Cruising In Southwestern Alaska And Down The Inside Passage

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We’re back after a two-week hiatus.  We spent this time aboard the National Geographic “Sea Lion,” a very small cruise ship, in the company of 49 fellow passengers, plus crew and professional staff, on a Lindblad/National Geographic-operated tour of coastal southwestern Alaska and British Columbia’s Inside Passage, from Sitka Alaska to Seattle.

It was a remarkable experience, something that I did not foresee.  The trip was an extraordinary adventure.  The “Sea Lion” is an older ship, constructed in 1982, and quite comfortable if not luxurious.  The atmosphere aboard ship is intimate but we never felt encroached upon.  The crew and staff were solicitous, helpful, informative, and extremely professional in every aspect of their work. Our fellow passengers were delightful.

We cruised through fjords and open seas, leisurely picking our way down the coast.  For much of the voyage the scenery was nothing short of spectacular.  We cruised through narrow passageways under towering cliffs at times.


We saw a lot.  The wildlife we encountered included bears, whales too numerous to count, sea lions, otters, eagles, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and numerous bird species.

This blog’s purpose is to depict life in the Sonoran Desert, but sometimes I’ll digress if something sufficiently interesting comes along and I am able to document it.   Over the next few days I’m going to feature images of some of the wildlife we encountered on this trip plus some photos of absolutely stunning landscapes.

The first and third images made with a Canon 5D-iv, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, ISO 2500, f7.1 @ 1/1600 and f8 @ 1/640.  The second, third and fourth image shot with a Canon 5DS-R, 16-35mm f4 zoom lens, ISO 320, f9 @ 1/250.

Giant Swallowtail

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A brief announcement before discussing today’s subject: this blog will be on hiatus for a couple of weeks.  We’re taking our annual vacation (at last!).  Of course, I’m taking my cameras with me and it’s my hope that I’ll have some very neat images to post on my return.  I should resume posting on September 19.

As their name implies, Giant Swallowtails are very large butterflies.  With wingspans of three inches or more, these big swallowtails are the largest butterflies that we see in the Tucson area.  They are immediately distinguishable from other swallowtail species with similarly colored and patterned wings because Giant Swallowtails have all-yellow bodies.  No other swallowtail species does.

These butterflies are a pretty common sight in the Tucson area each late summer and autumn.  I photographed this individual in our backyard the other day.  It was among at least four swallowtails that visited our yard in a one-hour period.

Giant Swallowtails are one of those species that appear to have benefitted from human activity.  This species originally had a range that was limited to the southwestern United States.  However, it is expanding its range gradually, possibly due to climate change.

The caterpillars of these butterflies love to feed on the leaves of citrus trees.  For that reason, citrus growers consider them to be a nuisance despite the adults’ obvious beauty.  There are no commercial citrus groves that I’m aware of in Tucson or its immediate suburbs.  But, local residents love to plant citrus in their yards and thus, there is plenty of forage for the caterpillars.  The commercial citrus growers have my sympathies but, personally, I love to see these insects.

There was a severe freeze in Tucson one January morning a few years ago.  Native plants shrugged it off for the most part, but a lot of those non-native citrus trees suffered freeze damage.  Some trees were killed outright and others suffered severe limb die back from freezing.  For a year or two thereafter the Giant Swallowtail population appeared to be greatly diminished. Most of the citrus appears to have recovered and these big butterflies are once again a common sight.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, first and third image shot at f5.6 @ 1/4000, second image shot at f5.6 @ 1/6400.


Immature Katydid

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I’ve been amusing myself recently by prowling around our backyard, camera in hand.  I never cease to be amazed by what I find if I walk very slowly and look closely at the vegetation in our yard.  There’s a whole world of insects and other arthropods out there on the shrubs and ground cover of which, I suspect, most people are unaware.

The other day I noticed something unusually bright green ensconced in a flower bract of a Red Bird of Paradise plant.  From a distance of a few yards it struck me as being too green to be part of the plant.  I was right.  As I approached, I immediately recognized the bright green object as an immature katydid.

I sometimes think of katydids as grasshoppers’ weird cousins.  Katydids and grasshoppers are, in fact, closely related, but there are obvious differences that distinguish the two.  You can immediately identify a katydid by its absurdly long hind legs and by its equally long antennae.  Grasshoppers have shorter hind legs and much shorter antennae.

I know that this individual is immature because it does not have fully developed wings.  As young katydids grow they periodically shed their skins.  With each molt the youngsters have longer wings until fully developed wings emerge with the final molt.  At this stage of its life, this insect is flightless.  Those incredibly long hind legs render it capable of making prodigious leaps of several inches and that is its main defense against predators

In these images the insect is nibbling on the Bird of Paradise’s flowers and stems.  Many species of katydids are, in fact, omnivores and opportunistic feeders. As I watched this insect, I saw it seize and very quickly devour a lacewing, a fly-like insect.  The lacewing made the mistake of alighting right next to the katydid, which grabbed it without hesitation.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 125, f16 @ 1/160.

Great Horned Owl — “Clawdette”

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Great Horned Owls are a “Holy Grail” species for me.  Up until recently I desperately wanted to get some nice photos of one of these huge raptors but was unable to manage it.  I’d see them from time to time and I’d hear them even more often but, invariably, I was prevented from getting a useable image.

So, a few days ago, I was very excited when my friend Sam called me to tell me that there were a couple of Great Horned Owls roosting in his backyard.  I dropped what I was doing, jumped into my car, and was there in within minutes.

Sam’s home is located adjacent to a very large wash (stream bed) that is dry about 99 percent of the year.  The wash, which runs through Sam’s neighborhood from the nearby Santa Catalina Mountains, is heavily treed and the trees and undergrowth extend from the wash’s steeply sloping banks into Sam’s backyard.  The wash is a wildlife highway and Sam has the advantage of being visited regularly by all sorts of fascinating creatures.

Sam was as good as his word.  I walked into his backyard and immediately encountered a Great Horned Owl roosting on a low branch of a large tree.

Great Horned Owls are the largest raptors living year-round in Tucson and its suburbs.  They are apex predators and will hunt anything that they can overpower and capture.  Their prey includes other raptors like hawks, rodents and other mammals as large as rabbits and skunks, and reptiles, including snakes.  They are supremely efficient stealth hunters.  They specialize in hunting during twilight hours, right after sunset and just before dawn.  They have superb hearing and extraordinary vision.  A Great Horned Owl’s eyes are as large as a human’s.  Their flight is almost completely silent.  Typically, a hunting owl descends on its prey before the prey is ever aware of the owl’s presence.

Sam advises me that this owl is a regular daytime resident in his yard.  Sam has naming rights to the wildlife that visit his yard and he named this owl “Clawdette,” which I find to be  perfect.  Her very large size (she’s big, even for a Great Horned Owl) almost certainly identifies her as a female.  As with other raptors, female Great Horned Owls are larger than males. Her talons (claws) are long and razor sharp.  Notice the gigantic feet on this bird.  A Great Horned Owl uses its feet to kill.  One of those feet has about five times the gripping strength of a human’s hand.

Upon seeing this owl up close the first impression that one has is of size and power.  A Great Horned Owl is much larger — almost double the size — of a Red-tailed Hawk.  By bird standards, a Great Horned Owl is massive.

I was delighted to photograph the second owl also roosting in Sam’s yard.  The second Great Horned Owl is considerably smaller than Clawdette and is probably her mate.

Great Horned Owls mate for life and they stay together for most of the year.  Often, they roost a few yards apart during daylight hours, even after the end of their breeding season.  After dark they maintain contact with each other by hooting.  Although the male is considerably smaller than the female he has a deeper voice.  If you’re ever out after dark and hear owls calling, listen to the tones that they emit.  It’s generally pretty easy to identify the male and female owl by their pitch.

Great Horned Owls have a range that includes the entire United States. They are an extremely successful species and are far more common than people realize.  They’re just not seen very often because they conceal themselves in daylight.  Those “horns,” by the way, are feathers and not actual ears.  The technical term for the “horns” is “plumicorns,” a word that I find to be totally cool and that I try to use as often as possible in casual speech.  The owls’ ears are on the sides of their heads, well below the owls’ plumicorns.  Interestingly, their position is asymmetrical, with one ear being higher than the other.  The off-center location of the owls’ ears enables them to triangulate noises in the dark and helps them to locate their prey.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 2000, f.6.3, shutter speeds varied from 1/320 to 1/500.


Reakirt’s Blue

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I suspect that most of us, when we think of butterflies, imagine the big and showy species — particularly Monarchs.  In fact, of the thousands of butterfly species, many are much less conspicuous than Monarchs or the big swallowtails.

Here’s an example.  This tiny butterfly is no larger than my thumbnail.  It is a Reakirt’s Blue, one of many species of butterflies that fall under the generic heading of “blues.”  There are a handful of species of blues that show up in southern Arizona each year.

These very tiny butterflies are a common sight in southern Arizona during August and September.  Some butterfly species are more active in the cooler parts of the day.  Not Reakirt’s Blue, these insects can be observed out and about at mid-day when the temperature frequently exceeds 100.

In this image the butterfly has its long proboscis extended and it appears to be drinking something.  There is no flower in the image so, obviously, the butterfly isn’t consuming plant nectar.  It is perched on the stem of a Red Bird of Paradise plant.  The stems of this plant exude a waxy oil that attracts insects, including this butterfly.  On numerous occasions I’ve also seen wasps lapping up the plant’s oily exudate.

These insects are inconspicuous by virtue of their diminutive size.  My guess is that most observers tend to overlook them.  That is unfortunate, in my opinion, because they are truly beautiful.  The outer wings of these butterflies (not shown in this image) are a deep dusky blue.  The undersides (shown here) are a very subtle beige and gray with blue fringes and they are patterned with an intricate series of spots and markings.

All species of blues look pretty much identical to the unschooled eye.  When I photographed this butterfly I had no idea what species I’d captured.  I was only able to identify it by consulting a guidebook.  Each species of blue has a unique pattern of spots on its inner wings (shown in this image).  They’re kind of like a species-specific “fingerprint.” I identified this individual as a Reakirt’s Blue by comparing its markings with those of the various blue species shown in the guide.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, f18 @ 1/160.

Juvenile Swainson’s Hawk On An Overcast Morning

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Yesterday I posted about the Turkey Vulture migration, a true sign of the impending change of seasons.  There is another migration that has just started and that is the great Swainson’s Hawk migration that occurs every year beginning about now.  These birds mainly summer on the northern plains (there are a relatively few mated pairs that summer in southern Arizona) where they forage and breed in considerable numbers.  In autumn they head south, all the way to Argentina, where they spend their winter.  They pass through southern Arizona in waves, hundreds or even thousands of hawks at a time.  Observing this migration first hand is a thrilling experience.

In the past week or ten days I’ve seen the vanguard of this migration.  A few days ago a friend and I observed several dozen Swainson’s Hawks foraging in a field northwest of Tucson.  I’ve also seen individual birds here and there.

Among them was this juvenile Swainson’s Hawk whose image I captured about a week ago.  The bird was perched on an exposed low hanging mesquite branch when I photographed it.

I know that this hawk is a youngster both by the heavily marked plumage on its breast and by its relatively pale eye.

I photographed the young hawk on an overcast morning.  Overcast skies make for tricky photography but can yield very rewarding results.  The lack of contrast and the absence of a  brilliant blue background sky often make it possible to bring out a range of tones and detail in the subject that one might not be able to capture in harsh sunlight.

One of the nice things about photographing Swainson’s Hawks is that they frequently perch on low branches or even on the ground.  This distinguishes them from their Red-tailed Hawk cousins, who generally seek out the highest available exposed spot on which to roost.  Low perching makes for much more interesting photographs.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/500.

Turkey Vultures In Migration — A Sign Of Fall

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It was 104 degrees here yesterday but still, I know that fall is fast approaching. The Turkey Vultures are in migration.

Turkey Vultures are spring and summer residents of the desert in and around Tucson, with a small number of them remaining here during the winter months.  In late summer and early autumn their numbers are augmented considerably for a few weeks by large numbers of migrating vultures passing through the area.  Normally, Turkey Vultures aren’t particularly social (their cousins, Black Vultures, are by contrast, quite social).  It’s not very common during the summer  to see multiple Turkey Vultures perching together unless there’s a food source close by.  But, during the migration, these birds become social for a while.  Groups of four and five vultures often perch together, companions perhaps, on their annual flight south.

I’ve written before about the unique attributes of these birds and the at times weird behaviors that they manifest.  Here are a few fun Turkey Vulture facts:

.  It’s typical for these vultures’ legs to be chalky white.  The white “chalk” is actually urea deposits.  Vultures urinate on their legs because the evaporation of urine in hot weather cools the blood circulating just below the skin and that in turn helps the birds maintain their body temperatures on extremely hot days.

.  Turkey Vultures have among the keenest senses of smell of all birds.  It is said that they can detect the odor of say, roadkill, from miles away.

.  Turkey Vultures will sometimes vomit when frightened.  It’s unclear whether they do this to distract potential predators or to lighten their load in order to facilitate a quick getaway.

.  These birds are essentially mute.  They have no call but can emit a hissing sound when upset.

.  There remains a debate as to whether Turkey Vultures are distantly related to falcons or to storks.

.  Turkey Vultures are not closely related to Old World Vultures in Europe, Africa, or Asia.  Similarities in appearance and lifestyle are a consequence of convergent evolution.

Turkey vultures often look somewhat ungainly on the ground.  That’s deceptive.  They are among the most graceful fliers of all birds.

A Turkey Vulture is capable of spending hours aloft, hardly ever flapping its huge wings.  These vultures have perfected the art of gliding and soaring.

It’s easy to distinguish Turkey Vultures from other large birds when they are in the air.  Their wings tilt upward in a “dihedral” shape, forming a very shallow “v”.  Very few other species manifest that wing shape.  As they soar, these vultures have a tendency to slip from side to side, making their flight appear to be a bit wobbly.

This last image is one of my favorite recent shots of a Turkey Vulture.  There’s something about these birds and dead tree limbs that just seems to go together!

All images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority.  ISO, apertures, and shutter speeds varied.

Juvenile Great-tailed Grackles — Feed Us!

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I was driving around in farm country near Tucson this morning when I came across a flock of Great-tailed Grackles sitting on a berm at the edge of a field of alfalfa.  Great-tailed Grackles are among those species that seem to have benefitted considerably from human activity.  In southern Arizona they are a very common sight in parks, in fields, and in shopping mall parking lots.  One rarely sees them out in the desert, however.  They are large and very noisy birds that almost invariably travel in flocks that sometimes number hundreds of individuals.  They get their name from the fact that the males have extremely — almost comically — long tails.  The males are a deep blue-black with pale eyes. Females and juveniles are a drab brown in color with dark eyes.  Juveniles have much shorter tails than do the adults.

Great-tailed Grackles are omnivores that will eat almost anything.  Their un-selective diet probably is what enables them to adapt so easily to human activity.

The flock that I encountered this morning seemed to consist mostly of females and juvenile birds.  I observed several juveniles all doing the same thing, begging for food from their elders.

The juveniles sat with their mouths wide open, pleading loudly to be fed.  As far as I could tell, the adults ignored them.

It’s not uncommon for young birds to continue to be fed by their parents for some time after they leave the nest.  That period may range from a few days to weeks or even months, depending on the species.  These youngsters, traveling as part of a flock, would seem to have reached a stage of development where they are capable of foraging on their own.  The fact that the adults were ignoring them suggests that the juveniles’ begging behavior was wishful thinking on their part.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/2000.

Orb Weaver Spider — Two Views

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Late summer and early fall are the time of year to observe orb weavers.  These are the classic web spinning spiders.  They construct elaborate webs, architectural marvels, which they use to trap small insects.  There are numerous species of these spiders and they reside world-wide.  You are just as likely to find an orb weaver in your backyard in say, New Jersey, as I am in Tucson although the species will likely differ.

Orb weavers quite often are crepuscular and nocturnal.  They spin their webs at dusk.  By mid-morning they retreat to sheltered locations, such as the undersides of leaves, where they hide during the day.  As night returns, they emerge to reconstruct their webs.

There are species of orb weavers that aren’t much bigger than the head of a match and some species that measure three inches across or more.  The species that is common to our community consists of small spiders that might attain a diameter of about an inch at maturity.  Most are smaller than that.  Orb weavers, like all spiders are venomous, but their venom is essentially harmless to humans.  No one needs fear being bitten by an orb weaver.

The other morning, just after sunrise, I made a survey of our back yard and discovered more than a half-dozen orb weaver webs.  My guess is that I missed at least as many as I found.

They are very beautiful little spiders.  From a distance they may look drab but, viewed up close, the intricacy of the patterns on their abdomens is amazing.  I made two images of one of these spiders.  The first image, taken with the aid of a flash, shows a detailed view of the spider.

Look closely at this image and you’ll see what I mean about the intricacy of the design on the spider’s abdomen.  Why it evolved such an elaborate and complex  appearance is anyone’s guess.

Here’s a second view of the same spider, this time made from the same perspective but with the flash turned off and in available light.  The sun had just cleared the horizon when I took this picture and the spider is back lit, with the sun shining through its translucent legs and cephalothorax (head).  It is a much less detailed image than the first one but prettier, I think.  Back lit by direct sunlight, the spider reveals itself as being very colorful.  I like how the dark stripes on the spider’s legs, which show up as black under my flash, turn a rich amber when the sun shines through them.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens and supported by monopod. The first image assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f14 @ 1/160.  The second image made in available light, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/500.

Burrowing Owls — A Close Couple

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I love to photograph Burrowing Owls.  They are highly photogenic and often quite cooperative subjects.  They also come across as comical although that’s certainly not their intent.

Recently, I photographed this pair of owls.  They’re obviously mates.  The male is the larger of the two birds. With Burrowing Owls size is not an indicator of gender.  I know that the larger bird is the male because his plumage, particularly on his head, is faded in comparison to that of the female’s plumage.  During breeding season males spend their time outdoors, guarding their burrows, while the females are down below, sitting on the eggs.  The male’s plumage gets bleached by the sun.  That’s especially so in a climate like southern Arizona’s.

The two little owls seem to be sharing each other’s thoughts in these images.  Their closeness is indicated not only by their proximity to each other but by their body language.

There is something really touching about Burrowing Owls.  Lots of bird species mate for life, but few non-owl couples seem to be as emotionally connected as are Burrowing Owls.  Red-tailed Hawks, for example, tend to go their separate ways after breeding season, only to hook up again the following year.  Burrowing Owls, however, seem to stay together throughout most of the year.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/1000.