Melissodes Bee

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I’ve often posted about how much I love to observe and photograph insects.  Viewed up close they are invariably beautiful, if at times weirdly so, and always fascinating.

I’m posting today about one of my favorites.  This is a bee of the genus Melissodes.

Bees of this genus are commonly referred to as “long horn bees” because males in many species have extra long antennae.  The males actually look quite different from the females, having elongated wasp-like bodies.  The females — as is the case with the one depicted here — have relatively short antennae and plump, rounded bodies.

One of the things that I love about Melissodes bees is their eyes.  The various species in the genus come with eyes that can range in color from pale gray to jade green, to turquoise, as is the case with the individual shown here.  Those eyes aren’t usually apparent when viewing these bees without magnification, but when viewed with the benefit of a macro lens their appearance is spectacular.

Melissodes bees are important pollinators.  In southeastern Arizona there are nearly 1000 species of bees.  Honeybees are vastly outnumbered by other species and bees such as Melissodes do much of the pollinating.  For that reason they are highly appreciated by farmers.

These bees do not live in hives.  They are solitary.  The females dig tunnels in the ground.  In each tunnel a female will lay a single egg, provide it with pollen as a food source, then plug the tunnel and move on to dig another.  Often, these bees’ tunnels will show up in clusters.

Do Melissodes sting?  Only the females have stingers and yes, they can inflict a sting that is quite mild in comparison with those of other bees and wasps.  However, these are extremely non-aggressive bees and generally are completely harmless.  My camera and lens were within inches of the bee whose image I’m posting and she paid no attention to me.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, f18 @ 1/160.

Vermilion Flycatcher — Father And Son?

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Two or three times a year I get the urge to photograph Vermilion Flycatchers.  Of all of the songbirds that inhabit our area these may be the most photogenic.  The males, in particular, with their scarlet and orange plumage are eye catching.

Getting images of this species is not difficult for me.  Male Vermilion Flycatchers are territorial.  Once one of them has established a territory, usually consisting of a few favorite perches, he hangs out there for years.  Indeed, he probably will occupy a chosen territory for life barring some disruptive event.  I know of one male that inhabits a park near our home.  I have photographed him on at least four occasions during the past two years.  My tactic is simple.  I go to the park when the light is good, pick one of the bird’s favorite perches, then hang out a few yards away until the bird shows up.  It actually helps that the park is heavily frequented by dog walkers and runners, because the flycatcher is inured to the presence of people and not at all timid.

A few days ago I got the yen to photograph my friend and went to the park.  It took about a half hour for him to show up on the perch that I’d staked out, a large and heavily foliaged mesquite.  He eventually appeared and I got a nice image of him.

Pleased with my results I was about to leave when I heard a chirping sound coming from within the mesquite’s foliage.  Intrigued, I hung around for a minute or two.  Eventually, I saw two other Vermilions, both males, emerge from the foliage and approach the first male.  They were calling constantly as would young birds begging for their parents to feed them.  I was able to get a photograph of one of the newcomers as he emerged from the foliage for a few seconds.  As he emerged, the male flew off, plainly indifferent to the other birds’ entreaties.

When I looked at my image of the second bird I realized immediately that this bird is immature.  Notice the mottled white and beige areas on the bird’s face and throat and the speckling of white plumage on his breast and abdomen.  This is typical of an immature male Vermilion Flycatcher.  I quickly put two and two together.  Almost certainly, the two youngsters were the mature male’s offspring and were probably a month or two out of their nest.  In many species adults continue to feed their offspring for a few weeks after they’ve fledged.  Eventually, however, they tell the young birds to fend for themselves.  These two immature birds  were engaging in wishful thinking, of which the adult bird (almost certainly their father) was having none of.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f8.  First image shot at 1/250, second at 1/640.


Queen Butterfly

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It has become sort of an annual tradition for me to post an image or two of a Queen Butterfly this time of year.  And, why not?  These are extraordinarily beautiful insects whose population in southern Arizona peaks each year in early autumn.  I encounter these butterflies frequently during my walks in late September and early October and I cannot resist the temptation to photograph them when the opportunity presents itself.

Queen Butterflies are closely related to Monarch Butterflies. They belong to the same genus and Queens and Monarchs closely resemble each other.  Queens are generally slightly smaller than Monarchs and are a bit less brightly colored.  There are some behavioral differences as well.  Monarchs are renown for their migrations.  Monarchs in the United States, for example, migrate to Mexico each autumn and their offspring migrate back to the United States in the spring.  Queens don’t migrate for very long distances although they are known to escape to higher elevations in hot weather.

Queens may be found throughout the southern United States as well as in the warmer and temperate parts of Central and South America.  I was surprised to find out that they are not an exclusively New World species.  Queens show up in parts of Africa and Asia as well as in the Americas.  I’m intrigued by the question of how they could be distributed so widely.  North and South America drifted apart from Asia and Africa tens of millions of years ago.  I suppose Queen Butterflies could be an ancient species whose ancestors once populated the conjoined continents.  I suspect, however, that it is much more likely that from time to time individuals of this species have made it across the oceans, perhaps blown by storm winds or perhaps resting on drifting vegetation.  And, if adults didn’t drift across, perhaps their eggs did.  Another possibility is that eggs or larval butterflies may have hitched trans-oceanic rides on ships or planes carrying vegetation as cargo.  Whatever may be the case, I find it to be fascinating that an insect like the Queen Butterfly could have close to a worldwide distribution.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, f14 @ 1/160.

Turkey Vulture — Headed Out, For Now

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Turkey Vultures are migratory and their seasonal migration is in progress.  Birds from all over the western United States pass through southern Arizona this time of year, greatly augmenting the local population for a few weeks.  It’s quite common to see these birds perching singly or in small groups by the roadside, particularly in farming country northwest of Tucson.

They’ll be headed for points south any time now.  The migratory birds seem to act as a magnet on the local Turkey Vultures, who generally pack up and head south with their cousins (a few will remain here during the winter).

I’m puzzled by the annual departure of the local Turkey Vultures.  Our climate certainly is no impediment to their staying: Louisa and I used to live in central Florida, which has a winter climate similar to that of southern Arizona, and large numbers of Turkey Vultures made their homes there during the winter months.  Nor is there a lack of food.  Turkey Vultures’ cousins, Black Vultures, maintain a year round presence in our area and, in fact, seem to migrate into our area in the winter.  They fly into the farmlands vacated by the Turkey Vultures and subsist quite well on dead livestock.

The truth is, I’ve always found vultures — Turkeys and Blacks — to be kind of weird and endearing.  Their behaviors are intriguingly  enigmatic.  Whereas others find them to be ugly, I think that they’re actually quite photogenic.

I admire the fact that these birds are perfectly evolved for the job that they do.  For example, ornithologists speculate that vultures evolved bald heads because bare skin is easier to keep clean and free from decaying animal flesh than are feathers.

Creatures are as they are because they’ve evolved over time to be as efficient as possible in their natural habitats.  Cuteness, obviously, is not a trait that favors survival of this species.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  First and third images shot at ISO 640, f7.1 @ 1/1250.  Second image shot at ISO 800, f9 @ 1/1600.  Fourth image shot at ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Autumn Grasshoppers

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Up until a few years ago I had relatively little interest in insects.  Of course, I was aware of their presence.  I knew some of them, mostly flies and mosquitos, preyed on humans.  Others, especially butterflies and dragonflies, appeared to be quite pretty.  But, like most people, I wandered through life indifferent to the myriad of insects that surrounded me.  All of that changed when I acquired a good macro lens and began exploring close up photography.  I was amazed by what I saw when I looked at insects through my camera.  I was fascinated by the huge variety of insects that I encountered, their often weird appearance, and their  beauty.

Today I’m featuring a couple of species of grasshoppers that appear mundane from even a few feet away but that are quite beautiful when viewed closely.  These two appear to be members of a large group of grasshopper species known as “spur-throated grasshoppers” due to the shape of their throats.  That said, it’s apparent that they have different lifestyles and their anatomies differ as well.  I found both of these species just yards apart while walking in Sabino Canyon the other day.

This first insect is a rather compact individual.  The first thing I noticed about it is that, like many grasshoppers, it is flightless.  Its wings are vestigial, meaning that they haven’t developed sufficiently to enable the insect to fly.  It gets around by hopping.

I particularly like its maroon colored eyes and the inexplicably bright blue “shins” on its hind legs.

Here’s the second species.  This one is fully capable of flight with well-developed wings.

It is beautiful with its black and yellow body, its deep black eyes, and the brilliant red “shins” on its hind legs.

Grasshoppers have had a couple of hundred millions to evolve into their present forms.  My guess is that every one of the features manifested by these insects evolved to serve a useful purpose.  Their unique color schemes may be a way of allowing prospective mates of the same species to find each other easily.  Or, these color schemes may serve to camouflage the insects from predators.

I found the first grasshopper on relatively succulent vegetation at water’s edge in Sabino Canyon’s riparian area.  The second two were on or immediately adjacent to mesquites out in the desert.  The first individual may be flightless because relatively little work is necessary for it to travel to food sources on the densely overgrown stream bank.  By contrast, mesquites are usually separated by a few yards of desert floor, and flight may be useful to enable the second individual to travel from tree to tree.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens+1.4x telextender, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, all images shot at f16 @ 1/160.

Great Blue Heron With Breakfast

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Recently I posted an image of a Great Blue Heron that I’d photographed in the agricultural flatlands northwest of Tucson.  I discussed the anomaly of a wading bird such as the heron living in what many would think of as a very hot and dry desert.  I explained how humans had inadvertently created a habitable environment for this species by criss-crossing the land with irrigation canals and by planting crops that attracted potential prey for these birds.

Here’s another photo — possibly of the same bird — that I took about a week ago.  I think that this is the same bird whose image I posted recently because I took this second picture at the same location as the first one.  The picture says it all.  Here, the heron is downing a small catfish that it had caught in an irrigation canal.  The canal’s edge is depicted in the background of the image.

So now we know how wading birds that have evolved to live in an aquatic habitat can survive in what is nominally a desert.   But, that raises a second question:  how did the fish get there?  I can think of two possibilities.  The irrigation canals are charged with water that is piped from the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away.  It’s possible that the water that is siphoned from the river contains fish, including catfish.  Another possible explanation, suggested by a friend, is that humans may have stocked the canals with catfish, perhaps in order to consume mosquito larvae or algae that flourishes in the canals.  Either way, it’s obvious that we humans have created a pretty good habitat for the herons.

Image made with a Canon 5Div,100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/1250.

Pipevine Swallowtail Butterfly

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October truly is a special month for nature photography in southern Arizona.  Birds are on the move, with flocks of migrators passing through the area.  Some of the species that winter here have begun to arrive.  The other day I saw my first Ferruginous Hawk of the season.  But, October also is special because it is a month when many insect species go through a final frenzy of feeding and breeding before dying off or becoming dormant.  I’ve been having a field day recently photographing some of the more colorful and interesting insects in our area.

These include the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly.  This is a large butterfly, not quite as large as the Giant Swallowtail whose image I posted a few weeks ago but still, pretty big.  Its wings measure at least a couple of inches in diameter.

It is extremely easy to identify.  No other butterfly in our area has midnight blue wings with the characteristic pattern of orange spots on the inner part of its lower wing.  Pipevine Swallowtails get their name from the fact that their caterpillars love to feed on the leaves of the Pipevine, a fairly common vine that tends to grow in riparian areas and other locales in southern Arizona that have access to a bit of water.

This is a somewhat difficult species to photograph because these butterflies seem never to sit still.  A Giant Swallowtail will hold its wings still in a vertical position as it feeds.  That is not the case with the Pipevine Swallowtail.  It never stops fluttering its wings even when it is feeding.  Capturing a good image is a matter of luck.  I used a flash to produce a sufficiently short exposure duration to stop the insect’s motion, effectively, about 1/2000 of a second.  Even with that this image nevertheless shows a tiny bit of motion blur in the outer edges of the butterfly’s upper wings.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5 L Macro lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, f10 @ 1/160.

Swainson’s Hawk And Red-tailed Hawk — Telling Them Apart

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Today, I’m presenting five images of hawks.  Two of these birds are  Swainson’s Hawks, three are Red-tailed Hawks.  Can you identify them?

Hawk # 1

Hawk # 2

Hawk # 3

Hawk # 4

Hawk # 5

Here are some tips.  The vast majority of adult Red-tailed Hawks have red tails.  That feature is absent with juvenile birds, but if a hawk has a red tail then you may rest assured that it is a Red-tailed Hawk.  Swainson’s Hawks nearly always have a bright yellow base to their beaks (the part closest to their heads).  Red Tails, by contrast, generally have paler skin at the bases of their beaks and in some instances that skin isn’t yellow at all.  Swainson’s Hawks also tend to have yellower legs than those of Red-tailed Hawks.  Red Tails tend to have a somewhat more robust build than do Swainson’s Hawks and Swainson’s Hawks have longer wings in proportion to their bodies than do Red Tails. On a perching Swainson’s Hawk the tips of its wings reach or pass the end of the bird’s tail whereas a Red-tailed Hawk’s wings don’t extend quite so far.

Now, these distinctions are pretty subtle.  It gets easier to tell the species apart when you’ve had substantial practice identifying these birds in the field.  I still make occasional mistakes, however.

Ok, now as to the quiz.  If you guessed that the third and fifth bird are Swainson’s Hawks, you are correct!  The other three are Red Tails.  Hawk # 1 has the classic “southwestern” Red Tail plumage.  Note that the base of its beak is a very pale yellow.   This bird also has a blocky physique that says “Red Tail.”

Hawk # 2 is also a Red Tail.  Its plumage varies considerably from that of Hawk # 1, but that’s not unusual with these hawks (Swainson’s Hawks have tremendously varied plumage as well).  But, note: this bird has a very obvious red tail.

Hawk # 3 clearly is a Swainson’s Hawk.  The bright yellow base of its beak and its yellow legs are the tell here.  To my eye, the bird is somewhat more gracefully built than are the Red Tails, but that is subjective.

Hawk # 4 is a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk and I’d say that this bird is the hardest to identify at first glance.  Its plumage is not at all characteristic of adult Red Tails, and it lacks a red tail (remember: juvenile Red-tailed Hawks don’t have red tails).  However, it has a physique that is typical of a Red-tailed Hawk and the base of its beak is pale.  Also, juvenile Red-tailed Hawks tend to have very pale eyes as this bird has, a feature that is largely absent with juvenile Swainson’s Hawks.  All of this said, I got this bird wrong when I first saw it.  On first impression I thought that it was a juvenile Swainson’s Hawk.  It took me a half-minute of studying the bird before I was positive that it was a Red Tail.

Finally, Hawk # 5 is a very obvious Swainson’s Hawk.  The yellow base of its beak and its bright yellow legs give this bird away.  It also has the more svelte physique of a Swainson’s Hawk and its very long wings are evident.  One more factor that helps identify this bird: Swainson’s Hawks are much fonder of perching on the ground than are Red Tails.

We’re seeing the winding down of the Swainson’s Hawk migration.  The last birds will be passing through our area in the next week or two.  The buteos remaining in our area will be overwhelmingly Red Tails, with a few Ferruginous Hawks thrown into the mix.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  First image ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/2500.  Second image ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/2500.  Third image ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/800.  Fourth image ISO 640, f7.1 @ 1/1600.  Fifth image ISO 800, f6.3 @ 1/2000.

Montezuma Quail Hatchling

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Recently, I was driving in the company of two friends along the Arizona-Mexico border near Nogales when I saw a group of birds standing at the edge of the road.  The birds began scattering into the brush as I stopped.  I had no time to think, I simply shoved my camera out of the driver’s window and obtained this image of one of  them.

The photo isn’t as crisp as I would like it to be.  I had no time to adjust my camera’s settings and I took it at an impossibly slow 1/80 of a second.  But, it’s not bad, all things considered.

What is this bird?  I was puzzled for a while because I’d never seen anything like it previously.  It took a bit of research to identify it.  This is a hatchling Montezuma Quail (a/k/a Mearn’s Quail), probably no more than a couple of weeks old.

Montezuma Quail are among several species of quail that are native to southern Arizona (the others being Gambel’s Quail, Scaled Quail, Northern Bobwhite, and the very rare and endangered Masked Quail).  Montezuma Quail aren’t rare birds but they are very rarely seen because they are extremely secretive and prone to hiding in grass and brush.  They are native to upland grasslands with oak and pinyon pine trees — a habitat that is a couple thousand feet higher in elevation than the desert around Tucson.  The low mountains that run along the Arizona-Mexico border are typical habitat for these quail.

Adult Montezuma Quail are notable for their “clownish” faces patterned with bold stripes.  Female Montezuma Quail actually have somewhat bolder stripes than do the males.  You can plainly see the striping on this youngster’s face even though it is still in hatchling plumage.

I get a thrill every time I am able to photograph a species that is new to me.  This photograph is special.  I’ve spent the last six years hunting wildlife to photograph in southern Arizona and this is my very first Montezuma Quail.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it is six more years, if at all, before I spot another.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/80.  I had a bit of luck with this image in that I was able to rest my lens momentarily on the window ledge of my driver’s side door.  Otherwise it would have been hopelessly blurred.

Rock Squirrel

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A few days ago I had the opportunity to photograph a Rock Squirrel.  I encountered the squirrel, a female, as I was walking on a pathway along the shore of Peña Blanca Lake.  She obligingly posed for me for a few seconds and then scampered away.

Rock Squirrels belong to the same family of squirrels that includes the ubiquitous eastern Gray Squirrel.  Superficially, the two species resemble each other, but there are some significant differences as well.  Rock Squirrels look like Gray Squirrels on steroids, being much larger than their eastern cousins.  Their coloration is different as well.  Whereas Gray Squirrels, as their name implies, are generally gray, Rock Squirrels have densely grizzled fur that is gray speckled with white over their heads and shoulders, which changes to reddish brown over their haunches and hind legs.  Rock Squirrels have  characteristic white rings around their eyes

These animals are superbly adapted for desert life.  Rock Squirrels are burrowers.  They  construct elaborate burrows, often under rock formations and they live in colonies, generally consisting of one dominant male and several females.  They breed prolifically, with females bearing litters of young twice a year.  They are primarily herbivorous but they are also opportunistic feeders and will take smaller mammals, insects, and even birds, when the opportunity presents itself.  They obtain most needed moisture from the food that they consume and they can go months without drinking.

Eastern Gray Squirrels have adapted to urban life and are ubiquitous in parks and on residential properties.  Rock Squirrels, by contrast, seem to have a take it or leave it attitude when it comes to interacting with humans.  I don’t see them in our neighborhood.  On the other hand, there is a large population of these animals on the grounds of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

They are also almost legendarily tough.  I once witnessed an attempt by a Cooper’s Hawk to capture a Rock Squirrel.  The hawk, a juvenile, plainly underestimated the squirrel.  The hawk swooped down on the squirrel, which wheeled around and attacked the hawk.  The hawk beat a frantic retreat.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, M setting, ISO 200, f6.3 @ 1/100.