Kildeer — Playing Decoy

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Kildeer are a fairly common sight in the farmlands of southern Arizona.  These plovers love to forage in cultivated fields, searching for insects and other invertebrates.  They often prefer to run rather than to fly (although they are quite capable fliers) and one often sees them speeding along on their long, spindly legs.

They’re not particularly cooperative subjects and what I usually observe when I encounter Kildeer is the sight of these birds rapidly running away from me and vocalizing an alarm, a sharp, two note call.

So, I was a bit surprised the other day when I encountered a Kildeer that seemed reluctant to run.  When I first saw the bird it was standing on a pile of dirt adjacent to a large field.  I stopped my car and photographed it from my window.  The bird moved a couple of feet but neither ran off nor uttered an alarm cry.

I decided to exit the car and take some closeups.  I assumed that the Kildeer would likely run away as I got out, but to my surprise it not only stayed nearby but briefly lay down in the dirt.

Then, it turned and moved away, momentarily dragging its left wing on the ground.

Was this an injured bird?  It clearly wanted me to think that it was sick or injured but that wasn’t the case.  The Kildeer was attempting to decoy me.

Kildeer lay their eggs on the ground.  The eggs and newly hatched chicks are vulnerable to any predator that comes along.  A Kildeer lacks talons or a sharp beak that would enable it to fight off a predator.  So, it uses subterfuge as a means of defense.  Sensing a predator, a Kildeer will act as if it is sick or injured, hoping to draw the predator’s attention from its nest.  This subterfuge involves always moving one step faster than the predator, which, if all goes well, almost catches the Kildeer but never quite manages to do so.  As part of its subterfuge a Kildeer may lie in the dirt or drag one or both wings on the ground momentarily as if to say: “I’m helpless!”

So, this Kildeer undoubtedly had a clutch of eggs, or perhaps some newly hatched chicks, nearby.  I didn’t search for the nest.  Rather, I left the bird.  Hopefully, it was congratulating itself on fooling me as I drove off.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6.  First image @ 1/8000, second image @ 1/5000.

American Kestrel (Male)

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American Kestrels — those tiny falcons — are among my favorite avian subjects, not the least because they are so damn difficult to photograph.  Normally, these birds are completely uncooperative.  Kestrels are very high strung and sensitive to the slightest movement.  On innumerable occasions I’ve crept up on one of these birds in my car, rolling very slowly to a location from which I can visualize the kestrel and take a picture only to see the little falcon fly off when I attempted to raise my camera to eye level.  I’ve probably uttered more curses at kestrels over the years than at anything else.

So, it’s always a great pleasure when can actually photograph a kestrel.  It happens with about one out of every 50 or so of these birds that I see.

But, it was different a couple of Sundays ago.  On that morning Ned Harris and I spotted numerous kestrels and to our surprise several obligingly posed for us.  Our successes included this male.

He perched on a piece of irrigation equipment by the roadside.  I drove past the bird, not seeing him.  Ned, who was in my passenger seat, commented that we’d just passed a kestrel.  I turned the car around and drove back to the bird.  The kestrel sat there patiently the entire time I maneuvered the vehicle and continued to sit while Ned and I photographed him.

It’s a lovely image, notwithstanding the man-made perch, because it reveals the bird in all of his splendor.  Kestrels are quite small, about he size of a robin or a mockingbird, and one rarely gets close enough to one to see its gorgeous plumage.  This male, however, really showed off for us.

What was going on? Why didn’t this kestrel fly immediately when I turned the car?  I can only speculate.  This is breeding season for these birds.  Kestrels are monogamous.  In the early part of the breeding season I often see pairs of kestrels and the individuals are reluctant to be separated from their mates.  Possibly, there was a female kestrel nearby.  This male might have resisted flying because he didn’t want to be separated from his mate.

There’s another possible explanation as well.  Southern Arizona has a year-round population of kestrels but many migrants from more northern latitudes also pass through the area in fall and in spring.  It’s possible that this bird is a migrant that was resting from flight and was not anxious to become airborne again after having traveled a distance.

I have images of other kestrels that I made on that Sunday and I’ll be posting them from time to time over the next week or two.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Coyote In The Flatlands

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The area between Tucson and Phoenix along Interstate 10 consists almost entirely of a vast valley.  Big areas of this valley are almost perfectly flat and that makes the land suitable for agriculture, provided, of course, that there’s available water.  I do much of my bird photography there, spending hours every month slowly cruising the flatlands’ seemingly endless dirt roads, looking for subjects.

Occasionally, I run into something interesting other than birds.  Such was the case a couple of weekends ago.  I was with my friend Ned Harris as we slowly drove along a dirt farm road.  Ned spotted the Coyote first.  It was standing in a field by the roadside, in with a herd of cattle.  It didn’t seem to be doing very much, just hanging out, and when it saw us it rather casually trotted off.

It stopped after a few seconds and turned its head to look at us.

Then, it resumed its unhurried saunter.  After a few more seconds it met up with a second Coyote and the pair quickly faded out of sight.

Coyotes are a common sight in southern Arizona.  Several live among the subdivisions in our neighborhood and I’m often serenaded by them early in the morning when I take a walk.  These little wolves are amazingly adaptable, having figured out a way to coexist with humans almost everywhere in the continental United States.  One sees them in shopping mall parking lots, in neighborhoods, and out in the rural areas.  It’s been my observation that the suburban Coyotes often look sleeker and better fed than do their rural cousins.  It’s a question of available food.  The Coyotes in our neighborhood long ago figured out what days are trash pickup days and they’ve become highly skilled at opening curbside trash receptacles.  One should never underestimate these animals’ cleverness.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk — Acting Goofy

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Very recently I came across a Red-tailed Hawk sitting on top of a utility pole.  I see these buteos a lot as I drive around and I’ve photographed them so often that I usually pass them by.  Something caught my eye about this bird, however.  It was acting just a bit differently than the typical Red Tail.  Normally, these birds fly quickly when they’re approached, but this one held its position on the pole and stared back at me as I observed it.

I knew why the moment I trained my lens on it.  This bird is a yearling Red Tail, just a kid in Red Tail terms.  That’s evident from its boldly patterned breast and its pale eyes.

Juvenile hawks often betray the same naivete that marks adolescent children.  They’re not quite sure how to behave in some situations and their behavior consequently is “inappropriate” when compared with the way adult hawks act.  When a juvenile is under observation it often stares back at the observer, clearly curious about this strange being that is pointing that long, shiny object at it.  Juveniles often linger, fascinated by the human observer, long after adult birds would have left the premises.

So, this hawk spent about a minute staring back at me as I looked at it.

At first it did a pretty good imitation of an adult’s baleful stare.  A Red Tail can look awfully menacing when it focuses its gaze on something.

Then, the young bird roused itself, shaking out its feathers.  Hawks often do this just before they fly but, I’m convinced, they also do it when they are nervous or anxious about something.

And, in doing this, the hawk lost all of its menace and looked just plain goofy.

Attributing human behavior to a bird is certainly a bit foolish but, even so, I laughed when I watched this hawk.  To my eye, this bird betrays all of the awkwardness of an adolescent.

The hawk never flew.  It was still sitting on its pole when I finished photographing it and drove away.

There is a rational explanation for juveniles hawks’ behavior.   Many of these birds are reared in an environment where they rarely, if ever, come into contact with humans.  So, my stopping my car and poking my camera out of the window may have been a first encounter for this bird, something that it not only had no experience with but that also aroused its curiosity.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/2000.


Common Raven — Checking Us Out

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I was driving through farm country near Tucson a few weeks ago with my friend Sally Hansen when we came to a crossroads of two dirt roads.  At one corner of the intersection is an abandoned structure, a shed or a barn, and in front of it there is a very old fence.  As we approached we saw a Common Raven sitting on a fence post right at the intersection.

Usually, ravens fly at the sight of approaching traffic, but not this bird.  It sat calmly as I stopped my car at the intersection directly across the road from it.  It seemed to be enjoying itself.  It eyed us as we hoisted our cameras to eye level in order to take its picture, but it showed no concern and made no attempt to fly.  I had the distinct impression that the raven was curious about us.

After a few seconds a huge farm truck came rumbling up to the intersection and I was convinced that the raven would take off.  But, no, it ignored the truck.  However, the truck’s driver apparently changed his mind about where he was going, because, after stopping across from us, he put his truck into reverse and began backing up.  That was enough to convince the raven to vacate the premises.  I’m convinced that the raven would have hung around even longer had the driver not backed his truck.

I like the image that I got of the bird.  The lighting that morning was pretty interesting.  The sky behind the raven was moderately overcast but the sky in front of it (behind us) was lit by bright sunshine.  So, the bird actually was sitting in sunlight even if the backdrop was cloudy.  It made for an interesting image.

What also makes this photo for me is the tangled strands of heavily rusted barbed wire beneath the bird.  Ravens are tough, resourceful birds, and that wire for me becomes a metaphor for this bird’s somewhat cocky and defiant attitude.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/1000.


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I’m as passionate (perhaps even more so) about insect and invertebrate photography as I am about photographing birds.  In most years I’m out and about looking for the tiniest of subjects by the middle of March.  This year has been a big disappointment so far.  We are in the grip of a terrible drought and it has affected plant and insect life.  Almost no wildflowers bloomed this spring and flowering shrubs are at best putting out a small fraction of their typical blooms.  I’ve had a couple of days this spring where I’ve walked for hours and seen nothing worth photographing.  That’s a new experience for me.

Bees are active, however, even if in fewer numbers than normal.  It seems as if I can find Honeybees wherever I find shrubs in bloom and, so, I’ve spent some time photographing them.

Honeybees are an important — indeed, critical — component of the cycle of life in our area.  Innumerable plants depend on bees as pollinators.

The Honeybees in southern Arizona all have become “africanized,” meaning that they are the product of interbreeding with the so-called “killer bees” that were introduced decades ago into the western hemisphere from Africa.  All Honeybees in the Americas are non-native, in the sense that that their ancestors came here from somewhere else.  Until a few years ago, our Honeybees were descendants of a European species that was known to be relatively gentle.  African Honeybees are by reputation and in fact much fiercer when it comes to self-defense.  Every year in Arizona there are stories of hikers who are seriously injured when they blunder into an africanized hive.

But, these bees are only fierce when they’re defending their hives.  Away from the hive the africanized bees behave pretty much as European bees do.  They’re single-minded creatures interested only in obtaining nectar and pollen for their colonies.  It is possible to get very close to these bees as they forage without any fear of being stung.  Consequently, I often stand within a couple of inches of foraging bees as I photograph them.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180 mm f3.5 L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, ISO 100, f10 @ 1/160.

Swainson’s Hawk — A Study In Beauty And Gracefulness

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I’ve posted a number of images of Swainson’s Hawks recently.  Their spring migration has been in full swing and I have had  dozens of encounters with these buteos as they passed through our area.  I’ve collected enough images of these wonderful birds to keep posting them for a week or two.

I’m not going to do that.  This is not a blog about raptors and I have no intention of over-saturating it with pictures of one species.

But, I will post one last image, because I consider it my best photograph of a Swainson’s Hawk this season.

I found this bird roosting on top of a pecan tree.  As I photographed it the hawk looked back at me and for a few seconds we observed each other.  I love the bird’s body language and expression.  To me the image captures the bird’s fierceness but also its gracefulness and beauty.

There is no such thing as  a “typical” Swaison’s Hawk.  No two of these birds are identical in appearance.  However, all Swainson’s Hawks have common features.  The relatively small head in relation to the bird’s body is typical as is the bright yellow skin at the base of the bird’s relatively small beak and on its legs.  So also is the “bib” of contrasting feathers on the hawk’s chest.  Just about all Swainson’s Hawks have that “bib” although it varies considerably in color from bird to bird.

Nearly all of the Swainson’s Hawks migrating through our community don’t stick around for the summer.  A few do, however, and there is a small breeding population in southern Arizona.  It’s likely that the next time I feature images of one of these hawks will be later in the summer when this season’s offspring fledge.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/4000.

White-faced Ibis In An Alfalfa Field

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Recently, I posted an image of an Osprey that I found perching on a utility pole with a fish that it had captured in an irrigation canal.  I remarked then on the incongruity of seeing a species that one associates with water in the middle of what most of us would assume is a burning desert.

Today I’m featuring another species that also appears to be out of place.  White-faced Ibis are habitués of marshes and mud flats.  They make a living by feeding on small aquatic creatures, which they pluck from shallow water and muddy ground with their extraordinarily long beaks, beaks that they use almost like chop sticks or forceps.

But, a few days ago, I photographed these ibis foraging in an alfalfa field about 30 miles from Tucson.  The field had been flooded to irrigate it.

The birds were members of a flock of about 20 ibis.

How did these ibis find their way into the middle of a desert?  The answer is the same as that which explains the Osprey’s brief presence here.  These ibis are passing through, on their way to their breeding territory in the northern Great Plains.  Much of southern Arizona lies underneath an enormous flyway — an aerial highway — for migrating birds from the western United States and Canada.  Annually, millions of birds of hundreds of species travel in both directions on this flyway.

Migrating ibis aren’t usually interested in making a stopover in a a desert.  But, when a farmer floods his or her fields for irrigation, that creates, if only momentarily, a habitat that the ibis can exploit.  Insects living in the fields are forced out of their burrows and into the open by the irrigating water.  That constitutes food for the ibis and makes a rest stop in the desert worthwhile for them.

White-faced Ibis are a western species.  In appearance they are very similar to another ibis species, the Glossy Ibis.  The distinguishing feature is the pale plumage around the White-faced Ibis’ eyes.  Glossy Ibis lack this feature.  Glossy Ibis live in the eastern United States and we rarely see them here.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/800.

Eastern Meadowlark On A Barbed Wire Fence

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The other day I posted a couple of images of an Eastern Meadowlark perched on a fence post.  Today, I’m posting two more images of the same species, albeit a different individual.

I think that you’ll notice a very different feel to these images than was the case with the other meadowlark images that I posted.  In photography lighting makes all the difference in the world.  The two birds were perching along the same country road.  The difference is that the first bird was on my left, backlit by sunlight coming through a moderate cloud cover.  The second bird — today’s subject — was on my right and had the sun coming from behind it.

These photos are less stark and, in my opinion, prettier, than the ones I posted the other day although I very much like the Zen-like simplicity of the other images.  Here, the cloudy sky comes across as a silvery gray with a very faint blue tint as opposed to the pure white  sky in the other images.  The yellow band at the bottom of these images is grass.  The purple band is the distant hills that border Sonoita.

Which treatment one prefers is all a matter of taste.  Personally, I like both outcomes.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1250, f5.6 @ 1/800.

Great Pyrenees Puppy — Get Back To Work!

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I’m going to digress ever so briefly from my usual subjects to depict something else today.  I’ll be back to my standard diet of birds and other wildlife tomorrow.

My wanderings around southern Arizona often take me through rural agricultural areas.  There are flocks of sheep pastured in some locations this time of year.  Shepherds put their flocks into gigantic fields of alfalfa, after the crop has been cut, and the sheep graze on the stubble.  Some of these flocks are huge, numbering many hundreds of sheep.  I try to visit these flocks every chance I get because all sorts of wildlife is attracted by the occasional still-born lamb or adult fatality or by the discarded placentas of new-born lambs.  Coyotes, vultures, ravens, and Crested Caracaras all wander among the flocks or hang out on the flocks’ perimeters.

On Sunday I was with a friend, Ned Harris, when we visited one of these flocks.  There were no birds in the vicinity, but as we approached the flock we saw an adult Great Pyrenees dog sitting at the flock’s edge.  The shepherds  — reputedly Basques — pasture these very large white dogs with their flocks.  The dogs are introduced to the sheep when they are just puppies.  They grow up with the sheep and they come to think of the sheep as members of their family to be guarded and protected.  By reputation, Great Pyrenees are fiercely protective and, so, these dogs devote their lives to protecting their flocks from intruders.

The big dog ignored us.  We drove on a bit and saw dozens of sheep clustered around a watering trough.  As we drove past this group, a head and then a body popped up from behind the trough.  It was a Great Pyrenees puppy, no more than four or five months old.

The puppy, being a puppy, plainly didn’t view us as a threat but, rather, as someone who might play with it.  It stood staring at us, wagging its tail.

Suddenly an adult sheep strode up to the puppy and head-butted it, causing the puppy to yelp with surprise and recoil.  It was almost as if the sheep was saying:  “No playing, get back to work!”

Of course, that’s almost certainly not what the sheep was saying.  More likely, it viewed the puppy as being low on the flock’s totem pole and was establishing dominance by butting it.  A few years ago I watched a documentary film about Great Pyrenees puppies and the socialization that they go through when they are introduced to a flock of sheep.  Evidently, they get pushed around a lot until they attain something close to adult size.  At some point in the process the sheep accept these dogs as “sheep” and peace reigns in the flock.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/1250.