Bull Moose

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We spent the past week in the northwestern United States in a region that includes parts of three states: Washington, Idaho, and Montana.  I spent a good bit of that time driving around looking for wildlife to photograph.  It was an extremely productive week and I’ll be displaying results over the next week or ten days.

One morning, we were driving in a wildlife sanctuary when we saw a couple of cars parked by the side of the road.  We stopped to check out the attraction and observed three moose browsing in shrubbery adjacent to a small lake.  Two of the moose, a cow and her calf, faded into the bushes as I prepared to photograph them.  A third, a bull — a very large one — lingered just long enough for me to make some images.

Moose inhabit the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere (in parts of Europe, somewhat confusingly, they are called “elk.”  In this country and in Canada “elk” are a separate species and I’ll show images of them in a few days).  They are the largest species of deer.

A bull moose such as this one, stands more than six feet (about two meters) tall and weighs 1200-1300 pounds (about 550-600kg).  This bull is larger than most horses.

Moose are browsers, eating the leaves of shrubs and other plants, and they are especially fond of riparian areas bordered by boreal forests.  They are by no means rare and are a fairly common sight in some locations.  Their immense size makes them a striking sight.  I’ve seen a few of these animals over the years and I never cease to be awed when I see one at close range.

Unlike many other deer species moose grow antlers in which some of the tines are fused together to form a plate.  The antlers can be gigantic.  This moose’s antlers, while impressive, are by no means exceptional in size.  Notice that he has a broken tine on his left antler.  That may have been the consequence of a fight with another bull.  Bulls sometimes spar for the opportunity to mate with females.

Moose have an unarguably comical appearance.  Their heads appear to be too large for their bodies, their bodies appear to be too large for their legs.  The bulls have these enormous dewlaps hanging down from their chins.  I have no idea what function the dewlaps serve.  Perhaps they are chick magnets.  Moose are generally placid animals.  But, don’t be fooled.  Of all species of North American herbivores, moose are among the most dangerous to humans.  They may defend themselves if pressured or molested and one definitely does not want to get involved in an altercation with a 1300 pound animal.  By reputation, cow moose are more likely to attack humans than are bulls, because cows frequently are accompanied by their calves and they are protective.  I kept a safe distance when I photographed this animal.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 4000, f5.6 @ 1/320.

Loggerhead Shrike — Nice Seeing You Again

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A brief note before turning to today’s subject.  This blog will be on hiatus for a week beginning Sunday, September 16.  We’re spending a week in the Pacific Northwest, visiting some friends.  Of course, I’m bringing my cameras with me and I’m hoping to bring back at least a few images that provide a respite from all of this desert wildlife.  We’ll see.

For the past several autumns and winters I’ve photographed a Loggerhead Shrike hanging out in a row of pecan trees abutting a rural dirt road about 30 miles northwest of our Tucson home.  The bird shows up like clockwork each September, stays until the following March or April, then disappears during the summer months.

The other day my friend Dan Weisz and I were driving on this road when I spotted a familiar looking bird perching in more or less the exact location where I’ve photographed the shrike in previous years.  I’m certain that this bird is my old acquaintance.

Shrikes, like many other birds, have personalities that vary from individual to individual.  I’ve encountered shrikes that flew the instant I attempted to photograph them.  This one, however, is an old hand at posing.  I must have dozens of images that I’ve made of this bird over the past few years.

It’s a good question as to where this shrike goes in the summer months.  I’ve never seen it in its fall-winter territory during the period from May-August.  Southern Arizona has a year-round population of Loggerhead Shrikes but there are shrikes living in the northern part of the country that are migratory.  Perhaps this bird is a true snowbird, spending its summers somewhere to the north of southern Arizona.

Like many species, shrikes are intensely territorial.  They tend to stay put in a circumscribed area, at least on a seasonal basis,  if it provides them with food, water, and shelter.  This bird plainly is happy hanging out in those pecans.

I’ve written before about what fierce predators Loggerhead Shrikes are.  They are audacious little killers, going after insects, small rodents, lizards, and even other small birds.  “My” shrike is certainly an attractive bird, but that attractive exterior hides a swashbuckler.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Common Barn Owls — Lovebirds

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My friend Dan Weisz and I were out yesterday morning looking for birds to photograph.  Dan reminded me while we were driving that we were in the vicinity of a vacant barn that has harbored Common Barn Owls. We stopped to take a look and found a pair of these birds roosting high up in the eaves.  I would never have seen them but for Dan, who knew where to look.

I have no second thoughts about posting this image even though it is flawed.  In a perfect world there wouldn’t be a metal rod partially obscuring one of the owl’s face and body.  However, we live in an imperfect world and this is a compelling photo despite its flaws.

I’m certain that this is a mated pair, with the much larger bird on the left side of the image being the female.  The two birds have nearly identical plumage but that doesn’t suggest to me that they aren’t mates.  Some female Common Barn Owls have a bit more color on their breasts than do the males, but that’s not an ironclad rule.  Obviously, these two have great affection for each other.

Common Barn Owls are the most widely distributed owl species in the world.  They live on every continent except Antarctica.  Paradoxically, although they aren’t at all rare, people rarely see them.  That’s because they have an entirely nocturnal life style, hunting and foraging in total darkness.  It’s also because they tend to conceal themselves when they roost during the daylight hours.  This pair would be invisible to anyone not knowing where to look for them.

Common Barn Owls are the world’s most efficient mousetraps.  They subsist almost exclusively on these rodents and they are amazingly proficient hunters.  It’s not unusual for one of these owls to capture two mice per night.   They have extraordinarily acute hearing and can track their prey by sound even when there is no illumination.  Their ears are located asymmetrically on their heads (the ear on one side is higher than the other), allowing them to triangulate the sounds made by tiny rodents scurrying through the brush.  Their disk shaped faces concentrate sounds, augmenting their hearing.  They fly silently — their wing feathers have tiny fringes at the edges that dissipate noise.  When one of these owls flies it almost appears to be floating in the air as it cruises slowly, bobbing with the air currents.

In this country Common Barn Owls are declining in some locations.  Loss of habitat is one reason but a larger reason is the use of pesticides and rodenticides by farmers.  Mice ingest these poisons, the owls eat the mice, and they are poisoned as well.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1600, f5.6 @ 1/800.

Burrowing Owls — A Married Couple

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I cannot resist photographing Burrowing Owls.  I feel duty-bound to stop my car whenever I see them and take a few pictures, at least.  They are compelling and often very cooperative subjects.

The other day I was driving on a rural dirt road in farmlands northwest of Tucson when I saw some familiar shapes protruding up from a dirt berm at the edge of an irrigation canal.  I immediately recognized the shapes as owls, stopped, and photographed them.  The owls held their position as I worked.

Burrowing Owls are monogamous and they appear to mate for life.  They seem to be touchingly loyal to each other.  The mated pairs appear to stay together year-round and a pair of these owls can inhabit the same burrow for several years.  The pair depicted here almost certainly is a mated pair.

Male and female Burrowing Owls have identical plumage but there is a way that sometimes works to tell which member of a pair is a male and which is a female.  Males tend to have lighter colored plumage than females.  That’s not because their plumage is innately lighter than the females’ plumage, but because males tends to spend more time in sunlight than do females.  During breeding season the females sit on their eggs down in the burrows, or tend to the owlets after they hatch, while the males stand guard and provision their families.  Arizona’s intense sun bleaches the male owls’ feathers.

I believe that the bird standing on the lip of the burrow in this image is the male.  His plumage is definitely at least a shade lighter than that of his companion.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm  DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/1600.

Pepsis Wasp — Eye To Eye

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The other day I spent some time photographing a pepsis wasp as it fed on the nectar of milkweed flowers.  There are several species of big pepsis wasps living in the Tucson area that are known generically as “Tarantula Hawks” because they hunt tarantulas as food for their young.  This wasp was one of them.  She was quite large, more than an inch long (about 3 cm).  Although I knew that she was of the genus Pepsis, she was of a species that I am unfamiliar with, with a coal black head and thorax and a brilliant orange abdomen.

Pepsis wasps have the justly-earned reputation of having among the most painful stings of all insects.  I’ve recounted that I was stung once by one of these insects.  The sting was extraordinarily painful for a couple of minutes, not quite as intense as I’d been led to believe, but memorable nonetheless. I was certainly aware of what this wasp was capable of, but I also was determined to get an image of her.   In photographing her I maneuvered my camera and lens within about 18 inches of her face, trying, and ultimately succeeding in getting a full-face portrait.

Was that foolhardy?  Was I tempting fate?  Not really.  These wasps have zero interest in stinging people.  Indeed, they are quite timid in the presence of humans.  Each time I raised my camera to eye level she’d take flight within seconds and retreat several feet before resuming her feeding.  Obviously, these wasps will sting, but only when molested.  The incident in which I was stung happened because one of them landed on my forearm and I stupidly attempted to brush it off with my hand.  Had I left it alone it would have flown after a few seconds without stinging.

I wanted a portrait of this wasp because I wanted to illustrate her eyes.  She has two huge black compound eyes.  Look closely at the top of her head and you’ll see three simple eyes arranged in a triangle.  Interestingly, the central simple eye (the one closest to the front of the wasp’s head) is garnet-colored whereas the two other simple eyes are black.  Her trio of simple eyes make her similar to the Polistes genus paper wasps whose images I’ve featured recently.  It fascinates me to contemplate how these wasps integrate the images that they see with their compound eyes with those that they obtain from their simple eyes.  One thing’s for certain and that is that they have excellent vision.  This wasp reacted every time I lifted my camera and flash to eye level.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens+1.4x telextender, illuminated by Canon Ring Light, M setting, ISO 100, f11 @ 1/160.


White-lined Sphinx Moth

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September is the month when White-lined Sphinx Moths show up in substantial numbers.  Every evening at dusk a half dozen or more of them show up in our backyard to drink the nectar produced by our Bird of Paradise plants.  These are remarkable insects.  They are fairly large as moths go, about an inch or so (about 3 cm) in length.  They don’t land to feed.  They have weak and ineffective legs that barely support their bodies.  Rather, they hover, held in place by their frantic wingbeats.  Each of these moths has an extraordinarily long proboscis, longer than the moth’s body, through which it sips nectar as we would through a straw.  When not in use the moth keeps its proboscis coiled like a hose.

Some people call these moths “Hummingbird Moths” because they bear a superficial resemblance to hummingbirds.

These moths are extraordinarily difficult to photograph.  They appear only in very dim light, which makes it impossible for me to focus my camera without the assistance of a flashlight.  My closeup rig weighs six or seven pounds (at least three kg) and it is impossible to hold it one-handed.  So, somehow, I have to hold the camera and the flashlight simultaneously with my two hands.  I’m unable to use a monopod or tripod to stabilize the equipment because the moths never stay in one location for more than a few seconds.  Photographing one of these moths becomes a matter of pointing the camera in its direction, hoping that the lens’ autofocus mechanism latches on to the moth, and pushing the shutter button.  Well over 90% of the images that I make turn out to be uselessly blurry.

White-lined Sphinx Moths have very beautiful wings and in photographing them my objectives include capturing one of these insects with its wings spread.  The problem is that they flap those wings almost inconceivably quickly.  My camera’s effective shutter speed, using a flash, is about 1/1900 of a second.  That, believe it or not, is too slow to completely freeze the moth’s wings.  Even the best of images shows some wing motion blur.

Actually, I don’t mind a little motion blur. The moth is, after all, suspended in air and I want my images to convey that.

I stood out in my backyard three consecutive evenings in order to get these two images.  I did that to the eternal gratitude of numerous mosquitos.  There are several hundred images that I took that that went straight to the “trash” folder.  Still, I’m pretty pleased with what I finally got.  I think it was worth the effort.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, illuminated by Canon Ring Light, M setting, ISO 250, f10 @ 1/160.

Common Ravens In Patagonia

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I was driving with my friend Sam on Sunday morning through the hill country of Patagonia when we came across a pair of Common Ravens.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with southern Arizona, Patagonia is about 50 miles southeast of Tucson, not far from Nogales and the border with Mexico.  It’s at a significantly higher elevation than Tucson and consists of grasslands, streams bordered by big Cottonwood trees, some hilly terrain, and a lot of mesquite scrub.

The ravens weren’t doing anything in particular, just lounging on a dead tree.  They ignored us at first as we began photographing them.  I captured one looking quite relaxed and seemingly pleased with itself.

After a minute or so, the pair took flight and landed on a mostly dead mesquite on a hilltop about 50 yards (about 45 meters) from where we’d first found them.  They hung out there for a couple of minutes and then, unhurriedly, flew off.

Ravens mate for life and the pairs are inseparable.  There really seems to be no such thing as a solitary raven: see one and you’ll find its mate very close by.  The mated pairs sometimes join up with flocks but, invariably, they’ll stay together.

Ravens’ intelligence has been studied intensively and they are rated as being among the smartest of all living creatures.  They solve complex puzzles with ease, they can think inductively (solving a problem by reasoning as opposed to solving it by trial and error), they not only use sticks and other objects as tools, but they actually make tools by bending and shaping objects to their needs.  Ravens communicate with each other via a highly complex system of vocalizations, as complex as those used by any creature aside from humans.  They are also absolutely superb mimics, as good as or better than parrots.  Go to Youtube and search “raven mimicry” and you’ll be amazed at what you see.

I’m obviously a huge fan of these big birds.  They’re fun to observe and even more fun to photograph.  Or, perhaps, I should say “fun to attempt to photograph,” because ravens, as intelligent as they are, generally aren’t all that keen on people pointing objects at them.  They have an amazing ability to observe and react to human behavior.  I can’t count the times that a raven, seemingly indifferent to my presence, has taken off at the precise instant that I lifted my camera to eye level.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting. First image, ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/1250, second image, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2500.

Lizard Silhouette — A Bit Of iPhone Creativity

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Today’s image is very different from my usual work product.  Normally, I try to make my photos as realistic as possible, to show as much detail in my subjects as I can, and to show them in completely natural settings.

This photo departs radically from that tradition.  But, I believe that sometimes, one must experiment.  Because experimentation is how we grow and learn new skills.

Once a week I volunteer at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson.  For those of you who have never been to Tucson, the museum is its crown jewel, a marvelous combination of zoo, botanical gardens, art institute and much more, all in a completely natural setting.  My volunteer job has me patrolling the grounds.  Today, and as part of my duties, I checked on an alcove where equipment is stored.  The alcove is separated from the museum grounds by a wall and a screen window that has no glass in it.  I noticed a lizard — a Clark’s Spiny Lizard — sitting on the interior side of the screen.  The lizard was feasting on the occasional insects that blundered into the alcove, tried to leave via the screened opening, and got caught on the screen.

I thought to myself that I could see a photograph and, with my iPhone, made this image.  I tried to render the lizard as a silhouette, emphasizing the desert in the background.  To my delight, it worked.

It’s definitely not my typical style but, personally, I like it.  What makes the image work for me is how the screen breaks up the background, almost like some pointillist painting from the late 19th Century.  The further you stand back from the picture, the more detail appears in the background and vice versa.

I’m finding more and more that the iPhone’s camera is a terrific photographic tool.  It will never replace my digital single lens reflexes and their complement of telephoto, macro, and wide angle lenses. But, it works splendidly as a supplement.  Its assets (portability and a surprisingly powerful digital sensor) more than compensate for its weaknesses (lack of a digital zoom lens, inability to create RAW files, and very clunky exposure control).  I really recommend experimenting with your smart phones’ cameras.  Have fun being as creative as possible.  You’ll be amazed at the images that you can obtain.

Green Lynx Spider — Terror In Paradise

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This morning I made a quick drive over to Tohono Chul Park.  It is a privately operated outdoor botanical garden that features plants that are native to southern Arizona along with many ornamental species.  Numerous plants are in bloom there this time of year.  The thousands of blossoms are a paradise for bees and butterflies.

I was walking down a path, glancing from side to side, when something caught my eye.  It was an anomaly on one of the flowers that I thought at first might be a dead leaf adhering to the blooms.  When I looked closely I realized that the “leaf” was wasn’t a leaf at all but rather, a spider, and a fairly large one at that.  The spider was a Green Lynx Spider and it was the largest member of its species that I’ve seen.  These spiders are typically about the size of a quarter, measured from leg tip to leg tip.  This one was easily twice that size, making the spider a relative behemoth.

I spent several minutes photographing it and the spider was extremely cooperative, not budging from its location despite the fact that I was firing my flash at five or ten second intervals.

Size aside, this spider is a typical southwestern United States variant of its species.  Green Lynx Spiders may be found throughout much of the United States, but southwestern members of the species tend to have uniquely colored abdomens, with white borders and red and white chevrons.

Green Lynx Spiders do not spin webs.  They are ambush hunters.  One of these spiders sits absolutely still, sometimes for hours or even days, waiting for an insect to alight within range.  Then, the spider leaps on its prey.  These spiders are amazingly fast.  When one of them goes after prey its attack is so quick that an observer might swear that the spider was in two places at once.

Lynx Spiders have eyes — those tiny black dots against a white background at the front of the spider’s cephalothorax (head and upper body).  However, their vision is terrible and they can barely distinguish light from dark.  These spiders have no noses and no ears. But, although they can barely see and cannot hear, they are exquisitely sensitive to vibration.  This spider can sense vibrations and can tell from them how far away something is and how large it is.

How does it do that?

Look at the spider’s legs.  Do you see those spiky hairs?

Those hairs are sense organs that perceive even the smallest vibration.  It can sense moving air and sounds, which consist of atmospheric vibrations, even if it cannot hear them.  You’ll also notice that, although this spider hasn’t spun a web, it has laid down several strands of silk that terminate at the tips of its feet and extend for several inches in every direction along the surface of the plant that the Lynx Spider is sitting on.  If an insect makes the slightest contact with any of these strands the spider will sense the resulting vibration in whichever foot is touching that strand.

This spider obviously has been hugely successful.  It would not have attained so large a size but for its ability to capture and prey on numerous insects.  I  wonder how many butterflies and bees have met their fates in the paradisiacal appearing garden?

Lynx spiders are highly valued by farmers and ranchers because they consume so many insects.  They are harmless to humans although, by reputation, one of these can deliver a painful if not dangerous bite if molested.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens+1.4x telextender, illuminated by Canon Ring Light, stabilized by monopod, ISO 200, first image f14 @ 1/160, second image f18 @ 1/160.

American Rubyspot

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Of all of the many beautiful damselflies that inhabit the Tucson area perhaps none is as beautiful as is the American Rubyspot.  The males of this species resemble pieces of costume jewelry.

These are large as damselflies go, ranging up to 1 3/4″ (about 45mm) in length.  They are easily identifiable by the brilliant red foreparts of their wings.  In sunlight these wings glow like stained glass.

American Rubyspots are relatively common and are not too difficult to find if you know where to look.  Wear waterproof footwear or boots when you look for them because they like to hang out on vegetation that overlooks moving water.  I’ve observed them by the creek in Sabino Canyon and, in the case of the individual depicted here, on reeds rising from the bottom of the creek at Sweetwater Wetlands.

These insects are relatively easy to photograph if you don’t mind standing in water.  They tend to be rather calm in the presence of human observers.  The individual depicted here sat for at least ten minutes as I photographed it using a flash.  Then, it moved a distance of about a foot (.3 meter) and perched for several more minutes while I continued to photograph it.

I find this species to be extraordinarily beautiful not only for its brilliant red wings.  Viewed up close its eyes are garnet-colored and its abdominal segments are a striking metallic green with bronze tones.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, illuminated by Canon Ring Light, stabilized by monopod, ISO 100, f11 @ 1/160.