Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sage Thrasher

This was a midday winter bonus. As I went into the kitchen of our Aldea home and peered out the main window, I spied a Sage Thrasher perched in the winter-bare red dogwood bushes—and it was staring right at me from just a few feet away. I hastily grabbed my camera before it flitted off. I had seen one in the last week near one of the granite birdbaths we have setting on the ground, but very early in the morning before the sun was up so it was difficult to get a good photo. 

This particular thrasher looked so beautiful against the bare dogwood branches and the midday light. The color scheme is inspiration for a painting. We planted red dogwood as we liked the way it looked against the snow when devoid of leaves. The thrasher showing up in these beautiful bushes was a bonus. They are skittish birds and will run away quickly if disturbed. They would mostly rather run than fly away when startled. I love the amber color of its eyes. Although I have read they can have beautiful lemon yellow eyes as well. Sexes are similar.

We did not see any Sage Thrashers last winter so I am happy they are making a return visit this winter. Our first winter in Aldea there was a group of six that made consistent visits to find water in our yard. I had read that they tend to hang together in the winter in these small groups and scour for food and water together. However, this thrasher was a loner. Perhaps it was enjoying some solitary moments on an unexpected warmish New Mexico winter day.

This particular bird did not stay long in the dogwood and flew up into a bare Honey Locust tree. This allowed me to get a few more photos of its smudged underside markings against the brilliant blue clear winter sky New Mexico is famous for. And also to get a better profile photo of its unique curved beak. 

The Sage Thrasher is sometimes confused with the much larger Curve-billed Thrasher, which also visits Aldea occasionally as I have seen them in our yard also. But I find that in low light conditions the Sage Thrasher and the Townsend’s Solitaire look very similar since they both have white or light eye-rings. Both were in our Aldea yard at the same time recently. These birds can be in our area year-round, but I have not seen them during the summer.

Click on photos to enlarge. Photos taken December 2016 in Aldea de Santa Fe yard.

Broad-billed Hummingbird, December 2016

This juvenile female Broad-billed Hummingbird continued to appear in several Aldea yards in early December 2016. It was way out of its range to begin with and also very late in migrating south to Mexico proper. As noted in an earlier blog post Broad-billed Hummingbirds’ range places them only in the extreme southeastern parts of New Mexico.

These photos were taken the first week of December 2016. After December 2 this wayward bird was no longer seen. Hopefully it finally headed south.

An expert on Hummingbird behavior, Sheri Williamson from the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, says “the good news is that hummingbirds are much tougher and more adaptable than most people realize. Rufous Hummingbirds have survived nights down to -5 degrees F. in the Northeast, and overwintering Broad-billeds in our neighborhood (5000’, USDA Zone 8b) have survived overnight lows of 11, 9, and 0 degrees during brutal cold snaps in 2011 and 2013. Broad-billeds don’t have a very strong migration instinct to begin with, and they are expanding their year-round range northward. This comes with significant risks, especially as climate change makes weather more erratic, and some of the “pioneers” simply aren’t destined to survive.”

The photos below are included in this blog post for the record. 

Click on photos to enlarge. Photos taken December 2016 in Aldea de Santa Fe yard. Used with permission and copyright © 2016 Mouser Williams.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Pinyon Jay

This was an unexpected Thanksgiving Day treat. A group of 12 regal Pinyon Jays spied the fresh (mostly ground peanuts) suet cylinder that I had hung on a bare tree in our Aldea front yard within the last few days. The group descended on and clamored for dominance of the cylinder. Kind of like a frenzied game of King of the Mountain. I was surprised that they went after the suet so diligently, devouring quite a bit during a single one-hour session. I have had these type of no-melt suet cylinders in the backyard, but the jays never went near them. I had placed the cylinders out for the sparrows, finches, and towhees.

I had not seen any Pinyon Jays in our yard for well over a year. They used to occasionally perch at the top of the juniper trees infrequently throughout a typical year, but at least I would see them. I have a hunch that the construction of the new assisted living facility disturbed some of the resident Pinyon Jay population and they relocated to the lower-back part of Aldea where the tennis courts are. I am seeing larger flocks of up to 100 flying up and down Frijoles Arroyo now and I hear them out near the tennis courts. 

The Pinyon Jay is considered very vulnerable and its numbers have dramatically decreased in New Mexico and the US since its supporting habitat of pinyon-juniper woodlands is in decline. Aldea is lucky to have them in our midst and we need to do everything we can to help this beautiful and unique character of bird species survive and flourish.

I think that their elegant coloration, a beautiful suite of blues and grays, is stunning. I am elevated when I observe a Pinyon Jay in the right light. Some of the photos I was able to capture display its beauty well. It is rich and regal along with being dark and mysterious. These birds project such intelligence and exhibit a strong community dynamic that is so enjoyable to watch. They were using their very unique and strong black bills to great advantage in spearing the suet and then whisking chunks of their prize off across the street to devour in the inner seclusion of several larger Juniper trees.

Their diet mainly consists of nuts, pine seeds, grass seeds, berries, insects and the young of small birds. They forage in the 3,000 to 8,000 foot range in the pinyon-juniper forest areas of New Mexico and adjacent states. Pinyon Jays store seeds in the fall to eat in the winter and early spring. They have excellent memories and have been know to hide seeds under the cover of snow. Mated pairs appear to coordinate their food caching so that the locations are know to each other. They live in larger flocks of up to 500 and spend their entire lives in the flock into which they are born.

A group of jays are known as a “band”, “cast”, “party”, or “scold”.  A “party of jays” was apt for this group I so enjoyed watching and photographing.

Click on photos to enlarge. Photos taken November 2016 in Aldea de Santa Fe yard.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Broad-billed Hummingbird

This is a great occasion as this is a rare bird sighting for New Mexico! This juvenile female Broad-billed Hummingbird has been visiting an Aldea resident’s yard for the past two weeks. It is important to note that it is attracted to specific flowers and not a hummingbird feeder. Range maps show that the only place in New Mexico where a Broad-billed could possibly be found was in extreme southwest part of the state and only during migration. Maybe migration patterns are changing and this species is moving slightly north?

The plants it was visiting are Raspberry Delight Hybrid Bush Sage, Salvia Raspberry Delight, and Black and Blue Salvia, among others. Note: I will be planting these plants in my yard next year and encourage other Aldea residents to also plant them.

The only other authenticated sighting was mid-November 2012 in Eldorado. Both that sighting and this one here in Aldea have been confirmed by members for eBird since it is so rare and the sighting really needed to be authenticated by more than a few people. So... this is official! 

I am delighted to post photos taken here in the Aldea yard of the sighting. Shout out to the advanced Aldea birders for being such vigilant observers and downright enthusiastic birders!

Of note — on cold nights hummingbirds can slow down their heart rates and metabolism to enter a temporary state of hibernation called torpor. This allows the hummingbird to save precious energy demanded by its high rate of metabolism. It is also interesting to note that early ornithologists assumed hummingbirds were too small to fly long distances and it was thought they rode on the backs of geese and other large birds. It is now well-documented that some hummingbirds cross the Gulf of Mexico to migrate without stopping.

Destruction of habitat in South America is threatening hummingbirds and some species are now in the vulnerable and endangered status categories.

A group of hummingbirds are known as a “bouquet”, “glittering”, “hover”, “shimmer” or “tune”.

Click on photos to enlarge.
Photo 1: Courtesy of and copyright by Bernard Foy
Photos 2, 3, 4 : Courtesy of and copyright by Jonathan Batkin

Hermit Thrush

This Hermit Thrush is the first one I have seen in our Aldea backyard in two years of living here. I had been hearing a new bird in the yard and adjacent areas in the last week or so and was curious what it could be. I think this may have been it based on studying its calls using the iBird Pro app.

I made the identification as the Hermit Thrush as it has smudged spots on its breast and its back and tail areas are a muted reddish-orange, along with having a rich brown head and upper back. The distinct markings set the Hermit Thrush apart from similar species such as the Swainson’s Thrush, which we can also have in Aldea during migratory periods of the year. I have not seen a Swainson’s in Aldea yet.

The Hermit Thrushes eyes, with a pale eye ring, are almost piercing as they stare right into your soul it seems. I tend to have a soft spot for these shy, sweet birds as they mostly show up alone (and lonely!) as they did in our San Francisco backyard. Upon further research, however, there are estimated to be over 56 million of these thrushes globally. So, not so lonely. They are very inconspicuous and show up at odd times when the yard is calm and lacking any other birds or chatter has been my observation. 

The seasonal ranges for the Hermit Thrush all intersect in this part of New Mexico so it could be here almost anytime of the year. Woodlands and forests are a favorite habitat during migration so this one could have been traveling on through to prime winter habit in the southern part of New Mexico and further south to Mexico and below the equator.

Hermit Thrushes scurry and forage on the ground through leaf litter spearing insects with their bills. So I was not surprised to see it this one on the ground near a shallow water source in our yard.

A group of thrushes are known as a “hermitage” or “mutation” of thrushes.

Clink on photos to enlarge.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Lincoln's Sparrow

This Lincoln’s Sparrow was in our Aldea yard over the last week or so. It was scurrying under bushes, flowers, and native grasses looking for seeds and insects in typical sparrow fashion. I finally managed to get some close ups of this beautiful sparrow just by luck recently.

Generally they are not common here and they migrate on through the Santa Fe area on the way to Mexico and winter destinations further south. Their summer breeding range extends up into almost all of Canada and Alaska. Although they can also be found during summer in the Rockies and extreme northern New Mexico. They can winter along the west coast of the U.S.

I actually had a difficult time identifying what sparrow this was and then I heard from other Aldea community members they have seen them here recently too. The bird was named by Audubon after his friend, Thomas Lincoln. Lincoln shot the bird on a trip to Nova Scotia with Audubon in 1834. Audubon named it in Tom’s honor.

They are a very secretive bird and they are often not seen or heard even where they are common. I feel lucky to have snapped a few close-ups of this one. 

Lincoln’s Sparrows are monogamous solitary nesters. They are a medium-sized sparrow with dark-streaked, pale brown, light buff-orange underparts and white further underparts with dark streaks. The head had a brown crown with a gray central stripe and a pale eye-ring. There is a brown streak extending behind the eye. Upper mandible is dark and lower mandible is orange-brown. Sexes are similar. 

Click on photos to enlarge. 

Common Raven

Finally, a Common Raven landed in one of the fall-colored Honey Locust trees in our Aldea front yard. It was really making a racket and was interested in something on the ground that also had other birds creating a fuss. I heard it and grabbed my camera as it was so close to the house and close to where I was sitting.

It is rare to catch this stunning black bird in perfect light with blue sky in the background. We also have American Crows in Aldea but this is a Common Raven. You can tell by the large size of the bird and also by the very large, long beak. Also a giveaway was the fact that the bird was alone. Crows tend to be in groups and make the typical “caw-caw” calls. Also, Common Ravens have longer wedge-shaped tails with longer middle tail feathers than American Crows.

Ravens emit lower chattering and clicking sounds. Ravens are omnivores and feed on carrion, insects, human food waste, grains, berries, fruit, and small animals. I have seen them take out rats. Ravens are smart birds and are known for their problem-solving skills. They are acrobatic flyers and have even been observed flying upside down for as far as a mile. In many cultures the raven is viewed as a symbol of wisdom, fertility, and creation.

A group of ravens is know as a “bazaar”, “constable”, “rant”, “storytelling” (my personal favorite), and an “unkindness” of ravens.

Click on photos to enlarge.