Hummingbirds, grasses, and snakes

What a first week of field work! I am currently at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch in Southeast Arizona (near Elgin, AZ) studying black-chinned hummingbirds.  While things definitely did not start off well, we’ve bounced back and things have been going really well since then, plus we’ve been having some fun while we are out here.


One of the many beautiful landscapes found at the Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch.


A male black-chinned hummingbird on his territory.

First, when I say we, I am talking about myself and my two undergraduate assistants: Jess and Aly. This is the first year I’ve had field assistants, and they have been just wonderful! They have been great help in the field, and I will definitely miss their help once this leg of fieldwork is over.


Aly (left) and Jess (right)


Aly and Jess trapping hummingbirds.

Second, the reason things did not start out well was entirely behind our control. For first several days, we were plagued by crazy winds; 20-35 mph winds from dawn to dusk. I was able to find a few black-chinned hummingbird territories before the winds got bad, but after that, it became very hard to find territories. However, once the winds died down, things really got rolling. We caught two females for captivity in the same day, which was nice. For those unfamiliar with my work, I present females in cages to males on their territories in order to film male courtship displays. Often, when male hummingbirds see a female, they will display to it (see my youtube channel for example shuttle displays). Thanks to Jess and Aly, these females also have names: Ginny and Lavender. Yes, they are named after Harry Potter characters, and the names were specifically chosen for a reason. Ginny has been a great female in captivity, while Lavender…. well she stressed me out quite a bit the first day we had her.


One of the females in her cage. Photo credit: Aly Apple


Lavender, one of our female hummingbirds. Photo credit: Jess Givens

Anyways, after capturing the two females, we spent the next three days filming males. We managed to successfully film three males shuttling as of today, which combined with the two male shuttle displays I filmed last year, brings me up to my sample size of five, which I am happy with. A sample size of five might not seem that impressive, but black-chinned hummingbirds, in my experience, have been very difficult to work with. Before I left, I had been telling people that this was a tough field site because there just are not many black-chinned hummingbirds here. After thinking about it more, it is not that there are not many hummingbirds here; it is that they tend to be very spread out and are not very dense. This means we have to drive or hike fair distances between male territories. The other reason black-chinned hummingbirds are difficult to work with is that it is hard to film their shuttle displays. First, a good portion of the males I found will not even display to a female in a cage – they just ignore her. Second, black-chinned hummingbird displays are very wide and are often not captured entirely within the view of my camera. So even if I get a male that displays, I have to make sure he displays directly over the camera for me to be able to use that display. But I now have displays filmed from 5 males that I can use!


Aly and I setting up to film. Photo credit: Jess Givens

That is the update on fieldwork, but we have been doing more than just working on black-chinned hummingbirds this week. The past two afternoons, we have gone out with the two people who run this research ranch – Dr. Linda Kennedy and Roger Cogan. They are both very knowledgeable about the natural history of this place, and specifically they know a ton about the grasses (Linda) and reptiles/amphibians (Roger).


Linda and I walking and discussing grasses. Photo credit: Jess Givens


Roger checking the sex of this mountain kingsnake I am holding, as Aly watches. Photo credit: Jess Givens

Yesterday we went out with Linda to learn more about the grasses on the property and grasslands in general. Amazingly, there are around 100 species of grass found on this ranch. Another interesting thing is that these grasses are very susceptible to overgrazing from cattle, which can greatly hurt these grasslands, because these grasses did not evolve with large grazing animals, unlike the grasses in the great plains, which co-evovled with bison. We also learned several unique properties about some of the different grass species on the ranch, and I have to say, grasses are actually very interesting! For example, the tangle-head grass has a self planting seed, because the seed coils and then when it gets wet it elongates and drills into the soil. Here are a few of the other species we learned about:


While this grassland might look fairly uniform, there are many different species of grasses here! Also something I learned is that most of these grasses are bunch grasses, which means they grow in clumps instead of continuous surfaces like most lawn grasses (sod grasses).


Here is a sideoats grama, a common native species in the area. It can be identified during the dry season by the wavy stalk tip.


This is Lehman’s love grass, which is an invasive species that is starting to take over these grasslands. It is very bad that it is taking over, because very few of the native animals eat it or live in it, so many of their populations are in decline where-ever this grass is dominant. It also out-competes all of the native grasses.


This is blue grama, another native species. This species is interesting because when it is grazed, it becomes a sod grass, but if it is not grazed, it is a bunch grass.


This is bear grass, which is very different looking from the grasses above. Actually, bear grass is not a grass; it is either in the lily or asparagus family, depending on who you talk to. It is tough and used to be used in Mexico for street sweepers.


This is curly mesquite grass, which can grown both from seeds and runners. It is a much shorter grass than the ones above.


This is sacaton grass, which has become rarer due to a lower water table and the conversion of floodplains to farmland. It is often found in ephemeral washes, as it needs more moisture than other upland grasses. When it is dry, it is several feet tall, but it can grow even taller after monsoon!

Then today, we went out with Roger to go herping, meaning we were going out to find reptiles and amphibians. This involved checking out many of the rocky outcrops found along the canyons and washes on the ranch. We also walked along riparian areas to look for different species of snakes and turtles. We managed to find several black-tailed rattlesnakes, which were grouped in twos as they were most likely breeding. We also found two mountain kingsnakes, a few Clark’s spiny lizards, an ornate tree lizard, a lesser earless lizard, and four mud turtles. Here are a few pictures from this afternoon:


An example of some of the rocky outcrops where we found snakes.


A Clark’s spiny lizard standing outside his home in a rocky outcrop and showing off his blue throat.


A mountain kingsnake – remember red on black, friend of jack! This snake is not venomous, like the similarly looking coral snake (red on yellow, kill a fellow).


Jess and Aly holding the mountain kingsnake we found, which had wrapped itself around Jess’s camelback tube.


Me holding the mountain kingsnake.


A black-tailed rattlesnake.


Two black-tailed rattlesnakes, possibly mating.


Two mud turtles, also possibly mating.

I would really like to thank Linda and Roger for taking time out of their busy days to share their knowledge of grasses and herps and take us out into the field. For all those who do research at field stations, I would highly encourage you to go out into the field with the managers/naturalists of those stations, because if they are anything like Roger and Linda, they are founts of knowledge and you can learn many interesting things.


Me, Linda, Aly, and Jess (left to right).


Roger, me, Jess, and Aly (left to right).

All-in-all things have been going really well here. We only have five more days, and still a lot to do, but hopefully everything goes well!


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