Desert Spiny Lizard

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There are probably in the neighborhood of a dozen or so species of lizards that one often sees in Tucson and its immediate environs.  With the exception of the Gila Monster most of these lizards are quite small.  Some have bodies that are only three or four inches long.  Desert Spiny Lizards are among the most successful of the local lizards and they are quite a bit larger than most other species.  Adult Desert Spiny Lizards have bodies (not counting their tail) that often approach six inches and they are also quite a bit bulkier than are most lizard species.  A Desert Spiny Lizard looks immense, for example, when compared with the Zebra-tailed Lizard whose image I featured a couple of days ago.

Size is relative, however.  These are not very big animals.  They’re just bigger than their cousins.

A Desert Spiny Lizard’s most prominent feature isn’t its size, it is its coloration.  No two of these lizards are colored exactly alike.  Their scales come in a fantastic array of colors ranging from jet black to turquoise, yellow, and even orange.

The adult that I’ve featured today is not the gaudiest of these lizards that I’ve seen.  Indeed, it is fairly subdued in color compared to some of its compatriots.  But, even this relatively toned-down lizard shines like a sequined handbag in the right light.

Desert Spiny Lizards love to sit and bask, as this one is doing.  They are fairly easy to approach, especially when compared with some other species.  Move slowly and you can get quite close to these lizards before they vacate the premises.  I took this picture while sitting on the ground about three feet away from my subject.  It eyed me suspiciously but never budged.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L macro lens+1.4x telextender, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized with monopod, M setting, ISO 160, f9 @ 1/160.

Western Kingbird (Probably)

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This morning I photographed my first kingbird of the season.  Kingbirds are spring-summer residents of our area.  They are flycatchers and there are two kingbird species that show up around here: Tropical and Western.  Of these the Western Kingbird is by far the most often seen.

The two species look very much alike.  Both species are generally grayish brown with yellow breasts and abdomens.  However, the Tropical Kingbirds have heavier beaks than do the Westerns, they have more yellow on their breasts, and their tails are notched as opposed to the Western Kingbirds’ generally squared-off tails. When I first looked at these images I was absolutely convinced that the bird I’d photographed was a Tropical Kingbird.

This bird has a notched tail and that had me going for a while.  However, looking at it more closely, I’m more or less convinced that it is actually a Western Kingbird.  The beak is much more typical of a Western Kingbird than of a Tropical Kingbird and the underside of the tail has a white outline, which is typical of the Westerns.  Also, the images that I’ve seen of Tropical Kingbirds show a bit more yellow on the breast than this bird has.

Still, I am open to being talked out of my identification.  If anyone believes this to be a Tropical Kingbird, please post a comment and give your reasons.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1000.

Zebra-tailed Lizard

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Reptiles are beginning to show up as spring progresses and the weather warms.  Being cold-blooded, reptiles are dormant throughout much of our winter and I tend to forget just how ubiquitous they are.  However, once the weather warms, they are everywhere.  So far, I’ve seen only lizards and one road-kill king snake.  That will change.  I fully expect to see my first rattlesnake in the next couple of weeks.

Here’s an image of one of our common lizard species.  This is a Zebra-tailed Lizard, probably a male.

Zebra Tails  are relatively small lizards, reaching a length of about five inches exclusive of tail.  They are normally quite timid and have a tendency to run when approached.  One characteristic of this species is that when it runs it usually arches its tail over its head.  My guess is that this is an evolved trait that is designed to throw off predators.  As with many lizards its tail is easily detachable.  A hungry coyote, bobcat, or hawk might lunge for the tail inasmuch as it is the lizard’s most visible part, made even more so by the bright black and white stripes. If a predator grabs the tail, it comes free, and the predator is left with the tail as the lizard escapes.  To make things even more confusing for the predator, the detached tail will convulse reflexively for a few seconds after coming off the lizard.

The lizard has the ability to regenerate its tail, but the regrown tails are never quite as long or shapely as are the originals.  I see a lot of lizards with stunted tails, suggesting that the detachable tail comes in quite handy for these animals.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L macro lens+1.4x telextender, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT speedlite and stabilized by monopod, ISO 160, f13 @ 1/160.

Mr. And Ms. Vermilion Flycatcher

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Spring is the season of romance and most of our local species are pairing up.  A couple of weeks ago I visited Ft. Lowell Park, the public park closest to our home, partially in order to observe “my” Vermilion Flycatcher.   I’ve photographed this bird on several occasions and posted his image more than once.  As I’ve explained, he’s usually easy to find because he’s highly territorial.  He has his favorite trees.  Sure enough, he was right where I thought he’d be and he posed amiably for me.

Female Vermilions behave differently than do the males.  They appear not to establish the sharply defined territories that the males establish and they are much, much shyer than are the males.  For weeks I was unable to photograph a female Vermilion Flycatcher successfully.   If I saw one she’d flee long before I could set up to photograph her.  My difficulties were compounded by the fact  that the male would drive off any other flycatchers, including females, who encroached on his territory.

But, on this day, something was different.  As I photographed the male I noticed a small bird sitting on the next tree.  I looked at it and realized immediately that it was a female Vermilion Flycatcher.  Her timidity was gone.  She was sitting quietly on an exposed branch, not at all anxious to fly.  The male, just a few yards away, tolerated her presence.  The female, in turn, tolerated me, far more so than in the past.  It quickly became apparent that she wasn’t going anywhere so long as the male was nearby.

Female Vermilions lack the males’ gaudy colors but they are beautiful in their own right.  Their soft brown and tan plumage, which turns to orange on their abdomens, is charming.  This little female is a real stunner.

As I watched, the two birds took flight.  But instead of flying away, they flew vertically, rising to a height of about 25 feet above their original perches.  As they flew, they spiraled around each other, only a foot or so apart, and then, returned to their perches.  Clearly, I was watching a courtship flight.

I wish this couple happiness.  Hopefully, there will be fledglings in a few weeks.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting.  The first image shot at ISO 320, f8 @ 1/1250.  The second and third images shot at ISO 500, f8 @ 1/800.

Round-tailed Ground Squirrel

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When we first moved to Tucson and I began my desert walks I’d notice areas of barren ground that were punctuated with numerous burrow openings.  The holes were two or three inches across and in some areas were only separated from each other by a distance of a couple of feet.  I wondered what sort of animal had dug all of these burrows.

It didn’t take long to find out.  These holes were occupied by Round-tailed Ground Squirrels, perhaps the most often seen diurnal mammals in the Tucson area.

A Round-tailed Ground Squirrel is a small, tan colored animal.  It measures about six  inches in length (excluding its tail) and weighs only about a quarter of a pound.  These animals spend much of their lives underground.  They are diurnal foragers.  They are dormant on cold winter days and during the hottest days of the summer (they do not hibernate) and are active the rest of the year.  They are also very, very cute.

These little squirrels are absolutely endearing.  They are often approachable when encountered out on the desert.  I’ve walked within two or three feet of one of these animals without it heading for the safety of its burrow.

Round-tailed Ground Squirrels are omnivores, eating just about anything they can obtain.  Leaves, flowers, small insects and invertebrates, they’ll happily gobble all of them down if they get the opportunity.  A wide range of predators actively hunt these squirrels.  Coyotes, bobcats, and several species of raptors dine on them.

A lot of visitors to the Tucson area make the mistake of assuming that Round-tailed Ground Squirrels are prairie dogs.  They’re not.  Prairie dogs are much larger than these squirrels and they have a social structure that is as complex as that of almost any animal.  Round-tailed Ground Squirrels superficially resemble prairie dogs in that they build their burrows in colonies.  However, individuals of this species rarely socialize as do prairie dogs.  In the world of the Round-tailed Ground Squirrel it’s every squirrel for himself or herself.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens+1.4x telextender and assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting ISO 160, f10 @ 1/160.

Peregrine Falcon

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I went for a drive yesterday with my camera occupying the front passenger seat.  I didn’t see very much and had more or less concluded that the day was a washout.  I drove past a utility pole with what I assumed was a Common Raven perched on it.  My first reaction was to keep going.  It’s not that I don’t like to photograph ravens — I love those birds — but that ravens almost never stay around long enough to be photographed, and I didn’t want to waste my time.  But, as I drove past the bird I remarked to myself that something looked a little odd about this “raven,” and so, I stopped to take a closer look.

The bird wasn’t a raven but was an adult Peregrine Falcon.  Peregrines aren’t exactly rare in our community (there’s a mated pair that shows up every winter just a couple of miles from our home) but they are relatively uncommon and they seldom pose to have their pictures taken.  This bird presented a great opportunity.

The falcon gave me about 10 seconds before flying and I managed to capture a couple of images.  This is a typical adult bird.  The dark “helmet” surrounding the bird’s cheeks and eyes is an identifying feature that is particularly useful in distinguishing this bird from its close cousin, the Prairie Falcon.  There is a fair amount of color variation among Peregrines, with some individuals being darker than others.  Some of these color variations are regional.  The birds that I’ve seen locally tend to have white or whitish breasts.  The hint of peach coloring in this bird’s breast isn’t unusual.

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the falcon’s right eyelid is slightly deformed, most likely due to an old injury.  Life is very hard for raptors and many of them get scarred at some point along the way.

Peregrine Falcons are a worldwide species.  They live on every continent except Antarctica.  Unlike some other species of raptors these birds urbanize fairly easily.  Many major cities have Peregrines, who prey on pigeons and who take advantage of tall buildings as nest sites.  They have been associated with humans for millennia.  They are prized by falconers.  The Egyptian god Horus has a head that strongly resembles that of a Peregrine.

Peregrines have a unique style of flying.  They have relatively long pointed wings that are swept back.  They fly with rapid but very rhythmic wingbeats that are much different from a hawk’s slow and steady wingbeats.  If you see a Peregrine in flight just once, you’ll remember those wingbeats.

Peregrines are the speed demons of the raptor world.  No species on earth matches this bird for sheer speed.  In level flight they can attain speeds of over 60 mph.  They’ve been clocked at over 200 mph in dives.  They use that amazing speed as an offensive weapon, chasing down their prey in flight and slamming into it at top velocity.  Prey can be disabled as much by the impact as by the falcon’s talons and beak.  I once watched a peregrine fly into a flock of doves.  It hit one of the birds at high speed and the impact literally caused feathers to explode off the victim.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1600.


Burrowing Owls — Starting A Family?

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I take a lot of photos of Burrowing Owls.  These cute little owls certainly rank among my favorite subjects.  I also photograph them a lot because they’re fairly easy game.  I mentioned the other day that these owls tend to stay in their burrows for months or years.  I know where several of these burrows are by virtue of my frequent drives in farm country.  I just can’t help myself when I approach one of these burrows and see an owl standing beside it.  It’s almost as if the Burrowing Owl is asking me to take its picture.

One of the burrows that I’m familiar with is occupied by a pair of owls.  These owls have produced offspring for at least the last two years.  Last year they raised two owlets.  The year before it was three.

I visited their burrow a few days ago.  It was my first time there in nearly a year.  I was pleased to find a pair of owls there, most likely the same pair that I’ve photographed in previous years.  One of the birds stood sentinel above the burrow’s mouth while the other one surveilled the countryside while partially hidden in the burrow.

After a minute or so, the bird standing above the burrow took flight, but flew less than a dozen yards.

The second owl then popped out of the burrow in order to better check me out.

It’s impossible to tell which of these birds is male and which is female.  Burrowing Owls have no identifying sex-related characteristics.  With some raptor species females are larger than males.  That’s not the case with Burrowing Owls.  Nor are there noticeable differences in plumage.

How do the males know which are the females and vice versa?  Well, obviously, they know something that we don’t know.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. All images shot at ISO 500.  First image, f8 @ 1/2000; second image, f16 @ 1/400; third image, f16 @ 1/320.

Butcher Bird

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Last night Louisa and I watched the fourth episode of Planet Earth 2, an astonishingly well-filmed series put out by the BBC.  The photography is spectacular.  Episode 4 is about the desert and it features several brief segments about our home, the Sonoran Desert.  Definitely catch this series if you can.

One of the brief segments was about the “Butcher Bird.”  That is a sobriquet for Loggerhead Shrike.  The species gets the nickname because of shrikes’ habit of impaling their prey on thorns or even on the tines of barbed wire fences.  The segment vividly illustrated that tendency.

But, shrikes are more than predators, albeit with some fairly gruesome behavior.  They are among the most beautiful of all of the species that I photograph. I love photographing these birds and will never pass up an opportunity for an image.

These birds, aside from being beautiful, have a tendency to perch low.  The bird in this first image is an excellent example; it is perching on a reed that is only three or four feet tall.  Photographing shrikes on low perches often results in lovely backgrounds that set off the birds.

This next photo is not only my favorite photo of a shrike but it ranks among my all-time personal favorite images.

I took this photo back in December on a very cold morning.  When I first saw the shrike it was perching on a utility wire, not a particularly attractive setting.  I parked my car to observe it from the open driver’s side window.  To my delight, the bird suddenly descended and landed on a dead weed, just a few feet in front of me.  The weed was much flimsier than the shrike anticipated and so, it struggled to balance itself for just a second before giving up and flying off.  I was extremely fortunate to capture this image.  I was even more fortunate with the background.  The setting for this image was a farmyard that contained a lot of agricultural equipment and assorted additional objects.  The shrike happened to land just in front of a very large shipping container, the kind that is hauled on railroad cars.  A lucky break for me and a great background.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  The first image shot at ISO 400, f8 @ 1/1250.  The second image shot at ISO 400, f8 @ 1/640.

Red-Tailed Hawk And Burrowing Owl, Practicing Their One-Legged Stares

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Sometimes I find some of the images that I create to be unintentionally amusing.  That’s the case with today’s photos.  I didn’t foresee anything particularly funny when I took the pictures, it just turned out that way.

I captured these images last week while driving through agricultural country northwest of Tucson.  This little Burrowing Owl seems to be perfectly at ease while standing on one leg.  Its baleful stare depicts either annoyance or curiosity at my presence nearby as I snapped away.

I smiled when I saw this picture.  The owl appears perfectly at ease striking a pose that most of us, ballet dancers and gymnasts excluded, would find extremely difficult to maintain.  The pose looks so — weird — and yet the owl obviously is perfectly comfortable at it.

I came across a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk a few minutes after I photographed the owl.  Young hawks are often far more curious about the humans they encounter than are adults and they often stick around to be photographed long after the adults would have flown.  This youngster plainly was very curious about me.

Notice its pose.  It’s identical, or very nearly so, to the pose that the owl struck.  I found the similarity to be amusing.

How do these birds do this?  Partly, I suspect, it’s a question of weight.  Owls and hawks appear to be much bigger than they are, courtesy of their plumage.  The hawk weighs only a little more than two pounds.  The little owl weighs about 1/3 of a pound. Obviously, their body weight doesn’t put much pressure on their supporting legs as they perch one-legged.  Partly also, it’s a function of the size of their feet in proportion to their body size.  Both the owl and the hawk have disproportionately large feet.  These big feet can not only support a fair amount of weight but they distribute the weight over a large surface area.  That contributes to stability.  The owl has one additional advantage.  Its feet are zygodactylous, meaning that two toes point forward and two point rearward.  That spreads the weight even more uniformly.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1600.

Young Harris’ Hawk — On Her Own?

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Yesterday morning I was driving on a suburban street when I noticed a large raptor sitting on a utility pole.  Intrigued, I parked and walked over to take a closer look. The bird was a Harris’ Hawk — a young bird, probably a yearling judging from the white feathers on her breast, and a very large one.  Her size strongly suggested that the hawk was a female.

Harris’ Hawks are iconic residents of the Tucson area.  They live and hunt in family groups, sometimes of seven or even more birds, unlike any other North American raptor.  In Tucson, they’ve urbanized to the extent that one frequently sees these birds perched on trees and utility poles in suburban neighborhoods.  I know of at least three Harris’ Hawk families in our community and there are, in fact, many more than that in Tucson and its suburbs.

These beautiful hawks and their unique lifestyle are so renowned that birding enthusiasts come to Tucson motivated at least in part by the desire to see them.  I volunteer at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and visitors often ask me where they can observe Harris’ Hawks in the wild.

I observed this hawk for several minutes.  She was all by herself and none of her family was nearby.  That was a bit unusual.  I occasionally see solitary Harris’ Hawks but more often if I see one I’ll see others perching on adjacent utility poles or on perches that are within a very short drive.  The young bird vocalized every few seconds.

Adult Harris’ Hawks have a call that has a harsh, grating quality to it.  It sounds a bit like two pieces of metal being scraped against each other.  The quality of this bird’s vocalizations was different.  There was a plaintive, almost whiny quality to her calls.  It took me a minute to realize that she wasn’t uttering an adult call, but rather, making the kind of contact call that fledgling hawks make when they’re seeking reassurance from their parents.  Last spring I’d watched a Harris’ Hawk nest for a couple of weeks and the newly fledged youngsters were uttering almost the exact call that this bird was uttering.

But, this hawk, albeit young, was no fledgling.  Judging from her plumage she was definitely a yearling bird.  So, what was going on?

I can only guess, but for what it’s worth, I think that she may have been kicked out of her family and was showing her distress.   Harris’ Hawk families are invariably headed by one female bird (alpha female).  All of the other members of the group are subordinate to her.  Sometimes, an alpha female will not tolerate the presence of other females in her family, particularly during breeding season, which is right now.  So, for what it’s worth, I think that this bird may have been told by the alpha female in her group that she could no longer hang around and that she was on her own.

That’s how new Harris’ Hawk families get started.  A solo female, like this one, finds a mate, and before too long she has hatchlings that mature and become her family.  With any luck, this hawk may find a boyfriend before too long.

Images made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1250.