Zone-tailed Hawk

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Yesterday I posted about the Gray Hawk, a species whose range barely encroaches on the southwestern United States.  Today, I’m featuring another hawk, also a buteo, with a very similar range.  This is the Zone-tailed Hawk.  These birds are predominately a Latin American species but there are a few breeding pairs who show up each spring and summer in Arizona’s southeastern mountains and in a few locations in southern New Mexico and southwest Texas.

Zone Tails are large hawks that are distinguishable by their very dark plumage, their very long wings, and their tails with broad white bands.  The guidebooks all say that these birds have black plumage.  In fact, their plumage is a very dark brown, reminiscent of strong coffee in appearance.

These are large hawks.  In mass they are a bit lighter than Red-tailed Hawks but they have longer wings than their Red Tail cousins have.  They are predominately a woodland species and in Arizona one may find them on the forested lower slopes of mountains.  I encountered the bird pictured above and others recently in a canyon at the base of one of southeastern Arizona’s mountains.  Zone-tailed Hawks are opportunistic hunters that feed on lizards, small birds and mammals.  They are known to hunt while soaring, floating over the terrain and diving (“stooping”) to capture it.  Obviously, these birds have incredible vision.

When Zone-tailed Hawks soar their long wings render them similar in appearance to Turkey Vultures.  Sometimes, a Zone Tail will hang out in the air with a group of soaring vultures.  It is thought that this is an adapted hunting technique.  Vultures do not hunt prey as they soar.  A small creature on the ground beneath a group of soaring vultures may be lulled into a false sense of security until one of the “vultures” suddenly dives on it and seizes it.

The birds that I’m featuring here are a male (above) and a female (below).  The female is characteristically considerably larger than the male.  It’s breeding season for these hawks and the birds that I photographed were perching near, and guarding, nests.  The female was obviously extremely displeased at my presence.  These birds can be quite aggressive and will often attempt to drive off interlopers such as humans with cameras.

Zone Tails generally are only seasonal residents in southern Arizona.  However, for several years there has been a lone individual that winters in Tucson’s Reid Park.  Why one of these birds would inhabit an urban park is beyond me, but it seems to be happy living there.  I assume that it eats some of the park’s many pigeons and the small rodents that are attracted to the scraps left by human picnickers.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO lens+1.4x telextender, stabilized by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 500.  First image, f6.3 @ 1/1250; second image, f6.3 @ 1/800.

Gray Hawk — Guarding Her Nest

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A correction before I discuss today’s image.  Yesterday I identified a damselfly as a Springwater Dancer.  That was incorrect.  The insect is a Lavender Dancer, a closely related species.  I thank Rich Bailowitz for pointing out the mistake.  Rich ought to know, he literally wrote the book on dragonflies and damselflies in Arizona.

Now, to today’s post.  Today’s image is of a female Gray Hawk guarding her nest.  I took this photo a week ago from a dirt road in mountainous terrain in southeastern Arizona.

Gray Hawks are seasonal residents in southern Arizona, migrating from their winter homes in Mexico to breed along our local creeks.  In Arizona these very pretty hawks favor Cottonwood Trees as nest sites.   After the eggs have hatched and the hatchlings are close to fledging the adult females will perch on treetops or other elevated nest trees from which they can keep a constant eye on their young.

Gray Hawks are a woodland species that seeks out forested areas as habitat.   They are strikingly handsome birds.  They display soft gray plumage on their heads, necks, backs, and outer wings, and gray and white plumage in a herringbone pattern on their breasts and abdomens.  These hawks are relatively petite, much smaller than Red-tailed Hawks.  They subsist on lizards and small rodents.

Gray Hawks live predominately in Mexico and Central America.  There are small populations of Gray Hawks in southern Arizona and southern Texas.  The Arizona hawks became very scarce as human development drained creeks and eliminated stands of Cottonwoods.  In recent decades conservation efforts have restored some of the habitat and these birds are experiencing a bit of a comeback in our state, slowly expanding their territory.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1600.

Springwater Dancer

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Today I’m featuring another beautiful damselfly.  I believe that this is a Springwater Dancer.

I’ve identified this damselfly by its overall lavender hue and its pale blue tail segments.  Springwater Dancers are among the more common damselflies in our part of the country.  Their range includes numerous locations in Arizona but they can be found as far north and east as South Dakota and Illinois.  They like to hang out near moving water.  I found this one perched in the reeds adjacent to a fountain at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, sharing territory with the Desert Firetail whose image I posted the other day.

Damselflies are delicate-looking insects.  Most species are an inch long or less with nearly transparent wings and abdomens no thicker than dental floss.  But, don’t be fooled.  Damselflies are predators that subsist by seizing much smaller insects in flight and devouring them.  They are remarkably efficient little killers, capable of spotting and running down prey that is so small that most of us couldn’t see it with our naked eyes.  Ferocious and beautiful, quite a combination.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5 L Macro Lens, illuminated by Canon Ring Light, supported by monopod, ISO 100, f16 @ 1/160.

Northern Goshawks — Photographing A Holy Grail

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Every nature photographer who I’m acquainted with dreams of getting images of species that are normally inaccessible or very hard to find.  Photographers refer to these species as “unicorns” or “Holy Grails.”

One of my Holy Grail species has been the Northern Goshawk.  This largest member of the Accipter family of raptors is listed as uncommon to rare in its North American range, which includes the northern tier of the United States, much of Canada, Alaska, and the Rocky Mountains.  That range includes the mountainous parts of Arizona and northern Mexico.  But, not only is it a fairly rare bird in this country, it is an elusive one.  Goshawks are a woodland species, living in forests or at the edges of forest clearings.  Finding one among the dense trees is very much like finding a needle in a haystack.  I never thought that I’d actually see one much less photograph it.

So, I was thrilled a few weeks back when my friend Ned Harris told me that he had received a tip about a Goshawk nest in the mountains of extreme southern Arizona, almost on the border with Mexico.  We drove to the vicinity of the nest tree  on a Sunday morning a few weeks back and then walked a couple of hundred meters into the forest, searching for our quarry.

It didn’t take long for us to locate a nest.  Goshawks build huge nests, massive piles of twigs and branches, and this nest was typically gigantic.  We stood a few meters away from the nest tree and craned our necks, looking for evidence of habitation.  After a few minutes we began to make out moving shapes in the nest.  There were two down-covered hatchlings stirring.  Shortly thereafter we heard a loud cry.  Goshawks have a very loud, penetrating call.  This call came from a tree that was obscured from our view and located a few dozen meters from the nest.  Suddenly, a large raptor flew in and landed yards from the nest tree.  It stared at us balefully for several minutes.

My heart raced as I realized that I was observing an adult Northern Goshawk.  These birds are very large — about the size of a Red-tailed Hawk, and more than twice the size of another and closely related Accipiter, the very common Cooper’s Hawk — and this Goshawk looked huge to me.  It had typical Goshawk plumage consisting of dark bluish-gray feathers on its head, back, and outer wings, and a pale gray breast.  Typical of Goshawks, it had a white streak running from its beak to the back of its head, just above its deep red eye.

We soon realized that the Goshawk that we were photographing was not the one that we’d heard.  The other Goshawk continued to call intermittently from its concealed perch.  And, suddenly, that bird flew in and landed on the nest.  It spent several minutes resting with the hatchlings.

The first bird that we observed was the male, the second, the female, who was typically considerably larger than her mate.  With hatchlings in the nest, the female perched either on the nest or close by while the male hunted for the family.

Northern Goshawks are apex predators.  They capture and feed on large birds and on a variety of small mammals including rabbits and squirrels.  They have a justly earned reputation for aggressiveness.  Goshawks fiercely defend their nests.  Human observers and photographers have been attacked from time to time while doing just what Ned and I were doing.  This pair, however, seemed content to scream at us a bit.  We left them to their child raising, delighted with what we’d discovered.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, stabilized by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1600, f5.6.  First image shot at 1/400, second image at 1/250.  A note about these images.  Lighting conditions were extremely challenging, with the birds resting in deep shade or strongly dappled light against brilliantly sunny backgrounds.

Desert Firetail

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Today, I’m featuring an image of yet another extraordinarily beautiful damselfly.  This is the Desert Firetail.

This species is pretty common in southern Arizona if you know where to look for it.  It is fond of small ponds and slow-moving streams.  That limits the number of habitats where these insects can be found, given our arid climate, but they are abundant once you locate them.

I found this Firetail in the company of dozens of others perching in the reeds around an ornamental fountain on the grounds of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.  I consider these insects’ presence there to be remarkable given that there are miles of extremely rugged desert separating the museum’s oasis-like conditions from the nearest bodies of water.  How the forebears of  these tiny damselflies made it to the museum across all of that desert is an excellent question.

I’m not very good at damselfly identification but these damselflies are pretty easy to identify by their color.  There are only a couple of other species of damselfly that are predominately red and there are appearance differences that distinguish the Desert Firetail from the others.

If you’re looking for damselflies, bear this in mind: these are very small insects that generally don’t perch out in the open, so think small and think concealed.  The Desert Firetail, for example, is less than an inch long (maximum length, about 28mm) and there are even smaller species.  My experience is that I can stare at a patch of reeds or other stream side vegetation for several minutes before the damselflies begin to show up against the background.  However, once my eyes and brain adjust, the insects become more apparent.  I spent a good 10 minutes hanging out by the museum fountain before I spotted my first Firetail.  Then, in a matter of a couple of minutes I observed at least a dozen other individuals.  They were there all the time, I just didn’t see them at first.

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

Loggerhead Shrikes — A Family?

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A couple of Sundays ago I was driving around in Arizona’s southeastern corner with my friend Ned Harris when we came across something unusual.  There were four Loggerhead Shrikes sitting side by side on a wire fence.

Shrikes are normally solitary.  I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of occasions when I’ve seen more than one shrike perching together.  That four shrikes were perching side by side is unheard of.

A couple of the birds took off as soon as we stopped to take their picture.  The remaining two were perched just far enough apart so that I was unable to get both of them in my frame.  I concentrated on capturing an image of one of them.

I snapped away, making a dozen or so images of the shrike.  It was only after I got home and put the images up on the computer that I saw this:

In one frame the companion bird photobombed my subject, creating an image that I never expected but that delights me.

So, what were four Loggerhead Shrikes doing, sitting together like that?  I believe that the answer is that at least two of the birds were fledglings, probably very recently out of their nest.  The other two might have been their parents or even more fledglings.

Fledgling and adult shrikes have very similar plumage, so identification of these birds as youngsters based on their plumage is problematic.  There is a bit of yellow at the rear of the sitting bird’s mouth that suggests to me that this bird is a fledgling (I’ve never seen that on an adult shrike).  I wouldn’t base my judgment entirely on that, however. It is more significant to me that at least some of these birds behaved like youngsters.  In many bird species, just fledged birds tend to hang out together for a few days or weeks after they leave the nest.  It’s an adaptive behavior that makes it easier for the parents — who continue to care for their offspring for a while after they fledge — to locate, protect, and feed their offspring.  So, normally solitary shrikes perching in a group suggests strongly that this was a family, perhaps a mixture of youngsters and adults or even entirely youngsters, waiting for their parents to come and care for them.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO lens+1.4x telextender, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/2500.

Great Blue Herons

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The Great Blue Heron is the largest North American member of the heron/egret family of birds.  This is a very large bird, standing just under four feet in height (about 1.3 meters) and weighing more than five pounds (about 2.4 kg.).  It is widespread throughout the United States, living year-round in the southern half of the country and along our coastlines,  and maintaining summer breeding populations in the interior North.  I photographed the individuals in today’s post at Southern California’s Bolsa Chica wildlife preserve.  However, there are Great Blue Herons living and breeding within a few miles of downtown Tucson.

Like other herons and egrets, the Great Blue Heron specializes in capturing mostly aquatic prey.  One often sees these big birds standing in water, motionless, waiting for something to swim by that it can seize.

A Great Blue Heron is a superb predator.  These birds take advantage of their very long necks and beaks to seize surprisingly large fish.  When a Great Blue Heron strikes at prey it does so with amazing speed, faster than the human eye can follow.

The herons that I photographed at Bolsa Chica were resplendent in their breeding plumage.  That consists of very long whitish plumes that grow from the birds’ backs and lower necks.

I observed several nesting pairs of these birds.  They tend to build their nests in densely vegetated trees that overlook water.  Here, an almost-fledged youngster is hanging out near its nest in a palm, waiting for a parent to deliver a meal to it.

Great Blue Herons seem to have a knack for taking advantage of human activity.  I’ve written in the past about how these birds have colonized southern Arizona’s farmlands, miles from the nearest body of natural water, earning their living by fishing in irrigation canals.  In urban Tucson these birds are attracted to man-made ponds that are stocked with fish.  I’ve heard stories of herons visiting people’s backyards and fattening themselves on ornamental Koi.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000.  First image, f5.6 @ 1/1250; second image, f5.6 @ 1/800; third image, f8 @ 1/640; fourth image, f5.6 @ 1/1000.


Barn Swallow On A Hot Morning

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I am beside myself with joy this morning because I can announce that our summer rains have finally arrived.  We’ve had brief but intense showers at our home the last two evenings.  Other locations in and around Tucson have received even heavier rain.  Thunderstorms and showers will be a more or less regular threat between now and early September and, with luck, we’ll receive more than one-half of our total annual rainfall in the coming eight or nine weeks.

We’ve had to endure the typical run-up to our Monsoon, with several weeks of almost unendurable heat.  The blazing temperatures reached a peak last week, with daytime highs approaching 110 degrees (about 43 degrees C) on most days.  Thankfully, that’s behind us.

The image that I’m featuring today sort of commemorates the very hot weather.  This is a Barn Swallow, taking a breather on a very hot morning in farmland near Willcox, in southeastern Arizona, about a two-hour drive from Tucson.

Barn Swallows range throughout the continental United States.  They are extremely common, especially in areas of open fields and shallow bodies of water.  They are insectivores that specialize in catching insects in flight.  Typically, one sees these birds in flocks, sometimes numbering dozens of individuals, and in constant motion, engaging in remarkable aerobatics as they chase their prey.

However, as common as these birds may be, they are extremely difficult to photograph by reason of the fact that they almost never seem to sit still.  Finding a perching Barn Swallow that sits still long enough to be photographed is somewhat of a coup and this image is a first for me.

This individual appears to be a juvenile bird, perhaps one that is only recently fledged.  Its pale, peach-colored breast and abdomen indicate that it is a juvenile bird.  Female Barn Swallows are paler underneath than this individual and males have darker breasts and abdomens.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO lens+1.4x telextender, aperture preferred setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1600.

Snowy Egret

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The other day I posted images of a Great Egret.  In that post I stated that the Great Egret had a similar-appearing relative.  Today, I’m posting images of that cousin, the Snowy Egret.

Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets share habitat and have similar lifestyles.  Both are predators, specializing in capturing aquatic creatures.  However, the Snowy Egret goes after considerably smaller prey than does its Great Egret cousin. It’s very typical for a Snowy Egret to hunt minnow-sized fish, whereas the Great Egret will often capture fish that are five inches long or even longer.

The two species superficially resemble each other rather closely.  Both sport snow white plumage and long plumes in breeding season.  Both hunt by standing very still in shallow water and waiting for prey to swim within reach.

But, there are differences between the two species that make it easy to tell them apart.  Size is the quickest and easiest way to identify each species.  A Snowy Egret is much smaller than a Great Egret, being only about 2/3 of the latter specie’s height.  There are other differences as well.  A Great Egret has a yellow beak.  A Snowy Egret has a black beak.  A Great Egret has solid black legs and feet.  A Snowy Egret has yellow feet (the bird’s feet aren’t visible in the two images in today’s post).

The Snowy Egret has a range in the United States that more or less coincides with that of its Great Egret cousin. Both species inhabit shorelines on this country’s East, West, and Gulf Coasts. And, like the Great Egret, the Snowy Egret sometimes turns up in surprising places.  During our winters I’ve seen these birds foraging in Arizona’s farmlands, hundreds of miles from the nearest coast.

Images made with Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f9 @ 1/1250.


Black-tailed Jackrabbit

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The other day I was driving around with my friend Ned Harris in grasslands about 75 miles southeast of Tucson when we came across a jackrabbit foraging by the side of the road.  This individual was one of several that we’d spotted in that particular area.  Usually, these animals are quite timid and, consequently, very difficult to photograph.  But, this one, for reasons known only to him, decided to pose for us for a minute or so before disappearing into the brush.

Jackrabbits are iconic to the western United States, especially in grasslands and desert.  They are as much a symbol of our desert as is the Gila Monster and the rattlesnake.  There are two species of jackrabbit inhabiting open country in the vicinity of Tucson, the Antelope Jackrabbit and the Black-tailed Jackrabbit.  The individual that Ned and I saw was a Black-tailed Jackrabbit.  It has a broader range than its Antelope cousin, which is more or less strictly a desert species.  A third species, the White-tailed Jackrabbit, doesn’t live in Arizona but inhabits areas much to the north.

All jackrabbits are instantly recognizable by their gigantic ears and their very long legs.  The ears serve a dual purpose. First, they help give the animal — a favorite meal of several species of predators — exquisitely sensitive hearing, which enables it to sense when danger approaches.  Second, the numerous blood vessels in the jackrabbit’s ears serve the same purpose as the water tubes in a car’s radiator, dissipating heat.

These animals’ very long legs enable them to run with blinding speed.  These are not your typical little bunnies, hopping around in the brush.  Jackrabbits can run amazingly fast.  Years ago, I had the opportunity to follow one of these animals while on horseback.  The animal that I was on was no race horse but still, he was able to lope along at about 20 miles per hour (about 24 kpm).  The jackrabbit easily outran us.  Not only do these animals run very fast, but they run in a zig-zag pattern, never following a straight line for more than a few yards (meters).  Coyotes, Bobcats, and Golden Eagles, all of which prey on these animals, are unlikely to capture them if it comes to a chase.  They succeed by ambushing the unwary.

Jackrabbits are actually misnamed.  These creatures are hares, not rabbits.  There are physiological differences between hares and rabbits, with hares having longer legs than rabbits and being much better runners.  Hares give birth to fully formed young with their eyes open.  Baby hares are pretty much good to go as soon as they emerge from their mothers’ wombs.  Rabbits, by contrast, are born blind and helpless and must be closely nurtured by their mothers as they mature.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/2000.