Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Cactus Wrens in the 'Hood

I love, love, love cactus wrens, which are not only the State Bird of Arizona, they are the largest wrens in North America.
Cactus wren on cholla 10-18-2010 8-14-04 AM 1108x908
Many visitors to the Park are astounded at how big they are (around 8-9 inches). “That’s a wren?” Cactus wrens are bold and sassy, seemingly not much afraid of humans. Their voices are loud and raucous, with many calls, ranging from a guttural croak that sounds like a car trying to start its engine to a nasal twang, as if the bird is tuning a loosely-strung banjo.
At Tohono Chul Park, cactus wrens can be found pretty much everywhere, from the desert trails to the many gardens to the riparian area. Often, they are squabbling or actively looking for something to eat. The references say that they  primarily eat insects and other invertebrates, with a soupcon of fruit and seeds. I’ve never seen a cactus wren eat seeds, but here’s a picture of one eating organ pipe cactus fruit on the Texas Trail in the Park. Cactus wren eating organ pipe fruit 10-18-2010 11-02-18 AM 2638x2504 I once watched a cactus wren pursue and overpower a medium-sized lizard, then grasp it in its beak and beat it to death. I saw similar behavior the other day on a bird walk, only in this case the hapless victim was a large green caterpillar, which the cactus wren swallowed in one gulp once it had been beaten into submission. I also  watched one peck a tarantula to death out on one of the Park’s desert trails. When I got closer to take a photo, the cactus wren grabbed his prize and moved it well away from the path, possibly assuming that I wanted to steal his breakfast.
Cactus wrens are well-known for the large (football-sized; roughly football-shaped), messy, enclosed  nests they build in cacti and sometimes trees. I once watched a cactus wren methodically break off the spines near the opening to a nest in a cholla. Presumably this was to prevent its babies from impaling themselves. They like to weave interesting and/or colorful found objects into the nest. I used to leave colored yarn for them in my former home. Here’s a great nest in a cholla at the Park that has been decorated with bits of facial tissue and either cellophane or Scotch tape.
Cactus wren nest 8-29-2011 7-54-56 AM 1884x1934 8-29-2011 7-54-56 AM 1884x1934

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cool Things at Tohono Chul Park the third week in August

The weather has been extremely humid and hot, but I’ve seen a number of really wonderful things at the Park during my last few visits. Every bird walk has resulted in at least one beautiful and sometimes unexpected bird. For example, a couple of days ago a visitor and I saw and heard a gorgeous curve-billed thrasher. She was new to birding, and was thrilled to see a bird she’d only heard about. On that same visit, we saw a huge gopher snake near the Desert Living Courtyard.
Gopher snake Tohono Chul Park 9-10-2010 8-13-50 AM 2792x842 9-10-2010 8-13-50 AM 2792x842  It was curlicued alongside the path, with its head just resting at the edge of a large rodent hole. It was so quiet at first I thought it might have been dead, but then I saw its tongue flick, as it smelled its breakfast-to-be.
On the way out of the Park, we saw a Greater Earless Lizard, the first I have seen in the Park. It was near the Overlook, and at first I thought it was just a large zebratail. It has actually lost its tail. Except for being tailless, it looks quite a bit like this beauty I photographed at Catalina State Park: Greater Earless Lizard 5-10-2011 9-49-53 AM 1216x891 The lizard at TCP is much brighter yellow. Quite a good-looking reptile. And speaking of yellow, on our bird walk Monday, my colleague Marcia and I saw a mystery flycatcher. I think it was a brown-crested, because of the size of its bill and the very yellow appearance of its belly, but it might have been an ash-throated. Those guys drive me crazy. Take a look. What do YOU think?
Possible brown-crested flycatcher 6-24-2010 8-55-32 AM 786x788

Tuesday, August 02, 2011


I’m very sorry to report that the whitewing dove’s nest, so lovingly built by the hardworking parents, is no more. When I got to the Park yesterday morning, I saw that the winds of the previous night had shredded it.
trashed nest 8-1-2011 9-55-51 AM 3616x2712 Then I looked down, below the nest, to see a sad sight:
                                                                              Splat 8-1-2011 9-51-32 AM 1888x2099
While I was photographing the broken eggs, the male dove arrived and did a double-take when he saw the nest (and his mate) were gone. He then sat on the crossbeam and began cooing, repeatedly, the saddest sound I’ve ever heard a bird make.
Sad dad 8-1-2011 9-56-07 AM 2070x934
White winged dove and nest
I hope they rebuild soon, in a safer spot.