Thursday, April 27, 2017

Florida Canyon and Butterflies

 Guest post by Dan Weisz

Florida Canyon is in the Santa Rita Mountains (south of Tucson) and just east of Madera Canyon.  There is lots to see there but in springtime there are flowering plants and butterflies.  I traveled there with Jeff Babson of SkyIslandTours to check out what was around.

A common flower in these hillsides is the New Mexico Thistle.  Those thorns get your attention but the bloom has a rich color.  This bud is ready to bloom.

I understand that Florida Canyon got its name from the hillside covered with Ocotillo.  When the Spaniards first arrived the ocotillo were in bloom.  The bright coral colors on the hillside inspired the name “Florida” (meaning “flowered, or flowery”) Canyon.  Florida is pronounced Flo-ree-da, the Spanish pronunciation.

I’m not sure of the type of bee this is, but it is pretty cool looking.

 An Elada Checkerspot butterfly sipping nectar from Fleabane plant. Fleabane are in the Aster family.  These butterflies are small, about an inch from wingtip to wingtip, and they were everywhere.

Here is another Elada Checkerspot butterfly with its wings closed.  The underwings look nothing like the upper side seen above.

 A Marine Blue feeding on an ocotillo plant.  The hidden upperside of its wings are a light blue.

 A beautiful Common Buckeye kept returning to this rock after repeatedly chasing any butterfly that came into his territory.  His ultimate goal was to remain on his rock while on the lookout for any females coming into his area.  The eyespots on his wing may be used to scare away predators.  His wingspan is two inches or more.

This small butterfly is an Orange Skipperling.  Its wing structure makes him look like a jet airplane, and he does fly really fast.  He spends much of his time perched and waiting around for a receptive female.  In this photo and the one above, you can get a nice look at a butterfly’s “q-tip” shaped antenna.

 This butterfly is aptly named a White-Striped Longtail Butterfly.  I think I can see that white stripe and that long tail, can’t you?  This is a very different looking butterfly.  It is springtime and so this fellow continued to perch on this barbed wire, leaving it frequently to chase away any other butterfly that came into his territory before returning to his wire.

Butterflies are a colorful subject, so I hope to find more of them through this spring and summer.

And I’ll leave you with another thistle:

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Easy Remote Camera Options to Enjoy Birds

Guest post by Tim Helentjaris

There are both old and new technologies that you can use with a remote camera to capture photos and videos of birds and I thought I would summarize three of them that are not costly and pretty easy to set up.

The first option has been around for a while, the remote trail cam, but it still has some real utility, is fairly economical, and also easy to use.  In addition to the camera, all you really need is an SD card to insert and capture the photos on and computer to download and enjoy them.  These cameras come in weather-proof shells and take both still photos or videos, usually in response to movement as they are motion-activated.  Newer models also have “night vision” capability, so you can get some cool shots of critters after dark.  Basically, you just set them up outdoors in an area where wildlife is likely to happen by, I put mine by a water dish on the ground that drew both birds and mammals, but you could set them up aimed at a feeder, a commonly-used animal trail, a nest box, etc.  They take standard batteries to power them, you put them out, and just retrieve the SD card days or even weeks later, and then take a look at the photos it captured during that time.  Lots of options here and places to buy them.  The model I had was equivalent to the Moultrie A-35 at ~$119 ( but there are both cheaper and more expensive options, as well as a number of other manufacturers, such as  Browning and Stealth Cam (

I think these are a very economical option, a lot of fun to experiment with, and probably the easiest if you’re technology-shy.  Want to know what’s getting into your trash cans at night or who’s stealing your newspaper, hey, these will work for that as well.  With mine at the water dish, I learned that many animals had some interesting routines, for instance, Mourning Doves liked to collect there at sundown before flying off to roost somewhere else.  I might have a dozen or more that I wouldn’t see any other time of day.  And weirdest of all, one summer I had a Cooper’s Hawk that almost every day would just visit and stand in the water for long periods?  Was he cooling off his feet or what?  Things to watch out for, wind, if you point your camera at a tree or bush that will move in the wind, you will end up with hundreds of photos that are just moving branches.  But then electrons are cheap, so you can delete them, but you still get tired of wading through all those pointless photos.

The second option I will offer you here to consider are the newer WiFi-capable security cameras.  While these were not originally intended for this purpose, when I proposed putting up a web cam at the Paton’s to monitor the feeders, this proved to be an incredibly easy option to set up, the instructions are basically three steps.   In addition to the camera, you will need an WiFi accessible  to the internet and a smart phone or computer to look at the results.  These cameras are very small and again come in water-proof shells.  Instead of looking at the results after the action, you view them in real time, although some also have a record function as well that allows you to save the stills or video to your computer.  Again, these also have a night vision capability, so you can see what’s happening both day and night.  Additionally, they have a microphone, so you can listen in on what is happening and even talk through it!  Another neat feature is that these broadcast their results via your WiFi over the internet, so you don’t have to be on site to view what’s happening.  You can see them privately via any internet-connected device or you can even make them public if you wish as we did with the Paton’s web cams.  They can be set to be always-on or motion-activated.  Again, place them where you want to see what’s happening, feeders, nest boxes, water dishes, etc.  Instead of batteries, these are powered by plug-and-wire, so you’ll need an outlet somewhere nearby and you have to be within range of your WiFi network, although I put up an extender at the Paton’s, so that we could mount the camera farther away.

Again, lots of models here to choose from, but I went with the Nest Cam ( which retails for ~$199 and you can find them at Lowe’s, Best Buy, etc.  My choice was driven by the fact that this model was by far the easiest to set up, connect to the internet, and view, something I had zero experience in beforehand.  I also liked the recording function which involved an additional monthly fee but was worth it to capture some of the action and be able to share it later.  One neat aspect is that the video recording shows a time line with tick marks where motion happened, so you don’t have to later watch 8 hours of night video to see if anything happened, you just jump to those points where motion happened, a huge time-saver.  From the Paton Center's web cams, we have learned a lot, for instance that mice were visiting the suet feeders at night but that also neighborhood cats were chasing them in that period.  I also watched the Violet-crowned Hummingbirds actually flare their violet crowns, making them much more visible.  And in one cool video, you can see a White-breasted Nuthatch try to bluff a Curve-billed Thrasher at the suet feeder with some Jedi moves that have to be seen to be believed.  I think you’ll find this type of camera easier to set up than you think and loads of fun with lots of functions, including its original use as a security monitor when you’re away.



The last type of camera I will describe here is not one that I have used myself, a nest cam that a member installed at her house in her flycatcher nest box to monitor what was going on inside.  These are very compact cameras with very short focal lengths, so that they can be mounted inside a nest box itself and capture the action.  As you might imagine, it's dark in there, so they have a night vision function.  What you’ll need in addition is either a TV to watch it on or your computer.  The model she used, the Hawkeye Nature Cam (, is powered by an electric cord and takes real time video with a microphone to capture sound as well.  Very economical at less than $100 and available through Amazon and other retailers.  She reports a few issues, it could work with batteries but they didn’t last long enough, hence she used the plug-in power option.  Doesn’t record, which is too bad, but on the other hand, watching it on your TV is cool and she has caught some great activity, not to mention being able to teach her son about nature with their own set-up.  One interesting fact she picked up with this device is that the nest box she was using was designed for Ash-throated Flycatchers and they have used it each year, but one year after they were done, Brown-crested Flycatchers moved in and used it.  The latter come later than the Ash-throateds, interesting that this factor helped the BcFl’s find and reuse a similar nest site.


So, there are other models out there of these camera’s and even other types, but these are the ones that I have some experience with, are readily available and not expensive, and most importantly - relatively easy to set up.  I think if you want to add to your enjoyment of birds from around your house, even in the city, they are a fun option that will also furnish you with insights you might not get any other way.  Feel free to give them a try.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Bird Nests: Signs of Spring

Guest post by Dan Weisz

This week I participated in a nice walk at Agua Caliente Park with Jeff Babson on his weekly bird walk, sponsored by the Pima County Parks and Recreation Environmental Education Department. This County brochure lists this walk along with many others The Friends of Agua Caliente also offer many resources for visitors

At the park, we saw very many birds’ nests. Below is a selection:

A Great Horned Owl sits on her nest high in the fronds of a Palm Tree.

This is one of two Anna’s Hummingbirds we saw sitting on eggs at Agua Caliente. The photo is dark and shadowy, but it’s the best that I have.

About thirty feet down the path, we found another Anna’s Hummingbird nest.  Both nests are as tall as they are wide.

In one mesquite tree, we saw a Vermilion Flycatcher sitting on her nest.  Her drab colors and the simple, dove-like nest, all help to camouflage the bird on the nest from predators flying above.

And below her, the male showed up with a mouthful of insects.  It’s nice to have food delivered right to your door.  He is looking up, waiting for the right moment to bring her a snack.

Deep in a citrus tree is the nest of (I believe) a Bell’s Vireo.  We did not see the bird this time.  Note how the shape and materials look very different from any of the nests above.

 A new discovery for the group was this Phainopepla nest with two small birds inside.  At one point, we saw both parents delivering food to the babies.  Because the nest is so well hidden deep in the oleander bushes, there were many branches in the way of good viewing.  If you look closely, you can see both babies with bare chins holding their mouths wide open and facing up, waiting for daddy to stuff something delicious down their throats.

Here is another nest where we did not see the parents while we were observing. This is the nest of a Northern Beardless Tyrranulet, a small flycatcher.  The nest is domed and has a side entrance and this one was located among the seed branches of a palm tree.  It is a very different nest from the other ones we saw.

On my way home, I stopped at Catalina Foothills High School, where students were on spring break.  Say’s Phoebes are common on school grounds and a friend told me about a nest near the snack bar of the football field.  I found the birds, but their nest was hidden above the snack bar’s light fixture and was not visible from the ground.  Both parents were dutifully bringing food to the nest.  In this case, a Fiery Skipper butterfly (Thank you Jeff Babson for the ID).

Above the football field was the nest of a Common Raven.  A friend tells me the birds have nested there for several years now.  You can see a bit of the raven sitting on the nest in this photo.

It is definitely springtime here in the desert.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

At The Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Guest post by Dan Weisz

I have been volunteering weekly for three years now with the Raptor Free Flight program at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.  Our “season” ends this Sunday, so I went to the Desert Museum on Monday to be a typical guest.  Below are a few of my photos from that morning.

This Spiny-tailed Iguana was sunning itself near the Bighorn Sheep exhibit.  I was told that these iguanas live on islands in the Gulf of California.  They either escaped or were released on the grounds of the Desert Museum and have thrived on the property but they have not spread into the desert beyond.  Apparently the permanent water at the Desert Museum keeps them ‘home’.

The reason I was near that iguana was that I came to see the newborn Bighorn Sheep baby.  This little one was born Saturday and on my Monday visit, was scampering around capably.

A close-up of her face!

Raptor Free Flight is an extraordinary demonstration of Southwestern birds of prey flying in the open desert.  It is simply breath-taking.
Below is the Gray Hawk, a tropical bird that we see in Southern Arizona as about 200 pairs migrate here from Mexico annually to breed and raise their young.  They live in riparian areas along the San Pedro and Santa Cruz Rivers and their tributaries, and along the southern Sky Island mountains.

The Great Horned Owl coming in for a landing:  Great Horned Owls are the apex predator of the night skies and are the most common owl across the United States.

Great Horned Owls use their feet and talons as their killing tools.   Their toes are as long as our fingers and those needle-sharp talons puncture their prey using the owl’s grip strength of 500 pounds per square inch.  If the talons don’t kill you, the constriction will.  The owl’s feet are feathered to protect them from the desperate bites of their prey.

The Harris’s Hawks are one of the highlights of Raptor Free Flight.  They hunt in a group, acting like a pack of winged and feathered wolves.

A Harris’s Hawk coming in for a “glove call” by our lead trainer Amanda.  Tipping their bodies vertically helps to stall the fast flight and allows the hawk to land softly.

Harris’s Hawks are able to hunt in a family group through the use of a strong hierarchal family structure.  This lets each hawk know their place in the family pecking order and helps to reduce family squabbles, allowing the birds to focus on hunting cooperatively.    This photo demonstrates that family hierarchy in action.  The one bird on the saguaro is about to be “supplanted” by the incoming bird whose message is “I’m your big brother and I’m taking your spot right now!  Move it!”  The bird atop the saguaro flew off obediently just before the approaching hawk landed.

A soaring Harris’s Hawk.

During Monday’s demo, our raptors were joined by a wild Black Vulture who came in to see what was going on.  Often during spring migration season wild birds will fly through the demo site and interact with our birds.  This happens during fall migration as well.  Black Vultures differ from the more common Turkey Vultures in the color of their under-wings and the color of their head.  While Turkey Vultures have a great sense of smell and can locate carrion from miles away, black vultures to not have the sense of smell.  But they have great eyes and they watch what their cousins the Turkey Vultures are doing and tag along for the free food.

Upon leaving the Desert Museum at the “tail end” of my visit, I spotted another wild spiny-tailed iguana near its usual sunning spot.  It ducked into the gate post to hide from me.  Apparently, it could no longer see me from this position so it felt safe!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Nothing Says Tucson Magic Like Our Hummingbirds

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Tucson Audubon has declared this the "Year of the Hummingbird”.  To learn more about their offerings, go to

Below I present photos of backyard hummingbirds along with photos of murals on the Pascua Yaqui Nation that include Hummingbirds in them.  Lent is a season that the Yaqui people truly respect and cherish and their ceremonies may be viewed by the public in Tucson at several locations between now and Easter Sunday.  For more information, see the Tribe’s Culture Page  The link to the “Lent Schedule” provides times and dates.  For a short history on the Pascua Yaqui, see 

According to Louis D. Valenzuela, an accomplished Yaqui artist, the hummingbird “represents the Yoeme culture.  The hummingbird is considered to be a spiritual bird that comes from the “Sewa Ania” Flower World and is a messenger with powerful blessing and protection.”

A photo of a Costa’s Hummingbird, a rather common hummingbird of the Tucson area.

and his other ‘good’ side

One public mural on the Pascua Yaqui Reservation.

And another beautiful mural.

Sitting on a dead cholla branch is a Broad-billed Hummingbird, another common Tucson-area bird.

Portrait of a Broad-billed Hummingbird

One more mural, from the Administrative building on the Yaqui Reservation.

A painted mural.

And the Broad-billed Hummingbird’s “other” good side!!

It’s springtime, so we’ll be seeing many more hummingbirds in the days and months to come!

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Winter Duckfest

Guest post by Dan Weisz

Our Southwest desert is not known for its ducks, but in winter, many “snowbirds” head south to warmer climates. Ducks move into the waters in Tucson including the lakes and ponds at local parks and golf courses. Below are some photos of colorful ducks found this week at Sweetwater Wetlands, Ft. Lowell Park, and a nearby golf course.

Many ducks can be grouped into two categories: either Dabbling Ducks or Diving Ducks.

Dabbling ducks are surface feeders and feed by tipping-up (rear end up) in the shallows of lakes, ponds and marshes for their food. Dabblers are able to fly up off of the water in one bound, rising almost vertically.

Diving ducks dive under the water to find food. Because they are built to dive and swim under water, their feet are further behind them than those of dabbling ducks. That makes diving ducks awkward on land and they need to run along the water’s serface to get airborne.

Dabbling ducks include the common Mallard:

and see him tipped up and dabbling?

Other dabbling ducks include the Green-winged Teal. In most dabbling ducks, their tails are held high above the water.

One more dabbling duck is the American Wigeon. This appears to be a juvenile whose green facial color is just coming in.

And here, another wigeon is feeding along the surface of the water:

Here is a dabbling duck swimming with a diving duck. The Cinnamon Teal (the cinnamon colored male below) is swimming alongside a female Bufflehead Duck. Note how the bufflehead’s tail is almost in the water. She is riding much lower in the water than the teal is. Also, dabbling ducks have larger, “duck-like” bills. Diving ducks often have smaller bills.

Here are two diving ducks side-by-side. A male Ruddy Duck leads the female bufflehead duck. The ruddy duck’s bill has already turned blue in anticipation of breeding season, but his body has not yet turned that beautiful ruddy color. See how he rides low in the water like other diving ducks.

And here is a male and a female Ruddy Duck. The male has a black head and a clean white cheek and the female has a lighter head and a gray cheek with a stripe running through it.

Another swimming bird (but not a duck) frequents Tucson area waters. This is a Pied-billed Grebe. Grebes have lobed toes, as opposed to a duck’s webbed feet, to aid with swimming. They are excellent divers so their feet are placed far back on their body just as diving ducks’ feet are, making it very tough for grebes to walk on land. The word “pied” means two or more colors, and in the summer the pied-billed grebe has a thick black stripe down the middle of his beak. (Remember the Pied Piper of Hamlin, who wore a coat of many colors?)