Pied-billed Grebe — Stretching

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A week or two ago I enjoyed watching a Pied-billed Grebe as it swam in one of the ponds at Sweetwater Wetlands.  Pied-billed Grebes are the smallest members of the grebe family of birds.  They are duck-like divers, hunting for fish, amphibians, and invertebrates underwater.  These are not particularly colorful birds, with plumage in shades of brown, black and white.  They get their name from the ring around their beaks.

Although they are not beautiful as are many species of ducks, Pied-billed Grebes’ antics are fun to observe.  They are very active little swimmers, diving constantly and popping to the surface 20-30 seconds later, sometimes a couple of dozen yards away.  They are territorial.  If one grebe invades another’s space that often provokes a frenzied chase, and sometimes, brief combat.

They also engage in behaviors that I find difficult to explain.  The grebe that I observed — for reasons known only to it — decided to swim around with its wings outstretched.  It held that position for a good minute as it paddled around, looking like a tiny seaplane on the pond’s surface.

I’d love to be able to explain what the grebe was doing, but I can only guess.  Perhaps it was air-drying its wing feathers after repeated dives.  Or, perhaps, it was advertising its territory to other grebes, telling would-be competitors to stay out of its area.  One other possibility: this might have been some way by which the grebe advertised itself to a potential mate.  At any rate, this little grebe seemed to know what it was doing.  After a while it folded its wings and resumed diving.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1000.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

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In the past I’ve posted about identifying Red-tailed Hawks.  As I’ve noted, there is no universal standard plumage for these birds although most adults do have red tails.  There are often plumage similarities among adult birds in a given part of the country, but even with that there may be considerable variation from one bird to the next.

Identifying a Red Tail may often be as much a matter of being familiar with the species’ morphology as it is recognizing plumage. All Red Tails, regardless of their plumage, share a familiar blocky shape and broad, paddle-shaped wings.

Moreover, juvenile and immature Red-tailed Hawks manifest significant plumage differences from adults and they lack the adults’ solid red tails.  Still, their morphology is identical to that of adult Red-tailed Hawks.

Here’s an adult bird, one that I photographed a few days ago.

This Red Tail is typical of what we see in the southwestern United States, with its brown head and pale and lightly marked breast and abdomen.  Now, here’s a juvenile bird — probably about 9 or 10 months old — that I also photographed very recently.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, there’s a rather striking plumage difference between the two hawks.  The brilliant white plumage and contrasting dark markings on the youngster’s breast and abdomen are typical of a very young Red Tail.  So also are this bird’s pale eyes.  Adults of this species have dark eyes.

However, these differences are essentially superficial.  Both hawks share the same body shape and have identically shaped heads and faces.

In these next two photos I caught the youngster rousing.

A “rousing” hawk shakes out its plumage, usually seconds before it flies.  No one really knows why these birds rouse.  Some say that it is a way to align flight feathers in their correct position before flying.  Others think that it is to shake dust and parasites off the bird’s wings.  Others think that this may just be an indication of the hawk’s nervous energy.  Whatever purpose rousing may have, it is fun to capture it in a photograph.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, aperture priority setting.  First image, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1600. Next three images, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/2000.

Prairie Falcon Wearing Evidence Of The Crime

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I post a lot of images of birds of prey on this site, especially during the period running from early autumn into spring.  I do so because they’re fairly easy to find this time of year (if you know where to look for them, that is) and they are beautiful. Indeed, they are so beautiful that I sometimes forget that they kill in order to live.

Raptors are carnivores and with just a few exceptions they prefer freshly killed prey.  That means that they must hunt and that they must kill if they wish to survive.  They have no choice in the matter.  So, what we sometimes view as sad or gruesome is a simple fact of life for these birds.

The other day I photographed a Prairie Falcon.  As I photographed it I was struck by its beauty and I was thrilled to be able to get decent images of the bird.  It was only later, when I examined my images on the computer, that I noticed something else.

The falcon has very obvious bloodstains on its abdomen.

Prairie Falcons often hunt and kill small rodents.  Typically, a falcon will ambush a rodent while the rodent is scurrying along the ground, flying down and pouncing on the animal.

Frequently,  a falcon will “mantle” its prey after it has killed. It perches over the slain rodent, shielding it from other possible predators with its body and wings.  Often these birds mantle  when they see other potential rivals for their prey nearby, such as Common Ravens.  Sometimes, however, they just do it out of instinct.

It is highly likely that this bird had mantled some prey immediately after making a kill.  The blood on its abdomen comes from its victim.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/2500.

Gadwall — Being Funny (If Not On Purpose)

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I often post about the beauty of wildlife.  Birds, especially, appeal to my aesthetic sense.  Recently, for example, I posted several images of a Gadwall, one of the more subtly beautiful ducks that we see in the Tucson area during the winter months.

But, sometimes, the wildlife that I photograph can amuse.  Their antics appeal to my sense of humor even if my subjects don’t intend to be funny.

Such is definitely the case with this Gadwall.  The other day I watched him preen, meticulously cleaning his feathers.  When it was over, he did what ducks usually do when they finish preening, rising from the water and vigorously shaking out his wings for a few seconds.  Normally, I capture these images in profile, but on this occasion the duck was looking right at me when he flapped his wings.  I got this image:

All I could think of when I saw it was a bowling pin masquerading as an angel.

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

Coyotes On The Run — Let’s Get The Pack Outta Here!

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I have to drive out of town on business for three days beginning tomorrow.  I’m going to try to continue posting while I’m on the road, but if I’m unable to do so, I will resume posting on Saturday.

This past Sunday I spent a few hours driving the farm roads northwest of Tucson looking for wildlife to photograph.  I was driving on a dirt road that is bordered on both sides by mile-square cotton fields when I saw three Coyotes standing in the road in front of me.  I stopped and poked my camera’s lens out of the driver’s side window.  That action was enough to provoke the Coyotes to take off running into one of the fields.  I managed this one image, showing them rapidly receding even as the leader of the pack stared back at me.

Wariness is one of the reasons why Coyotes manage to survive and even thrive despite humans’ hostility towards them.  I’ve been told that a healthy adult Coyote can run for a short stretch at nearly 40 miles per hour.  But, even if that isn’t accurate these animals appear as fast as lightning to me when they decide to run.  It took only seconds for these Coyotes to run a couple of hundred yards, then disappear into the cotton stubble.

Adaptability is another reason why Coyotes are so successful.  These animals can be solitary hunters or they can live in packs, depending on what living arrangement is most advantageous to them.  A pack of three Coyotes is not an unusual sight by any means.  I’ve seen as many as six Coyotes running together.

This particular pack consists of a large animal (in the lead in my image) plus two smaller Coyotes.  I’m pretty sure that the largest of the three is a  male and that his two companions are females.  The two females could both be mates.  Or, just as likely, they could be a mother-daughter combination.  Look closely at the image and you’ll see that the male has a ragged left ear, probably the consequence of some altercation in the past.  It’s not unusual at all to see Coyotes bearing scars and scrapes.

I never get tired of seeing and observing Coyotes. I have nothing but admiration for these animals.  To me they are a metaphor for freedom, ingenuity, and cleverness.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/1000.

Ducks On The Wing

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Today’s post is a third in a series of posts of images of flying ducks.

I never get bored with taking and reviewing these images.  Hopefully, I’m not boring you, the readers of this blog.

I’ve explained previously how difficult it is to take pictures of ducks in flight, particularly when these big birds are flying at eye level and at right angles to the camera.  It’s literally like trying to shoot a flying aspirin with a pellet gun.  I have only a second or so to lock focus on the bird and even then tracking it is very difficult due to the somewhat erratic way a duck flies.

But, the effort is definitely worth it, even if my success rate when photographing these birds is only about two or three percent.

One of the really neat things about ducks in flight is that they reveal aspects of themselves that aren’t at all evident when they’re sitting on the water.  When ducks are afloat they show off their primary feathers and those on the outer parts of their wings.  But, many species of ducks also sport secondary feathers, feathers that are only visible when they are in flight.

This American Wigeon, for example, reveals large white patches on the undersides of its wings when it is airborne.  And, the Mallard, shown immediately below, displays iridescent cobalt blue secondary wing feathers in flight.  These feathers are never visible when the duck is on the water.  I’ve wondered why these birds have a whole different set of feathers that are visible in flight as opposed to when they are on the water and I have a theory.  My guess is that they use their “flight” feathers to signal other members of their species that they are in the air.  Most duck species are social and they tend to fly in flocks.  Signaling may be a way to enable ducks to form up as they fly.

The other aspect of these birds that becomes evident when they fly is their almost incomprehensible athleticism.  The wigeon shown below seems to be using every muscle in its body to line itself up for a landing.

With the exception of image # 3 all images shot with a Canon 100-400 mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting,  ISO 800, f5.6, shutter speeds varied from 1/2000 to 1/3200.  Image # 3 shot with a Canon 400 DO II, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f5 @ 1/2500.


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Lately I’ve featured a couple of posts about showy ducks.  Today, I’m posting about one that is no less beautiful than the other species but is colored much more subtly than they are.

This is the Gadwall.

Gadwalls are a species of dabbling (surface feeding) duck.  They are relatives of teals such as the Cinnamon Teal whose images I featured about a week ago.  They spend their summers in the northern tier of the western United States, in southwestern Canada, and along the Pacific Coast through British Columbia and much of coastal Alaska.  They are fairly uncommon winter visitors to the Tucson area.  Each year I’ll see a handful of these birds but never more than that.

The males of this species are gorgeous.  The feathers on their backs shine like freshly smelted copper.  Their breast and flank plumage is an intricate pattern of overlapping gray and buff colored feathers that almost looks like scales on the duck’s breast and are in a herringbone pattern elsewhere on the Gadwall’s body.

The beauty of these ducks’ plumage is, in my opinion, enhanced by their slim, graceful bodies and heads.  These ducks are true show stoppers.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3.  First image shot at 1/800; second image at 1/1000; final image at 1/1250.

Prairie Falcon With Bold Markings

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I’m having a lot of luck this winter finding and photographing Prairie Falcons.  I have no idea why that’s the case.  In years past I’d see these birds fairly often — once every couple of weeks or so — but I’d have little or no luck taking their pictures.  Prairie Falcons, like all falcons, are skittish and they invariably fly when approached.  But, for some reason I’ve been able to get a bit closer to them this year than in years past and so, have photographed several.

I photographed this falcon last week.

The bird was perching in shadow and at first I thought that I’d not be able to take a decent picture of it.  But, it turned its head just enough so that its face was in sunlight and that made all the difference in the world.

Prairie Falcons’ plumage comes in tones of browns and white.  Typically, one of these birds has a dark back and tail, dark outer wings, and a dark upper head.  And also typically, a Prairie Falcon has a brilliant white breast and abdomen with streaks of brown plumage.

This falcon isn’t exactly a rare specimen but its breast and abdominal plumage are quite a bit more heavily marked than what I see on most Prairie Falcons.  Those heavy markings are more typical of a juvenile bird than of an adult although the deep yellow pigment at the base of the bird’s beak is what one usually sees in adult birds.  I’m speculating that this is a young bird transitioning from immaturity to adulthood.

Prairie Falcons are among the most beautiful of the raptors that I photograph.  They’re so pretty that I sometimes forget how these birds make their living.  In a few days I’ll post an image of another Prairie Falcon, one bearing the evidence of its predatory lifestyle.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/2500.

Male Wood Duck

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A few days ago I posted about Cinnamon Teal, and in that post I wrote about how male ducks of nearly all species sport very colorful plumage.  The propensity of these birds for showiness can be pretty amazing when you think about it.

Today I’m featuring an image of what may very well be the champion of bling, a male Wood Duck.

If you’ve never seen a male Wood Duck you’re in for a treat when you finally encounter one.  The duck takes showiness to a whole new level.  His plumage is a mixture of greens, purples, and blues, all of which iridesce brilliantly in sunlight.  The male has bold white stripes on his face, neck,  and flank, brilliant red eyes rimmed in yellow,  a  red beak, and a red “shield” outlined in yellow at the base of his beak.  He also has a very obvious crest, highly unusual in most duck species with the exception of Mergansers.

Wood Ducks are oddballs in the duck world.  Unlike other duck species, Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities.  Their feet have prominent toenails, which undoubtedly aid them in perching above the ground.  They are neither dabblers (surface feeders) nor divers (feeding underwater).  Rather, Wood Ducks forage on the ground, looking for acorns and other seeds.

Arizona is not considered to be habitat for these birds.  However, a few Wood Ducks usually show up in the Tucson area in wintertime.  I’ve seen at least one of these ducks in various locations in and around Tucson for three out of the past four winters.

Image made  with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/800.

Snowy Egret In Breeding Plumage

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The other day I came across a Snowy Egret in its breeding plumage.  The egret was foraging for its dinner (small fish) and it ignored me.

Snowy Egrets are sublimely beautiful with their pure white plumage.  They’re small members of the heron family, standing about two feet tall and weighing less than a pound.  They can be identified by their plumage, of course, by the yellow skin on their faces, and by their yellow feet (not visible in these photos).  People sometimes confuse these birds with their cousin, the Great Egret, but that bird is much larger, standing about a foot taller than the Snowy Egret.

In late winter Snowy Egrets grow breeding plumage consisting of extravagant tufts of white feathers on on the backs of their heads, the bases of their necks, and their tails.  When engaged in courtship these birds often make showy displays of this plumage.

This beautiful plumage was almost the cause of the Snowy Egret’s extinction.  In the late 19th Century egret plumes were prized as a fashion accent.  Women wore them on their hats or pinned them corsage-like to their dresses.  Snowy Egrets were hunted ruthlessly and slaughtered in the millions for this plumage until the species neared extinction.  In 1911 Congress passed one of the first environmental protection laws, the Weeks-Mclean Law, that ended the plume trade and protected the species.  This law was augmented shortly thereafter by another, stronger law, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.  There was intense opposition to enactment of both laws and at least a few game wardens were shot at as they attempted to enforce them.

These laws wouldn’t have been enacted but for a motivated public and the organized activity of groups like the Audubon Society.  Nothing really has changed in this country over the past 100 years; we’re still fighting to protect endangered species from those who would sacrifice them for profit.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500.  First, third and fourth images shot at 1/2500; second image at 1/3200.