A Mixed Bag of Recent Birds

by Dan Weisz

I have photos of a variety of birds from that past few weeks that don’t fit into any special “theme” but all interested me for one reason or another.  This is the collection:

Killdeer are shorebirds that you can see without going to the beach and that red eye-ring is pretty cool.  Killdeer are common to golf courses and athletic fields here in Tucson.  They run across the ground in spurts, stopping with a jolt every so often to check out their progress or, more likely, to see if they’ve startled up any insect prey.  Their distinctive call (“Kill-Deer”) is common and can be heard as the bird circles overhead  http://tinyurl.com/zy9nmwe .  This killdeer was seen at Columbus Park on Silverbell Road in Tucson.

Curve-billed Thrashers sing beautifully and we’ll be hearing more of them throughout the spring.  This one perched stop a saguaro near my house.  With that long, curved bill and glaring yellow eye, they always look grumpy but their music is always joyful.  And, yes, they learn to perch on cactus without hurting themselves.

European Starlings were first brought to America in the 1800’s by Shakespeare enthusiasts.  The birds loved the continent and are now among the most numerous songbirds in America.  While they can be resented for their aggressiveness in taking over neighborhoods, they really are very dazzling birds when you see them in the right light.  This one lives along River Road.

Black-tailed Gnatcatchers are tiny, hyperactive birds of the southwest deserts.  They flit among the leaves of creosote, mesquite, cactus and other shrubs to find and eat insects.  The males sport a black cap in the summer.  In the winter, it recedes until the male is just wearing Groucho Marx’s eyebrows.  

Often you’ll hear black-tailed gnatcatchers before you can see them.  They travel in pairs and they are constantly scolding from deep inside the thick desert shrubs.  If you want to be yelled at, listen to this recording taken near a roadway:  http://tinyurl.com/z5wzh9k 

You’ve seen the American Wigeon in a recent email.  Below is a reminder of what the typical male looks like.

An uncommon variation of the male coloring appeared at Fort Lowell Park recently.  This is called a “Storm Wigeon”.  It is an American Wigeon male but the white/cream color extends from his cap down across his entire face.  The reason for this variation is not known.  This duck, or a duck looking just like this duck,  has appeared at Fort Lowell Park for three winters in a row now.  

And he mixes freely with the other regular looking Wigeons.  Here the Storm Wigeon is feeding with a male and a female wigeon.

And finally, an old friend, the Great Horned Owl that lives in the rafters of the AVA Amphitheater at Casino del Sol.  I’ve been hearing great horned owls outside my window over the past week at around 4 in the morning.  I don’t know where they roost but I visit its cousin below often.  Those feather tufts give this owl its name, but those are not horns nor are they related to ears.  They are feather tufts that may help camouflage the owl when it roosts in trees during the daytime.  The technical term for those feathers is “plumicorn”.

Here is the second Great Horned Owl in AVA, sitting just a few feet from the owl above.  This mated pair has lived in the same spot for many years now.  Great Horned Owls are the largest owls among the ten species that call southern Arizona home.  They are the most common owl in North America and live in a variety of habitats.  Here in the southwest, they are gray.  In the rest of the country where it is colder and wetter, Great Horned Owls are more brown and may have orange in their faces.

And here is a burrowing owl living in an irrigation ditch in Pinal County.  Besides looking pretty cute, I think its sideways stance on that steep slope is remarkable.  And check out those long, feathered legs and feet.