Aug 05 2015

Smells Like Vanilla

Published by under Travel,Trees

Ponderosa pine: a look at the bark (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine bark — photo by Donna Memon

Did you know you can recognize this tree by the smell of its bark?

After the Southwest Wings Festival I visited with Donna and Razzak Memon in Tuscon, Arizona.  On Monday Donna and I went birding on top of Mount Lemmon, one of the few mountains named for a woman (Sara Plummer Lemmon).

The summit is 9,159 feet above sea level and 6,770 feet above Tucson so the air is thinner and cooler, a welcome change from the valley’s heat.  That day it was 72oF on the mountain, 104oF in the valley.  Because of the thin mountain air we learned something about this tree.  

Donna and I were heading downhill when a group of hikers paused near the tree to catch their breath and I overheard one of them say it smelled like vanilla.  On our way back up the thin air hit me at the same spot so I paused and sniffed the bark.  Yes, the bark smells like vanilla.

The Ponderosa pine (on Mount Lemmon*) is one of the few trees you can identify this way.  When the tree is young the bark is black, but when it reaches 100-120 years old it sheds the black and shows a yellow bark that smells like vanilla or butterscotch or baking cookies, depending your point of view.

The unusual bark is also a fire shield.  According to this NPR report, when fire hits the tree it flash-boils the sap and blows the bark off the tree, but the tree doesn’t burn.

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

Ponderosa pine on Mt Lemmon, Arizona (photo by Donna Memon)

In the top photo you can see some snags at left that died in a fire on the mountain.

But not this one.  Its vanilla-scented bark protects it.

 

p.s.  Here we are at the top of the mountain.  You can see Tucson in the valley below.

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

Kate St. John and Donna Memon at Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Razzak Memon)

(tree photos by Donna Memon; Kate & Donna photo by Razzak Memon; information about Ponderosas from this 2009 NPR article)

(*) In the comments below Nickie explains that in California Jeffrey pines smell like vanilla but Ponderosas do not. However the Jeffrey pine doesn’t grow in Arizona. In Arizona the Ponderosa (and/or the Arizona species/ subspecies) does.

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Aug 04 2015

Arizona’s Same But Different Birds

Published by under Travel

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Yellow-eyed junco (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When you travel west in North America you often encounter birds that are similar but different from those back home.  Here are three natives of Arizona and their eastern North America cousins.

Yellow-eyed junco vs. dark-eyed junco:

Did you ever wonder why our eastern juncos are called a “dark-eyed?”  Perhaps because there’s a yellow-eyed junco (Junco phaeonotus) in Arizona, pictured above.  Click here to see the dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis).

 

Bridled titmouse vs. tufted titmouse:

Bridled titmouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bridled titmouse (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The bridled titmouse (Baeolophus wollweberi) has a fancy face compared to his eastern cousin, the tufted titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor).  Click here to see the tufted titmouse.

 

Black-throated gray warbler vs. black-throated green warbler:

Black-throated gray warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Black-throated gray warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

These two warblers not only resemble each other but have very similar English names.   The black-throated gray warbler (Setophaga nigrescens) is common in southeastern Arizona. The black-throated green warbler (Setophaga virens) is the bird we see in Pennsylvania. Click here for a photo of the black-throated green.

And for you Bird-Code wonks:  These two would both be coded as “BTGW” but have been altered to BTYW (gray) and BTNW (green) to make them unique.

 

For more same-but-different Southwestern birds see this blog from December 2013 featuring Steve Valasek’s photos from New Mexico.

 

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Aug 03 2015

Yucca Specialist

Published by under Travel

Scott's Oriole (photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith via Wikimedia Commons)

Scott’s Oriole (photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith via Wikimedia Commons)

This yellow oriole breeds in the southwestern U.S. on desert foothills and dry mountain slopes because he’s picky about plants.  He prefers places with yuccas.

Scott’s oriole (Icterus parisorum) uses yuccas for food, shelter, nesting material and nesting sites.  Not only does he drink the nectar from yucca flowers but he looks for insects on the plants.

When it’s time to nest his lady prefers arboreal yuccas such as Joshua trees or this tall soaptree yucca but she’ll use desert palms, piñon pine or juniper if she has to.

Soaptree yucca (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Soaptree yucca (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

No matter where she places her nest, she uses yucca fibers to build it. According to Birds of North America Online, she “pulls at and strips off long, loose, stringlike fibers from edges of yucca leaves and weaves these together to form the main part of the nest.”  Fortunately there are lots of yucca species to choose from.

As with many other orioles, the female is not nearly as colorful as her mate. Click here to see what she looks like.

To find Scott’s oriole in the breeding season you have to be near yuccas.

 

p.s. I can’t resist telling you about their name:

The scientific name, Icterus parisorum, was coined by French naturalist Charles Lucien Bonaparte who used the species name “parisorum” to honor the Paris brothers who financed specimen collection trips in the Southwest in the 1820’s.  Decades later Darius Couch tried to rename the bird for his Mexican War commander, Gen. Winfield Scott, but he lost that battle and had to settle for the common name: Scott’s oriole. 

(photo of Scott’s oriole by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith via Wikimedia Commons. photo of soaptree yucca from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the images to see the originals)

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Aug 02 2015

Painted

Published by under Travel

Painted redstart (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Painted redstart (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Another warbler, but this one is real.

The painted redstart (Myioboris pictus) of the U.S. Southwest and Central America is a famous singer, unusual among warblers because both males and females sing and perform duets during courtship.

Black and red with white accents, he has a white spot below his eye that’s similar in shape and position to the eye-black that football players wear to reduce glare.  I wonder if it has the same function.

Though not closely related to the American redstart, he also has white edges on his tail and flairs them as his eastern namesake does.  But he’s not a redstart, he’s a “whitestart” with many Central and South American relatives in the Myioborus genus.

Redstart?  Whitestart?  What shall we call him?

He’s always “Painted.”

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Aug 01 2015

A Warbler That’s Not A Warbler … Or Is He?

Published by under Travel

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Olive warbler (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The olive warbler (Peucedramus taeniatus) was so hard to classify that he was removed from New World Warblers (Dendroica, now called Setophaga) in 1875 to a genus of his own.  This made him the only member of a genus found only in North and Central America.

The genus Peucedramus ranges from Arizona and New Mexico to Nicaragua, precisely where the olive warbler lives.

This level of uniqueness is troubling to biologists.  Every animal is descended from others so who were this bird’s ancestors?  Doesn’t he belong in some other group?

DNA testing confirmed that he’s not really a warbler but his characteristics are still hard enough to place that arguments continue.  He might be a finch or a sparrow or even an Old World Warbler (as are kinglets and gnatcatchers).

But he looks like a warbler and if you want to see him in the U.S. you have to visit where he lives.

Don’t look for him at Cornell Lab’s All About Birds website.  He’s not there!

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 31 2015

Slightly In Arizona

Published by under Travel

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Arizona Woodpecker (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Though he’s called the Arizona woodpecker this brown-and-white bird is slightly misnamed.  Most of his range is in Mexico.

He’s one of nine Picoides woodpeckers found in North America, each with its own special habitat.  Some of them are familiar and wide ranging.  Others have such specific needs that you must travel to see them.

Here’s how they’ve divided up the continent.  At least one of them lives near you.

  • Downy woodpecker: found in most of North America in open woodlands and along streams.
  • Hairy: found in most of North America in mature woodlands.
  • Ladder-backed: in desert and desert scrub among cactus in the Southwest.
  • Nuttall’s: in California’s oak woodlands.
  • Red-cockaded: found in mature longleaf pine forests in the southeastern U.S.;  endangered.
  • Black-backed: in Canada and northern U.S. in boreal and coniferous forests with burned trees.
  • White-headed: in pine forests in Pacific Northwest and California mountains.
  • American Three-toed: in the Rockies and Canada in boreal and coniferous forests disturbed by disease or fire.
  • Arizona: in pine-oak forests in the mountains of Mexico and southeastern Arizona.

Like his familiar Downy and Hairy relatives in Pennsylvania, this woodpecker visits suet feeders.  That’s where I saw him for the first time at Madera Canyon.

In Arizona.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

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Jul 30 2015

Magnificent!

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Magnificent hummingbird (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

If you want to see a really magnificent hummingbird in the U.S. the only place to find one is in the mountains of southeastern Arizona.

Magnificent isn’t just an adjective, it’s part of his name:  The Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens).

Arizona is the northern edge of his range which extends south to Panama.  According to Wikipedia you can find him “at the edges and clearings of oak forests from about 2000 m altitude [6,500 feet] up to the timberline.”  He’s listed as common at the Southwest Wings Festival.

Common, but not a common size.  He’s the second largest hummingbird north of Mexico and can be twice as big as a ruby-throated hummingbird.

And he’s uncommonly dark.  Though he has a tiny white patch behind his eye, both males and females look black until the light shines on their iridescent feathers.

When you see one of these hummingbirds, you hope for a splash of sunshine.

The photo above is one of those magnificent moments when a black bird flashes color and takes your breath away.

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the image to see the original)

p.s. I saw this Life Bird yesterday at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon.  His throat flashed bright green, much greener than this photo.  :-)

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Jul 29 2015

How Big Is An Elegant Trogon?

Published by under Songbirds,Travel

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Male Elegant Trogon (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Today I’m at the Southwest Wings Festival hoping to see the holy grail of Arizona birding: an elegant trogon (Trogon elegans).

In my imagination these birds are huge — the size of crows — but they’re really only as big as American robins.  Their bulky necks, long tails and upright posture make them look big in photographs. The male’s red breast and deep voice add to the illusion.

Elegant trogons range from southeastern Arizona through Mexico to Costa Rica where they live in deciduous forests and nest in natural cavities in sycamores or unused woodpecker holes.  They leave Arizona for the winter(*) but are still present in July … which is why I’m here.

If I’m lucky enough to see this Life Bird I’ll let you know if he “shrank” to his normal size.  😉

 

(photo from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the photo to see the original)

(*) I heard yesterday that because of warmer winters at least one pair of elegant trogons now stays in the area year-round.

p.s.  On July 31 in Huachuca Canyon I saw four elegant trogons.  Wow!

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Jul 28 2015

Are You Nuts?

Published by under Travel

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

High temperatures in Arizona, 26 July 2015 (image from NOAA National Weather Service)

When I tell people I’m going to Arizona in July I’m sure they wonder, “Are you nuts?”

Today I’m on my way to the Southwest Wings Festival, July 29 to August 1 in Sierra Vista, Arizona.  It’s one of the top 10 birding festivals in the U.S. and happens to be in one of the cooler places in the state.

“Cooler” in two ways:  cool birds and cooler temperatures than Phoenix.

The festival is held in the mountains of southeastern Arizona where it never gets as hot as Phoenix.  The arrow shows where it is.

The birds at this location are definitely cool.  The area is the northernmost range of many Central American mountain species and the only place in the U.S. where you can find them including 15 species of hummingbirds, the elegant trogon, the Arizona woodpecker, yellow-eyed juncoes and much, much more.

Many of the best birds are migratory so the festival is held in late July during southeastern Arizona’s “second spring” — the monsoon season.  I’m looking forward to a lot of new Life Birds and getting reacquainted with birds I saw the last time I was in Arizona in 1997.

Am I crazy?  Well, I’m the only one in the house who’s crazy enough to go to Minnesota in the winter and Arizona in the summer.  My non-birder husband is wisely staying home. 😉

 

(image from the National Weather Service)

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Jul 27 2015

Butterflies Taste With Their Feet

Published by under Insects, Fish, Frogs

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

We normally see butterflies visiting flowers but they also flit from leaf to leaf.

Adult butterflies are on a mission to reproduce.  Yes, they sip flower nectar along the way, but the males are looking for females and the females are looking for host plants on which to lay their eggs.  When the eggs hatch, the larvae will eat the host leaves and grow into ever-larger caterpillars.

Each species has one or more hosts for their larvae.  Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed leaves.  Red Admirals eat nettle.  Gulf Fritillaries eat passionflower vine.

Butterflies taste with their feet, so when the female is ready to lay an egg she flits from leaf to leaf landing on each one to taste it.  Standing there she asks herself, “Does this taste good?”  If so, she lays an egg.

Sometimes butterflies are fooled. To a West Virginia White butterfly (Pieris virginiensis) the invasive alien garlic mustard tastes like her host plant toothwort so she lays her eggs on garlic mustard and her hatchlings die of starvation.

Tastes can be pretty subtle, too.  Monica Miller (my go-to butterfly expert) told me that if a food plant touches a nearby leaf, that leaf might taste good enough to be mistaken by a butterfly.

Here, a female Gulf Fritillary lands on her host plant (tasting it) and a male comes to court her.

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary courtship on passion vine (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

And here’s her goal:  She laid an egg on the passion vine.

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

Gulf Fritillary butterfly egg on passion vine leaf (photo by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons)

 

Watch butterflies taste with their feet and you may see one lay an egg.

 

(photos by Edward Rooks via Wikimedia Commons. Click on each image to see its original)

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