Tag: Torrey (Page 1 of 2)

Birding Below Freezing in Utah

Ferruginous Hawk Teasdale Utah

Ferruginous Hawk soaring over hay fields in morning light

Birding Below Freezing

It’s 2020, so if COVID cases are spiking in Los Angeles, that means my family is probably in the middle of red-rock country in Utah. As we did in July, we took off to spend Thanksgiving week in Torrey, Utah. It was the first time we’d been in Torrey when it wasn’t late spring or summer. I was excited to see this beautiful wonderland in a new season.

It didn’t disappoint. There were still yellow leaves hanging on to many of the tall cottonwood trees that dot the landscape. We’d missed the brightest yellows of October, but it was a new look. On Boulder Mountain, the aspen trees were leafless, making their white trunks shine all the whiter. And we found some snow to play in. A dusting of snow fell at higher elevations on a couple of afternoons and evenings, which I’d never seen on red rock cliffs before. And with our brand new AWD Highlander (still driveable after we sadly bonked a deer on the way to Torrey), we braved the Burr Trail switchbacks for the first time. After the steep descent, we explored Headquarters Canyon, a fun slotty canyon.

But the high heat of July was decidedly gone. Most mornings, it was in the low 20s. Only on the first day did the daytime temperature rise above 50.  With the familiar wind blowing, it was often super cold. Combined, the temperature, the wind, and the lack of bugs made for slim birding pickings. We did our family hiking in the afternoons when the temperatures had gotten to 40. Since we were hiking in slick rock canyons and washes, there was little chance we’d stumble into many birds. For most hikes, my bird list was raven + dark-eyed junco, the end.

Canyon Wren Teasdale Utah

A Canyon Wren popped up on the rocks one morning

I ventured out a few mornings to try to and find something more.  I first went to Bicknell Bottoms, a vast area of grass fields with a creek running through it. Usually, it’s a productive spot. But there were several hunters walking the field when I drove up (ducks? ring-necked pheasant?). I did a drive-by (mallards, coots, harrier) and checked some spots in and around Teasdale. A small reservoir was almost froze over, abut a flock of 50 Canvasback were on the open water. During a walk around the rim, a Canyon Wren popped up.  I then drove through the hay fields around Teasdale, and found the Ferruginous Hawk pictured at the top of this post.

Late one afternoon, I explored a spot just north of Torrey where a bridge crosses a creek. It was frozen on the edges, but still running. It produced the longest list of the week: 9 species! The best find was a flock of Gambel’s Quail moving through the bushes. They’re flagged as rare in the area, but (the very very few) local eBirders have reported small populations in a couple of spots for 15-20 years. This wasn’t one of those spots, but the habitat was just right. A Clark’s Nutcracker flyover was welcome – I love the color scheme of those birds. A quick stop at the flats behind the Capitol Reef Resort produced a surprise Sage Thrasher in a llama corral, which should’ve migrated out of here months ago. Even the llamas were long gone already.

Sage Thrasher Capitol Reef Utah

A Sage Thrasher that should be further south this time of year

I spent another morning at a couple of my favorite birding spots on Boulder Mountain. The first was Wildcat Meadow. I wasn’t sure what I’d find. There have only been 5 eBird checklist reports ever submitted for Wildcat Meadow from Nov-Feb. I had my fingers crossed for a lifer Pine Grosbeak, but I never stumbled into anything but the usual suspects and a coyote. From there, I headed to Singletree Campground, a bit further down the mountain and the spot where I saw my lifer Northern Goshawk this summer. There’s a short hike to a waterfall behind the campground. I found the waterfall frozen over. Around the waterfall, I finally found a mixed flock of birds. There were Juniper Titmice, Mountain Chickadees, three Brown Creepers, and a Townsend Solitaire moving around. 

Downy Woodpecker Boulder Mountain Utah

Downy Woodpecker working the aspens

The best sightings of the week were during a family walk down Grand Wash in Capitol Reef National Park. On the way in, an unusual bird call sounded from behind me. I managed to get a rising sparrow-sized bird in my binoculars. The bird was quickly flying up over a 200 foot cliff. I could see a black chest that tapered off at the belly. After opening up my Audubon app, I’m 80% sure it was a Rosy Black-Finch. The call sounded right. But the visual look wasn’t certain. And it struck me as odd for there to be a single bird, instead of a small flock. It would’ve been a lifer, but I can’t be sure.

On the way out I spotted some desert bighorn sheep on a ledge about 25 feet above the wash. Bighorn sheep had disappeared from the area due to hunting and disease. In the mid-1990s, they were re-introduced. But it takes good luck to find them. I’ve seen them three times in 10 years, but it had been 5 years or more since I’d seen one. We watched them as they watched us for a good 5 minutes. Then, our family of 4 and their family of 4 went our separate ways. As we got to the car along UT-24, I heard the rattle of a Belted Kingfisher, and found it perched on the cliff above the Fremont River. The hike at Grand Wash was a great capper to a week in wonderland.

Big Horn Sheep Grand Wash Capitol Reef National Park

A family of 4 Big Horn Sheep in Grand Wash

Epic Hummingbird Battle

Comet Neowise Torrey Utah

Gratuitous photo of the comet Neowise and a shooting star, seen from the Torrey Mesa

Come Strong for the Sugar Water

Whenever we visit the house on Torrey Mesa (Utah), we put some sugar water in a hummingbird feeder and hang it from the awning over the back porch. Within a couple of hours, the hummingbirds start to show up. We see three different hummingbird species in this arid, high elevation spot: Rufous Hummingbirds, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, and Broad-tailed Hummingbirds. They’re often skittish at first. After a couple of days, though, they come to tolerate our presence on the porch nearby. Indeed, the boys even get hummingbirds to land on their fingers to feed.

Hummingbird on Finger

Inter-species trust and cooperation

Hummingbirds are tiny and delicate, but they are notoriously aggressive. You can see it at times in competition over flowers, but the tension is on full display at sugar water feeders. Putting a hummingbird feeder out is a little like smashing open a pinata in front of a half-dozen seventh-grade bullies. Free sugar brings out screaming, stomping, and, occasionally, violent behavior. With dagger-like, and sometimes serrated, bills, these scrums are no joke.

At any given time, there is usually one hummingbird that we call “The Boss” around the feeder. This hummingbird furiously guards the feeder, chasing away other hummingbirds that come around. The Boss will set up on a branch on one of two juniper trees, each about 50 feet from the feeder.  When a hungry hummingbird flies in toward the feeder, The Boss darts from the juniper and heads straight for the invader at full speed. Most are quick enough to avoid the assault. At times, though, contact is made. Usually, the confrontation is mostly bluster: harsh calling and a full display of tail feathers. Sometimes, The Boss gets tired of flying in from the junipers, and just sits atop the feeder and guard the juice. 

An individual doesn’t stay The Boss for long. In four days, we’ve had at least 3 different identifiable bosses. Two have been Rufous Hummingbirds (one female Boss, and one male Boss), and the other a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. Our best guess for the turnover: it is exhausting to be The Boss. It takes a ton of energy to chase away other hummingbirds. Not only is it tiring, it can become futile. As the number of hummingbirds to chase away increases, The Boss simply can’t maintain control of the feeder.

Yesterday, I witnessed an epic hummingbird battle. The Boss was a male Black-chinned Hummingbird. When a female Rufous Hummingbird came to the feeder, the Boss did the usual thing. (I think it’s a female Rufous. It may be a female Broad-tailed). He flew in from the juniper and attempted to stab the Rufous Hummingbird with his bill. A short duel occurred in the sky near the feeder, with both birds screeching and spreading their tail feathers wide. Instead of tucking tail and flying off, the female Rufous stood her ground.  She had no idea what she was up against.

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The battle moves to the ground

What happened next was something I had never seen, nor did I ever imagine I’d see. Neither hummingbird would back down. After a few seconds of aerial jousting, the Black-chinned got above the Rufous and drove her to the ground. It looked like a wrestling match for a couple of seconds. Then, the action stopped. To my shock, the Black-chinned Hummingbird had landed on the Rufous Hummingbird’s bill. He was standing there, flapping his wings for balance, just dominating the Rufous Hummingbird. He didn’t let go for almost 10 seconds. Amazingly, I had my camera at the ready and got a couple of shots.

Black-chinned Hummingbird Rufous Hummingbird

Total Hummingbird Domination

Black-chinned Hummingbird

Black-chinned Hummingbird

The constant fighting led to a family discussion. Are we doing these birds right by offering up free food in a scarce environment? Or are we Romans at the Coliseum watching tiny gladiators battle for our own amusement? And what are the psychological ramifications of having another hummingbird stand on your bill while you’re prostrate on the ground? Yes, somewhat, and fleeting, if you ask me.

« Older posts