I capture some unusual pose? What will today’s search result in?

I found a new pond, Hardesty Pond in Tucson, Arizona. There is nothing picturesque about the area, but it is a quiet place where some birds and many turtles like to relax. I stood by the fence, a short section allowing me to peek in, and decided to photograph the birds I could see. Every bird was a distance away even with my 200-500mm lens, but what the heck, I will check it out!

Way across on the other side I see this small bird, a spotted sandpiper. Not to far away is a black phoebe and, easy to see, a great egret, along with many turtles!

In the pond water are northern shovelers, ruddy ducks and others, but then I notice some ducks that look a bit different from any others I have seen. Are they scaups? The lighting is not best, the angle is wrong, the fence limits my movement, could they swim closer to me? I think they may be scaups! I have listed the pond and the birds in eBird to see what the professionals think about the identification I made of these birds. Time will tell if I am correct, but I know I have never seen this bird before and I believe they are scaups. What do you think?

If I had better photographs we would be able to determine if they are lesser or greater scaups. What would make the difference? I need a better look at shape of head and the glossiness of it. Maybe another day!

White Chinese Geese?

What are these geese doing at a pond? Did they once belong to someone as a pet? I was surprised to see the geese swimming along with ducks in a local park pond. White Chinese Geese, domesticated for hundreds of years, are often pets if tamed and handled often. These birds were obviously comfortable at this pond!

I noticed a knob on the upper side of its bill and some teeth when the goose started honking. I learned it is a basal knob which is more prominent on males and given time it is used in determining the sex of the bird. The “teeth” are not true teeth, instead cartilage on their beak and tongue! The hard, spiky cartilage allows them to tear through vegetation and to hold onto insects and rodents. No doubt not a bird to mess with, but to enjoy looking at instead!

Reid Park …

So many people and so many birds are hanging out at Reid Park in Tucson, Arizona. No one is on the baseball fields near by, everyone is at one of two ponds … feeding the ducks, despite signs saying not to feed them! Scurrying around on the ground eating some berries were yellow-dumped warblers.

A quick look into the trees and way on top I see a Cassin’s kingbird … new bird for me!

Many, many mallard ducks, American wigeons, geese and ring-necked ducks in the pond while some comfortably go about their business at the pond’s edge, such as the great egret. Others, neotropic cormorant and black-crowned night heron, sit and watch all that is happening around them and are not bothered by the ruckus. Yet the egret does fly up into a tree and the heron moves itself to sit on a BBQ grill!

While the mallards and other ducks fly to another side of the pond, as this American wigeon is doing, when another handout of bread is about to happen! It seems there is no enforcement of the rule on the sign.

Here the great egret lands at the tree and the black-crowned night heron is at the BBQ grill. When you spend time with birds you see how smart they are!

Visit Your Local Spot Again!

Where is your favorite local spot? A local brewery. A fishing hole or birding spot. A restaurant where you can sit at your corner table. Sitting trailside on a fallen log. Standing on a hilltop with no one else around. There is joy in visiting your spot time and time again. You see it change and at times it seems to remain the same. While some spots have been off limit for us to visit, due to safety protocols requiring us to maintain physical distancing, we are finding ways to visit and be safe and/or to support small and large businesses. There is hope for all our local spots to be as they once were … a time where we used to talk with our friend at elbow’s length whether at the bar, pond or restaurant table. Let’s stay vigilant so we as a world can be healthy sometime soon in 2021 and get to our local spots again and see each others smile!

My latest local spot was visited again, Agua Caliente Park. The usual great egret, pied-billed grebe and ring-necked duck were present, but I had a surprise visitor! This bird is a new one for my life list: a non-breeding, male hooded merganser. So, go visit or support your local spot and who knows what newness you will discover! Make it a great day!