Posts from the ‘birding’ Category

EIGHT species of spectacular Hummingbirds —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 5

Rivoli’s Hummingbird

Minnesota has incredible birds. In fact, many birds on American birder’s “Most Wanted” list occur here: Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, Connecticut Warbler, etc. And I love the fact that in a few hours drive or less from home I can bird THREE MAJOR BIOMES—Tallgrass Prairie, Eastern Deciduous Forest, and Boreal Forest.

BUT at home in Minnesota we only have ONE HUMMINGBIRD species! The lovely but lonely Ruby-throated Hummingbird. The fact that southeast Arizona hosts about a dozen species (some are migrants) makes it America’s hummer hotspot and a wonderful reason to head to the heat.

I saw seven of the eight species that could be expected in SE Arizona in July. I only missed Costa’s Hummingbird in the wild. (But I did see Costa’s and Rufous in the aviary in the Sonoran Desert Museum)

SEVEN species seen at feeders or while out hiking…

  • Lucifer Hummingbird (Dave Jasper’s yard in Portal; Also Foothills Road near Portal)
  • Violet-crowned Hummingbird (Beatty’s Miller Canyon Orchard & Apiary near Sierra Vista; Also Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary in Patagonia)
  • Broad-billed Hummingbird (most widespread: Beatty’s Miller Canyon Orchard & Apiary near Sierra Vista; Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary in Patagonia; Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary; etc)
  • Broad-tailed Hummingbird (a high-elevation specialist: Palisade Ranger Staton on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson; Rustler Park at over 8,000 feet near Patagonia in the Chiricauhuas)
  • Blue-throated Hummingbird (only at Cave Creek Ranch near Patagonia)
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird (Beatty’s Miller Canyon Orchard & Apiary near Sierra Vista; Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary)
  • Rivoli’s Hummingbird (formerly Magnificent Hummingbird) (Palisade Ranger Staton on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson; Beatty’s Miller Canyon Orchard & Apiary near Sierra Vista)

Two captive species

  • Costa’s Hummingbird (only in captivity at the Sonoran Desert Museum aviary near Tucson)
  • Rufous Hummingbird (only in captivity at the Sonoran Desert Museum aviary near Tucson)

You can see the restricted range for these hummingbirds from these MAPS from http://www.allaboutbirds.org. Most don’t get much farther north than southeast Arizona.

Range map of Violet-crowned Hummingbird (pink is breeding only)

LUCIFER HUMMINGBIRD

Male Lucifer Hummingbird! I’ve never had such a close look at this U.S. rarity. This male and the female below were coming to Dave Jasper’s yard just outside of Portal.
[Dave Jasper’s yard in Portal, AZ]
And here’s the female Lucifer. Note her LOOONG neck, curved bill.
[Dave Jasper’s yard in Portal, AZ]
I even found my own Lucifer “in the wild.” This female was feeding along Foothills Road just outside of Portal.

Some fun facts about Lucifer Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • Lucifer Hummingbird belongs to a group of hummingbird species called “sheartails,” named for their deeply forked, narrow tail.
  • Mainly a bird of Mexico, the Lucifer is quite rare in the U.S so a real treat for us birders!
  • Unlike other hummingbirds, the male Lucifer Hummingbird performs its displays at the nest of a female.
  • Occasionally also seen in the Big Bend region of Texas.

BLUE-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD

Blue-throated Hummingbird is the largest hummers in southeast Arizona. It was also the least common (next to the rare Lucifer). I onlysaw them in one spot…Cave Creek Ranch near Portal.

Some fun facts about Blue-throated Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • This Lampornis species is really a member of the Mountain-Gem genus, so they may be renamed to “Blue-throated Mountain-Gem” in the future.
  • Blue-throated are the largest hummingbird in North America, weighing 3x more than a Ruby-throated Hummer
  • Males do not have an aerial display like most hummingbirds. Instead they have several vocalizations that they use in courtship.
  • They will mob birds much larger than themselves…even Goshawks! Several may work together to drive them away.
  • Oldest recorded Blue-throated lived at least 7 years and 11 months.

VIOLET-CROWNED HUMMINGBIRD

Violet-crowned Hummingbird is easy to identify by its large size, thin neck, white throat and belly, and violet-blue crown. You can see in this photo how much larger it is than the hovering Broad-billed. [Beatty’s Miller Canyon Apiary & Orchard **RARE AT THIS LOCATION]
THE place to go to see Violet-crowned Hummingbirds is Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary in Patagonia, Arizona. This was the Paton’s private residence when I first stopped here in 1994. Wally and ?? faithfully filled their multiple feeders daily and allowed birders to come into their yard and watch. They even put up a canopy and folding chairs so we could watch in comfort. It was under this canopy in 1994 that I got my lifer Violet-crowned Hummer. After the Paton’s passed away, donations from and other birders and birding organization allowed Tucson Audubon to purchase the house and lot. They have built a new permanent canopy for hummer watching, put in an amazing array of flower gardens and water features, and even a trail system.
Violet-crowned Hummingbird [Beatty’s Miller Canyon Apiary & Orchard **RARE AT THIS LOCATION]

Some fun facts about Violet-crowned Hummingbirds from http://www.audubon.org…

  • This relative newcomer to the U.S. was only discovered nesting in 1959.
  • It is only found in lower canyons with large Arizona Sycamores and/or Cottonwoods, usually along streams with brushy understory.

RIVOLI’S HUMMINGBIRD (formerly MAGNIFICENT HUMMINGBIRD)

Rivoli’s Hummingbird (the hummer formerly known as Magnificent) is a large and brightly-colored hummer. I was split into two species in 2017 and unfortunately did not retain its former Magnificent Hummingbird name (insert sad face here!).
The magnificent Rivoli’s Hummingbird.
[Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson]
I knew this hummingbird as the Magnificent Hummingbird when I first added it to my life list in 1994. Its name was changed in 2017 to Rivoli’s Hummingbird in honor of the Duke of Rivoli, an amateur ornithologist (Anna’s Hummingbird is named after the Duke’s wife…the Duchess of Rivoli).
Magnificent was split into two species…Rivoli’s in the U.S. and Mexico…and Talamanca Hummingbird in Costa Rica
The magnificent Rivoli’s Hummingbird.
[Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson]

Some fun facts about Rivoli’s Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • Second largest Hummingbird in the U.S.
  • One of the highest heart-rates of any vertebrate…420 to 1200 beats per minute!
  • An 11-year old bird (!) was banded in Arizona
  • A hummingbird flower mite uses the Rivoli’s Hummingbird for transport: hiding in the birds’ nasal passages until they can jump off at a subsequent flower patch.
  • Known as Magnificent Hummingbird from the 1980s until 2017.
  • Named for the Duke of Rivoli who was an amateur ornithologist.

BROAD-BILLED HUMMINGBIRD

Though the Broad-billed Hummingbird is one of the most wide-spread hummers in SE Arizona, I also think it is one of themes stunning. Its body is covered in iridescent feathers and it has a bright red bill. From this photo angle you can really see why it is named “Broad-billed.”
[Dave Jasper’s yard in Portal, AZ]
Broad-billed Hummingbird male
Broad-billed Hummingbird male
Broad-billed Hummingbird male
Broad-billed Hummingbird male
Broad-billed Hummingbird male

Some fun facts about Broad-billed Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • Broad-billed Hummingbirds that nest in Arizona are migratory; populations in Mexico are resident year-round in their breeding range.
  • The male Broad-billed Hummingbird performs a courtship display, starting by hovering about a foot from the female and then flying in repeated arcs, like a pendulum.Broad-billed Hummingbirds that nest in Arizona are migratory; populations in Mexico are resident year-round in their breeding range.

BLACK-CHINNED HUMMINGBIRD

Black-chinned Hummingbird male shows a relatively narrow band of iridescent purple above its throat.
In poor lighting or shade, the Black-chinned Hummingbird really appears to have a black chin.
Black-chinned Hummingbird male [Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary near Patagonia, Arizona]
Black-chinned Hummingbird male [Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary near Patagonia, Arizona]

Some fun facts about Black-chinned Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • The Black-chinned Hummingbird’s tongue has two grooves; nectar moves through these via capillary action, and then the bird retracts the tongue and squeezes the nectar into the mouth. It extends the tongue through the nearly closed bill at a rate of about 13–17 licks per second
  • This is one of the most adaptable of all hummingbirds, often found in urban areas and recently disturbed habitat as well as pristine natural areas.
  • Along good stretches of some southern Arizona and southern New Mexico rivers, nests may be found every 100 meters or so

BROAD-TAILED HUMMINGBIRD

Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Young male Broad-tailed Hummingbird
Female Broad-tailed Hummingbird spotlit by setting sun.
[Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon]
Female Broad-tailed checking out an arriving male. [Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon]
Broad-tailed Hummingbird females at feeders at Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson.
Broad-tailed Hummingbird showing off its “zing-makers.” Air passing through the spread wing feathers make a high-pitched zzziiinngg. They are a hummer of higher elevations. This one was photographed at 8,000 feet at the Palisade Ranger Station on Mt. Lemmon.

Some fun facts about Broad-tailed Hummingbirds from http://www.allaboutbirds.org…

  • The longest-lived Broad-tailed Hummingbird was a female, and over 12 years, 2 months old, when she was recaptured and rereleased during a banding operation in Colorado in 1987. She had been banded in the same state in 1976.
  • Male Broad-tailed Hummingbirds produce a loud metallic “zzzinnggg” trill with their wingtips as they fly, but over time the feathers that produce this sound wear down from use. By midwinter the trill is often inaudible.
  • They breed at elevations up to 10,500 feet (!!), where nighttime temperatures regularly plunge below freezing. To make it through a cold night, they slow their heart rate and drop their body temperature, entering a state of torpor.
  • Sometimes they use sap as a nectar substitute, visiting sapwells excavated by Red-naped Sapsuckers.

RUFOUS HUMMINGBIRD

Rufous Hummingbird male [Sonoran Desert Museum aviary]
Rufous Hummingbird male [Sonoran Desert Museum aviary]
I’ll end with an artsy “high-key” image of a foraging hummer at Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Sanctuary near Patagonia

Sky Islands: Huge Pines, Mexican Chickadees, Spotted Owls, Juncos with yellow eyes —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 4

“Mexican” Spotted Owl high in the Huachuca Mountains of southeast Arizona.

June 6-12, 2019

We don’t really think of high elevation mountains right near the Mexican border in Arizona, but these “Sky Islands” rise to over 8,000 feet in elevation. And they host a completely different set of flora and fauna.

Here is a sampling of critters and flowers from two such Sky Islands—Rustler Park in the Chiricahua Mountains (outside of Portal, AZ) and Hunter Canyon in the Heuchuca Mountains near Sierra Vista, AZ.

Western Tiger Swallowtail pair on the road to Rustler Park [Coronado National Forest]
Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) grows along the road to Rustler Park at this stream crossing. [Coronado National Forest]
View from the road to Rustler Park outside of Portal, Arizona in the Chiricahua Mountains. [Coronado National Forest]
Ctenucha venosa – Veined Ctenucha Moth on Lupine in Rustler Park
[Coronado National Forest]
The Lupines were in full-bloom at Rustler Park.
[Coronado National Forest]
10mm lens view of Lupines and pines.
[Coronado National Forest]
Lupine
[Coronado National Forest]
Hedgehog Cactus blooming (Echinocereus species) at Rustler Park.
[Coronado National Forest]

Even though I was at 8,000 feet elevation, there was still cactus in full bloom.

The striking undersides of the Arizona Sister butterfly
[Coronado National Forest]
Not just any chickadee!…The Mexican Chickadee

The Mexican Chickadee that is only found in a few places in the U.S.
[Coronado National Forest]

Rustler Park at 8,000 feet in the Chiricahua Mountains [Coronado National Forest]

Rustler Park at 8,000 feet in the Chiricahua Mountains. It was formerly a better site for birding until a massive wildfire burned the area several years ago.

Yellow-eyed Junco
[Coronado National Forest]

Juncos with yellow eyes? These close-relatives of our Dark-eyed Junco are restricted to the very southeast corner of Arizona and extreme southwest New Mexico. They are only found at high elevations. There were several pairs here in Rustler Park (8,000 feet) and they were finding caterpillars under the needle duff layer.

HUNTER CANYON near Sierra Vista is our second stop on the blog post about the higher elevations of southeast Arizona.

The view of the Sierra Vista valley from the top of Hunter Canyon. A Rufous-capped Warbler had been reported here sporadically over the past few weeks. But we had no luck in finding it.

I got an early start to make the hike up to Hunter Canyon to look for a reported Rufous-capped Warbler. I hiked up an easy trail that gave me good looks at Arizona Woodpecker and Spotted Towhee, but it wasn’t getting anywhere near any large pines…plus folks had said that the hike to the Rufous-capped Warblers was a beast. This must be the wrong trail…And, yes, I was on the wrong trail.

I finally made it back to my car and found the correct parking area. Now this hike was straight up the mountain! Must be the right trail. As I reached the pines, I ran into three birders from Maryland that I’d birded with near Portal. They had had no luck in finding the warbler, but a while later they discovered a roosting “Mexican” Spotted Owl! It was only about 20 feet up in a maple along the creek. He was resting but allowed us a few minutes of photos and gawking. A real find and a beauty. I’d seen one in 1994 but this was much closer.

“Mexican” Spotted Owl is morphologically a bit different than the Spotted Owl of the northwest US and adjacent Canada.
His/her spotted plumage made for excellent camouflage in the sun-dappled canyon woods.

Chihuahuan Desert Bonanza: Barren? No way! —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 2

June 6-8 near Portal, Arizona.

During my brief stay in Portal, I birded multiple biomes….from mountain pine forest (at elevation 8,400 feet!) to low elevation Chihuahuan Desert scrub. The desert was most alien to this Minnesota boy, and maybe that was its strong appeal. It was also easier to see and photograph the critters than in the wooded habitats.

Foothills Road is very near Portal and a great place to explore at dawn and dusk. Midday is quiet due to the heat. On this road I had great looks at Scott’s Oriole, Cactus Wren, Gambel’s Quail, Scaled Quail, Verdin, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Lesser Nighthawk (dusk), Desert Cottontail and Black-tailed Jackrabbit.

Stateline Road is another great birding road. New Mexico will be on the east and Arizona on the west side of the road. Stop at Willow Tank and bird this water feature as well. I saw Loggerhead Shrike, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Curve-billed Thrasher, Greater Roadrunner, Chihuahuan Raven and possibly a Kit Fox (just a long-tailed blur running across the road).

Chihuahuan Desert vistas look bleak and lifeless…but they are anything but. Birds, mammals, insects and reptiles thrive in this desert.
Yellow Bird of Paradise shrub (Caesalpinia gilliesii) has a stunning flower with 3-4 inch long red stamens.
Yellow Bird of Paradise shrub (Caesalpinia gilliesii) is a native of South America but naturalized in Arizona where it can be found growing wild along roads and in other disturbed areas. It is also grown in gardens.
Verdin is a tiny, yellow-faced bird of desert scrub.
Scott’s Oriole in Ocotillo. We don’t think of orioles in the desert, but the Scott’s is right at home in arid Chihuahuan scrub desert.
The male Scott’s Oriole is one of our only yellow orioles. No orange for this guy!
The Scaled Quail is encountered far less often than its Gambel’s cousin. It is also found at lower elevations in the shrub scrub.
I was extremely excited to find this Round-tailed Horned Lizard along the Foothills Road after dark. These little guys are only about 3 inches long.
It was a lifer and is my third species of Horned Lizard that I’ve seen (joining Texas Horned Lizard and Northern Horned Lizard on my life list).
Ocotillo at sunset
Ocotillo at sunset
My first non-feeder Lucifer Hummingbird! I have seen Lucifers at hummingbird feeders several times before but this was the only one I’ve seen out in “the wild.” This is a female (note her white chin and yellow throat).
Greater Roadrunner on the hunt for lizards at dawn.
For some reason it seems like I’m always shooting into the sun when I take Roadrunner photos. But it gives the birds a neat rim light (also see photo below).
Greater Roadrunner getting ready to make good on its name and run on a road.
Along Foothills Road at dawn I found this male Gambel’s Quail greeting the morning by singing his heart out from the top of an Agave.
Unlike many birds who live only in one habitat, the Gambel’s Quail can be found from Chihuahuan Desert scrub up to higher elevations in wooded forests.
Gambel’s Quail calling
Foothills Road near Portal, Arizona passes through prime Chihuahuan Desert and is great birding. Best to bird it at dawn and dusk, and park the car and walk.
Prickly Pear cactus was in full bloom. This cactus was over 7 feet tall! A related species grows in southwest Minnesota but rarely even reaches 18 inches tall.
Yuccas are a characteristic plant of Chihuahuan Desert scrub. This is in New Mexico just north-northeast of Portal, Arizona.
Black-tailed Jackrabbits are most active in early morning and towards dusk (when this photo was taken).
Can you find the Black-tailed Jackrabbit?
This little bundle of energy is the Black-tailed Gnatchatcher. It is a tiny sprite of a bird that lives in open desert scrub.
At 103 degrees, everybody needs to drink! Greater Roadrunner at Willow Tank.
Don’t overlook the Chiricahua Desert Museum just N of Rodeo, New Mexico and east of Portal. It is an eclectic reptile-themed museum with world class snake exhibits and an outdoor plant and reptile exhibit.
The exhibits of the live Rattlesnakes (many species!) are impressive. They were made by a professional Hollywood set designer for Michael Jackson (yes, that Michael Jackson). But Michael changed his mind and the museum benefited.
The outdoor exhibit at the Chiricahua Desert Museum. Lizards run free here….if you can find them. Native plants are labeled as well.

Trogons, Owl Bonanza & Black Bears? Cave Creek —Southeast Arizona June 2019 Part 1

I hadn’t birded southeast Arizona since 2004…15 years ago…and I needed to get back. Between 1990 and 2004 I made 4 birding/photo trips here and picked up most of my target southeast Arizona specialists plus rarities such as White-eared Hummingbird, Plain-capped Starthroat, Rose-throated Becard, Flame-colored Tanager, and Black-capped Gnatcatcher. But in those pre-digital-photography days I took few photos and my memories of specific bird sightings had long since faded. So nearly every bird I saw was a special treat…almost like getting lifers all over again.

My first two nights were in Portal, Arizona near the New Mexico border at the foot of the Chiricahua Mountains. You can experience multiple biomes in the vicinity of Portal, all within a short drive. This post is about birding in the Cave Creek and Herb Martyr Canyon areas.

The flight from Duluth to Phoenix took us right over Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado. We visited here as a family in 2016. The kids loved running and leaping from the sand dune peaks. Very cool to see from the air!
Portal, Arizona is one of those tiny but picturesque little towns with a quaint general store and surrounded by spectacular scenery. It is in the same league as Polebridge, Montana, Talkeetna, Alaska and Finland, Minnesota. I spent two nights here, but could have spent much more time in this special part of the world.
The Elegant Trogon is really a bird of Mexico that has the far north end of its North American range in the U.S. South Fork of Cave Creek is one of the best places to find them in the U.S. This male just fed the youngsters in this nest cavity in a Sycamore tree. I was told that they nested in this same cavity last year.
Elegant Trogon male coming out of the nest cavity.
I had a disturbing Black Bear encounter in Cave Creek Canyon. This BIG Black Bear saw me, then ran about 30 yards before stopping and hissing and snapping its jaws at me. Maybe it was a female with cubs?? But I never saw any little ones. This is very aggressive behavior and of all the bears I’ve encountered in Minnesota, I’ve never had one do this.
What do you think of when you picture southeast Arizona? Though there is much Chihuahuan desert, there are also these “Islands in the Sky” mountain ranges. The Chiricahua Mountains near Portal is one such Sky Island.
Birdled Titmouse is only found in southeast Arizona and southwest New Mexico in the U.S.
Sycamores have beautiful patterned bark.
I’m sure the locals are pretty tired of Gambel’s Quail, but for me they are always a treat to see and photograph. This male was calling from a fencepost early in the morning.
Mom Gambel’s Quail with a brood of 8 adorable chicks.
The Painted Redstart is a stunning warbler of
Hooded Oriole at Dave Jasper’s feeders in Portal
Hooded Oriole at Dave Jasper’s feeders in Portal
Acorn Woodpeckers are gregarious and very vocal. It is not hard finding this distinctive woodpecker.
Acorn Woodpecker
Portal, Arizona is a town of 50 people with one general store and a cafe. But I am always out birding when it is meal time…Actually I bird from dawn to dusk and beyond, so no time for a sit down meal. Therefore I ate nothing but ham or bologna sandwiches for 3 days. 8 sandwiches total. Also, there is no gas station in Portal and I nearly ran out of gas trying to find a station. I ended up in Animas, New Mexico…the closest spot to Portal to get gas.
I called in this Whiskered Screech-Owl and he sang in my flashlight beam. I managed to get a photo, but not a great photo. This was on Herb Martyr Canyon Road, where I also heard Western Screech-Owl and I got two lifers! Heard Mexican Whip-poor-wills (a barrier song than our whip-poor-wills) and a heard Flammulated Owl…my last North American owl!

**All photos taken with Panasonic GH5 and Sony A6500 with Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, Canon 70-200mm f4 lens, Rokinon 10mm lens, and iPhone.

Churchill on Hudson Bay 2017: Willow Ptarmigan

I can’t really even remember my Lifer Willow Ptarmigan any more…I looked back in my journal from my Churchill trip in June 1987 for the details. It was a glimpse of a male along the railroad tracks near a remote Cree village in Manitoba as I rode the rickety rails of the “Muskeg Express”…a 36 hour one-way train ride from Winnipeg to Churchill. Not much of a look for such a gorgeous bird.

Because of this most unsatisfying sighting, the “chicken of the tundra” was high on my “Most Wanted” list. But several 16 hour days passed and I still had not spotted one. A photo group I ran into seemed to consider them commonplace. I was nervous. But finally, late in the day, late in my trip, along Twin Lakes Road, I finally found my first male…A gorgeous male in transitional plumage from winter’s white to summers reddish brown.

 

Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This male’s plumage is actually called the “courtship plumage” and it will soon change to breeding plumage…The male’s white back feathers will turn the same reddish brown as the head and chest. By late fall, they will be entirely white except for the black outer tail feathers.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba on summer tundra

One of my goals for my bird photography on this trip was to get images of different species with tundra wildflowers in the frame…and late in the trip I was finally successful with this ptarmigan. The flowers are Lapland Rosebay.

The Willow Ptarmigan is a circumpolar species and can also be found in Scandinavia and Siberia. It is known as “Willow Grouse” in Europe…A subspecies that lives in Great Britain is called “Red Grouse” and doesn’t turn white in winter.

Amazingly, there was an irruption of Willow Ptarmigan into Minnesota in the winter of 1933-34! Several showed up in the remote country of northwest Minnesota near Roseau, hundreds of miles from their normal winter range. The first record of this species for Minnesota was a bird shot on April 20, 1914 in Lake of the Woods County on the Canadian border. Another bird found its way south to this same county in 1964.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Willow Ptarmigan are about the same size as our Ruffed Grouse (and Spruce Grouse). Average length is 15 inches with a wingspan of about 2 feet. They weigh a little over a pound.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 271mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]

The call of the Willow Ptarmigan is craaaazy! I love it! Listen for yourself.


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 278mm; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 640; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 124mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

“The Willow Ptarmigan is the only grouse in the world in which the male is regularly involved in parental care. Pairs remain together from the beginning of the breeding season until their chicks are independent.” from Cornell’s http://www.allaboutbirds.com

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; handheld]

Summer Willow Ptarmigan on tundra near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/250 at f5.6; ISO 400; +0.66 ev; handheld]

 


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

 

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/640 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 170mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan male in courtship plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 164mm; 1/500 at f5; ISO 800; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

This is one of the first photos I got of Willow Ptarmigan. I was hoping he would jump up on that rock behind him, but no luck. I sloooowly stalked this guy and he eventually walked through the Lapland Rosebay flowers patches.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/160 at f11; ISO 400; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Like its cousin the Spruce Grouse, the Willow Ptarmigan sports sexy red “eyebrows,” which it can erect.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/320 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan male in near breeding plumage near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Here is another male I found along Twin Lakes Road…Note that this one’s plumage is more advanced towards breeding plumage than the male in the previous photos. His back feathers are turning from white to red.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Often times, laying dead flat on the ground (road, beach, lawn) can give you the best angle on a subject…It puts you actually a bit below eye-level which is ideal for intimate and engaging portraits.

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/640 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Sony A6500 with Metabones adapter and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens; 1/500 sec at f6.3; ISO 200; handheld, laying on the ground]


Willow and Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

As their name implies, willow is the primary food of this grouse species. One source says that Arctic Willow catkins and buds are the primary food. Will also eat berries…and twigs and spruce/pine needles in winter

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I really wanted to get some “bird in the landscape” photos on this trip. I did get a few, and I do like this one but I wish the bird stood out a bit more from the surrounding greenery.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 234mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 800; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/640 at f5.6; ISO 320; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

The female is understandable more cryptically colored than the male. She needs to be very inconspicuous when on the ground nest. She really blends in to her surroundings. In fact, I would not have seen her at all if not for the antics of the male that alerted me that he was trying to impress someone.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/320 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

Red “eyebrows” can be erected when in courtship mode.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/500 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]

 


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

I saw several ptarmigan along this stretch of Twin Lakes Road.

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 255mm; 1/1250 at f5; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld]


Willow Ptarmigan near Churchill Manitoba Canada

[Canon 7D with Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens at 400mm; 1/1600 at f5.6; ISO 320; +0.66 ev; handheld; laying on ground]
A calling male Willow Ptarmigan (see video above to hear their hilarious call).

Journey to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay: Bird Photography

June 17-21, 2017

In this first installment about my trip to Churchill Manitoba on Hudson Bay this June, I want to share a bit about the journey to Churchill, logistics of traveling in the Churchill area (lodging, rental vehicle, food, etc), a tour of the town, and the state of the town (due to some recent unfortunate circumstances which I highlight later in this post).

I was also in Churchill in 1987…30 years ago! Hard to believe. Here are the links to those posts:

Churchill 1987: Part 1

Churchill 1987: Part 2


The Tundra on approach to Churchill. Note Hudson Bay in background.

I’ve wanted to get back to Churchill for a LONG time…I love it there. It’s been 30 years, and the itch wasn’t getting scratched. The North is where my heart is…I loved Costa Rica and Mexico and Baja but I’m feel a much stronger pull towards the poles. My trips to Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland really connected with me. And Churchill is the closest, most easily accessible tundra/arctic to me in northern Minnesota. For several reasons, I had a strong desire to photograph and video the arctic species of birds and mammals. The first trip in ’87 was to see the rare and elusive Ross’s Gull. I succeeded in that, but my photos were not great…two words…film days. This time, bird photography was my goal, The Ross’s Gulls no longer nest here but My “Most Wanted” list was still long! (see photo below)

My “Most Wanted” list of species/subjects to photograph and video. A very long list for 4 nights/5 days trip!

High priorities for me were: tundra birds with wildflowers in the background, Willow Ptarmigan, Bonaparte’s Gulls nesting in spruces, shorebirds perched in trees, close up jaegers, sea birds in flight (Common Eiders, Red-throated Loons), Arctic Hare and Arctic Fox, bog landscapes and Pacific Loons at eye level.


Even though it was June 17, patches of snow still dotted the landscape.

Since the railroad isn’t running right now, the airline (Calm Air) has added flights. I’m not sure if this is the reason, but the price for my round trip airfare from Winnipeg was ONLY $400 US…This is $400 to $800 cheaper than it has been in recent years! I jumped at the opportunity.


I haven’t had a FREE hot meal on a plane (domestic flight) for many years! This was First Air’s breakfast meal on the 1 1/2 hour flight. Great breakfast sandwich. We also were given hot face towels! Luxury!


Chatted with this young Inuit man from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada on the flight. He told me stories of fishing salmon, Musk Ox, a white Grizzly Bear that his uncle “caught” (the word they use in the North for “shot”) and showed me how to write his name in the Inuit language. He was doing some training in Winnipeg and was heading back to Nunavut. The flight to Churchill would continue on to Rankin Inlet.


Churchill is the southern edge of the tundra…and the northern edge of the boreal forest.

The view flying in to Churchill


Potholes of the tundra south of Churchill. Note ice on Hudson Bay in background.


The flight from Winnipeg to Churchill was on a 737. Each of the fleet has a different arctic species on the tail; in this case, a Golden Eagle. A front-end loader is the luggage buggy!

I flew out at the 8am flight and returned via the 8pm flight…That way I had two full days of shooting on my “flying days.” But that meant another 2 nights of lodging in Winnipeg, which is fairly expensive.


A sign that is mainly meant for late fall/winter visitors. Few, if any, Polar Bears hang around town in summer. On my visit there were 2 bears around…but I never saw them.


One of the few new buildings in Churchill is the airport.


Welcome to the Polar Bear capital of the World! (Not in summer)


Polar Bear crossing….a winter phenomenon. A section of “the highway” in the background. The only paved road goes from town to the airport. The other 40 miles of road are all dirt or worse.


Main Street of Churchill Manitoba


Home, Sweet Home…Polar Inn

I would highly recommend the Polar Inn. Small and clean and with an amazing breakfast! I stayed 4 nights and the price was reasonable (about $100 US per night)…especially with not having to buy breakfast!

Note the warning adhered to my rental truck…The door hinges were already sprung from someone opening the doors and letting the wind yank them out of the car frame.


Breakfast buffet at the Polar Inn was VERY good! I would shoot from 5:30am to 9am and then come back and get some breakfast…egg mcmuffins, boiled eggs, yogurt parfaits, cereal, waffles and good coffee!


When I was in Churchill in 1987, the “store” in town was The Hudson’s Bay Company store. It has now been replaced by the very generic and boring Northern Store…a mini Walmart.


With the train not running, food stuffs were in low supply at the Northern Store (the only place to get groceries in town) …and more costly due to the expense of flying everything in. Milk shot up to $16 per gallon right after the train got washed out…but has since dropped to $7 per gallon. The bread shelves at the Northern Store were quite bare.


Inukshuk sculpture on the waterfront of Churchill


Sparky at the Churchill waterfront with Hudson Bay and a giant inukshuk (Inuit spelling: inuksuk) in the background.


You can’t rent a car in Churchill…but you can rent a beater truck for exorbitant prices (about $800 CDN for a week). But you don’t need luxury to get around on Churchill’s 60 miles of roads…15 miles paved and the rest various degrees of dirt and two-wheel track. This beauty had both door hinges sprung due so you had to be careful when opening the door on a windy day.


On my last two days, I noticed murals getting painted all over town. Turns out I just happened to be in town for the one week when artists from all over the world were painting their art on buildings. It was part of a grant program called Sea Wall: Artists for Oceans. Sea Walls Festival, is a public art program that promotes ocean conservation globally.

The murals explore the history of Manitoba and highlight some of the issues affecting its unique ecoregions: Tundra, Taiga, Boreal Forest, and the Arctic Ocean.

Seventeen artists from Canada, U.S., Brazil, New Zealand, Germany, U.K., Spain, Australia, and Japan as well as 2 Winnipeggers  made up the 30-member mural team.

And the weather was beautiful for painting…Lows in the 40s and highs around 70! Perfect. Lots of energy about town.


I saw this gentleman painting this mural and wanted to know more so I flagged him down and chatted. Turns out he is from Brazil! Arlin Graff is part of the 30-member team of muralists.


Here is Arlin from Brazil’s nearly completed geometric Polar Bear mural.


Another mural…This one of the Northern Lights by Charlie Johnston of Winnipeg.


Another mural in town is in progress


Local boys and the start of another mural.


Local kids playing along the rocks of the “city beach”….Hudson Bay and ice floes in the background.


Sled dogs are common around town, especially at the start of the Goose Creek Road. This cute fella lived in town and greeted every single person that walked down “Main Street.”


An interesting building in Churchill. The population of the town is about 900.


Winter transportation in Churchill


Now that’s a truck! Tundra Buggy Polar Bear tours are big business in Churchill during November and December. One local told me that many of the big tour companies are owned by outsiders who only live here for a few months. And not much money trickles down to the local economy as the tours are self contained….The companies hire their own big charter plane, then the guests stay in mobile housing units out on the tundra, and all food is flown in on the charter. So the local hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, and tourist shops don’t benefit much. Most of the profits heads out of town with the owners in late December.


Cabin on Goose Creek Road

 


Monument on Cape Merry


I’m not sure what goes on at the Caribou Hall but it is a cool old building.


Churchill was formerly a port town where ocean-going vessels picked up wheat. The private company that owns the railroad, also owned the grain elevators (built in 1930) and port, but closed it over a year ago. No ships have come in or out for nearly 2 years.

Then another blow to the town in May: Several huge multi-day blizzards this winter led to a massive melt-off during spring thaw in May, washing out many stretches of the railroad tracks…The only way to get to Churchill overland is by rail…There is no road to Churchill. This was how I got to Churchill in 1987…36 hours ONE WAY by VIA Rail from Winnipeg. My friend Tyler and I sat up the whole way (no sleeper car) in a cloud of smoke from the Indians who were smoking up a cloud. More importantly, this is how supplies, food, cars, equipment get to Churchill…not to mention the small Indian villages along the route. It’s a big deal. I found the locals in good spirits though…and optimistic. Many jobs have been lost due to the Port of Churchill grain elevators closing…and now the railroad jobs are in jeapordy. Surprisingly, very few locals had left for “the South” for other jobs so far.


The renovated Churchill railroad depot now sits abandoned (until further notice!)


No trains have run since mid May (UPDATE: As of August 2017, the tracks have still not been repaired, and there is no plan to fix them.)


Trains sit idle at the Churchill depot…No one has been coming in to, or leaving from Churchill by rail for months.

 


The only gas station in town…and NOT open 24-7.

The only gas pump in town…and I didn’t even bother calculating what the cost per gallon in the conversion from liters…too depressing!


Churchill Weather Station….Evidently a tornado just came through! 🙂


The Eskimo Museum in Churchill is basically unchanged since my last visit in 1987…and that is good. This unique museum tells the story of Arctic Inuit life through carvings made by the people themselves. Carvings of greenstone, Walrus tusk, ivory, whale bone and antler.

Each cabinet has a phone that you pick up and it begins telling you about a specific carving and what is means to Inuit everyday life. A very clever way to interpret the carvings. Most carvings were done between the 1940s and present in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut in Arctic Canada.

 


A really unique set of carvings (made out of walrus tusk) of Pope Pius XII from the 1940s. Catholic missionaries had influence in many remote villages at this time. The green glasses were made of a plastic hair comb.


Another favorite sculpture/carving. This one shows an elder Inuit telling his son (?) stories about the Northern Lights/aurora borealis (cleverly depicted by the tines of a caribou antler.


All the carvings tell a story of Inuit life. Many date to the mid 1900s. This one tells the tale of a curious Polar Bear and a hunter with only a bow and arrow and his dogs for protection.


A creative carving of an Inuit hunter (ivory) spearing a seal below the ice (bone section)


The only “real” Polar Bear I saw while in Churchill was this stuffed mount in the Eskimo Museum. Evidently there were a couple live ones still hanging around east of town. I never saw one (good thing when on foot) but was hoping to see one while I was in the safety of my truck. No such luck. I did have a bell attached to my pack any time I was walking along the shore of Hudson Bay in areas of brush or rock jumbles.


Some old traditions have just morphed to modern versions….Inuit women carried their children in the hoods of their fur parkas…This is a modern summer version (Winnipeg airport on my way home)

NEXT POST: Churchill on Hudson Bay: Cape Merry Merriment!