Friends Of A Feather

An invitation to go birding at the Tonto Natural Bridge

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Avid bird watchers and amateurs who want to learn more about birdwatching are invited to spend a day "Enjoying Birds of the Rim Country" at the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park this Saturday, April 24.

"The natural bridge park is a riparian area unlike any other," Park Ranger Cathe Descheemaker said. Because of its wide elevation variations, a large number of birds can usually be seen in a very compressed tour.

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Volunteer Aimee Price, Tonto Natural Bridge park ranger Cathe Descheemaker, and volunteer coordinator Courtney Rogers practice their bird watching skills in anticipation of Saturday's event, "Enjoying Birds of the Rim Country." The park gate opens at 7 a.m., and visitors are advised to come early for the best sightings.

A series of informational birding workshops begins at 7 a.m. with a Pine Creek Canyon birding hike hosted by Rick Heffernon, an avid birdwatcher and longtime resident of Arrowhead Canyon northeast of the bridge.

"Rick has lived in the canyon for 20 years, and he is an excellent birder," Descheemaker said. "He'll help visitors identify birds by song as well as sight, and that will be a great learning experience for people like me who can't bird by sound."

Those who partake of the 7 a.m. hike will probably see the most birds, according to Descheemaker.

"The earlier you come the more birds you see and hear," she said. "Early in the morning is the best time to see birds."

At 8 a.m. a beginner's bird walk will be held utilizing the bridge's parking lot level viewpoints.

"The bird walk is also for people who maybe can't hike, but can walk," Descheemaker said.

One recent Sunday morning, Descheemaker said she saw yellow warblers, violet-green swallows, white-throated swifts, Cassin's kingbirds, black phoebes, white breasted nuthatches, canyon wrens and phainopeplas.

"Those were in addition to the birds like the ravens and jays that people have all over Payson," she said.

While ravens are common in the Rim country, nesting ravens are not -- and the bridge affords an opportunity to experience that rare sight.

"There's an old Native American Eskimo legend that anyone who views a raven's nest is supposed to be extremely blessed because they are so secretive in where they nest," she said. "They are one of the most intelligent birds."

Besides the time of day, the time of year is a critical factor for birdwatching, and this is prime season, according to Descheemaker.

"Spring is the best time for birdwatching because it's when the migratory birds come through -- between now and this time next month," she said. "They are a little confused by the weather we've been having, though. We had that really warm spell in March, and then the high last Saturday (April 10) was 41 degrees and we had rain and hail."

The bird walk will continue until 10 a.m.

"We'll just let people join in as they come," Descheemaker said.

Following the bird walk, Linda Scott of Liberty Wildlife in Scottsdale will take over.

"Linda is bringing several raptors to the park to display under the Cypress Ramada at 10 a.m.," Descheemaker said. "For sure she's bringing a red tail hawk, a turkey vulture and a great horned owl, and possibly an eagle."

Great horned owls are magnificent creatures whose wingspans can range from 48 to 60 inches. While they can be found all over Arizona, they are especially plentiful in the Rim country, according to Descheemaker.

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."

Guests will learn even more about Liberty's raptors at 11 a.m, when Scott makes an informative educational presentation about the birds she is bringing.

Then at 1 p.m., Descheemaker, who is also an accomplished wildlife artist, will offer a special arts and crafts session for children ages 5 and up.

"The Wild Brush Gallery donated tons of mat board for this, and we have all sorts of bird photographs for them to make a collage," she said. "The little kids will be doing bookmarks and smaller projects."

Descheemaker said the Liberty Wildlife presentations and the arts and crafts projects afford children, especially home-schooled children, a great opportunity to see real birds close-up.

"It's so much better than in photographs," she said.

All of the "Enjoying Birds of the Rim Country" events are free, but a state park entrance fee is required to participate, and all children must be accompanied by an adult. Hikers and walkers should bring binoculars and water and wear hiking shoes.

For more information, call the bridge at (928) 476-4202. For information about other state parks, see the calendar of events at www.azstateparks.com or call the state parks main office at 1-800-285-3703.

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is located off Highway 87 10 miles north of Payson.

Attracting birds to your yard

Birds need three fundamental things -- food, water and shelter, according to Tonto Natural Bridge Park Ranger Cathe Descheemaker.

If these three provisions are not naturally available in your yard, there are ways you can introduce them.

Feeding ranges from throwing out crusts of bread to putting bird seed in feeders, while water can be provided in a birdbath or pond. Well-placed nestboxes create a great place to watch the cycles of birds' lives, Descheemaker said.

But you may be able to do more to attract birds through natural landscaping than any other means. Plants offer protection from predators, sites for nesting and sources of food.

The key to attracting a great variety of bird species is to create as much diversity in flora as possible, 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 as much variety as possible.

Hummingbirds are a local favorite in the Rim country, and this is the time of the year when they start returning. If you use commercial hummingbird food, Descheemaker said it should be clear. "Foods that use a red food dye can destroy their livers and kill the birds."

Descheemaker, who is also an artist specializing in hummingbirds, says another key to successfully attracting hummingbirds is to clean out commercial feeders every other day. "The food ferments and kills the birds," she said.

Clean feeders also help to attract more hummingbirds to your yard. "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."

Actually, Descheemaker said, there is an ongoing controversy about hummingbird food. "I encourage people to plant plants that attract hummingbirds rather than using commercial food," she said. Red, tubular flowers are your best choice.

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