Saturday, July 19, 2003

July 19, 2003
This is now officially Quail City! There is yet another quail family in the back yard--this time with five babies, slightly larger than thimbles--maybe the size of demitasse cups. I saw them when I went out to change the hummer feeders this morning. I moved very gently and quickly so the mom wouldn’t abandon them, then watched them through the window while they fed under the suet feeder. Even as tiny as they are, they use their legs to kick away the top layer of whatever they are feeding on, to expose the bottom layer of yummy stuff.

I’ve kind of lost track of how many quail families I’ve seen this year--and this is the first year I have ever seen babies in the yard. The teenagers from the one- and three- chick families still feed here with their parents; they are about 2/3 adult size now.

Where do they all come from? How do they know to come to my yard? Have any of them had nests in my yard, say under the vines along the north side of the house? Mysteries

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

July 16, 2003
There’s not much going on these days. The fire is out and the monsoons are trying to get started. There have been a few very windy monsoons, only one of which also held rain. It’s good that the birds pretty much finish their nesting before monsoon, because the winds have been awful, and the ground would have been littered with broken eggs and lost babies.

Speaking of babies… the squirrel child has a companion of about the same age. I’m just going to assume they are both the orphans of the poor squirrel that was run over. The new young squirrel seems much more skittish than the first, which will stay in the yard near the exit hole even when I come outside. The new one, however, has figured out about the grapefruit slices and I’m sure it won’t be long till it teaches the first squirrel.

It is 109 degrees this afternoon. Very uncomfortable. Wasps have been hanging around the door to enjoy the cool air blowing out in the exhaust from the cooler. The quail family with five chicks has been feeding under the tangelo tree for quite a while. The babies are definitely teenagers now, and though they still have “Mohawks,” you can see they have developed tiny topknots, which I like to think of as fishing lures. All the birds, including the quail, are making good and frequent use of the pond, to drink or splash in. I’m so glad that I have it here.

Monday, July 14, 2003

July 9, 2003
Just a couple of baby bird notes today. First, I saw a cactus wren bullying a very young bird of some sort--I think it was a sparrow. It was chasing it and pecking at it while the baby tried to get away. As the young one couldn’t fly it wasn’t very successful. So I played god and went outside and chased all the birds away. I don’t know where the baby went--haven’t seen it since.

Then, a few minutes ago, mid-afternoon, I saw a quail family under the suet feeder. Mama, Papa, and three fluffy thimbles. Probably the family I frightened the other evening. I wish there had been more babies. I don’t know if they started out with six-plus and three were lost in the yard, or if these are the three I saw and Mama and Papa came back to rescue them the next morning. I never WILL know, of course, so I’m going to try to convince myself that these guys are the babies I saw the other evening.

The young squirrel has spent most of the day in the backyard eating suet droppings and enjoying the shade. He hasn’t yet figured out about the grapefruit slices.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Latest on the quail is that the three babies are still with their parents but very grown-up looking and acting. They still have Mohawks but are quite recognizable as quail, and know to keep foraging as their parents stand up on the wall looking down with seeming pride.

Yesterday I briefly saw a hooded oriole at the woodpecker feeder. It was scared off by a woodpecker. I wonder if it is a refugee from the fire, which I haven’t mentioned so far.

The Aspen Fire has been burning for over three weeks in the Catalinas. It has destroyed the village of Summerhaven on top of Mt. Lemmon, and presumably whatever trails remained after last year’s disastrous Bullock fire wiped out the Butterfly trail, my favorite in the Catalinas. After they thought they had the Aspen fire under control we got several very hot and very windy days in a row, and it re-flared and is now destroying just about everything that was left. The whole area between Mt. Lemmon and the public part of Sabino is apparently gone. All those trees, all that habitat. When I look up at the mountains I feel sick. The whole valley is covered in a shroud of grey smoke, and the sun is blood-red in the middle of the day.

Things are a little better today. The Catalinas are still hidden in smoke, but you can’t smell it so strongly now. Up until last night, when you went outside at night all of the ridges in nearly the entire front range were highlighted with bright fire. It was eerie.

Two days ago I saw a new squirrel in the yard--a tiny one that I think may be the baby of the one that was run over. I can’t bring myself to chase it away, though I know it will be devouring the bird food and eventually be a danger to the birds. But it’s just trying to make a living like everyone else.

The latest on the quail: the one- and three-baby quail families are still around, as are at least one childless couple. Last evening as I went out to scatter sunflower seeds I heard quail clucking and making alarm cries, but didn’t think too much about it till I saw three little fluffy thimbles scatter in the back patio. Yep. More babies. I quickly finished my errands and went in, but by then it was too late. The parents were gone. I watched from the back patio as the poor little guys ran around looking for their family. They repeatedly came to the patio door and jumped up on the glass, trying to get in I suppose. The cats of course were going berserk. Toward dark Papa quail showed up and led the babies to the back wall, then flew up on it, apparently expecting them to join him. Of course they were way too young to even jump, let alone fly. The last time I saw them they were still running up and down along the east wall.

No sign of them this morning. Either they perished during the night (most probable, I fear), or the parents came back early and collected them.

Tuesday, July 08, 2003

June 23, 2003

After mourning the eight fluffy baby quail, late yesterday afternoon I saw another quail family, this time with 6-8 babies a bit younger than the two (then one) I had seen the day before. I believe these guys are the ones I saw as feathered thimbles a couple of weeks ago.

I went outside to get a closer look and scared them all, so went back in and watched through the window as Mrs. Quail ushered them through the small drainage hole in the side wall. It is very clear that these guys can’t fly at all yet. Unfortunately, two of the babies didn’t go through the hole. I went out beyond the wall, but no sign of the quail family. The babies continued to wander frantically around the yard, looking for their parents, for quite a while. By early evening I didn’t see them anymore, nor did I see them yet today. I hope that the parents came back for them, but there are so many perils for a tiny baby quail I don’t have a lot of confidence that’s what happened.

Later in the afternoon I watched the seed feeder for a while. One of the juvenile cardinals was into flexing his dominance muscles, driving away everything in sight. He repeatedly chased away a baby finch, which bravely continued to try to pick up his seed droppings. He also drove off the other young cardinals, and then tried to drive away a towhee. The towhee was having none of it and thrashed him.

June 24, 2003
No more sight of the large quail family, but the mom and dad with one remaining baby have been by several times. The baby sticks close to them but seems well on the way to adulthood.

This morning very early before our walk, I heard an odd rasping sound from out front. I looked out the door to see, in the street, two mockingbirds facing off in the kind of dance they do when disputing territory. A moment later a white-winged dove jumped on both of them. Everyone flew away, then regrouped, and the dispute between the mockingbirds continued. The white-wing jumped in again, and seemed to be beating up on the mockers--all I could see on the curb was a huge rotating ball of gray and white feathers. Then a third mockingbird approached, and once again, everyone flew off.

I’m assuming the two disputants were males, vying for the attentions of the third mockingbird, a presumed female. But what in the world was the white-wing up to?

6/25--Okay, now I’m really confused. There is a quail family of a mom and three chicks feeding in the gravel under the suet feeder right now. First I saw only the female, then a baby standing next to Daddy on the wall. The baby flew down, then another appeared and took a little longer to fly down. A moment later, another baby appeared next to the male. I guess it took this one a little while to get the nerve to fly UP to the wall in the first place. This one took even longer to decide to fly down. It walked along the wall back and forth. You could see it thinking, “It’s so far down! Isn’t there an easier way?” Finally it took the plunge, flapped, and fluttered to the ground. The male is still standing on the wall, several minutes later. At first I thought he was waiting for more babies to fly up, but maybe he’s just standing guard.

If this is the family from the other day, they’re now down to three. But maybe it’s a whole other quail family. Whatever, I’m happy to see them feeding here. I love to think I’m helping to make these guys’ lives easier, considering how much habitat is being destroyed as infill continues to “improve” the neighborhood.

Leaving the yard, two of the babies managed to fly up to the wall after first flying up on the redwood planter. One guy just couldn’t make it, though. He looked up, and up, tried different approaches, but was able to flutter only within inches of the top of the wall. Finally, as his family was leaving to the east along the wall he flew up into the grapefruit tree. I don’t know if he made it--couldn’t see--but probably hopping branch to branch he should be able to. (The tree is misshapen, and has many low branches close to the ground.)

So far this morning I have seen two quail families, one with one chick, another with two. Is the one with two the same family that had three chicks as late as yesterday? There is no way to know and it drives me crazy!

Lots of other baby birds around today. The cardinals are everywhere, and the juvenile woodpecker is very active. He looks like an adult except his breast feathers are grayer (rather than the sandy-tan of adults) and he’s smaller (very evident when seeing him on the suet feeder with an adult on the other side). He also has an extremely skinny neck. The reason I refer to him as “he” is that when I’ve seen the top of his head it has appeared that little pinkish feathers are growing in, presumably the beginnings of the red cap the males wear.

Well, this morning the three-baby-quail family was feeding under the suet feeder, so maybe I have three families? One with three, one with two, and one with one?

The biggest and saddest nature news is that yesterday morning somebody ran over the squirrel, right in front of our house! How could they not see a squirrel in the street? How fast were they going? (We’re just after the big speed bump.) He was totally flattened, and probably didn’t feel a thing, but I still feel sad. Judging from the completely emptied grapefruit rinds, though, he had a nice last meal.

Saw the three-quail family yesterday; also several lone male quails. Are the family groups breaking up? If so, will they all get together at some point in a flock or covey or whatever?

Worst nature note of the year so far: we put the squirrel’s body in the garbage can Sunday, since it was being picked up Monday morning. BIG MISTAKE. The odor by the time they picked up, around noon yesterday, was overwhelming. I poured a bunch of bleach in the container and left it open to the sun, but the stench is still amazing. I should have remembered--this happened in the past with a dead dove and also a dead snake. It’s 105 degrees around here in the shade, after all.

Saturday, July 05, 2003


Saturday (two days ago) we went up Tumamoc again. On the way down saw a small javelina family, including a baby that was adorable, considering it looked like a big hairy pig. I tried to get closer, but the father gave me a dirty look and moved toward me, so I kept going. It’s amazing how funky javelinas smell--very musky and sort of like pond water.

Today I'm watching birds out in the yard after throwing out egg yolks. It's a hot day, and the suet feeder is empty, so it took a while, but the birds came flocking. One of the baby cardinals ate quite a bit of yolk, and so did a bunch of sparrows, and then a pair of mourning doves flew down. The female picked up some straw and flew off, but the male (I presume) stayed and scared off everybody else, including a much-larger white-winged dove. Eventually, the white-wing figured out it was bigger and muscled in. The two doves went at it back and forth for a while, mostly just shoving each other, occasionally bumping chests like basketball players.

A woodpecker actually just scared off the mourning dove with a threatening beak display. Then a thrasher came along and scared off the woodpecker. The white winged dove, meanwhile, had started harassing the mourning dove. Is chasing him around the yard. The woodpecker and thrasher are also still scrapping. And while they do all this, the sparrows dart in and grab big, choice pieces of yolk and fly off with it.

There's no yolk left--just a bunch of disgruntled birds. Guess I should go refill the suet feeder and slice some grapefruit.

June 9
The two baby cardinals have been mostly living in my back yard this whole spring (now summer). They know how to use the suet droppings, egg yolk, citrus slices, seed bin, and pond. It's the first year that the cardinals have managed to raise their own species--the last two years they brought baby cowbirds around (ugh!). These are I think a male and a female, and they are always together, often with their father.

They still seem to be having trouble with the sunflower seeds. (I watched one of them yesterday evening try over and over again to extract food from empty shells. Another spent a good bit of time trying for some reason to eat an oleander blossom.)

The main thing is they are so CUTE! Their little topknots are always slightly disheveled, and they seem to be so interested and curious about everything. They have both learned the cardinal call note, but as soon as Daddy comes around they revert to the whistling-tea-kettle baby begging cry, and go into full, fluttery begging mode. Daddy usually goes along with it, but I know one day soon he'll start ignoring them, and then there will be an ever sadder day when he will chase them away.

I haven't seen much of Mama, and assume she is busy incubating a new family. It puts a smile on my face every day when I see one or both of them.

Today I went out to change the back hummer feeder and saw what appeared to be a LOT of very small sparrows on the gravel. But instead of flying away, they scattered as if in a breeze, and I realized it was a whole family of very young quail! The really little ones look like feathered thimbles, and move like dandelion fluff. I counted eight, but it could have been more, or fewer.

Mom and Dad were very disturbed. I did my chore as quickly as I could, then watched enthralled out the window as much as I could. I've spotted them off and on all day--they moved around the yard quite a bit, as if looking for a place to get out. I wonder if they were hatched here? I'll look for them tomorrow.

Well, this week the adult cardinals finally rejected the babies. At first just sort of ignored them, then started chasing them away. Then, the larger and redder of the babies, which I think is a male, stopped sharing with his sister. No longer are they together, inseparable. But they are both still coming to the yard to feed on my various offerings, at least as of yesterday evening.

June 18
Lots of wildlife and other nature stuff up on Tumamoc the other day! First, we were there really early, about 6:15 AM. There was an awful veil of schmutz over the whole valley--you couldn’t see the mountains, even the Tucson Mountains! But: I spied two roadrunners, one going up one going down. The one on the way up scurried across the road carrying a dead lizard in its beak. The lizard, quite a large one, displayed a beautiful, startlingly vibrant iridescent blue neck.

At the top, I heard and maybe saw a canyon wren. And on the way down was knocked out by the beauty of all the white wing doves on top of green saguaros, eating the bright red fruit against the blue(ish) sky.

June 21
Longest day of the year!
Yesterday afternoon I discovered an amazing thing: instead of two baby cardinals, I have three--and they're all at least teenagers. I think it's two males and a female. The female is the littlest, least red. They were all three out by the seed feeder chasing each other away. My best guess is that the third juvenile came from somewhere else and stumbled on the yard.

Then, a few minutes later, I heard something odd in the front and looked out to see a female quail and two babies in the street. I assume it's the same female who had eight babies in my backyard a couple of weeks ago. The babies are much bigger now. They're grey and brown speckled, with large bodies and brown mohawks, ending in tiny little sprouts that will be topknots above their foreheads. Sort of ugly but very cute. And very good protective coloration.

It's so sad--six babies lost. But I've seen the whole family, including Dad, out in the backyard twice today, under the suet feeder. The babies seem to be good at foraging suet droppings. The mom and dad stay very close to them.

Mom and dad just decided to take off, and flew up onto the wall. One of the babies followed right away, though seemed to be as bad at and uninterested in flying as an adult. The second baby looked up at his family, then wandered by the wall looking for an easy way up. He hopped up on the redwood planter, but still seemed reluctant to fly so far. Mom walked around above him, clucking encouragement, and he finally jumped and flapped his little wings as hard as he could and made it to the top of the wall.

I also saw a butterfly sucking grapefruit juice from the grapefruit slices this morning, but it kept flying off because birds pre-empted it. And I see this afternoon that the squirrel has been in the yard and sucked the grapefruits dry.

Wednesday, July 02, 2003

I am lucky to live in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. We have hot, long summers, mild winters, and very little rain. Our beautiful desert is dotted with “sky islands,” mountain ranges of up to 10,000 feet that provide very different habitats, from juniper/brush/grasslands to mixed conifer old-growth forests. We get lots of different birds here, including a number of migrants that pass through on their way to Mexico and Central America.

My tiny townhouse yard, located in north-central Tucson about a half mile from the Rillito river*, is a bird magnet. From the thick tangelo tree in the center of the yard I have hung a suet feeder; the grapefruit tree next to the tangelo overhangs a small pond with waterfall (the pond is about the size of a shallow bathtub). A planter on the back patio holds striped sunflower seeds, which I put out once a day, and I also slice citrus in season on top of an old, upended wooden planter. I have five hummingbird feeders: two in the front patio, two in the back, and one just outside my office window. One of the back feeders is a large oriole feeder to keep the woodpeckers from dismantling the smaller hummer feeders. It also sometimes attracts orioles.

I can see most of the yard from my office, where I spend much of the day (I work at home). I see the pond and back patio from my bedroom, where I also sometimes work, and the front patio from my kitchen and living room. The front patio is full of potted flowering plants, and I have three roses growing in the front of the yard (there is no room for more!).

When I first moved here, thirteen years ago, I didn’t know one bird from another. Now I know many by species, and fancy that I know some individually. I get great satisfaction from watching the continual avian soap opera, and want to share it with anyone else who might be interested.

*Note on the Rillito: it is dry most of the year; in fact, it only flows after several days of heavy rain. I like to tell visitors from the east that we really appreciate our rivers out here. Unlike people in other parts of the country, we don’t cover them up with water.

Brief nature note: a pair of mockingbirds have been feeding at the suet feeder. I just saw HIM feed HER, the way the cardinals do. At least I assume the him and her part of it.

4/10 This morning I saw the first black-chinned hummingbird male of the season; this evening I saw a parent towhee feeding two babies out at the sunflower seed feeder.

4/19 There've been lots and lots of baby birds. Baby sparrows down in back yard, baby towhees being fed by parents, two huge baby thrashers also being fed. (They look quite a lot like the parents, but are lighter in color and have grey eyes, rather than the gold of the adults.) I’ve seen no baby cardinals yet, however. Not for a couple of years, actually. The last two years the only babies the adult cardinals brought around were cowbirds.

Today I noticed that quail are dominant over thrashers. They also like tangelos.

4/26 Saw a phaenopepla in the tree by the mailbox today. They are beautiful black birds, around the size and shape of a cardinal, also with a crest. I used to see them a lot in Sabino Canyon, but as I told a friend the other day, I never see them down here. They're snooty, foothills-types of birds. In the spring, you’ll see them in canyons and along highways, where every telephone pole and saguaro top is a stool at the phaenopepla singles bar. Periodically the male phaenopeplas fly around to show off their sexy white wing bars, which are otherwise hidden.

This evening I saw a male Gambel’s quail delicately drink from the pond. Great protective coloration in the waning day--looked like a beautiful smooth gray rock; his dark head like a shadow.

5/19 I've been hearing baby cardinals (they sound quite a lot like whistling teakettles) and catching glimpses. Today, finally, I am watching an adult male with TWO babies, feeding at the tangelo station, and also flying over to the seeds and returning to stuff them in his babies' mouths. (Baby cardinals are SO ADORABLE! They are grey all over, with pinkish underwings and grey beaks. As they get older, more and more pink and red begins to show. I don’t know how old they are before their beaks turn orange. Their little crests always look somewhat disheveled, and they have a wide-eyed, innocent look that is irresistible.)

Also, the male sparrow whose family lives in a tiny wooden bird house someone gave me has been doing his best to hover as he feeds the voracious open mouth of at least one baby, who sticks his head out the hole, blocking entry.