Swainson’s Hawks — Portraits On An Overcast Morning

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Southern Arizona has so many brilliantly sunny days that it always seems to come as a surprise when there is cloud cover.  Needless to say, I do most of my photography in sunlight.  However, I relish the opportunity to photograph at least occasionally on overcast days.  The quality of light is much different when the sun is obscured.  It makes for very interesting lighting, challenging conditions,  and, I think, some worthwhile images.

Recently, we were out on the Santa Cruz Flats northwest of Tucson on an overcast morning.  The day had started with broken clouds and sun, but a cloud bank moved in and changed the color of the sky to solid gray.  It was under these conditions that I encountered some old friends, a pair of Swainson’s Hawks that had taken up residence in a stand of pecan trees.  They were in a very cooperative mood and so, I took the time to photograph each of them.  The male — smaller and more graceful than the female — is shown in the first and third images.  The female is depicted in the second image.

Occluded lighting provides for much less contrasty images than does direct sunlight.  It is less dramatic than direct light but it often brings out details that normally are hidden by shadowed areas.  Every aspect of this bird’s beautiful plumage is clearly evident in this image.  

The same is true for his mate.  Overcast skies are especially friendly to white plumage.  On a sunny day I’m often faced with the alternative of either overexposing the white areas, or exposing them correctly and underexposing everything else.  On a cloudy day, I can usually get everything within a decent exposure range.

Here’s a second look at the male.

Often, when I photograph a bird in sunlight, one side of the bird’s face will be shaded, because the hawk will look away from the sun  (hawks don’t like staring into the sun any more than we do). But, here, both sides are evenly lit, rendering superior detail to what I would get on a sunny day.

What one prefers is a matter of taste.  Personally, I like both types of lighting equally.  I enjoy the challenges presented by photographing under a cloudy sky.  Sometimes it’s good to be able to sharpen one’s skills under other-than-typical conditions.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/500, two full stops of exposure compensation.

Mississippi Kite

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I’m presenting something different today. This beautiful falcon-like raptor is a Mississippi Kite.

As their name implies, Mississippi Kites are native to the southeastern United States, with their largest populations concentrated near the Gulf of Mexico.  But, somehow, a tiny handful of these birds has established  summer residences in a couple of locations in southeastern Arizona.  I found this individual not far from the San Pedro River, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson.  

Mississippi Kites are remarkably graceful and attractive birds.  They are superb aerialists, capable of impressive maneuvers as they chase down and capture dragonflies on the wing.  The kites’ flying skills appear more impressive when you realize that dragonflies are, in and of themselves, extremely adept fliers.  Snatching one out of the air requires incredible skill.

These birds have mostly soft gray plumage, light colored on the head and breast, darker on the wings.  But, look closely at this individual’s wings and you’ll also see subtle red accents.

Notice also how long the kite’s wings are in proportion to its body.  Evidently, those wings give this bird great maneuverability.

Another unique characteristic of Mississippi kites is their dark amber eyes.  The bird’s eye stands out in this final image.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm EF DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/1600.


Polistes Flavus — My Favorite Paper Wasp!

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What would a Tucson summer be if I didn’t post at least a few images of Polistes flavus, my favorite paper wasp?  

I captured images of this individual a few days ago as she foraged on a Red Bird of Paradise plant in our backyard.  These wasps seem to love this particular plant.  On close view this individual appears to be harvesting something from the plant’s stems, perhaps the stems’ waxy coating.  By reputation, Red Bird of Paradise plants are toxic, but these wasps seem to like them.

Polistes flavus is one of several species of paper wasp that reside in southern Arizona.  It is a truly southwestern wasp, found in our corner of the country.  It is pretty big as paper wasps go.  An adult, like this individual, will be up to about an inch in length.  This species is recognizable immediately by its nearly all-yellow exterior, with a  few orange accents.

Paper wasps get their generic name from the fact that they build nests out of “paper,” plant fibers that the wasps harvest, grind up with their mandibles, and mix with their saliva into a paste that they use for nest building.  Their nests consist of multiple six-sided cells hanging vertically downward from an attachment point such as a tree branch or the eave of a house.  Typically, by mid-summer, a nest will be occupied by a dozen or so female workers and a dominant queen.  The cells house the eggs and larvae produced by the queen.

The paper wasps that one sees out foraging or guarding their nests are females.  Males live a carefree bachelor existence and do not tend the nest.

All paper wasps have a reputation for being able to deliver painful stings.  I’ve been told that Polistes flavus packs a pretty powerful wallop.  I’ve never found out first-hand.  When they’re out foraging, paper wasps are inoffensive creatures that want to have nothing to do with humans.  One of these wasps will ignore me if I stay still while I observe or photograph her.  If I move towards her, she’ll simply fly away.  

It’s a very different story when these wasps protect their nests.  Venture too close and you risk being mobbed and stung.  How close is too close?  That seems to depend on the personalities of the inhabitants of a particular nest.  However, I’ve stood as close as a meter to a Polistes flavus nest in order to photograph it and the wasps were fine with it.

It’s only the females that sting, by the way.  Males are stingless.

I find these wasps the be extremely beautiful.  Viewed up close, they have the sleekness of an Italian sports car.  The deep orange accents on their yellow bodies aren’t visible from a distance, but they add a truly subtle touch when viewed closely.  These wasps have wings that are a very dark brown in color, another gorgeous touch.

Take a close look at this wasp’s face.  If you were another Polistes flavus you’d either recognize this wasp as a nest mate or perceive it as a stranger.  While wasps’ faces may look pretty much alike to us, they actually have subtly different markings that individual wasps can recognize, even as we can tell other humans apart by their facial characteristics.  

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5 L EF Macro lens, illuminated by Canon Ring Lite, M setting, ISO 100, f13 @ 1/160.

Cooper’s Hawk — Protecting Her Young

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Louisa and I were driving on a very rough dirt road on the lower slopes of a mountain range when we passed under the overhanging branches of some oaks.  Suddenly, we noticed a large shape perching on one of the branches, almost directly above the road.  We stopped and looked.  The shape was that of a Cooper’s Hawk.

This was a large bird for her species, certainly identifying her as a female (female Cooper’s Hawks are invariably quite a bit larger than the males) and she had the plumage and identifying characteristics of an adult.

She sat there, quietly, observing us as we observed her. We were quite close to her, no more than 20 feet away, but she clearly wasn’t the least bit intimidated by our presence.  

She turned her head from time to time, sometimes staring at us, sometimes looking off to one side or the other, but otherwise, she remained very still.  

I was impressed by her impassiveness.  Most raptors become stressed when humans approach them too closely and their standard response is to fly off.  Not this bird, she was unmoving.

Why?  An answer may be found in her plumage.  Look at her breast.  Do you see that large dimple in the center? That’s a brood patch, an area of bare skin.  Females of many species develop brood patches when they’re incubating eggs. The bare skin assists them in transmitting body heat to their eggs and keeping them warm.  The patch will persist for a few weeks after the chicks hatch, and will gradually fill in with new plumage.

Female Cooper’s Hawks vigilantly guard their offspring after they’ve hatched. Typically, the adult female will perch within a few yards of her nest, surveilling the local terrain for potential threats and will be always ready to defend her offspring.  Indeed, Cooper’s Hawks are known for their willingness to defend their families.  One will dive-bomb an interloper with talons extended.  

I’m certain that our female was guarding a nearby nest when we photographed her.  She never budged from her perch but it’s a good question how she would have reacted had we lingered much longer in her presence.  I’ve been strafed a a couple of times by protective female Cooper’s Hawks, so I know what’s possible.  I made a few images and we moved on.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm EF f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/2000.


Black-necked Stilt, Taking A Stroll

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A few weeks ago I posted some images of Black-necked Stilts.  Today, I’m posting another image, one that I made recently.  I find these birds to be utterly charming and I like this image because it shows off this bird’s almost impossibly long legs as it strides across a field of turf.

Stilts are wading birds that are most often seen at the edges of shallow ponds.  Their ultra-long legs enable them to forage for small invertebrates in relatively deep water.

These birds have no business showing up in southern Arizona’s desert, and they wouldn’t be here but for humans’ handiwork.  On the Santa Cruz Flats, northwest of Tucson, farmers irrigate gigantic fields on which they grow water-intensive crops, including — incongruously — turf that winds up on golf courses, in office parks, and in suburban subdivisions.  I find it bizarre and unsettling that we use our precious water supply to irrigate lawns that are destined to adorn golf courses, but the stilts are pleased.  They fly around from field to field, looking for those that get flooded when irrigated.  Then, they are quick to seize and snack on the insects and other invertebrates that are forced to the surface by the floods.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm EF f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 2000, f5.6 @ 1/2000, exposure compensation +2/3.  

Western Kingbird, Displaying Its Crest (Just A Bit)

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Recently, I made some images of a Western Kingbird sitting on a wire fence in Sonoita’s grasslands.  I was pleased with the images: the lighting is nice and the bird posed prettily for me.  

It was only when I looked at the second image that I realized that I’d captured something a bit out of the ordinary.  Part of the kingbird’s red crest is visible in the image.

Look closely at the second image and you’ll see what I’m talking about. There are a few strands of crimson plumage visible on top of the bird’s head.

The full crest on a Western Kingbird is larger than what is visible in this image.  That said, I’m pleased that I captured what I did, because Western Kingbirds almost never display their crests.  The crests remain hidden under outer gray plumage nearly all the time.  In fact, the kingbirds’ red crests are so rarely visible that the field guides do not show them as identifying markings nor does the most popular guide, “The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America” even mention a crest.  I do not mean to slight the guides, by the way.  They’re not intended to discuss every bit of a bird’s plumage, but rather, to provide birders with easy to identify field marks.

So, if you spot a Western Kingbird, don’t look for the crest as an identifying field mark, but rejoice if you see it!

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1250, f6.3 @ 1/2000.


Eastern Meadowlark — Good Morning!

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On a summer morning in the grasslands southeast of Tucson one often can observe Eastern Meadowlarks perching on fences and wires.  The birds seem to enjoy basking in the sunlight, catching a few rays before the temperature really starts to rise.

A couple of weeks ago I caught this Eastern Meadowlark taking its ease on a wire fence.  We were parked only a few yards away but the meadowlark seemed oblivious to us.  It plainly appeared to be having a good time.  Then, it opened its beak and sang.  Both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks have beautiful songs, but they’re different.  The Eastern’s song puts more of an accent on the opening syllables whereas the Western tends to accent the last couple of syllables of its song.

The two species are very similar, if not identical, in appearance.  Sometimes, the best way to tell one meadowlark species from the other is to listen to its song.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1000, f6.3 @ 1/2000, exposure compensation +2/3.  

Familiar Bluet (Probable)

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I’m not infrequently wrong with my identification of damselflies and, in my defense, a lot of damselflies closely resemble other species.  That said, I’m fairly confident that this beautiful little fellow is a Familiar Bluet.

A habitué of the edges of ponds and slow-moving streams, the Familiar Bluet is among the most common damselflies of southern Arizona.  It’s commonness does not detract one iota from its beauty.  I found this individual perching on a reed by the creek at Sweetwater Wetlands a few days ago.  It seems to glow like neon against the dark green reeds and the even darker background.

I never tire of photographing damselflies and dragonflies, even the common ones!

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, illuminated by Canon Ringlite, stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 100, f16 @ 1/160.

Swainson’s Hawk — Nestling

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Here’s another in a series of images of youngsters.  Today’s subject is a nestling Swainson’s Hawk.  I found this youngster one morning a couple of weeks ago peering out from its parents’ nest in a mesquite tree along a rural road.  Look closely at the lower right side of the image and you’ll see a bit of the downy shape of at least one other nestling bird.

Swainson’s Hawks are closely related to Red-tailed Hawks.  In southern Arizona their breeding cycle is considerably later than that of the Red Tails and that may have something to do with these birds’ migration pattern.  Some Red Tails migrate but many are year-round residents.  Those that do migrate tend to make relatively short journeys each autumn and winter.  The Red Tails feed mainly on a diet of rodents such as ground squirrels, and these animals are active in our area most of the year, providing a steady and relatively reliable diet for the Red Tails.  Because they will have rodents available as food, Red-tailed Hawks breed early in the season — sometimes as early as late February or early March — and their offspring are fledged by late April.  They have all summer to learn how to hunt their rodent prey.

By contrast, Swainson’s Hawks make extremely long migrations.  Each autumn they migrate from their summer homes all the way to Argentina, a one-way journey of thousands of miles.  They make the return trip each spring.  In order to be able to make the trip these hawks need an abundant supply of high energy food.  In the summer months they’ll eat rodents even as Red-tailed Hawks do. But, in late summer and early autumn Swainson’s Hawks fatten up by eating grasshoppers.  It’s not unusual in mid-September to see hundreds of these hawks foraging on the ground in a large field, gobbling grasshoppers as fast as they can seize them.  These hawks time their breeding season so that the youngsters are fledged and able to fly long distances in late summer.  That’s about the time of year when grasshoppers are at their peak numbers.  The youngsters join the adults in fattening up on grasshoppers. The nestling in this photograph will be fully fledged by now, and will spend the next six weeks or so, learning how to forage.  By early September, if it learns its lessons well, it will be ready to make the annual migration.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1000, f5.6 @ !/2000, exposure compensation +1/3.


Great-tailed Grackle — Fledgling

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I get a lot of pleasure every summer photographing the kids.  Now is the time when the young of many species leave their nests.  Most of them spend at least a few weeks in an intermediate stage between nestling and independent juvenile. They’re out of the nest, they’re fully flighted, but they’re still depending on their parents to feed them.  For many species there’s a gradual period of weaning in which the young birds gradually get fed less and less by their parents until, eventually, they’re on their own.

This is an image of a fledgling Great-tailed Grackle.

The youngster superficially resembles an adult female of this species.  It has its mother’s relatively drab brown plumage.  Its dark eye gives it away as a fledgling bird.  Adults of both sexes have pale eyes.  It’s not possible to say now what sex this bird is. If it is a female it will retain this plumage as it matures.  If it’s a male, it will molt out the brown feathers and replace them with lustrous dark purple plumage.  Of course, adult males also have relatively enormous tails.

I found this young bird perching amid a flock of grackles, more than a dozen birds in all.  The youngster was calling plaintively, begging its parents for food.

I read recently that a researcher at England’s Cambridge University has found that Great-tailed Grackles are highly intelligent birds, adept at solving problems and also at adapting to changed circumstances in their environment.  These birds normally associate in flocks.  It seems to me that bringing the young birds into a flock is an educational experience for fledgling grackles.  The youngsters watch their parents forage (they are omnivores and opportunistic hunters) and learn how to forage from observation.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/2000, +1/3 stop exposure compensation.