I’m back in Arizona, one of my favorite places. Driving through Saguaro National Park, I just had to stop by the side of the road and take a few pictures (and admire the Gilded Flickers posing on a cactus).
The saguaros themselves are pretty amazing. They can grow to be 50-60 feet tall and weigh up to 6 tons. Saguaros are very slow-growing, and may only grow an inch total in their first 8 years of life. They are considered fully mature by the time they reach about 125 years old.
These sunny photos might give you the impression that it’s warm and toasty down here in southern Arizona. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s 99 degrees colder than the last time I visited the desert southwest. When I was here in July, the highest temperature I recorded was 116 F (near the CA/AZ border). Here’s the snapshot of my car’s thermometer from back in July reading 111 F after sunset:
And here’s what my car was reading this morning south of Tucson about half an hour after sunrise:
What a difference a few months make! Needless to say I am differently attired than when I last explored the canyons of Arizona. In fact, hiking up Florida Canyon this morning there was more than a dusting of snow on the ground.
Florida Canyon is one of the only places in the United States to see Rufous-capped Warblers. There are currently at least two individuals wintering there, making this warbler one of the rarest birds in the US. Ok, so they’re very rare in our country, but they are fairly common from Mexico down through all of Central America and even into Columbia. Three hours of hiking through the frozen canyon eventually produced excellent looks at this pair of warblers, and one decent photo.
In the afternoon I explored Madera Canyon (one canyon to the southwest from Florida Canyon). By this time it had warmed up to near freezing, and this White-nosed Coati was on the prowl looking for something good to eat to keep his energy up.
Normally Coatis are most active at night, venturing out during daylight hours perhaps only near dawn or dusk. But the cold weather must have encouraged this one (and his buddy, not pictured) to look for extra nutrition during the day.
Also trying to stay warm was this Rosy-faced Lovebird, perching in a mesquite tree near Phoenix. Lovebirds are native to the southwest – southwest Africa, that is! They were completely unknown in the Americas until the 20th Century. However at some point they were introduced to the US as pets. A few decades ago, some of them escaped in the Phoenix area, and a feral population has become established here.
Now, you can’t count your neighbor’s escaped parakeet as a wild bird. But non-native “exotic” species can become permanently established here (think House Sparrows, Starlings, and Rock Pigeons – aka pigeons in your local city park). And when escaped birds form long-lasting stable populations over the course of several decades (which could be dozens of generations of birds), they become countable.
I realize that I spend a lot of time blogging about very rare or unusual species. I think it’s natural to be drawn to the rare or special birds, and to spend time looking for them at the expense of the common critters in your back yard. Most people find a thrill in seeking novel ideas and experiences. But I thought I would close tonight with a shout out to a decidedly common, not-very-glamorous, but still handsome bird – the Ring-necked Duck. I saw this one in the same Phoenix park where the lovebirds where hanging out.
Yes, a much better name for this bird would be Ring-billed Duck. It does also have a ring around its neck, but it is very hard to see unless you are holding the duck in your hand. Don’t try this at home though, because ducks bite. Alas, the “ring-necked” name is a hold over from the days in which most ornithology was done with a shotgun instead of a pair of binoculars. Naturalists would “collect” a specimen, study it, describe it in a scholarly article, and name it. Because they studied it “in the hand,” these naturalists often gave birds names that refer to characteristics that are not so obvious to a more distant observer of actual live critters.