Mississippi Kite

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A few weeks ago I posted some images I’d made of a Mississippi Kite, a raptor that summers and breeds in only a couple of very small communities in southeastern Arizona.  Recently, I returned to the locale in which I’d photographed this bird and was able to take some more — and in my opinion, superior — pictures.

Mississippi Kites are small, graceful, and very beautiful raptors, barely larger than pigeons.  As their name implies they are native primarily to the southeastern United States.  Their range extends throughout southern Texas.  Beyond that there are only a few scattered communities in which the species resides.  Southeastern Arizona is the westernmost reach of Mississippi Kites in the United States.

These falcon-like little raptors are insectivores.  They specialize in capturing large insects — dragonflies, grasshoppers, and cicadas, for example — on the wing.  They are extremely graceful fliers, capable of acrobatic maneuvers in the air but also able to soar to very high altitudes.  It’s not unusual for one of these birds to soar high over the countryside and then dive to capture an insect that is flying hundreds of feet below.  It goes without saying that Mississippi Kites have incredibly acute vision that enables them to spot and track flying insects.

Mississippi Kites often live in small groups.  They are fond of tall trees as perches and nest sites.  I found this individual roosting atop a cottonwood tree not far from the banks of the San Pedro River, an intermittently running stream in southeastern Arizona that supplies enough water to nourish big trees like cottonwoods.

These raptors are easily identified by their pale on dark gray plumage, by the red accents in their outer wings, and by their deep amber or ruby red eyes.  In flight they display very long, pointed, and narrow wings and broadly flared tails.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f8 @ 1/2000.

White-lined Sphinx Moth

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I was out in our backyard just after sunset the other evening when I noticed something flitting among the flowers.  My first reaction was that it was a hummingbird; several visit our yard regularly.  But, looking closely, I realized that it was no hummingbird but, rather, it was a fairly large moth.

White-lined Sphinx Moths are widely distributed, showing up all over the United States.  They subsist entirely on plant nectar and they have a feeding style that resembles that of hummingbirds.  One of these moths will often hover over a flower as it sips nectar, flapping its wings so rapidly that they appear to the human eye as a blur.

I was able largely to freeze the moth’s wing motion using a flash of very short duration (there is still some motion blur in these images even though my flash’s effective duration is 1/1900 of a second, strong evidence of just how fast this moth beats its wings).  As is evident from these images, the moth is very beautiful when viewed from behind.  Its forewings are etched in a pale beige on black pattern and its rear wings are tinted with a delicate pink hue.

However, a White-lined Sphinx Moth only is beautiful when viewed from the rear.  Viewed in profile it appears to be drab and brown.

Photographing these moths is quite a challenge and fun at the same time.  Sphinx moths sometimes show up in daytime but generally, they are crepuscular feeders, doing most of their foraging after sunset and before sunrise.  I needed a flash to capture these images, not just to freeze the movement of the moths’ wings, but also for illumination.  Finding the moths in near total darkness is difficult.  Furthermore, these insects don’t stay still for very long.  One will hover over a flower for just a second or two before moving on to the next blossom.  I had to use every bit of my aging reflexes in order to capture these images.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 320, f14 @ 1/160.

Western Kingbird On A Wire

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Western Kingbirds are a common sight this time of year in southern Arizona if one goes to the right habitat for these attractive flycatchers.  They are birds of open country and I see them frequently while driving through the grasslands near Tucson and in the agricultural area northwest of town.  One quite often sees these birds sitting on fence wires.  Like most flycatchers, kingbirds are perch hunters.  A kingbird finds a favorite location from which to surveil the surrounding terrain.  The perch often is a site that gives the kingbird 360 degree views of the nearby fields and grasses.  When the kingbird spots a flying insect it launches itself in very rapid flight, chases down its prey, seizes it in the air, and then, returns to its perch in order to dine at leisure.

There are three kingbird species that show up in the spring and summer in southern Arizona: Western, Tropical, and the much rarer Cassin’s Kingbird.  The bird depicted above is definitely a Western Kingbird.  Its pale gray breast is an identifying feature as is its squared-off tail, outlined in white.

I find these birds to be charming.  In addition to the fact that they are very pretty they have engaging personalities.  Western Kingbirds are extremely noisy birds. They seem to sing and call constantly.  Their flights are marvels to behold.  Like all flycatchers kingbirds are capable of extraordinary aerial maneuvers — diving, looping, and rolling in the air as they pursue their prey.

Another factor that I find to be fun about Western Kingbirds is that they are easy to find and very difficult to photograph.  A lot of the fun of wildlife photography lies in the thrill of making a good image under difficult conditions.  Kingbirds are always challenging subjects.  The countryside is loaded with these birds this time of year.  However, very few of them will sit long enough to be photographed.  More often a kingbird will fly when I approach it, either on foot or in my car.  Perhaps one individual out of a hundred will sit long enough to have its portrait made, as was the case with the individual depicted here.  Capturing an image of one of these birds often takes a great deal of patience and acceptance of many failed attempts before achieving success.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/1250.

Red Saddlebags

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Insects, particularly dragonflies, are sometimes so astonishingly beautiful when viewed up close that I find myself at a loss for words to describe them.  Such is the case with this dragonfly, a relatively common species known as a “Red Saddlebags.”

It gets its name from the brilliant crimson patches on the inner part of its wings.

This species can be found in marshes and boggy areas in Arizona’s lowlands.  I photographed this individual recently at Whitewater Draw, a marshland in Arizona’s southeastern corner.

I have never photographed a dragonfly that wasn’t beautiful.  Evolving over a quarter of a billion years these insects have developed simply amazing hues and color patterns.  Every species is unique and there are a lot of dragonfly and damselfly species.  I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to observe and photograph them.

Image 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 400, f11 @ 1/250.

Wilson’s Phalarope — A Harbinger Of Autumn

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It doesn’t seem as if autumn is just around the corner.  We’re still experiencing days with high temperatures in the mid-90s and low 100s and we have weeks to go before the summer’s heat abates.  Our monsoon remains in full swing (we had a whopper of a thunderstorm very early this morning).  In fact, there are signs of autumn already out there if you know where to look.  Believe it or not, the great fall migration of millions upon millions of birds, passing through Arizona, has begun already for some species.

Here’s one of them.  This graceful sandpiper is a Wilson’s Phalarope, a bird that specializes in marshlands and ponds.

I photographed it a few days ago at Whitewater Draw, a large marshland about 75 miles southeast of Tucson.  It was part of a small flock of perhaps 10 of these birds.  This species is in migration this time of year.  In other words it neither summers nor winters here, but is passing through on its way south.

Wilson’s Phalaropes spend their breeding season on the northern plains of the United States and on the prairies of western Canada.  In most species it is the males that acquire colorful breeding plumage.  With Wilson’s Phalaropes it’s different.  The females of this species are the colorful birds.  The birds that I photographed either were males, juveniles, or females that had already shed their breeding plumage.

The phalaropes may be a vanguard but there is a vast array of other species preparing to follow closely behind.  Over the next few weeks what is so far a trickle of migrants will turn into an enormous torrent.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/3200.

 

Variegated Meadowhawks In Tandem Position

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I’ve often written that I love dragonflies and their cousins, damselflies and spreadwings.  I find them not only to be beautiful and fun to photograph but  some of their behaviors, especially their reproductive behavior, are fascinating.  These insects have been around for about a quarter of a billion years — 250 times as long as humans have existed — and that’s given them a lot of time to evolve in some pretty amazing ways.

I obtained the following information from an excellent reference, A Field Guide to the Damselflies & Dragonflies of Arizona and Sonora, Bailowitz, Danforth, and Upton (2015). A male dragonfly has two sets of genitalia consisting of  a genital pore located near the tip of his abdomen and the secondary genitalia located closer to the beginning of his abdomen.  Just before mating, the male transfers sperm from his genital pore to his secondary genitalia.  He then locks his body to that of the female’s by using a specially designed organ at the tip of his abdomen to clasp the female at a specific receptor site just behind her head. The attached female curls her abdomen so that its tip attaches to the male’s secondary genitalia, whereupon she collects sperm from the male.  This phase of mating, with the two dragonflies joined in a heart-shaped or oval configuration, is referred to as the “heart” or “wheel” position.

Once sperm transfer is accomplished, the female immediately begins laying eggs.  That process consists of her flying low and slowly over the surface of a body of water and dipping the tip of her abdomen into the water for a fraction of a second while she ejects fertilized eggs.  She lays a few at a time, distributing her eggs over a fairly wide area.  Sometimes she and the male remain attached while she’s laying eggs.  This is referred to as the “tandem” position.  When the male and female are so attached they fly almost as one organism.

Yesterday, I was lucky to capture some images of a pair of dragonflies — Variegated Meadowhawks — flying in tandem.

Shown above, the brightly colored male is in front with the tip of his abdomen firmly attached to the female, just behind her eyes.  My shutter stopped the action of the dragonflies’ wings, but these insects are in flight, hovering just an inch or two above the surface of a pond at Whitewater Draw, about 70 miles southeast of Tucson.  I watched the female repeatedly dipping her abdomen into the water as this pair flew, laying her eggs.

Certainly, an incredibly intricate reproduction ritual, but it obviously works for the dragonflies.  Why do the insects continue to fly in tandem after they’ve mated?  I’ve read that the male remains attached to the female in order to ward off possible rival males who might also try to mate with her. I suppose it’s also possible that the two insects, so linked, may fly more efficiently during egg-laying than if the female attempted on her own the difficult maneuver of dipping her abdomen into the water while remaining airborne.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/1600.

Scaled Quail — A First For Me

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I get a great deal of pleasure from photographing a species for the first time. Especially, when the species is some local creature.  I’ve photographed hundreds of species of local fauna but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  There are always more to discover and to photograph.  Finding new ones (new to me) is part of the thrill for me of wildlife photography.

Scaled Quail aren’t exactly a new species to me.  I’ve seen them on a fair number of occasions but I’ve never been able to photograph one of these birds.  I don’t count it if I see but cannot photograph something, so my various sightings of this bird without being able to capture it digitally had left me a bit frustrated.  My frustration ended last Sunday.  My friend Ned Harris and I were driving down a back road in Sonoita, grasslands southeast of Tucson, when we saw and photographed not one, but two Scaled Quail.

Scaled Quail are one of three species of quail that live within relatively close proximity to Tucson.  Gambel’s Quail are ubiquitous, common desert birds whose range includes nearby grasslands as well.  Montezuma Quail, a/k/a Mearn’s Quail, are much rarer grasslands birds.  Scaled Quail are a second grasslands species.  One never sees these attractive birds in our local desert but they show up fairly often in adjacent grasslands at higher elevations.

To put it mildly, they are elusive.  Typically, these birds forage low, tending to hang out among grasses and low-growing vegetation.  Their reaction to being spotted is to melt into the brush, rendering themselves almost invisible instantly.

Photographing them is extremely difficult because of their tendency to seek shelter in the foliage.  On one or two occasions I’ve had the experience of standing within a dozen feet of a covey of five or more of these birds without being able to take a single photograph due to their concealment.

For whatever reason the birds that Ned and I photographed weren’t foraging on the ground when we found them but were resting on fences.  They sat still long enough for us to train our lenses on and to photograph them and for that I am enormously grateful.

Scaled Quail are extraordinarily beautiful.  The “fish scale” pattern of contrasting slate gray and copper colored feathers on their breasts and abdomens gives this species its name, but it also happens to be gorgeous.  The bird depicted in these images practically glowed in the early morning sunlight.

I spent a lot of time trying to decide whether this bird is a male or a female before giving up.  With Gambel’s Quail the gender distinctions are obvious.  Not so with Scaled Quail, the two sexes pretty much look alike.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/2000.

Cactus Mouse Working The Night Shift

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The desert in the daytime and the desert at night are two entirely different places exhibiting very different life forms.  In fact, there are three distinct groups of animals, including birds and insects, that inhabit the Sonoran Desert with lifestyles that are attuned to the presence or absence of daylight.  We have diurnal species, active when the sun is up, we have nocturnal species that are only active at night, and we have crepuscular species that specialize in being active at dusk and dawn (there is, obviously, some overlap among these groups).  Take a walk in the desert at night, for example, and you’ll see creatures that you never see — or imagine are present — during the daylight hours.

The Cactus Mouse is an example of a nocturnal specialist.  One never sees this little mouse, about three inches long not counting its very long tail, during daylight hours.   Take a walk in darkness and these mice are a fairly common sight.

The Cactus Mouse is a desert specialist.  It lives primarily in the Sonoran Desert and adjacent areas.  It has adapted to our extremes of heat and dryness.  Throughout much of the year it obtains its needed moisture from its food.  It is an omnivore, eating seeds, fruits, succulent leaves, and insects.  During the heat of the day it hides in a crevice or a burrow and estivates, going into a state of deep dormancy in which it slows its metabolism and lowers its body temperature.

Cactus Mice are excellent climbers.  One sees them running up and down rock walls, cliffs, trees, and cacti.  They are fast!  At night when I catch one of these mice in my flashlight’s beam it invariably runs off, disappearing in an instant.  I was very lucky to photograph this individual as it foraged at the base of a wall.  It didn’t stay there for long.

I know that a lot of people find rodents to be repulsive, but this little mouse is kind of cute, with its huge ears and eyes.  Mice are every predator’s favorite snack food so a Cactus Mouse needs superb senses to survive in the desert.

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

 

Meadowlarks

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Meadowlarks are among my favorite birds.  They’re beautiful,  with their bright yellow breasts and abdomens and their graceful bodies.  I never see these insectivores in the desert around our Tucson home.  By contrast they are a common sight in the grasslands of Sonoita and Patagonia, the San Rafael Valley, and the agricultural flatlands to our northwest.

I photographed a couple of Meadowlarks the other morning while driving through Sonoita.  It was very early in the day and the birds were actively hunting.  The first individual was drying its plumage as I photographed it.  The grass — very dense and bright green as a result of recent heavy rainfall — was soaked with dew and so was the bird.

I ran across a second Meadowlark just a minute or two later.  This bird had stuffed its beak with insects.

Why would a bird hold on to so many insects rather than swallow each of them as it captured them?  I’ve observed this behavior — amassing insects without swallowing — with other species, most recently, a Phainopepla, and I think I know what the Meadowlark was up to.  It had accumulated food to be fed to its young, either nestlings, or recently fledged birds still dependent on their parents for food.

There are two species of Meadowlarks –Eastern and Western — that inhabit our grasslands.  The difference in plumage between the two species is so subtle that, apparently, even experts have a difficult time distinguishing one from the other.  Their songs are quite different, however, and that difference is usually the reliable basis for identifying which species an individual bird belongs to.  None of the birds that I saw were singing, so I’ll just call these individuals “Meadowlarks.”

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/3200.

Canyon Tree Frog

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The other day I commented that the differences between frogs and toads are really minimal.  Furthermore, some amphibians that are classified as “toads” are pretty frog-like based on classification criteria and vice versa.  I posted some images of  Couch’s Spadefoot Toads, amphibians that some believe are more frog-like than toads.

Here’s another example of subjective classification.  This tiny and extremely cute amphibian — only about two inches long — is a Canyon Tree Frog that I photographed one night recently at Sabino Canyon.

Toads are supposed to have bumpy skin whereas frogs are supposed to have smooth skin.  This frog, however, has bumpy skin.  Go figure.

I found it sitting on the apron of one of the canyon’s bridges across Sabino Creek.  There were two or three Red-spotted Toads within feet of it and one had to look closely to determine that yes, this is a Canyon Tree Frog and not another Red-spotted Toad.

These little frogs have a limited ability to change their body appearance to match their backgrounds.  This individual comes across as a sort of creamy beige in color.  But, look closely at it and you’ll see a pattern of faint dark markings on its skin.  If the frog were sitting against a mottled background the dark areas might become much more prominent so as to help the frog camouflage itself.

Most amphibians have fascinating eyes no matter how bland their appearance might otherwise be.  The Canyon Tree Frog is no exception.  I find those dark gold eyes to be extraordinary.  The frog’s pupil is intersected by a vertical black band and a horizontal black one, giving the eye the appearance of having a cross on it.

Although Canyon Tree Frogs may be found throughout much of the southwestern United States and in a good part of Northern Mexico, they favor very specific habitats within that range.  At Sabino Canyon I see them only in the canyon’s riparian area, never more than a few yards from the creek.  That distinguishes them from some of the toads, like the Sonoran Desert and Red-spotted Toads, which may appear in the desert, hundreds of yards away from the creek, on nights after it has rained.

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