Black Vultures — The Gang’s All Here

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Louisa and I were driving through the farmlands northwest of Tucson a couple of weeks ago when she drew my attention to a large flock of birds perched by roadside.  They were Black Vultures, at least 50 of them, just hanging out in the early morning sunshine.

Of the two vulture species that we see in southern Arizona, Black and Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures are by far the more social.  Turkey Vultures sometimes perch together, but they tend to forage as individuals.  I have the sense that, while Turkey Vultures may at times enjoy each other’s company, they don’t necessarily need that companionship. Black Vultures, by contrast, almost invariably hang out together, sometimes in flocks of up to 100 birds.  So, it came as no shock to see so many of them perching together.

Black Vultures’ range in the United States includes much of the South, and increasingly, the East Coast.  They are a common sight along roadsides as far north as Massachusetts.  Some theorize that they have extended their range in the East by taking advantage of road kill that they find alongside of interstate highways, especially I-95.  They are uncommon in southern Arizona.  Their range includes a strip along our border with Mexico, the vast Tohono O’odham reservation, and the chain of valleys that extends north about as far as Casa Grande.  I’ve seen these birds in the small town of Patagonia, in Nogales, and in the Santa Cruz Flats.  They follow herds of livestock, feasting on the occasional casualty.

The second image features an immature bird.  Look at the vulture in the center of this trio.

See the mop of unruly feathers extending up its neck to the top of its head?  That’s a trademark of younger Black Vultures.  As they age, they grow bald on the tops of their heads.  That’s something that the vultures and I have in common.

As is evident from these images Black Vultures are quite comfortable roosting on the ground or on low perches.  The are carrion eaters and not perch and pounce hunters like hawks.  Also unlike hawks, Black Vultures do their foraging while on the wing.  A hawk will sit on a high perch for hours, scanning the ground for an unwary rodent or other prey.  By contrast, Black Vultures take to the air in flocks and use their extremely keen vision to spot dead animals lying below.  They also frequently follow Turkey Vultures.  Turkeys, with their superior sense of smell, can follow a scent to a meal.  Black Vultures lack that sense of smell but they are gifted fliers. They’ll loaf around in the sky until they spot a descending Turkey Vulture, and then, the whole flock will head for the Turkey Vulture’s find.  On the ground, it is the Blacks who dine first, because they are much more aggressive at meal time than are the timid Turkey Vultures.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Burrowing Owls — Meet The Family (Part I)

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Last year, I ran a series of posts about a family of Burrowing Owls residing next to a farm road northwest of Tucson.  A few weeks ago Louisa and  I revisited the site and discovered to our delight that the adult pair was raising another family. I’ve gone back several time to chronicle the progress of this year’s youngsters.  In days to come I will again run posts showing how the young birds grow and mature.

On our initial visit we encountered one of the parents watching over the family from a perch on a utility wire across the road from the burrow. 

I recognized this bird as the male.  Male Burrowing Owls usually have paler plumage than that of the females.  Some say that this is because the male spends more time outside of the burrow than does the female and his plumage gets bleached by the sun.  Perhaps, or perhaps male Burrowing Owls’ plumage is just naturally lighter than females’ plumage.  In any event, I’m familiar with this pair from last year’s observations and I’m pretty sure that this bird is the male.  Standing guard duty like this is an important task for Burrowing Owls.  Until the youngsters fledge they are easy pickings for predators like coyotes and Common Ravens.  The male stands ready at the approach of danger to sound a sharp warning call to signal the kids to head for the burrow’s safety.

Evidently, the male didn’t regard us as a threat because we parked almost directly beneath him and he had no comment about that.

Two youngsters popped up from the burrow’s entrance almost as soon as we parked.

Young Burrowing Owls stay down in the burrow, with their mother, for the first few weeks after they hatch.  They become active as they begin to grow in their fledgling plumage.  In its early stages this activity consists of sitting at burrow’s edge to observe the world. These youngsters  are extremely curious.  The pair spent a good time watching us as we parked across the road from the burrow and photographed them.

Female Burrowing Owls lay their eggs over an interval of days.  The oldest hatchling may be several days older than its youngest sibling and more advanced in its development for a while.  These two youngsters are almost certainly the most developed of this year’s brood.  They’re ready to observe the world whereas their siblings are still staying down in the burrow.  We would learn in subsequent visits that this year’s brood comprised five young owls.

Young Burrowing Owls mature very rapidly.  Future posts will show just how quickly these little owls develop.  

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 320, f8 @ 1/1000.


Common Raven — What’s For Breakfast?

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On an overcast morning a couple of weeks ago I happened upon a Common Raven perched atop a blooming Saguaro Cactus.  

Normally, ravens are extremely wary and they almost never allow me to photograph them.  However, this individual was engrossed with the cactus blossoms and it ignored me as I sat and photographed it.

What held this bird’s fascination?  Saguaros are an important food source for many species.  They, along with mesquite, substantially support the diets of much of our desert’s wildlife.  During the blooming season, running from late April to mid-June, numerous species of birds, insects, and even bats, come to feast on the Saguaro blossoms’ nectar and pollen.  Was that what this bird was doing?

I have my doubts.  Ravens’ huge beaks aren’t well adapted for delicately extracting nectar from cactus blossoms.  On the other hand, ravens are opportunists extraordinaire.  They will eat just about anything.  A few tasty honeybees would be a nice snack for one of these birds.  So, my guess is that this raven was picking off bees as they landed on the Saguaro blossoms to drink nectar.

One would think that the bees would stay away from a three-pound bird that was just waiting to snack on them.  However, honeybees are incredibly single-minded when they’re harvesting nectar and pollen.  I’ve seen other birds doing what I think this raven was doing.  In the very near future I’ll show images of another species also engaged in bee-hunting.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1250, f7.1 @ 1/2500.  

Burrowing Owl — Guard Duty

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I was driving on a rural highway (paved, for a change!) a few weeks ago when I noticed a bird perching on a tall pole.  I stopped to take a look and realized that it was a Burrowing Owl.  The pole, about three meters tall, was out in the middle of an open field.  The owl sat there, looking very serious, an unmoving, almost as if it was serving guard duty.

I made a few images, then drove on.

found myself driving on the same rural highway one week later.  I slowed down to take a look as I approached the field with its pole. Sure enough, there was the owl, perched on the same pole, looking every bit as serious as previously.

I’m sure that the owl actually was performing guard duty.  The odds are that its burrow lies at or near the base of that pole.  This is breeding season for Burrowing Owls, and burrows contain very young and very vulnerable owlets — perfect snacks for hungry coyotes or Common Ravens.  This owl is able to surveil the surrounding countryside and sound a warning at the approach of danger.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO).  First image, ISO 320, f5.6 @ 1/2500.  Second image, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Fledgling Red-tailed Hawks — Just Kids

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Spring is the season when most species reproduce.  That’s certainly true of birds.  Every spring I search for families and, usually, I have success.  This year is no exception.  I’ve photographed nestlings and fledglings of four different species (so far) and, of course, I’m going to post my best images.  Today, I’ll begin with some fledgling Red-tailed Hawks.

The parents of this family chose as their nest tree a large, isolated palm growing alongside a rural dirt road.  The palm’s big fronds provide shelter for the nest and a degree of concealment.  The parents raised three offspring this year. That’s typical of Red Tails.

I first photographed two of the youngsters about three weeks ago.  At that time, they hadn’t fledged although they’d grown in nearly all of their fledgling plumage.  Here they are, looking awkward and a bit intimidated.  Red-tailed Hawk nestlings grow amazingly fast.  From hatching to being ready for flight takes only about five weeks. I knew when I saw these birds that they’d be flying within just a few days.


Young hawks are as naive as any children.  As I photographed this pair they watched me curiously, wondering, no doubt, what that big lens poking out of my car’s window was all about.

Here’s one of the youngsters about a week later.  Notice how much more mature it appears.  This youngster had made its maiden flight.  When I approached the nest tree the fledgling was perched on the ground beneath the tree.  I watched it take off, fly in a circle around the tree, then alight.

The youngster remained very curious about me, watching me every bit as closely as I observed it.

Young Red Tails remain dependent on their parents for several weeks after they fledge.  As I write this, the youngsters are still hanging out in the nest tree, making tentative flights, but always returning to home base.  The adults will continue to hunt on behalf of, and feed, the young birds for a few weeks more.  Then, the kids will be on their own and enter the most dangerous period of their lives.  They will have to learn how to hunt and those that fail will starve.  Attrition is very high among young raptors; about 3/4 do not survive their first year.  Fingers crossed for these kids!

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO).  First two images, ISO 1250, f7.1 @ 1/2000.  Third and fourth images, ISO 1000, f6.3 @ 1/2500.

Eastern Meadowlarks — Good Morning!

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Recently, we made an early morning  drive through the grasslands of Sonoita.  This time of year the fences there often serve as perches for Eastern Meadowlarks, especially early in the morning.   The birds seem to like to warm up in the first rays of the sun and they sing often.

Eastern Meadowlarks are year round residents in southern Arizona and are native to our grasslands.  Their close and nearly identical-appearing cousins, Western Meadowlarks, show up here in autumn and winter.  

Both species are extremely attractive birds and, as I’ve said, nearly identical in appearance.  These birds have a somewhat chunky appearance, accentuated by their relatively short tails and rounded bodies.  Meadowlarks are primarily insectivores and their long and tapered beaks evolved to enable these birds to efficiently snatch their prey.

From behind, meadowlarks can appear to be rather drab, the plumage on their outer wings consisting of a pattern of brown and white.  However, that appearance changes dramatically when one views one of these birds head on.  Meadowlarks display brilliant yellow throats, breasts, and abdomens, with splashes of yellow on their faces.

It’s always a pleasure to encounter these birds, particularly when they show off in the morning.  In addition to being physically attractive, Eastern Meadowlarks have beautiful songs.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO).  First, second  and fourth images, ISO 400, f5.6 @ !/2000. Third image, ISO 320, f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Crested Caracara — My “Best” images

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Those who follow this blog know that, while there are several species that I rank among my favorite subjects, I am absolutely crazy about Crested Caracaras.  I find these big raptors to be mesmerizing.  At the drop of a hat I will go just about anywhere to photograph one of these birds.

Why am I so infatuated with Crested Caracaras?  In this country they are a highly unusual species, living only in a very small part of southern Arizona, in southern Texas, and in a couple of isolated locations in Louisiana and Florida.  They are extraordinarily beautiful.  They are secretive, hard to find and harder to photograph.  They have fascinating lifestyles — nomadic when young, territorial as they mature and settle down — and they have a reputation of being among the most intelligent of birds.  They are resourceful opportunists.

In southern Arizona Crested Caracaras frequent a chain of valleys that begin in Mexico and extend north to Phoenix.  Within these valleys there are a few communities that are home to these birds.  They are an occasional sight on the Tohono O’odham reservation southwest of Tucson.  They also show up near the rural community of Three Points, east of the reservation.  One occasionally sees them, particularly juvenile and immature birds, during the winter months in the Santa Cruz Flats, northwest of Tucson.  

There was a time when I’d happily accept any image of a Crested Caracara.  Over the years I’ve become more of a perfectionist.  For me, the iconic images are those of Crested Caracaras perching on Saguaro Cacti.  Those images symbolize our desert.  

A few weeks ago I was delighted to get some photographs of one of these birds perching on a Saguaro not far from Three Points.  Adult Caracaras are territorial.  When I found this bird it occurred to me that it might hang out in the immediate vicinity of where I photographed it.  So, after a few days, I went back to the site, hoping to capture more images of this bird.  Luck was with me and I obtained a sequence of a Crested Caracara, in perfect light, as it rested on a Saguaro and then, took flight.

The Caracara was relaxing on a Saguaro that was about 50 meters from the edge of the road.  Unfortunately, the bird was between me and the sun, making it impossible to get a decent image from the road’s edge.  In order to photograph it in the “correct” light I had to be on the opposite side of the cactus.  That meant hiking through the desert around  to the cactus’ other side.

I made a very wide circuit around the bird so as not to spook it.  I had to pick my way through Cholla and Prickly Pear and going was quite slow.  As I crept along I prayed that the Caracara wouldn’t fly before I could get in the right position.  Finally, I obtained a clear line of sight about 25 meters from the bird and made the images that you see here.  The entire sequence lasted about five seconds, with the Caracara taking off at its end.

After I made these images I checked my camera’s settings, something I should have done beforehand, and discovered that my shutter speed was set at “only” 1/1600th of a second.  I would have preferred a faster shutter speed — say, 1/2500th of a second — and the final image has a small amount of motion blur.  Not enough, in my opinion, to hurt the image, however.

For me, these are shots of a lifetime.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get images of a Crested Caracara that I am so pleased with.  After the bird left and I picked my way back to my car through the Cholla and Prickly Pear, I thought to myself: now, if only I could get some images of a nesting Caracara. Wouldn’t that be something?  Stay tuned!!!

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 320, f6.3 @ 1/1600.

White-winged Dove At Sunrise

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This spring I’ve featured a series of images of birds perched on blooming Ocotillos.  This is the final image of that series and rates among my favorites.  This is a White-winged Dove, whose image I made one morning, a couple of weeks ago,  just moments after the sun cleared the horizon.

This image has a very warm tone.  Sunlight just after dawn and just before dusk has a reddish quality to it.  In southern Arizona that reddish light often is enhanced by the large quantities of dust particles suspended in the air.  What you see in this image is what I saw when I made the photograph.  The dove, normally slate gray in color, is suffused with a rusty hue that, in my opinion, compliments the brilliant orange-red Ocotillo blossoms.

When I first saw this image two aspects of it caught my attention, other than its overall tone.  The dove’s eye, naturally orange, is a perfect match for the Ocotillo blossoms.  The little patch of blue skin just in front of the dove’s eye also perfectly matches the sky.  That is fortuitous, but I’ll take it.  Those color matches knit the composition together.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 400, f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Barn And Cliff Swallow

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Southern Arizona serves as a warm weather residence for several species of swallows.  Barn Swallows, the most colorful swallow species, show up in our grasslands and farms during the summer months.

They are beautiful little birds, the males, especially, strikingly colored in hues of cobalt, orange, and dark red.  

Typically, these birds appear in flocks, sometimes numbering several dozen individuals.  One normally sees them in flight.  They dive and swoop incessantly, snatching small insects out of the air.  When they rest, it’s usually on power lines or wire fences.  

This next bird looks very much like a Barn Swallow, but it’s not: it’s a member of another Swallow species.   This is a a Cliff Swallow.  You’ll see that it lacks the Barn Swallow’s orange breast.  When I first photographed this bird I thought that it was a female Barn Swallow.  However, the dark patch at the base of its throat says “Cliff Swallow.”  

Cliff Swallows come in a couple of color variants.  The “northern” members of the species sport white patches on their foreheads.  The “Mexican” variant displays an orange or rufous patch.  In the United States, “Mexican” Cliff Swallows are found in a narrow swath of territory near our border with Mexico.  This bird is a “Mexican” Cliff Swallow.  Like Barn Swallows, Cliff Swallows generally travel in flocks.  Their lifestyle is very similar to that of the Barn Swallow.

I photographed the Barn and Cliff Swallow on the same morning recently in Sonoita, an area of grasslands only a few miles north of the Mexican border.  

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO).  First two images, ISO 320, f5.6 @ 1/2000, third image, ISO 250, f5.6 @ 1/2000.


Black-tailed Gnatcatcher — Foraging

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I’ve been fortunate this spring in that I’ve had three opportunities to photograph Black-tailed Gnatcatchers.  These little desert dwellers are hard to photograph — they’re tiny, they often are concealed by twigs and foliage, and they never stop moving.  Earlier this spring I captured images of one of these birds as it preened.  Subsequently, I made an image of one singing.  Here’s my latest, images of a gnatcatcher foraging for insects.

These images depict what one typically sees when one encounters these birds (they seem to travel in pairs most of the time).  Gnatcatchers will explore a shrub or a small tree, seemingly from top to bottom, hunting for tiny insects.  Their hunting is systematic.  They methodically travel along each branch, peering closely at the vegetation, then snatching their prey with lightning speed.

In these two images a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher focuses intently on a cluster of acacia leaves.  It’s probably reacting to movement.  These little birds depend very much on keen vision to spot insects so tiny that they would be tough for us to distinguish them from the acacia’s foliage and bark.

Gnatcatchers are very much a part of our local desert.  On a typical morning’s walk I may encounter a dozen or more of these birds busily foraging.  Their presence and their activities are part of what makes walking in the desert fun.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/2000.