Tonto Natural Bridge Celebration Spotlights Birds Of Rim Country


When Tonto Natural Bridge Park Ranger Cathe Descheemaker makes her presentation on great horned owls at the park's Appreciation of the Rim Country's Beautiful Birds event Saturday, she'll have her sidekick Lefty with her.

Conveniently, Lefty is a great horned owl. Inconveniently, at least for Lefty, the owl is missing his right wing.

Great horned owls have wingspans that can range from 48 inches to 60 inches ... when, that is, they have both wings. While they can be found all over Arizona, they are especially plentiful in the Rim country, said Descheemaker, who, as one of the park's interpretive rangers, gives presentations on its natural history, geology, wildlife and birds.

Because great horned owls are the most aggressive of all owls, they are known as the "tiger of the woods," she said. "They are the only known bird predator of the skunk, and they will even go after red tail hawks."

While these nocturnal creatures are fond of feeding on a variety of small rodents and other creatures, their all-time favorite snack is the cottontail rabbit. They are defensive of their territory, and with serrated, knife-like edges on their feathers, they are ghostly silent in flight.

Descheemaker's great horned owl presentation, scheduled for noon, will be sandwiched between two other elements of the Beautiful Birds event guided birdwalks at 11 a.m. and a presentation on how to attract birds to your yard by biologist Dorothy Bender-Anderson at 1 p.m.

One birdwalk will be led by John Peel, who lives in Arrowhead Canyon next to the bridge. "He's very familiar with the area and he is an avid birdwatcher," Descheemaker said.

Park volunteer Linda Johnson also known as the bird lady may conduct a second guided birdwalk.

"The Natural Bridge Park is a riparian area unlike any other," Descheemaker said. Because of its wide elevation variations, a large number of birds can usually be seen during one tour.

The first part of the birdwalk, which includes all the park viewpoints at the parking lot level, is a relatively easy walk.

"Later, the hike will continue down into the canyon for those interested," Descheemaker said.

Regardless of whether you opt for the entire walk, binoculars are highly recommended. "Many of the birds we'll see are fast flyers," she said.

Bender-Anderson's presentation on attracting birds to yards and gardens will focus on the three fundamentals that birds need: food, water and shelter. If these three provisions aren't naturally available in a yard, they can be introduced.

Providing food can be as simple as throwing crusts of bread into the yard; water can be provided in a birdbath or pond; and shelter can be provided by well-placed nestboxes, Descheemaker said.

Landscaping, however, may be the best way to attract birds, she said. Plants offer protection from predators, sites for nesting and sources of food.

The key to attracting a variety of bird species is to use a diverse selection of plants, including plants that bloom and fruit at different times of the year. It's also wise, Descheemaker said, to provide various patterns in your landscaping, including dense thickets, open areas, trees and water areas to provide birds with as much variety as possible.

Hummingbirds are a local favorite in the Rim country, and this is the time of year when they begin to return. Residents who use commercial hummingbird food to attract the birds should make sure they use clear, dye-free food, Descheemaker said.

"Foods that use a red food dye can destroy their livers and kill the birds," she said. Red-dyed food is popular because it is the hummingbirds' favorite color, but almost all feeders now have red on them anyway.

Descheemaker, who also is an artist specializing in hummingbirds, said another key to successfully attracting hummingbirds is to clean out commercial feeders every other day.

"The food ferments and kills the birds," she said.

"Lots of times weekenders will come up and leave full feeders behind. That's the worst thing you can do."

Clean feeders also attract more hummingbirds. "I have a friend who lives on the mountain who attracts about 200 birds a night to his feeder," she said. "Hummingbirds go to the yards with the freshest foods.

Descheemaker, however, favors a different approach.

"I encourage people to plant plants that attract hummingbirds rather than using commercial food," she said. Red, tubular flowers are your best choice.

Admission to the Appreciation of the Rim Country's Beautiful Birds program is free, but attendees must pay the $5-per-car park entrance fee.

Hummingbird facts

The smallest bird in the world, the Cuban bee hummingbird, is two and a quarter inches long about the size of a bumble bee.

Hummingbirds, like helicopters, can hover. They can also move ahead, sideways or backward at will.

A ruby-throated hummingbird, weighing about one tenth of an ounce, can travel 600 miles in migration.

Hummingbirds not only sip nectar, but also eat tiny insects and spiders. They may drink up to eight times their body weight daily in water.

Although a hummingbird's normal body temperature is about 103 degrees, it may drop to 70 degrees at night. Hummingbirds have the ability to endure temporary cool weather or cool nights by becoming dormant.

There are 340 species of hummingbirds in the world and all are found only in the Western Hemisphere. Of these, only one, the ruby-throated hummingbird, is found regularly east of the Mississippi.

Flying consumes a great deal of a hummingbird's energy. Wing beats have been measured at 20 to 200 beats per second.

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