Grouse in the Rough

Winter has lingered well past its best-before date. Snow still drapes across fallen logs and clumps of moss in the woods. In our yard, on the other hand, green shoots are popping up, offering a fresh salad for the picking. A few insects and spiders add extra protein.

Which probably explains why a female ruffed grouse has moved from there into our yard. In fact she has become quite tolerant of me and the camera.

Although sometimes described as a lunchbox on legs — presumably because they make an easy meal for predators — grouse are surprisingly good at blending into their surroundings

Female ruffed grouse
Mottled feathers provide good camouflage

Sudden movement, a loud sound, in fact anything “unusual” in their world causes grouse to freeze. That’s fine if you’re among trees or bushes where you can disappear into the background. Not so good if you’re in the middle of the road and rubber is heading your way.

Perhaps she’ll nest nearby

While I was photographing this grouse today I could hear a male drumming in the woods, his way of attracting a mate. The female, however, seemed oblivious to his come-hither call. In fact, she lay down beneath the saskatoon bush and took a nap. Maybe she’s playing hard to get. 🙂

Ruffed grouse   Bonasa umbellus

They’re Back

I intended to visit the slough early yesterday. After too many grey days the sun was finally shining. Perfect conditions. But it was for naught. By the time I got there clouds had buried the sun and a biting north wind made it hard to hold the camera.

As I was about to pack it in and head for home I heard a familiar song — a male red-winged blackbird announcing his return. He was clinging to a cattail, resplendent in his shiny coat, red and yellow shoulder pads shining in the low light.

Then a second and a third male began to call. A chorus of I’m-here-this-is-my-territory. Although the females may not arrive for another week or so, these fellows are already staking claims.

The sight and sound of such charming birds made for a perfect morning after all. 🙂

Red-winged blackbird and cattails

Red-winged blackbird   Agelaius phoeniceus

Ruffed Grouse

New shoots coming through the snow brought this female ruffed grouse out of the woods and into the yard. She didn’t seem bothered at all as the camera and I stepped closer.

I’ve heard the male drumming in the woods over the past week or so which means mating season will soon be underway.

The male, when in full display, fans his large tail (somewhat like a small peacock) and puffs up the ruff around his neck — all designed to impress the local ladies.

I’ve seen many grouse over the years but this one surprised me. On the back of her neck I spotted several iridescent blue feathers. Gorgeous. Although I googled several sites I couldn’t find any reference to blue feathers. Curiouser and curiouser as Alice would say.

Blue feathers on neckCheck out the dots on her back — like little white hearts. Maybe love is in the air. 🙂


Ruffed grouse   Borasa umbellus

Up, Up and Away

Our resident great gray owl paid us a visit today. We first spotted him sitting on the fence in the drizzle. He scanned the snow-covered garden then turned to study the tall tangle of wild grass on the other side of the fence listening for mice or voles.

Great gray owl

As we sat down to supper he swooped close past the kitchen window and deep into the woods. Of course I was too late with the camera.

Several minutes later he flew back again. With great slow sweeps of his wings he came straight toward the window where we sat eating supper — then, to our amazement, he hovered in front of the window for several seconds staring directly in at us. Finally, with several strong wingbeats, he was up and over the roof and lost to sight.


Take off

Great gray owl   Strix nebulosa

Curve-billed Thrasher

CBTs are aptly named. Their bills are definitely curved and they really do thrash about on the ground

They flip over small rocks, scatter leaf litter, toss sticks out of the way, even pound their bills into the dirt like jack hammers — all in search of food. Insects, spiders, seeds and fruits are fair game and few escape the sharp eyes and even sharper beaks.


One morning early this spring I heard the most beautiful music in a thick patch of desert brush. I discovered the sweet melody coming from a curve-billed thrasher. Quite at odds with the feeding frenzies I’ve witnessed. 🙂


Curve-billed thrasher   Toxostoma curvirostre
Saguaro   Carnegiea gigantea
Ironwood   Olneya tesota

The Little Tyrant

A Wikipedia entry describes Say’s phoebe as a drab, chunky bird. That hardly befits the pair of aerial acrobats I encountered on the desert.

They were sallying back and forth from their perches on ocotillo branches to snatch flying insects out of the air. Grace and beauty on the wing. My photographic skills were a poor match for their antics.

These little birds have a tremendous range — from Mexico, through the continental US, into Canada and as far north as Alaska.

Say’s phoebe belongs to the family of birds called Tyrannidae, the tyrant flycatchers, probably the largest bird family with more than 400 species in the Americas. As for why they’re called tyrants, that’s a story for another time.

Behind the name …

Say’s Phoebe is named for Thomas Say (1787 – 1834), a Quaker from a well-to-do Philadelphia family. He trained as an apothecary but his real interest was in natural history which is where he made his greatest contributions.

thomas_sayHe joined Major Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1819-1820) as a zoologist. During the trek Say wrote the first European accounts of numerous animals including several lizards and snakes, swift foxes, coyotes and numerous birds, including this phoebe.

His contributions to American natural history are ranked with those of John Muir and John James Audubon.

Say’s phoebe   Sayornis saya
Ocotillo  Fouquieria splendens

Perpetual Motion, On Wings

The pair of verdins continue their assault on my windows but less frenetically than last week. And this time, although I was still photographing through the glass, it was later in the afternoon and the sun was at a better angle.

The male and female share similar colours, though the male’s head is a brighter yellow and his shoulder patch a larger, deeper cinnamon red.

The little female has something wrong with her left leg. Perching on a branch doesn’t seem to cause her much trouble but when she lands on the window ledge the leg folds out flat and she’s forced to stand on just one.

Verdin   Auriparus flaviceps
Palo verde   Parkinsonia aculeata

Up With the Birds

The sun has barely popped above the far-off hills and a pair of verdins are back, tap-tap-tapping against the windows of the RV. This has been going on for several days, from first light until late afternoon.

The attraction? Their reflection in the windows. I imagine they may be defending their territory, seeking to drive off possible usurpers. Yesterday I played an audio file of their song next to an open window. Well! That got them excited.


Verdins are tiny songbirds, about the size of a chickadee and even more hyperactive, never perching for more than a moment or two. (The only way I got their photos was through the window as they paused on a palo verde tree between “attacks”.)

Verdins are the most common year-round resident of the Sonoran Desert. They eat insects and spiders, from which they draw most of the water they need. At other times small seeds and fruits suffice. In urban areas they’re common at hummingbird feeders.


As for nests, they build two kinds, messy looking affairs of twigs and spider webs. One is for nesting and another (usually several) for roosting. One astute observer said summer roost nests often face the direction of the prevailing winds, presumably to provide some “air conditioning” at times when daytime temperatures may reach 45C (113F) or more.

Verdins are alone in terms of North American relatives — their closest kin live in Europe and Asia, the penduline tit family.

Verdin   Auriparus flaviceps
Palo verde   Parkinsonia aculeata

Morning Songster

My hike this morning started with a serenade from several common house finches. Most of the chorus was hidden by vegetation, save for this gorgeous male atop a saguaro cactus.

These finches are almost entirely vegetarian and the stout bill makes seed-eating easy business. They also eat buds and fruits.

Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to hear their delightful song.

House finch   Haemorhous mexicanus (formerly Carpodacus mexicanus)
Saguaro cactus   Carnegiea gigantea

Goodbye Canon, Hello Sony

You’re taking pics. You’re lining  up great shots. You’re in the zone then … zzziiittt. Huh? What the heck is happening?

Turns out that what-the-heck is a camera lens that won’t retract. How the #$@% did that happen?

I tried everything to get it working again. Then finally realized that like my old pal, Olympus, my Canon was beyond repair. At least by me. I was in shock. Me? Without a camera? Not a good thing. Not good at all.

Then Serendipity stepped in. (I must say she arrived at the most opportune time.) My friend, Jeff, offered to send me his mirrorless Sony A6000, with lenses. Wow.

Having vowed, repeatedly, that I did not want to get caught up in lenses and camera bags and toting “stuff” again, I began to weaken.

I fell in love with that Sony. (Okay, I may as well admit it: I caved and bought myself one. With a telephoto lens. And when the purse strings weaken I’ll get a macro lens too. Oh, woman, thou art so easily swayed.)

I’ll get in touch with Canon and see what, if anything, can be done for my long-time lens-plagued companion. In the meantime, Sony & I will be outside getting acquainted.