Sweat Bee On Palo Verde Blossom

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Earlier this spring we planted a couple of Palo Verde trees in our backyard.  Palo Verdes are native desert plants, although the ones we planted actually are crosses between two native species.  They are beautiful trees with brilliant green bark that does much of the photosynthesis for the trees, and bright yellow flowers.  Our Palo Verdes bloomed back in April and now they are blooming again.

I was delighted to discover that the blossoms are attracting all sorts of pollinating insects including several species of bees.  Most of us, when we think of bees, think of the familiar European Honeybee.  But, there are actually thousands of bee species other than Honeybees.  The Sonoran Desert is home to about 1000 bee species.

Among these are numerous species of so-called “Sweat Bees.”  These diminutive bees get their name from the fact that some species seem to be attracted to perspiration, apparently for the salt content.  Sweat Bees come in many colors, although there are several species that are a metallic green, such as the individual that I photographed just the other day.

These bees are quite tiny.  The one in this image is less than 1/4 inch (less than 6.3 mm) in length.  To the untrained eye it might look like a small green fly but it is definitely a bee.  These bees play an important role in pollinating plants.  As they forage, hairs on their bodies pick up pollen from the flowers that they visit.  That pollen may be brushed off on other flowers, thereby fertilizing those flowers’ egg cells and allowing the generation of seeds.

Some species of Sweat Bees are social, living in hive-like structures in the ground.  Many others are solitary, meaning that each adult bee is a loner.

I welcome these pollinators to our yard.  They’re performing a service and, moreover, they are fascinating little insects.  As the summer goes by I’ll try to capture some images of other bee species (and other pollinators as well).

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, illuminated by Canon Ring Light and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 100, f13 @ 1/160.

Aplomado Falcon — Under Controlled Conditions

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The opportunity to photograph raptors under controlled conditions, courtesy of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Raptor Free Flight program and the museum’s Art Institute, constituted a chance of a lifetime for me.  I had never seen, much less photographed, an Aplomado Falcon. Aplomado  Falcons’ natural range includes parts of Mexico and into Latin America.  These falcons have an extremely limited range within the United States, residing only in a few very isolated locales in southern Texas and New Mexico.  There are few Aplomado Falcons even in these locations.  To be honest, I’d thought that I’d never see one of these birds.

When the falcon, a female, first emerged, I caught my breath.  This is a stunningly beautiful bird.

Aplomado Falcons are smaller than Peregrine Falcons.  They have slender bodies and long legs, seemingly longer in proportion to their bodies than are most falcon species’ legs.  The feathers on their backs and outer wings are a deep slate gray with bluish shades.  These falcons get their name, “Aplomado,” from the Spanish word for “lead.”  Early Spanish settlers named Aplomado Falcons for the tint of the plumage  on their backs and wings.

Aplomado Falcons have rusty colored breast and leg feathers.  A member of this species has a small dark cap on the top of its head, a pronounced vertical malar stripe on its face, and also a matching horizontal stripe that runs through each eye to the base of its head.

These falcons have very long toes, especially the middle toe.  The long toes are a clue to Aplomado Falcons’ lifestyle.

Like Peregrine Falcons Aplomado Falcons prey on other birds, although their diet also includes small mammals and even insects.  Something the size of a dove or a pigeon is definitely fair game for one of these falcons.  However, unlike Peregrines, Aplomados do not rely on blindingly fast dives to attack their prey.  Rather, they are pursuit hunters, chasing down their prey from behind, flying low and fast and with extreme maneuverability.  Those long toes enable an Aplomado Falcon to snatch its prey out of the sky.

These falcons have a reputation for aggressiveness and almost foolhardy courage.  They are known to plunge into dense brush in pursuit of prey.

Within their range these falcons inhabit grasslands and prairies.  They are not a desert species.  There may have been a time when Aplomado Falcons inhabited the grasslands of southern Arizona.  Sadly, that era has passed.  These falcons apparently are not comfortable living in proximity to human habitation.

My thanks to Raptor Free Flight and the Art Institute at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum for giving me the opportunity to photograph this magnificent falcon.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 mm f4.5-5.6 ISII L zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 2500, f5 @ 1/500, hand held, illuminated by studio lights, with an artificial background to simulate sky.


Peregrine Falcon — Under Controlled Conditions

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I hesitated before deciding to post today’s images of a Peregrine Falcon.  This is not a wild bird but a resident of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s Raptor Free Flight program.  I made these photographs indoors under controlled lighting.  As a general rule I try to limit my photos to wildlife in nature and these images aren’t  that.  But, I really like the images and, in fact, they depict detail and anatomical features of this individual much better than I can possibly obtain in the field.  So, with this disclaimer, here goes.

The Raptor Free Flight program in conjunction with the museum’s Art Institute is featuring a “Hawk Walk” program this summer in which photographers get the opportunity to get close — really close — to some extraordinarily beautiful birds.  That includes the opportunity to photograph raptors indoors in a controlled situation with studio lighting.  I volunteer at the museum and have worked with the Free Flight program, providing safety and security assistance during the program in the autumn, winter, and spring.  My association with that program won me an invitation, along with other volunteers at Free Flight, to attend rehearsals of the Hawk Walk to serve as a stand-in for the photographers who would be participating during the official program.

I believe that the program may be sold out this year, but if you live in the Tucson area or will be visiting next summer and are interested in this program, you might want to visit the museum’s site to see if there are any vacancies or if it is being run again next year.  This is an outstanding opportunity to photograph beautiful birds and I urge anyone interested in nature photography to take advantage of it.

The  bird that I’m featuring today is a young male Peregrine currently in training to participate in the Raptor Free Flight program.

I think that you’ll agree that this is one stunningly beautiful bird.  He displays typical Peregrine plumage in these images: a dark back and outer wings, a pale breast and abdomen with some peach colored plumage, and a classic Peregrine “helmet” of dark plumage on his head and the sides of his face.

Peregrines are renown as the fastest creatures on earth.  An individual has been timed in a dive, flying over 200 miles per hour (over 320 kmh).  These first two images explain in part just how this bird manages such speed.  Notice the long and pointed wings in the first image.  These wings are quite narrow.  The tapered wings and the falcon’s exquisitely streamlined body enable it to slice through the air with extreme efficiency.  I’ve watched Peregrines in flight on many occasions.  Their style of flying is unique — when accelerating a Peregrine beats its wings very rapidly but also very rhythmically.  It looks like an avian sprinter headed for the finish line.

Peregrines specialize in hunting other birds on the wing.  Their tactic for subduing prey is brutally effective.  One of these falcons singles out a target in the air — perhaps a dove or a pigeon, perhaps even a duck, and smash into it at extremely high speed.  The impact might kill the victim outright or stun it.  The Peregrine then seizes the prey in the air, and if it is still alive, kills it with a single bite to the prey’s spinal column at the base of its neck.  I’ve watched a Peregrine strike a dove in flight and the victim seemed literally to explode from the impact.

This final image depicts the Peregrine poised for take-off.  In this image the bird is the picture of alertness.  It’s an apt image, because Peregrines live by their incredibly sharp vision.

Tomorrow I’ll feature images of another falcon that I photographed at the museum.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens @ 188mm, hand held, aperture priority setting, ISO 2500, f5 @ 1/500.  Images made indoors and illuminated by studio lights.  Sky background is artificial.

Eastern Meadowlark, Displaying And Calling

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A week ago I photographed an Eastern Meadowlark displaying its plumage and calling while perched on a barbed wire fence in the grasslands of Sonoita, southeast of Tucson.  I’ve written about these grasslands many times and described how Sonoita’s relatively high elevation makes for a cooler and somewhat wetter climate than what we experience in the desert around Tucson.  That climate is conducive to the growth of grasses and the Sonoita area is home to hundreds of square miles of rolling prairie.

Meadowlarks are birds of open country.  One never sees them in the desert but they are abundant in the grasslands.

Their brilliant yellow breasts, the black “v” of plumage under their chins, and their long tapering beaks make it easy to identify any of these birds as a meadowlark.

There is a bit of a complication in our area, however.  There are two species of meadowlarks in the United States, the Eastern Meadowlark and the Western Meadowlark.  Both of them inhabit our area.  Telling them apart is difficult.  The Eastern and Western birds closely resemble each other although they have very different songs.  The Western Meadowlark has relatively buffy plumage on its cheeks whereas the Eastern Meadowlark has whiter plumage, but this difference is quite subtle.

That said, I can say fairly confidently that the bird that I photographed is an Eastern Meadowlark.  That is because Eastern Meadowlarks are year-round residents in southern Arizona whereas Western Meadowlarks are here only in the autumn and winter months.  The Westerns should have all gone “home” by now, leaving only their Eastern cousins behind to mate and breed.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2000.


Spiny-tailed Iguana

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I was strolling the grounds of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum the other day when I noticed something peeking out from some dense foliage.  It was a lizard resting quietly in the vegetation.  At first I had a little difficulty identifying it because it didn’t resemble any of the native species that I’m familiar with.  Then, it dawned on me that I was looking at an immature Spiny-tailed Iguana.

Spiny-tailed Iguanas are not native to our local desert.  They show up in southern Sonora in Mexico and in lands to the south, including much of Central America.  They aren’t desert dwellers but are denizens of tropical deciduous forests.  So, what was this lizard doing on the Desert Museum grounds?

The story of these lizards at the Desert Museum is an instructive tale about how we humans can affect the balance of nature by introducing non-native species into new habitats.  As I understand it, decades ago, someone released a few of these lizards at the Desert Museum.  It’s unclear whether the release was accidental or intentional but, in any event, the lizards liked what they encountered and have prospered on the museum grounds ever since, giving birth to generations of new iguanas with the passage of time.

Interestingly, the iguanas thrive only in select areas on the museum’s grounds.  Much of the museum is native desert habitat and one doesn’t see Spiny-tailed Iguanas there.  But, in other places, the museum grounds are landscaped for deciduous non-desert plants and water has been introduced in the form of irrigation, fountains, and pools.  That’s where the iguanas most often hang out.

Spiny-tailed Iguanas are vegetarians, are completely harmless to people, and feed on the leaves of plants.  At the museum they are no nuisance, because there’s a lot of vegetation and there are relatively few iguanas.  I can walk the museum grounds for two hours and see, perhaps, one or two of these lizards.

The individual that I photographed is a youngster, perhaps only about a year old.  At this stage of its life it is less than a foot long (less than 30.5 cm) and to my eye, is rather cute.  In a few years it will grow to adult size.  As an adult it will be more than two feet long and proportionately, much more heavy-bodied than is this youngster.  Its present pale skin will darken, becoming a dull greenish gray in color.  Adult iguanas definitely fall into the “so ugly they are cute” category of wildlife.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII L zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/640.

Pipevine Swallowtail

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Today I’m featuring an image of a butterfly that is fairly common in southern Arizona.  This is the Pipevine Swallowtail.

This is a particularly beautiful butterfly.  It is widely distributed throughout much of the United States and Mexico.  Its outer wings (not shown here) are cobalt blue.  The inner forewing is black and the inner hindwing is deep blue with bright orange and white spots.

This isn’t really a desert species.  In and around Tucson one generally finds them in riparian habitats alongside man-made ponds and our few creeks, and in cultivated gardens.  They show up in our backyard from time to time.  I made this image recently on the grounds of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which has substantial plantings on much of its grounds, including the Red Bird of Paradise plant on which this butterfly was feeding when I photographed it.

Pipevine Swallowtails get their name from their caterpillars’ preferred food, the leaves of the Pipevine (genus Aristolochia).  Many of the pipevines that I’ve run across in the Tucson area have at least a few Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillars feeding on them.  The leaves contain a toxic substance that the caterpillars concentrate in their bodies.  That protects them against predators who have learned to avoid feeding on the caterpillars.

As beautiful as these butterflies are, they are difficult to photograph.  That’s because they almost never stop flapping their wings.  They vibrate their wings rapidly even when feeding, generally pausing for only a second or two.  It’s a matter of luck to capture an image that shows the full extent of one of these butterflies’  beautiful underwings.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 L zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/640.


Pronghorns In Grasslands

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People who visit my community in Tucson and who do not wander far from the city limits usually leave with an incorrect impression of southeastern Arizona’s topography and habitats.  The area around Tucson is typical desert — rocky, very dry, with extreme temperature fluctuations, and supporting desert vegetation including cactus and mesquite.  But, drive a few dozen miles to the southeast and you’ll encounter an entirely different habitat.  Much of southeastern Arizona is grasslands, a rolling prairie that covers hundreds of square miles.  The grasslands owe their existence to a higher elevation and a somewhat cooler and wetter climate than that which exists in Tucson.

There was a time when southern Arizona’s grasslands were inhabited with mammals that typified America’s prairies and grasslands, including bison, pronghorns, and prairie dogs.  All of these animals were eliminated by settlers, mostly because they wanted to get rid of what they saw as competition for cattle grazing.

Lately, efforts have been made to reintroduce some species including Black-tailed Prairie Dogs and pronghorns.  Prairie dog reintroduction is still in its initial stages but pronghorns have been living in the grasslands for several decades.  I can say anecdotally that the effort appears to be succeeding.  I saw my first southern Arizona pronghorn about four years ago and I was slack-jawed with amazement at the sight of such an animal in our grasslands.  Lately, however, I’ve been seeing more and more of them as I drive through the grasslands, including herds of dozens of individuals.  Apparently, the reintroduced pronghorns are thriving.

The other day I encountered a small group of pronghorns as I drove in a southeastern direction from Sonoita along Arizona State Highway 83.

My images of these animals are a bit misleading in that they depict them standing adjacent to a fence.  In fact, the fence closed off a bit of property that abutted the open range on which the pronghorns were standing.  These animals almost certainly could run for miles without encountering another fence that blocked their paths.

Pronghorns are sometimes referred to as “antelopes.”  They’re not antelopes at all.  In fact, they aren’t closely related to any living mammal.  They are a relic of a time before human habitation, when our prairies and grasslands hosted a mammal population that occupied similar niches to those occupied by mammals in Africa’s veldt.  Pronghorns evolved to be able to run at for extended distances at speeds that exceed anything that any living mammal is capable of over such distances.  In their heyday, these animals needed that running ability to outdistance predators that included wolves and lion-like cats.

One of the secrets to pronghorns’ extraordinary ability to run is revealed by this second image.  Pronghorns are lightly built, but with very long legs in proportion to their mass.  Those legs can propel this animal effortlessly at 30 miles per hour (about 48 kph) seemingly indefinitely.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/3200.


Common Raven — Standing Guard

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The San Rafael Valley is largely treeless, a true ocean of grass.  There are, however, occasional trees including some huge Cottonwoods.  Cottonwoods are relatively thirsty plants and in this part of the country their presence invariably marks the location of water.  In the San Rafael Valley there is a a ribbon of Cottonwoods abutting the watercourse of the Santa Cruz River.  The river, only a few feet wide as it crosses the valley, is bone dry at the surface this time of year.  However, during wet periods enough water percolates downward to nourish the roots of the trees.

The dirt road that transects the valley cuts across the Santa Cruz River.  In doing so it passes under several big Cottonwoods.  As we approached these trees the other day we could see a raven perched on a low fencepost within a few meters of one of the trees.  Normally ravens are skittish around people and as a rule they don’t like to be photographed.  Typically, stopping the car to take a picture of a raven is all the inducement that the raven needs to fly off, often emitting a harsh alarm call as it does.

But, this raven stayed put.  I parked the car, angled it so that we could shoot out the passenger’s side window, and I began firing away.

The raven knew that we were photographing it and it watched us warily. After a few seconds it began calling — not with an alarm cry, but with a steady low chuckling noise.

After a few moments it flew to the top of the nearest Cottonwood where it continued to vocalize.  Soon, it was joined by a second raven, which flew in from the nearby grassland and landed near the base of the Cottonwood.  After another moment, the first raven flew from the Cottonwood to the ground below and the two ravens stood close to each other, but apparently watching us closely.

This was unusual behavior.  I wondered why the ravens hadn’t flown off and at first I couldn’t understand why the ravens were now perching on the ground and watching us.  But, then, I heard a distinct calling noise coming from within the Cottonwood’s branches.  A nest was hidden in dense foliage.  The two ravens were a nesting pair and we had stopped, inadvertently, right next to their nest tree.

Ravens will defend their nests and their offspring fiercely when they feel threatened.  A couple of years ago I inadvertently triggered the fury of a pair of adult ravens when I stopped my car to photograph a fledgling on the ground.  I have no doubt that this pair would have reacted angrily had we exited the car.  As we drove away from this pair the calling stopped.  We were no longer a threat to their family and no longer of interest.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500 f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Horned Lark In The San Rafael Valley

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The other day, I accompanied by a friend, Ned Harris, took a drive through southeastern Arizona’s San Rafael Valley.  The valley is situated between mountain ranges and is actually a high plateau at more than 4000 feet (more than 1200 meters) above sea level.  The habitat is grasslands — it is a sea of grass, extending for dozens of miles, running down into Mexico at its southern end.  It is a wildly beautiful and remarkably empty place with almost no human habitation except for a couple of cattle ranches, and no paved roads.  The valley’s few dirt are relatively well maintained in places, not so much in others.  It is entirely possible that one may traverse the valley — more than 20 miles (more than 30 km) without seeing a single other human.

It is a place where grasslands species thrive.  Among them is this horned lark that I photographed perching and singing on a barbed wire fence abutting a cattle ranch.

Horned Larks are sparrow-size little birds.  They are year-round residents of most of the United States and summer as far north as the Canadian and Alaskan arctic.  The locale in which I photographed this individual suggests its preferred habitat, open grasslands, prairies, and fields.  They are remarkably attractive.  The males, such as this individual,  have bold black masks on their faces and pale yellow throats.  These birds have a beautiful, if quite delicate, song.

Horned Larks get their names from their “horns,” tiny tufts of feathers that project upward from each side of the backs of their heads.  This individual’s “horns” aren’t visible in the first image.  However, in the second image  you can just see them peeking up at the rear of the lark’s head.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/4000.

Acorn Woodpecker

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Today I’m featuring one of the more engaging species of birds that I photographed on Mt. Lemmon’s upper slopes.  This is the Acorn Woodpecker.

This species is native to northern Mexico’s mountains, southern Arizona and New Mexico, and to the mountainous parts of western California and Oregon.  It favors mature forests and, as its name implies, it is associated with oaks.  I’ve found these birds in Arizona at elevations as low as about 5000 feet (about 1.5km).

Acorn Woodpeckers are strikingly attractive.  The males, shown here, have red caps covering the tops of their heads.  The females also have read caps but they are smaller and they sport a dark blue band between the front of the cap and the creamy white plumage on their foreheads.

Acorn Woodpeckers have complex and fascinating social lives.  They live in small flocks in well-defined territories.  These woodpeckers subsist primarily on insects and other invertebrates but they also harvest acorns and cache them in holes that they drill in the trunk of a tree.  The cache is known as a “granary.”.  Sometimes, they will cache thousands of acorns on the same tree.  The flock will fiercely defend its granary against interlopers.    Members of the flock share in the bounty, taking acorns from the cache when they are hungry.

These birds’ communal lifestyle includes breeding.  Females and males in a flock may mate indiscriminately.  A nesting female lays her eggs in a cavity that the flock has excavated in a tree trunk or limb.  Sometimes more than one female will lay her eggs in a cavity.  The female laying her eggs most recently often will destroy eggs that were laid previously.  The members of a flock will work communally to feed the hatchlings

If all of this isn’t unusual enough, add these birds’ vocalizations to their weirdness.  They utter all sorts of cries and calls, including one that sounds like a high-pitched “wocka-wocka-wocka.” A flock of these birds can be extremely noisy when its members communicate with each other.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens, stabilized by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f4 @ 1/800.