Greater Roadrunner — Relaxing Atop A Tree

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Louisa and I were driving on a dirt farm road a couple of weeks ago when we noticed a large bird sitting at the very top of a pecan tree.  It’s Swainson Hawk migration season and our first reaction was that we were looking at one of these hawks.  As we drew closer to the bird we realized that we were wrong, it was a Greater Roadrunner.  the roadrunner was resting on a branch, clearly relaxed.

It paid no attention whatsoever to us as we parked beneath it and photographed it.

It struck me then that this was fairly unusual roadrunner behavior.  Greater Roadrunners — popular mythology to the contrary — can fly.  They just don’t do it very often and they rarely fly to a height of more than a few feet above the ground. This bird was at least 30 feet up in the tree.   That said, it certainly seemed to know what it was doing up there.

The image shows off the roadrunner’s  tail. This bird is in the process of molting.  Typically, a roadrunner’s tail includes several very long feathers.  This bird displays only one long feather.  However, at the base of its tail you can clearly visualize several additional feathers that are in the process of growing out.  They’ll very soon be as long as the long feather.  Roadrunners use their tails to balance when they run.  A roadrunner moving at top speed on the ground (about 15 miles per hour) extends its long head and neck straight out in front and parallel to the ground. The tail provides a long extension at the back end of the bird to counter the weight that shifts to the roadrunner’s head and neck when it runs.

I’ve thought about why this roadrunner was up in that tree and I have an explanation that is admittedly guesswork.  It may be that a molting roadrunner, like this bird, loses its ability to run fast because it becomes unbalanced until its tail grows out.  That would put this bird at peril if it engaged in its usual activities of sauntering on the ground looking for prey.  Coyotes and bobcats might find a molting roadrunner to be catchable, because of its lost speediness.  So, the bird hangs out in high perches while its tail feathers grow.  

Image made with a Canon r5, Canon RF 100-500mm IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 640, f7.1 @ 1/2000, +1/3 stop exposure compensation.

Red-tailed Hawk On A Dead Cottonwood

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Lately, I’ve posted a lot of images of Swainson’s Hawks.  They’re migrating through our area right now and I’ve had dozens of opportunities to capture images of these beautiful birds.  Looking at what I’ve been posting, it almost seems as if they are the only large buteo to reside in, or at least pass through, our community.

That’s not true, of course.  The other buteo that we see often is the Red-tailed Hawk.  Indeed, Red-tailed Hawks are a more successful species than are Swainson’s Hawks, whether you measure success by sheer numbers or by range.  Whereas Swainson’s Hawks populate our western prairies and plains in summer, Red Tails live all over North America and parts of Central America as well. They are North America’s predominant raptor.  You may find these birds in almost every nook and cranny of our continent if you know where to look for them.  Years ago, on a road trip from our then-home in Atlanta, Georgia to Tucson, I amused myself by counting the Red Tails that I saw perching alongside the interstate highway.  In a 2000-mile (about 3200 km) trip, I counted well over 500 Red Tails, or about one hawk for every four miles of interstate.  I’m sure that I missed many of these birds as we drove along.

Red-tailed Hawks are no slouches when it comes to beauty.  Their plumage is less varied than that of Swainson’s Hawks but it is nonetheless gorgeous.  There are pronounced regional variations in Red Tails’ plumage.  Hawks residing in our part of the country typically have dark brown heads and relatively pale breasts and abdomens.  One local variant displays a pronounced “belly band” of speckled feathers across its abdomen while another has a very pale, almost unmarked abdomen.  Regional variants of this species may range from very pale to very dark in color with some birds displaying almost uniform cherry-red plumage.  There’s even one variant that lacks the signature red tail displayed by this species.

Our local Red Tails are greatly augmented in number every fall and winter by migrants from other parts of North America.  I’m making a crude guess, but I’d estimate that we easily have three times as many Red-tailed Hawks residing in our area during the winter months as we do in summer.

The bird that I’m depicting here is a local bird, a year-round resident, and an individual that I’ve seen many times.  It has taken up semi-permanent residence in a dead Cottonwood Tree next to an abandoned barn.  It uses that tree as home base as it scans the local countryside for possible rodent prey.  The strongly marked brown plumage on the hawk’s back and and outer wings is clearly visible in this image, as is its red tail.

A beautiful bird, no doubt about it.

Image made with a Canon r5, Canon RF 100-500mm IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1600, +2/3 stop exposure compensation.

Swallows In Migration

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Today I’m posting yet another story about the autumn bird migration.  Swallows are migrating in huge numbers.  I have seen fields in southern Arizona’s farmlands where, seemingly, thousands of these acrobatic little fliers are simultaneously swooping and diving a few feet above the ground as they search for airborne insects.  

The gigantic flocks of these birds appear to be mixed, containing multiple species, all on the same mission — to head south, but also to feed at rest stops along the way. 

Here’s one image.

It appears to depict more than one species. The bird in flight definitely is a Cliff Swallow.  The other three birds, sitting on the wire, aren’t in sufficiently sharp focus for me to make positive identification, but two go them, in the center and right side of the image, appear also to be Cliff Swallows, whereas the bird on the left side of the little group may be a Northern Rough-winged Swallow .  

Swallows are among the most skillful of all fliers, displaying incredible maneuverability.  Watching hundreds of them simultaneously chasing insect prey, looping and rolling in the air, is quite a thrill.  The show won’t last for long; soon they will have passed through our area as they head for their southern winter residences.

Image made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1250, f10 @ 1/2500, +1/3 stop exposure compensation/

Proghorn — A Buck And His “Wives”

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I’ve been posting recently about the migration — there’s more to come on that subject.  However, autumn isn’t just about the migration.  For some species, especially ungulates like deer and Pronghorn, autumn is the breeding season.  

Recently, we were driving through Sonoita’s grasslands, when I saw a group of three Pronghorn grazing not far from the road.  They were all females (“does”).  I thought that they’d make a nice picture, so I pulled over and began photographing them through my car’s open window.

After a moment, I noticed a fourth Pronghorn.  He was a male (a “buck”) and he stood by himself, about 20 meters from the does.   

Both male and female Pronghorn have horns.  However, the males’ horns are much larger than are the females’ and this buck sported a particularly impressive set.  

I noticed that the buck was closely watching the does.  He stood still, not grazing, but observing the little herd of females as they grazed.  

After a minute or so, one of the does began walking away from her companions.  The buck reacted almost instantly, trotting ahead to intercept the doe.

He maneuvered into a position that cut off the doe’s line of travel, blocking her path.

She eyed him briefly, then turned around and headed back to rejoin her companions.

Pronghorn bucks are like other ungulates, such as deer and elk, in that during the breeding season, the bucks try to amass harems of receptive females.  This buck had “married” three does and he was determined to keep things that way.  It would have been interesting to see what would have happened had another buck shown up, but that wasn’t the case on this occasion.  

Images made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 500, f10 @ 1/800.

Swainson’s Hawks In Migration — Gall.ery II

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The annual autumn Swainson’s Hawk migration has been in progress for about a month now and will continue for at least a couple more weeks.  I continue to see these beautiful hawks on every trip that I make into southern Arizona’s farmlands.  This year I haven’t seen the gigantic flocks of hundreds of Swainson’s Hawks that I’ve seen in previous years, but that’s just a question of timing.  The hawks come through in waves and one has to be fortunate to catch a wave at its peak.

These hawks make among the longest migrations of any bird species in the Western Hemisphere, flying each autumn from their homes on North America’s western plains down to the pampas of Argentina, a journey of thousands of miles.  They make their journey over a period of weeks in a series of relatively short flights, perhaps a few dozen miles per day. They use the fields and bordering trees of Arizona’s farmlands as rest and refueling stops.  Typically, a flock of these birds will scour a large field for insects, especially grasshoppers and crickets, before moving on.  They are very beneficial to our farmers and agriculture.  It’s not unusual during the migration for me to pass a field that is dotted with Swainson’s Hawks, with one of these birds perching on the ground every few meters as I drive by.

I’ve remarked before that no two Swainson’s Hawks have identical plumage.  Today’s gallery illustrates that point. The five birds featured today are five individuals.  Here they are:

I keep telling myself that I’ve made enough Swainson’s Hawk images for a season, but I really can’t resist photographing these gorgeous birds.  I’ll probably do one more gallery and, perhaps an additional post or two about some unique individuals, before I’m done with these hawks for the season. Bear with me!

All images made with a Canon r5, Canon 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), settings varied.

Burrowing Owls — Pssst, What’s Going On Up There?

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I smile every time I look at this image.  At first glance it is a picture of a Burrowing Owl, not unlike dozens of images that I’ve made of this species.

However, look closely at the lower right-hand corner of the image and you’ll see a second pair of eyes peeking over the lip of the owls’ burrow.  That second bird, clearly unsettled by my presence seems to be at the same time  intimidated and yet curious.

The image actually illustrates common Burrowing Owl behavior.  It’s quite typical for a family of these birds to post a sentinel near the family’s burrow.  The sentinel stands his or her ground when an intruder approaches and warns his or her burrow mates of the possibility of danger.  If it felt really concerned it would fly off, perhaps a dozen or more meters, acting like a decoy to lure the intruder away from the burrow.   As a rule I try not to put too much pressure on these birds.  I’ll stop my car, photograph them from the driver’s side window, then move on.

Image made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 500,  f8 @ 1/1600, +2/3 stop exposure compensation.

Green-tailed Towhee — A Gift In Our Back Yard

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Today’s post is about a bird that I’ve tried for years to photograph, without success.  It’s also about how the opportunity to photograph one appeared  almost as a gift.  
Finally, it’s yet another testament to the awesomeness of the autumn bird migration.

A couple of days ago, I was working at my computer when I heard Louisa call me.  She said there was a bird in our back yard that she’d never seen before, and she asked me if I could identify it.  “It’s green with a reddish stripe on its head,” she told me.  I had a strong suspicion as to what it was.  I grabbed my camera and headed straight for the yard.

My surmise turned out to be correct.  There, foraging among our cactus, was a Green-tailed Towhee.

Towhees (there are several species) are members of the Sparrow family of birds.  Green-tailed Towhees are the smallest of the towhees.  They are by no means rare but they are hard to find and the Devil to photograph.  These birds are ground foragers, earning their livings by poking around in underbrush.  They tend to show up in heavily overgrown areas where it is difficult to catch even a momentary view of them, let alone find one sufficiently isolated to photograph it.  Over the past half-dozen years or so, I’ve caught fleeting glimpses of  Green-tailed Towhees on a handful of occasions, but I’ve never been able to make a decent image of one of them.  They seem forever to be obscured by twigs and brush. I’d written off this species as something I’d probably never be able to photograph.

So, consider my surprise and delight when we discovered one hopping around in our yard, in plain view.  The towhee was not only visible, but it seemed immune to my presence, foraging within a couple of meters of me.

It was so cooperative that I wouldn’t have been completely astonished if it had asked me which profile I wished to photograph.

Our yard is not towhee territory, by any means.  It lacks the density of brush that one would think of as typical towhee habitat.  Furthermore, our subdivision is located in the middle of classic desert, an environment that doesn’t support this species.  Typically, in southern Arizona, one finds Green-tailed Towhees in somewhat higher elevations than our neighborhood, and often in places that have access to a bit of water.  What was this bird doing here?

Well, this becomes another story about the annual migration.  Green-tailed Towhees are not spring/summer residents in southern Arizona and they don’t breed here.  They show up here in autumn and winter, but then, only in specific habitats.  Most likely, this bird was en route to its winter residence and decided to take a break in our yard.  Its presence reminds me of what an extraordinary event the migration is.  In days to come I’ll be telling a few more migration tales.

Images made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO).  First image shot at ISO 3200, second and third images at ISO 5000, f10 @ 1/2000.

White-faced Ibis (Immature)

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This week I’ve been featuring stories about the great migration of birds that southern Arizona  witnesses every year.  On Monday, I posted about the Tropical Kingbird, a species that resides here only in the spring/summer months and that is now departing for its winter residence to the south.   Yesterday, I shared some images of Western Meadowlarks, birds that spend the autumn and winter months in southern Arizona’s grasslands and fields.  Today, it is the Glossy Ibis, a species that is migrating through southern Arizona at this time.

A couple of weeks ago Louisa and I were driving through the farmlands northwest of our Tucson home when we passed a huge, freshly irrigated field.  Irrigation in southern Arizona often consists of flooding fields to a depth of an inch or two of water and allowing the water to soak into the ground.  That often forces insects and invertebrates to the surface, where they may become food for birds.  As we passed this field we could see that it was dotted with several dozen chicken-size birds with dark plumage.  These birds were White-faced Ibises.  

The White-faced Ibis is a wading bird that specializes in foraging in shallow water.  It uses its long, downward-curved beak to probe mud and silt, feeling for insects and invertebrates.  The individual, depicted here is an immature bird.  Adult White-faced Ibises have dark necks and faces.  During the breeding season, from April to September, some of the adult’s facial plumage turns white.  Hence, the species’ name.

Ibises are definitely not desert dwellers and they do not breed in southern Arizona.  Their summer breeding range in North America is in the northern Great Plains of the United States and in southern Canada’s prairies.  They spend their winters in Mexico and points south.  The birds that Louisa and I saw were in the process of migrating.

When I first began photographing wildlife I had little understanding of how birds migrate.  I assumed that migrating species made non-stop flights, covering enormous distances in some instances.  That may be true for some species, but many others conduct their migrations as a series of shorter flights punctuated by rest periods.  They may fly a few dozen miles or somewhat longer, stop for a day or two at an accommodating location, then move on.  That’s the case with the Swainson’s Hawks whose images I’ve been featuring (I’ll post some more images of these hawks in the very near future) and it appears to be true as well for White-faced Ibises.  For them, southern Arizona’s farmlands constitute a fairly reliable place to make a pit stop, if only for a day or so.

Image made with a Canon r5, Canon 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1600, f7.1 @ 1/2500, +1 stop exposure compensation.




Western Meadowlarks — Likely

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Yesterday, I featured a species, the Tropical Kingbird, that is a summer resident.  Today, I’m showing images of a species that lives here in the fall and winter months. This is the Western Meadowlark.  I photographed an adult bird very recently in Sonoita’s grasslands.  Perched less than a meter was an immature bird of the same species.

It’s always a bit of guesswork to distinguish between Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, and so, I’ll identify today’s birds as “likely” Western Meadowlarks.  Eastern Meadowlarks are year-round residents of southern Arizona whereas their close cousins, the Westerns, visit us in autumn and winter.  They very closely resemble each other.  I’m concluding that these birds are likely Western Meadowlarks because of their beige cheek plumage. Eastern Meadowlarks have white plumage on the sides of their faces.

We are visited by huge numbers of Western Meadowlarks each autumn and winter, and when they are here, they greatly outnumber their eastern cousins.  They are an extremely common sight in Sonoita’s grasslands and on the open fields of the Santa Cruz Flats.  To me, the arrival of these birds in large numbers is a sure sign that we have turned the corner and that summer’s searing heat, finally, is ending.

I’ve been accumulating quite a trove of images of birds that are either passing through in migration or just arriving at their winter territories.  I’ll feature numerous additional images in days to come.

Images made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting (auto ISO), first and third images, ISO 320, second image ISO 400, f10 @ 1/1000.

Tropical Kingbird — So Long Until Next Year

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The great transition from spring/summer migrants to fall/winter migrants is now at its peak in southern Arizona.  Within a few weeks all of our summer residents will have left for their winter habitats and all of our winter sojourners will be in place.   It’s pretty amazing to go to a specific location and to notice that the trees, which were filled with summering birds just a couple of weeks ago, are now devoid of those birds, but are filling up with totally different species.

Tropical Kingbirds are among the departing species.  These flycatchers head south in late summer for winter residences in places as far away as Central America.  Their departure is very noticeable.  One day, they are a common sight in the pecan trees of the Santa Cruz Flats and then, seemingly, all of them leave overnight.

I photographed this individual just a couple of weeks ago.

As of today, it and its brethren are nowhere to be seen.  The pecans, which had been home to Tropical Kingbirds during the summer, are now playing host to flocks of mixed blackbird species, grackles, starlings, and several sparrow species.  There are a few of the Tropical Kingbird’s cousin, the Western Kingbird, still hanging around, but they’ll be gone soon as well.

This last image is symbolic as, I caught the kingbird crouching before taking off.  I almost wanted to wish it bon voyage.

Images made with a Canon r5, 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 RF IS L lens, M setting (auto ISO), ISO 1600, f7.1 @ 1/2000, +1 stop exposure compensation.