Year End Countdown # 12 — Common Merganser

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Today starts my countdown — in reverse order — of my 12 favorite images of 2017.  I made more than half of these images during two trips, a trip to Alaska in July to photograph Coastal Brown Bears, and a cruise down the Alaskan and Canadian coasts that we took in September.  The remainder are of local fauna.

I really enjoy doing this.  I remember where I was and what was going on when I took each of these photos.  Reviewing them brings back a lot of pleasurable experiences.

I made today’s image on an afternoon in late January at Tucson’s Reid Park.  A small group of migrating Common Mergansers had joined the flotilla of ducks residing by and on the park’s larger pond.  Mergansers are diving ducks, catching their food underwater.  They have a unique, in fact, somewhat weird appearance. Their spiky red crests remind me of the hair sported by Johnny Rotten, the ex-lead singer of the long-defunct punk group, the Sex Pistols  (if you don’t know who Johnny Rotten or the Sex Pistols are, you should google them.  Believe me, it will be a revelation).

The Common Mergansers at Reid Park were a bit shy.  I went to the park on several consecutive days trying, without success, to get a good image of these ducks.  The Mergansers stayed in the middle of the big pond, well out of camera range.  However, on about my fourth visit, one of them was close enough for a photo and I got this image.

I love this photo.  The bird is on vivid display in spectacular lighting.  But, more than that, I love it because of the duck’s attitude and pose.  The Merganser had been napping up until seconds before I photographed it.  When it awoke it shook itself vigorously before resuming swimming and diving for food.  The image captures the duck at the instant before it began shaking out its feathers.

Image made with a Canon 5Diii, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f11 @ 1/640.

Red-tailed Hawk In Grasslands

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Before beginning today’s post, an announcement:  for 12 days beginning tomorrow I’m going to do my annual year-end countdown of my favorite images for this year.  Normally, I’d time the countdown to end on January 1 but I have some travel scheduled for the last week of December.  As usual, I’ll begin with number 12 and work my way backwards to my favorite image of the year.

Now, for today’s post.  The other day my friend Ned and I explored the grasslands of the San Rafael, not far from the tiny hamlet of Lochiel.  We were on the hunt for an unusual bird — a Rough-legged Hawk — that someone had seen in the area.  Rough-legged Hawks are winter migrants and only a handful of them make it this far south in winter months, so photographing one would have been a big deal.

Ned and I were driving over a narrow dirt road, at the junction of the rolling grasslands of the San Rafael and the wooded slopes of a range of low mountains, when Ned saw a raptor perched at the top of a small oak.  We immediately stopped and both of us hyperventilated for a few seconds at the thought of photographing the rare hawk.

It was not to be.  The bird that Ned spotted was a Red-tailed Hawk, among the most common raptor species in these parts.  Still, it was an extraordinarily handsome individual, the setting was great as was the bird’s pose, the lighting was good, and the hawk was quite cooperative.  So, I made this image.

I’m very pleased with this photo and I’m not really all that disappointed that we failed to find the Rough-legged Hawk.  Finding that bird in the San Rafael, a valley that is dozens of miles long and at least a dozen miles wide, would have been like finding a needle in an entire field full of haystacks.  This Red Tail was my consolation prize, and I’ll keep it.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, ISO 1000, f8 @ 1/2000.

Green-winged Teal

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Here’s another duck that I photographed a few days ago, swimming on one of the ponds at Tucson’s Reid Park.  This is a Green-winged Teal.

There are several species of Teal. Teal are among the smallest of the dabbling ducks (surface-feeding ducks). They winter in the Tucson area in small numbers with a few showing up here or there.  They are exquisitely beautiful as this first photograph shows.  I love their deep reddish brown heads set off by an iridescent green stripe on each side of their faces.

This little duck was the only Green-winged Teal present at Reid Park the other day.  He swam among a couple hundred ducks of other species.  He was quite shy, spending most of his time at the center of the pond, well away from the other ducks and almost out of photography range.  I had to be very patient in order that he would swim close enough to me to be photographed.  It took me about 1/2 hour of standing around but, eventually, my patience paid off.

One aspect of Reid Park that I love is the lighting effects in mid- and late afternoon this time of year.  I consider the lighting for these two images to have been just about ideal and the relatively low sun created extraordinary patterns on the water’s surface.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640.  First image, f5.6 @ 1/1000, second image f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Gambel’s Quail At Lochiel, AZ

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One of the things that I love about my adopted state of Arizona is that it remains almost entirely unpopulated.  One need only drive short distances from the densely packed environs of Phoenix and Tucson to encounter remote and wild country.  Yesterday, my friend Ned and I drove to the hamlet of Lochiel, Arizona (population: 9), about 60 miles southeast of Tucson,  in search of an uncommon bird that had reportedly been seen nearby.  Lochiel, consisting of a few buildings, several abandoned, is located right at the Mexican border within a huge expanse of grasslands known as the San Rafael, at nearly a mile above sea level.  According to legend, it was the first place visited by a Spanish explorer in the United States, in the early part of the 16th Century.  We didn’t find the bird and we had a flat tire on the way back, but the trip was still fun, taking us through remote and mountainous country via miles of narrow, twisting, and sharply climbing and descending dirt roads.

Wildlife photography in such locations is often a case of quality vs. quantity.  I know that I will encounter numerous birds on most of my trips through the farmlands near Tucson, but the setting there can be boring.  Utility poles aren’t photogenic perches and the birds that I photograph often appear before cloudless blue skies.  In the San Rafael, by contrast, there are innumerable natural perches and the backgrounds can be beautiful.  On the other hand, the wildlife there is much less densely packed than it is on the farms and one can drive long distances without seeing any photographable wildlife.

Yesterday, however, I got lucky.  Among my captures was this male Gambel’s Quail perched on a tree stump.

I find the stump to be as interesting as the bird and the combination of quail and stump make for good images.  I also love the background — the dead grass gives the images a pleasingly warm tone.

So, yes, yesterday’s trip to nowhere was well worth it, even though we never saw that unusual bird.

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

Prairie Falcon, Taking Off

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I’ve had more success recently photographing Prairie Falcons than I’ve had in the previous several years combined.  It’s not a question of my improving skills, but rather, of good luck.  Usually these birds don’t stick around long enough to have their pictures taken.  Recently, however, I’ve encountered a couple of them who were less quick to fly.

A couple of weeks ago I came across this striking individual.

It perched long enough for me to make its portrait, then flew.  Typically, one of these falcons takes off in a direction that is opposite to the viewer and all I’m able to manage in that situation is a picture of its rapidly disappearing rump.  On this occasion, it took off at a 90 degree angle to me, giving me the chance to make a couple of profile images as it became airborne.

The liftoff profile illustrates this bird’s sharply pointed wings, wings that are both aerodynamic and extremely efficient.  Although the Prairie Falcon is not the fastest bird in the sky (its Peregrine Falcon cousin is faster) it definitely sits near the top of the heap.  One of these birds flies with stiff, very rapid wingbeats, and can accelerate like a drag racer.

Prairie Falcons are a western species and one can find them all over the Great Plains and the valleys that lie between western mountain ranges.  One sees them fairly often in these parts, particularly when driving through the inter-mountain lowlands.  They rank among my favorite photography subjects, not just because of their beauty, but because they are so difficult to photograph.  I count a good image of one of these falcons as a precious possession.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8.  First image at 1/1600; second and third images at 1/2500.

Ferruginous Hawk

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It’s been about two years since I posted an image of a Ferruginous Hawk.  I see these big hawks — winter residents of southern Arizona’s farmlands — from time to time but I’ve had a long run of bad luck when it comes to photographing them.  I think I know the reasons, which I’ll explain below.

Ferruginous Hawks are the largest hawks in North America.  One of these big birds is about 1 1/2 times the size of a Red-tailed Hawk.  They are summer residents of the northern Great Plains of the United States and western Canada’s prairies, they live year-round in part of that range, and the non-permanent residents winter in points south including southern Arizona.  They are magnificent.  Most of these hawks (there is a dark color morph that is the exception to the rule) have brilliant white breasts, silvery heads, and orange-red outer wings and backs.  They get the name “ferruginous” (“rusty”) from that typically orange-red plumage.  They have huge mouths that give them a somewhat eagle-like appearance.

I photographed this individual yesterday.

Now, why is it that I’ve had such difficulty photographing these birds? In part its due to the fact that they are uncommon.  In a three-hour drive through the farmlands and on a good day, I may see only one or two of them.  Often, I don’t see any.  But, that’s not my primary problem.  The birds that I see do not want to be approached by humans and they are extremely jumpy.  Typically, one of these will fly long before I can get within camera range.

It wasn’t always this way.  Two and three years ago I’d often find Ferruginous Hawks in fairly cooperative moods and I was able to photograph them on numerous occasions.  The change in behavior may in part be my fault and the fault of other photographers and birders.  Ferruginous Hawks, like many buteos, are highly territorial. One of these birds will find a favorite perch — often, a utility pole, as is the case with this individual — and return to that perch season after season, sometimes for years.  I and my fellow nature enthusiasts are aware of that territoriality, so we seek out these hawks on their customary roosts.  The hawks learn to recognize us and, regarding us as interlopers, they become increasingly uncooperative.  Over time, their tolerance for us diminishes.

There may be another reason.  The other day one of my friends found a dead Ferruginous Hawk — a juvenile bird.  It had a wound in its breast that might have been a wound caused by a .22 caliber bullet.  We have more than our share of idiots here, unfortunately.

In a way, our educating these hawks to fly when they are approached may actually be a good thing if it prevents them from being shot.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/2000.



Loggerhead Shrike On A Chilly Morning

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I made a quick run through agricultural country this morning.  It was our first really chilly morning of this autumn, with the temperature right at freezing.  A lot of birds were hunkered down in the bright morning sunlight, trying to warm up at the start of their day.

Among them was this Loggerhead Shrike.

The shrike sat facing directly into the sun with its feathers fluffed out.  Many birds will fluff their feathers on cold mornings.  By doing so the birds trap air between their feathers and their skin.  The air is warmed by the sun and by the birds’ body temperature.  The fluffed feathers insulate the birds.

When we wear down jackets — equipped with feathers taken from birds — we attain the exact same result.  So, we’ve both taken the technique and the underlying equipment from birds.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400m f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting,  ISO 800, f8 @ 1/2000.

American Wigeons At Reid Park

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The Tucson metropolitan area has received zero rainfall for nearly three consecutive months.  Zero.  This year, at least, the word “desert” aptly describes our community.

So, it may come as a surprise to some that Tucson — despite its extreme dryness — is home to a fairly significant population of wintering ducks.  Members of close to a dozen duck species choose to make their winter homes here, settling down to live on whatever bodies of water (nearly all of them man-made) exist in this area.  I sometimes fantasize that, among the echelons of migrating ducks that fly over our community, a few are led by individuals who look down from above, see a small body of water, and think:  “Hey, maybe we can hang out here?”  Certainly, the ducks are resourceful in finding wet spots.  A few years ago a pair of migrating Mallards took up residence in our swimming pool, much to our consternation.

Reid Park is a duck-watching hot spot in Tucson.  This time of year the park’s two ponds host at least a couple hundred ducks of assorted species.  The ducks are certainly attracted by the water, but it doesn’t hurt that people feed them.  This isn’t necessarily a good thing for the ducks.  They didn’t evolve to eat pieces of Wonder Bread.  Nevertheless, they seem to like the handouts and so, they hang out at the park in large numbers.

Most of the Reid Park ducks are American Wigeons.  These dabbling ducks (dabblers feed on the surface whereas diving ducks dive for their food) are a common species that summers in the northern tier of the United States and in Canada.  In winter, they head south and they seem to love the Tucson area.  The males (drakes) of this species are strikingly handsome.  They have pale blue beaks, white foreheads, and inverted iridescent green crescents on the sides of their heads.  That crescent very much resembles an upside-down Nike logo.

At Reid Park these ducks are totally inured to the presence of humans, no doubt a consequence of all of the breadcrumb tossers who visit the park.  As I photographed these wigeon drakes I was surrounded on the bank by dozens of other wigeons, many standing within just a couple of feet of me.  This is definitely not normal wigeon behavior.  More typically, wigeons, like nearly all wildlife, are wary in the presence of humans and not happy about being approached closely.

Wigeons don’t quack, they squeak.  They utter a sound that sounds exactly like the noises made by the soft rubber or plush toys that one buys for a puppy or an infant.  Standing amid dozens of wigeons, all squeaking simultaneously, is definitely a memorable experience.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000.  First image shot at f5.6 @ 1/640, second image shot at f5 @ 1/500.



Inca Dove

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Inca Doves are residents of the southwestern border region, ranging from West Texas to California.  They’re quite small, less than half the body mass of the much more common Mourning Dove.  They are ground foragers, tending to perch low and to wander around in the underbrush as they search for food.

I had never seen one of the these little doves until about a week ago, when I photographed this one at Whitewater Draw, about 75 miles southeast of Tucson and very close to the U.S. – Mexico border.

It is easy to identify, not only by its small size, but by its “scaly” plumage and by its ruby red eyes.

A friend who is a long-time resident of suburban Tucson told me that Inca Doves used to be a relatively common sight in his neighborhood but that they disappeared a number of years ago.  The guide books state that Inca Doves urbanize well and, therefore, one would expect to see them in Tucson’s suburbs.  However, they are presently rare or non-existent in our community.  Their disappearance may be due to the proliferation of Cooper’s Hawks, a predator.  The hawks underwent a population explosion when local residents planted ornamental trees in their yards and hung bird feeders.  The trees created ideal habitat for the hawks and the feeders attracted prey species.  Inca Doves, fairly slow-moving ground foragers, may have been eliminated because they are easy pickings for the Cooper’s Hawks.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/3200.


Crested Caracaras On The Ground

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My fascination with Crested Caracaras is without limit.  I sometimes think that I’ve become a bit obsessed with these birds.  It’s not just their extraordinary appearance or the challenges that I must overcome in order to photograph them that attracts me to them.  These birds seem to have more interesting personalities than most species have.  The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, where I volunteer, recently  incorporated a young Crested  Caracara into its raptor free flight demonstration.  The bird is a budding superstar, never ceasing to charm the audience.

Caracaras are members of the falcon family of raptors.  Falcons specialize in chasing down their prey from the air.  They tend to perch high on cliffs, on trees, or on utility poles, scanning the skies and the terrain below for potential prey, and then, chasing it down at high speed.  Typically, falcons are fast, maneuverable, and compactly built.

Crested Caracaras are totally different from their cousins.  Their body shape, their lifestyle, and their behavior are all decidedly not falcon-like.  They have lanky physiques and their most prominent feature aside from their oversize beaks, is their extremely long legs.  Caracaras don’t always perch on the ground, but they do it often enough.  Although these birds do a lot of scavenging, they are also opportunistic hunters, and will chase down prey on foot if the opportunity is there.

I frequently see these birds perching in fields or on berms by the roadside.

That’s what this individual was doing when I photographed it.  In this photograph the bird’s legs are not visible but its huge beak certainly is.  Another defining characteristic is also visible: that area of bare skin behind the Caracara’s beak.  In juvenile Caracaras that skin is usually pink.  As they age, the skin turns progressively redder and may acquire an orange tint.  Interestingly, that skin also changes color depending on the bird’s mood.  When young Caracaras are excited, their facial skin becomes bluish or almost white.  Adult birds display paler skin when excited.

The bird in this second image is in a very characteristic pose.  It is patrolling a berm next to an irrigation canal and appears to be ready to run after anything of interest.  Notice the Caracara’s extremely long legs, far longer in proportion to the bird’s body than is the case with nearly all other raptors.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender.  First image shot at ISO 500, f10 @ 1/500. Second image shot at ISO 640, f8 @ 1/500.