Archive for the 'Travel' Category

Sep 18 2015

Like Plunging Arrows

Here’s a bird I see in Maine that we’ll never see in Pittsburgh.

Northern gannets (Sula bassana) nest in cliff colonies on both sides of the North Atlantic.  In the fall the Canadian population visits the Gulf of Maine on their way south for the winter.  The adults will spend October to April off the U.S. Atlantic coast while the juveniles may winter as far south as the Gulf coast.

Gannets are large seabirds (6.5 foot wingspan) that catch fish by plunge-diving from 30 to 130 feet above the sea.  When the fishing is good a huge flock gathers overhead, diving over and over again.  The video shows their amazing fishing technique, both in the air and underwater.

And, yes, these birds are moving fast.  They hit the water’s surface at 60 to 75 miles an hour!  Gannets can do this safely because they have no external nostrils and their faces and chests have air sacs that cushion their brains and bodies like bubble wrap.

Watch them plunge like arrows into the sea.


(video from the Smithsonian Channel on YouTube)

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Sep 16 2015

Which Weasel?

Published by under Mammals,Travel

A stoat or short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Short-tailed weasel, Mustela erminea (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

“Best Mammal” on my trip to Maine was an animal with three or four names but I don’t know which ones until I identify him — and that’s mighty hard to do, even for professionals.

While puttering around the South Lubec sand flats looking for shorebirds, I noticed animal prints in the damp sand.  They were almost the size of cat prints but the toes showed claws and the prints weren’t using direct register (hind prints stepping into front prints).  They looked sort of like this:

I guessed weasel but not necessarily the short-tailed weasel illustrated here. It may have been a long-tailed weasel.  (Click here to see his prints.)

On my way out I saw a weasel cross the dirt track ahead of me and disappear into tall weeds.  He was a long russet-colored mammal about the size of a red squirrel with short round ears, stubby legs, and a long black-tipped tail. His tail was at least as long as his body.

“Size of red squirrel” says short-tailed weasel.  “Long-as-body tail” says long-tailed weasel, shown below(*).

Long-tailed weasel (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Long-tailed weasel, Mustela frenata (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

With such a short glimpse I can identify him generally but not specifically. His genus is weasel (Mustela), his species is either short-tailed (Mustela erminea) or long-tailed (Mustela frenata).  The two are notoriously hard to tell apart.  I’ll never know for sure.

No matter what he is he will soon shed his brown fur and turn white to match the winter landscape. If he’s a short-tailed weasel (erminea) you’ll recognize him as the ermine or stoat that’s native to Eurasia and North America.  His long-tailed North American cousin is just larger.

I’d like to see this weasel in his winter clothes but I’m not going to Maine in winter to find him. 😉


(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Weasel tracks linked from U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.  Click on the image to see the original)

(* I didn’t take his picture — these photos are from Wikimedia Commons — so I had to rely on my memory.  Luckily least weasels don’t live in Maine so that narrows it to 2 possibilities.)

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Aug 08 2015

Why Arizona in Early August?

Published by under Travel

End of the road? The southern end of the Huachuca mountains heading toward Mexico (photo by Kate St. John)

The landscape is green from the monsoon rain. South end of the Huachucas, 2 August 2015 (photo by Kate St. John)

To a Pennsylvanian it’s counter intuitive that birding is excellent in southeastern Arizona in early August.  It’s hot — especially at the lower elevations (104oF in Tuscon last Monday) — but the birds are active because it’s the breeding season.  Breeding?  Here’s why.

From late June through September, it’s so hot that rising desert air creates a low pressure zone that sucks in moisture from the south, primarily from the Gulf of California in western Mexico.  When the moist air hits Arizona’s sky island mountains it condenses into clouds, isolated thunderstorms, and rain.  This annual weather pattern is called the monsoon.

The moisture doesn’t have to travel far. This mountain in Mexico, called Sierra San Jose, is easily visible from Sierra Vista, Arizona, headquarters of the Southwest Wings Festival.

Sierra San Jose in Mexico, seen in the distance (photo by Kate St. John)

“I can see Mexico from my front porch.”  Sierra San Jose peak as seen from Sierra Vista, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

While I was at the Festival it thundered every afternoon at 3:00pm and rained somewhere by 4:00pm.  “Somewhere” means you can see it raining in the distance but you often don’t get wet.  The downpours are intense but you can drive in and out of them, sometimes within a mile.  However, watch out for flash floods!

The rain brings cooler temperatures, green leaves and, I quickly learned, bugs.  (Don’t ask me about chiggers.)

Bugs are food for baby birds so the monsoon is a second Spring when the birds court, sing and nest. That’s why the Southwest Wings summer festival is held in early August.

I had a great time!  The festival offers free seminars and one-day or two-day paid outings with guides.  I chose the day-long outings where we hiked in morning, ate lunch in the shade, and watched hummingbirds at feeders in afternoon.  In this way I visited Madera, Box, Ash, Miller and Huachuca Canyons, the Sonoita grasslands, and Patagonia.

The guides were excellent!  I saw 139 species and 33 Life Birds during my time in Arizona, and that wasn’t my first trip to the area.  Did I tell you I saw four elegant trogons?  Yes!

I highly recommend the Southwest Wings Birding and Nature Festival.  Southeastern Arizona is a lovely place in early August.

The Huachucas from AZ-92 (photo by Kate St. John)

The Huachucas from Arizona route 92 (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista (photo by Kate St. John)

Mountains to the northeast of Sierra Vista as seen from route 90 (photo by Kate St. John)

Looking toward Carr Canyon, Arizona (photo by Kate St. John)

Carr Peak (photo by Kate St. John)


(photos by Kate St. John)

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Aug 06 2015

Save Time: Reuse, Recycle

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at the nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Last week, Karyn Delaney reported a northern cardinal using an old robin’s nest outside her window and we joked in email that the mother took this shortcut because it’s so late in the breeding season.

Cardinals rarely reuse nests but some songbirds do.  On Monday Donna Memon and I found a Cordillean flycatcher at her(*) nest at the summit of Mount Lemmon.  Because her nestlings were too tiny to see and the nest edges and “launch pad” had fecal evidence of active fledglings, we surmised she was reusing the nest.

Birds of North America Online (BNA) reports that Cordillerans in the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona — the location of Mount Lemmon — build a “cup of moss, sometimes mixed with bark strips or rootlets, [and] lined with fine grass or rootlets.” Cordillerans often reuse nests, sometimes in the same location for 20 years.  Perhaps this nest has been recycled many times because it’s much sloppier than a simple cup.

In the next three photos the flycatcher feeds and watches her tiny nestlings but she has to hurry because …

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher feeding young, Mount Lemmon, AZ, 3 August 2015 (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

Cordilleran flycatcher at nest, Mount Lemmon, AZ (photo by Donna Memon)

… this is a late nesting.  Winter comes early to Mount Lemmon and Cordilleran migration begins in mid-August so she’ll have to hurry.

It looks like she’s already saved time by reusing the nest.


(*) A NOTE ABOUT “Cordilleran and “she”:  Empidonax flycatchers are notoriously hard to identify but the Cordilleran flycatcher is the Empid species that nests on the summit of Mount Lemmon, a sky island in southeastern Arizona.  The Cordilleran’s look-alike relative, the Pacific slope flycatcher, is a low elevation bird. Also, for convenience I’ve called this bird a “she” but the males help feed the nestlings so we may have been watching a “he.”  On the subject of “he/she” I am borrowing my husband’s Poetic License.  😉


(photos by Donna Memon)

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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


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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