Western Kingbird On A Post

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Recently, I took this picture of a Western Kingbird sitting on a fencepost in grasslands not far from Patagonia, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson.

Western Kingbirds are yet another species of flycatcher that shows up in the Tucson area.  These birds are seasonal residents whose habitat consists mainly of open country broken by scattered trees, precisely the terrain that one sees in the grasslands of southern Arizona.  They also show up from time to time in isolated venues in and around Tucson, even though they’re not really a desert species.  I’ve seen them occasionally at Sweetwater Wetlands, for example.

These are noisy, active flycatchers who can often be identified by their chattering calls before one sees them.  It’s not at all unusual to see them hanging out in small flocks.  They’re difficult to photograph because they never sit still for more than a few seconds.  I consider myself lucky that this individual posed long enough for me to take its picture.

Much of the grasslands where I took this picture have been consumed by fire in the past couple of months.  There are at present large swaths of blackened terrain in Patagonia and in nearby Sonoita.  Some of the burned areas cover several square miles.  Although these fires jeopardize structures and human habitations and in the short term leave ugly black scars on the countryside they do no long-term damage.  Indeed, in some respects they are beneficial because they may serve to create a healthy ecosystem in the long run.  The grass will regenerate once the summer rains begin (if they begin!) and the ash from the fires will actually serve as fertilizer for new growth.  The fires are, in fact, part of an age-old natural cycle.  We humans have disrupted that cycle by fighting the fires and allowing overgrowth of brush in some areas.  Then, when the fires inevitably come they are far hotter and more intense than they would have been had we just let nature take its course.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 at 1/1600.

Female Vermilion Flycatcher With A Cicada (And A Dilemma)

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I’ve described how Vermilion Flycatchers excel at catching insects in flight.  he ability to run down and seize tiny flying insects, some almost invisible to the human eye, is something that they share with other flycatcher species.  The other day I photographed a female Vermilion Flycatcher who had hit the jackpot.  She’d captured a cicada during its last pre-adult molt, apparently plucking the insect as it rested on a tree.  Cicadas spend most of their lives underground as larvae.  After years underground, as many as 17 years, they surface, climb up the trunk of a tree, undergo a final molt, and then emerge as fully fledged insects.  They are very vulnerable to being preyed upon during that last molt and for many birds the emergence of cicadas is a feeding bonanza.

The catch was a real prize for the flycatcher, many times the size of the much smaller insects that she normally captures.  A cicada-size meal is probably the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner for one of these little birds.

But, now she faced a dilemma.  How to swallow her prize?  The insect was huge in comparison to the flycatcher’s tiny beak and gullet.  I watched for more than a minute as she struggled to get the meal down her throat, with no apparent success.  Flycatchers, lacking teeth and chewing muscles, swallow their prey whole.   The cicada seemed to be more than a mouthful for the little bird.

Eventually, she flew away, still clutching her prize.  I have no idea whether she was successful eventually or not.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.

Female Phainopepla — Bringing Home The Groceries

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Phainopeplas are flycatchers, related to the Vermilion Flycatcher whose images I featured yesterday.  Like other flycatchers Phainopeplas hunt from perches.  One of these birds will launch itself from its perch, pursue a flying insect, swoop down on it, and seize it in mid-air.  It takes unimaginable aerial maneuverability and razor sharp vision to accomplish this.  Many of the insects that these birds pursue and capture are so small that they are virtually invisible to our eyes.  The insects don’t necessarily fly in straight lines but  Phainopeplas have acquired the flying skills  to compensate for the insects’ erratic flight.

The other day I watched a female Phainopepla hunting insects.  She launched herself over and over from a perch, dove and twisted in mid-air, and returned to her perch after she’d made a capture.  After several minutes of this she paused as if to catch her breath and I made an image of her.

I was quite surprised when I looked closely at the photo.  The Phainopepla’s mouth was stuffed with insects, dozens of them.  She had held on to each insect that she caught rather than swallowing it.

I wondered for a second whether the Phainopepla’s style of eating was to swallow only after she’d acquired a mouthful of food.  Then, it dawned on me.  She was amassing food for her young.  I had captured mom in the  middle of grocery shopping.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.

Male Vermilion Flycatcher — The King Of Ft. Lowell Park

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Our heatwave is now into its seventh consecutive  day of 110 degree + temperatures.  Today’s high will be about 113.  I, along with all of Tucson, am anxiously hoping for an end to this.

The other morning I made the short drive (about five minutes) from our home to Ft. Lowell Park.  I went over there with the intent of meeting an old friend and I wasn’t disappointed.  This male Vermilion Flycatcher believes that he owns the place.  He’s as reliable as the sunrise, showing up on the same perches day after day, month in and month out.

In that respect he’s like all males of his species.  Vermilion Flycatchers are territorial.  They declare as their own  a particular tree or cluster of trees and perhaps a street sign or a fencepost, and they occupy that territory for a long time.  This is the third year during which I’ve observed this particular bird guarding his turf — a handful of mesquite trees and a large metal post — vigilantly against intruding flycatchers.

His territoriality makes him a pretty easy subject to photograph.  I know where he’s likely to be before I even get into my car to drive over to the park.  I just select one of his favorite perches, set up a few yards away, and wait.  Inevitably he’ll show up.

It helps also that Ft. Lowell Park is heavily trafficked with dog walkers, runners, and softball and tennis players.  This flycatcher is used to people standing and walking in close proximity to him.  I was able to approach within 15 feet of this bird without spooking him.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII lens+1.4x telextender, M setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250,


House Wren At Mount Lemmon’s Summit

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The images that I post today are my final images from my trip to Mt. Lemmon’s summit about 10 days ago.  From here on in it will be back to lower elevations for a while.  Our heat wave continues unabated and taking pictures is becoming a real chore but I have enough images in reserve to keep posting, hopefully, until the heat finally dissipates.

House Wrens are a common species throughout the United States.  Elsewhere they are migratory.  In southern Arizona there is a year-round population of these birds but, I suspect, only in higher elevations.  I’ve never seen one of these birds in the desert.  They are a fairly common sight at the summit of Mt. Lemmon.

They are attractive little birds, denizens of brush and low trees.  The one that I photographed had staked out a territory on a pine snag, about six feet above the ground and was telling the world that it was there.

It made no attempt to conceal itself and periodically it burst into song.  House Wrens are related to the much larger Cactus Wrens that predominate down in the desert and they share a few behaviors.  Like Cactus Wrens, House Wrens are territorial and also like Cactus Wrens House Wrens aren’t shy about defending their territories.

House Wrens’ songs are less harsh than those of Cactus Wrens, but it is all relative.  Their songs are decidedly not musical and are quite loud, especially considering these birds’ diminutive size.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Yellow Salsify With Bee

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There is nothing rare or exotic about today’s subject.   Yellow Salsify is a fairly common plant that can be found all over the United States.  It’s not even native to this part of the world.  At some point this relative of dandelions got introduced to this country from its European home and it spread rapidly.

Nonetheless it is pretty, with its star shaped yellow flower.  The tiny bee approaching the flower is a nice addition to the image.

However, the main reason that I am interested in this plant is that it is a living example of how altitude in southern Arizona affects habitat.  I photographed this plant near the Summit of Mt. Lemmon, at about 9200 feet of elevation, on a day in early June.  Sabino Canyon, at about 3000 feet of elevation is straight downhill from Mt. Lemmon and less than 10 miles away as the crow flies (there are hiking trails from the canyon up to Mt. Lemmon’s summit).  One can find Yellow Salsify growing in the lower reaches of the canyon by Sabino Creek.  However, the canyon’s plants bloom in mid- to late March, as opposed to the mountain’s June bloomers.  They are exactly the same plants but with very different life cycles.  In this area elevation determines almost everything.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/5000.

Cliff Chipmunk — Sheer, Unadulterated Cuteness

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Our heat wave continues.  Yesterday’s high temperature was 116 degrees.  Today’s high is about the same.  Standing outdoors in heat of this intensity is the functional equivalent of being assaulted repeatedly with a very large mallet.  I, and all of  Tucson have our fingers crossed that this will end soon.

I’ve decided to go for sheer, unadulterated cuteness today in order to divert my attention from the heat.  This is a Cliff Chipmunk.

This delightful little ground squirrel is a cousin of the eastern Chipmunk, albeit smaller.  Unlike some species of chipmunk, the Cliff Chipmunk lacks bold stripes on its back.  It inhabits the southwestern United States including parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah, and its range extends down into northern Mexico.

As its name implies, the Cliff Chipmunk is an inhabitant of rocky surfaces including hillsides and cliffs.  I photographed these individuals near the summit of Mt. Lemmon.  However, they can also be found at lower elevations.  My friend Ned Harris tells me that he’s seen them in the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon, at about 4,000 feet above sea level.  Their range begins in an ecological zone that includes Pinyon Pines and junipers and it extends upward into the Ponderosa Pine and oak forests at the mountains’ summits.

I can honestly say that in my years of photographing local wildlife I don’t think I’ve come across anything that is cuter.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/800.

Yellow-eyed Junco

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As I write today’s post the temperature in our yard is 116 degrees.  That is unimaginably hot, even by Tucson standards.  I hope that the temperatures normalize soon (“normal” for late June in this area would be about 103).  As things stand, going out and taking pictures is not only a waste of time, it could be fatal.  Fortunately, I have a reservoir of images to draw on and these include some more from my trip to Mt. Lemmon’s summit with Ned Harris last week.

Here’s another species that is unique to the higher elevations in the Tucson area.  This is a Yellow-eyed Junco.

This bird is predominately a Mexican species — an inhabitant of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains — whose range barely reaches into southern Arizona’s mountains, where it is a year-round resident.  It is found nowhere else in the United States.

It is a common sight on the upper slopes of Mt. Lemmon and nearby mountains.  Indeed, it is one of the most often seen birds in the pine forests near the Mt. Lemmon’s summit.  These highly attractive sparrow-size birds forage mostly on the ground, rooting around in pine straw and forest litter for edible items.

I love photographing them.  Those eyes are extremely photogenic, especially in the way that they contrast with the junco’s dark plumage.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/1250.


Fledgling Downy Woodpecker

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Every once in a while I photograph a bird or an animal and then have difficulty identifying it.  That is certainly the case with today’s individual.  After considerable uncertainty I’ve  decided that it is a fledgling Downy Woodpecker.

There are two woodpecker species that are indistinguishable to the untrained eye,  the Downy and Hairy Woodpecker.  They share habitat and their plumage is virtually identical.  There are size differences between the species with the Hairy Woodpecker being the larger of the two.  Also, the Hairy Woodpecker has a significantly larger beak than has the Downy Woodpecker.  Indeed, beak size may be the best way to distinguish the two species.

Yesterday, I posted an image of a bird that I am certain is a female Downy Woodpecker.  She definitely has a petite beak,  quite small by woodpecker standards.

Now, here’s today’s bird,  yet another woodpecker that I photographed recently at the summit of Mt. Lemmon.

At first impression and as late as yesterday evening I thought that this is a Hairy Woodpecker because of the relative size of its beak, which appears to me to be bigger in proportion to the bird than is the beak on yesterday’s female Downy Woodpecker.  The more I look at it, however, the more convinced I am that this bird is in fact, a Downy Woodpecker.  Its beak looks a bit bigger than the beak on yesterday’s bird, but I believe that is an optical illusion.

I am absolutely certain that this is not an adult bird, but rather, a very young woodpecker that fledged this year.  Adult male Downy Woodpeckers have red caps at the rear of their heads.  The fledglings and juveniles have red caps at the front.  Also, the dark spots on this bird’s breast are typical of a fledgling and not of an adult of either species.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/1000.

Female Downy Woodpecker

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Today I’m featuring an image of another woodpecker that inhabits the mountaintops near Tucson.

This is a female Downy Woodpecker.

She is a member of a common woodpecker species, one that can be found throughout the United States.  This species is the smallest of all North American woodpeckers.  Downy Woodpeckers are forest dwellers.  The habitat atop Mt. Lemmon, where I photographed this bird, is perfect for the species: mature oak and pine forest.  The desert below, is inhospitable for this bird and one never finds it there.

She is another example of how elevation determines habitat in southern Arizona and how dramatically things can change as one drives up or down this states’ mountains.  She also is an example of the incredible diversity of species that one can find around here — desert dwellers, forest dwellers, even riparian species — one just has to take a short drive to experience a total change in ecosystems and flora and fauna.

Notice the tiny beak on this bird.  It is a defining characteristic for this species.  Downy Woodpeckers closely resemble another species, the Hairy Woodpecker. The two species have virtually identical plumage, but Hairy Woodpeckers are considerably larger than are Downy Woodpeckers and have beaks that are proportionately much bigger in relationship to their bodies than are the Downy Woodpeckers’ beaks.  Tomorrow, I’ll post an image of a young Hairy Woodpecker, a bird that I also found at the summit of Mt. Lemmon.


Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/1000.