Key to Life

Arizona Birding Series: Post #1

The desert is a dead place.   I suspect many people believe this. Harsh. Stark. Unforgiving.  These descriptions are more appropriate.   A desert is defined only by the amount of precipitation it receives.  Water is the key to life.  Nowhere is this more evident than the desert.

There are also many types of deserts.  Many people associate sand with deserts: sweeping sand dunes and camels.  This is not an American desert.  Much to the chagrin of school children across the country, the American West does not have camels. Nor are sand dunes much good for  sledding.

There are four deserts in the United States: all of which pass through Arizona. These are the Great Basin, the Mohave, the Sonoran, and the Chihuacuan. The Chihuacuan is a Mexican desert that just stretches north into the states.   The Great Basin begins near the Grand Canyon and progresses upwards to Idaho and Oregon.  Did you know there are deserts in Oregon?  Most people don’t realize this because they assume the Pacific Northwest is too cold and universally rainy.  In fact, the Cascade Mountain Range creates a rain shadow.  As the winds carry the air up, the airs cool, condensation forms, and the clouds release their moisture on the western slopes.  Crossing the caps of the Cascades, the moisture from the clouds is depleted, leaving parched lands to the east.  This is the Great Basin Desert.  Deserts can be very cold in the winter, at night, or even throughout the year.  Take Antarctica.  Yep, another desert.  This one a polar desert.

These deserts vary by temperature, by precipitation (combined we call this climate), by elevation, by botany.  Some deserts receive more precipitation than others. The Atacama Desert of Chile receives 0.04 inches annually while the Sonoran Desert averages  3 to 16 inches of rain a year.  Typically deserts receive less than 10 inches per year. Regarding botanical differences, cacti are only found in Western Hemisphere deserts.  There are no cacti in Africa. Apparently you can have camels, or cactus, but not both.   That’s evolution for you.

Elevation plays a surprisingly important role in deserts and with birds.  Did you know some migrations are elevation-based?  E.g. Pine Warblers are known to do this as are Anna’s Hummingbirds. Anna’s Hummingbird breeds in the dry California lowlands, vacations in the mountains, and winters in the deserts of Arizona and Mexico.  

Particularly in the Sonoran Desert, as you climb a mountain, it’s akin to traveling North.  With a tall enough mountain, climbing a couple thousand feet in the air is botanically similar to traveling a couple thousand miles north: you’ll pass thought the same vegetative transformations.  The geologic presence of mountains creates desert islands: Isolated regions of greenery within a desert sea.  This is where the birders go.

Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Elephant Head from Proctor Road. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

I began my Arizona Birding Excursion at Proctor Road earlyish in the morning.  I figured I’d do Proctor Road before the day grew too warm.

Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Yep. Waiting on the ID. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

It was…. disappointing.  There were few birds calling and fewer birds moving.  A few times I’d catch a glimpse of something flying by, but never enough for a positive identification. I stuck with it though for over an hour.  Enjoying the dramatic change in scenery from the east coast.

Canyon Tohee is well hidden in the underbrush.  This was key to identification. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Canyon Towhee is well hidden in the underbrush. This was key to identification. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

The above bird is one of the few I saw along Proctor Road.  My best guess is Canyon Towhee based on color/size/habitat.   The markings along the face threw me for awhile until I realized it wasn’t tribal paint or distinctive plumage, but a blurry branch.

Hurray for Bat Conservation everywhere!  Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Hurray for Bat Conservation everywhere! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

Eventually I decided staying in an area with few birds was pointless and moved further up the mountain where at least there were more identifiable birds.

I had birded in Madera Canyon a decade ago.  It was enough to remember the name, but not where in the canyon we were.  So I picked a trail that seemed to hold promise.  And headed up.

Have we met before?  A Hermit Thrush pauses in puzzlement at the East Coast Birder. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Have we met before? A Hermit Thrush pauses in puzzlement at the East Coast Birder. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

At least there were more birds.  One of the earliest I ran into was this quite familar Hermit Thrush.  I found it and identified it.  The day was looking better.

For awhile there was doubt as I called into question my skills.  But that’s how the rough patches go.  It helped to run into two other sets of birders who gave me a sense of what was further down the road: not much.  It wasn’t be.  They did tell me of one or two, which I was fortunate enough to come across.

The first Painted Redstarts were exciting and encouraging views even if they proved to be exceedingly common. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

The first Painted Redstarts were exciting and encouraging views even if they proved to be exceedingly common. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

One of the promised birds were Painted Redstarts which is a fine specimen of a redstart, if only because they actually have red.  Our east coast American red-UP-starts can only boast orange which makes the name seem silly.  Thus it was uplifting to see properly red redstarts.

Plumbeous Vireo scans for insects. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Plumbeous Vireo scans for insects. Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

This bird was also an exciting find: a vireo near the ground and photographable: call the papers!

So about those flycatchers.... the East Coast ones are hard enough! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

So about those flycatchers…. the East Coast ones are hard enough! Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Both sets of birders told me about one particular stretch with flycatchers.  No particulars, just there were flycatchers.

It was a quiet day.  The canyon trail was empty beyond the birders I saw towards the trailhead.  I enjoyed the scenery and the trek up, and then back down.

Upwards view of  Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken June 16, 2014.

Upwards view of Madera Canyon, Arizona. Photo taken on June 16, 2014.

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3 thoughts on “Key to Life

  1. Pingback: Birding News #76 | Prairie Birder

  2. Pingback: Best Birds 2014 Edition | birdworthy

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