Lincoln’s Sparrow

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I’m always thrilled when I’m able to photograph a species that I haven’t photographed previously. Each time I encounter a new species I am reminded how wonderfully diverse life is.

About 10 days ago I was driving on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Preserve when I encountered a few sparrows foraging in some brushy vegetation at roadside.  I realized immediately that there was more than one sparrow species rustling around in the weeds.  It’s not unusual to see mixed groups of sparrows foraging, particularly in winter when local residents are joined by seasonal migrants.  I took several photographs and this was among the individuals that I succeeded in capturing.

I’ve photographed over a dozen sparrow species in southern Arizona but this bird’s plumage didn’t correspond to any of them.  It took a half-hour’s research in my field guides before I identified this bird.  This is a Lincoln’s Sparrow.  Its identifying field marks include its small beak and the complete buff-colored ring around each of its eyes.

Lincoln’s Sparrows are a relatively common species.  They summer in the northern United States and southern Canada.  In autumn and winter they head south and their winter range includes the extreme southern United States.  Southern Arizona is definitely within the Lincoln Sparrow’s winter range.

Although these sparrows are fairly common, they aren’t seen all that often. They are reclusive, preferring to do their foraging embedded in deep brush or vegetation and seldom popping out into the open as this bird did.  They’re also solitary meaning that one doesn’t often see flocks of these sparrows.  This individual just happened to be hanging out with sparrows of other species.

Some disdain sparrows, dismissing them as generic small brown birds.  That’s their loss.  Look closely at these birds and you’ll see a wide variety of plumage among the different sparrow species.  Personally, I think that Lincoln’s Sparrow is strikingly handsome.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/640.

Five Falcons

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Southern Arizona is home to five falcon species: American Kestrels, Merlins (Merlins reside here in fall and winter, the others live here year-round), Prairie Falcons, Peregrine Falcons, and Crested Caracaras.  There have been one or times when I have spotted all five of these species during a single morning’s drive.  Although they are all falcons each species has a unique appearance, lifestyle, and habitat.  I thought it would be fun to provide an image of each species and say a little about it.

I took all of the photos in this post within the past month and in locations that are within about 40 miles (about 65km) of each other

I’m ranking these birds from smallest to largest.  The American Kestrel is our smallest falcon species.  It is a predator of open country, showing up on utility wires and fenceposts in the farmlands and grasslands.  It is an eclectic hunter, pursuing prey that includes small rodents, occasionally smaller birds, insects, lizards, and even amphibians.  It can capture prey on the wing or by pouncing on it on the ground.  A kestrel is a superb and agile flier, known for its ability to hover in place briefly before swooping down on its prey.  It is a brightly colored bird with males having blue outer wings and pronounced blue caps on their heads.

Merlins are shown in the field guides as having roughly the same dimensions as kestrels.  They are much more muscular, however, weighing as much as 50% more.  Merlins prefer habitat that has at least some trees or brushy vegetation where they perch, often concealed.  Merlins are pursuit hunters, renown for their ability to chase down smaller birds — such as sparrows and larks — in flight.  They are capable of breathtaking acceleration, flying from a standstill to top speed in just a couple of seconds.  The bird depicted here is a female of the “prairie” or “Richardson’s” race of Merlins.

Prairie Falcons superficially resemble Merlins although they are significantly larger in size.  On a couple of occasions I’ve misidentified a Prairie Falcon as a Merlin based on a fleeting glance at one of these birds’ plumage.  Prairie Falcons, however, occupy a different ecological niche than that of Merlins.  Prairie Falcons are very much birds of open country.  When I see one it often is perched on a utility pole or other high perch overlooking an agricultural field.  Prairie Falcons are a bit like Kestrels in that they are opportunistic hunters that will prey on small rodents and birds although they are capable of capturing prey that is much larger than that which Kestrels pursue.  It’s not unusual to spot a Prairie Falcon perching not far from a kestrel.

Peregrine Falcons also reside in open country, although unlike most of the other falcon species, Peregrines have urbanized to a certain extent (I’ve also spotted one or two Prairie Falcons within Tucson’s city limits over the years).  They are described as having physical dimensions similar to those of Prairie Falcons.  My experience, however, is that Peregrines are usually significantly larger than most Prairie Falcons. Certainly, they are much more robust and muscular in appearance.  Merlins are quintessential pursuit hunters, specializing in attacking prey in flight.  They are absolutely fearless hunters and will take on prey that is substantially larger than they are, including ducks and geese.  Peregrines are capable of attaining blinding speed, sometimes diving at more than 200 mph (more than 230 kph).  Their plumage differs significantly from that of Prairie Falcons.  A Peregrine is almost instantly identifiable by the dark “helmet” of feathers on its head.

That brings us to the fifth falcon, the Crested Caracara, which looks nothing like its cousins and behaves totally differently from any of its kin.  No one would identify a caracara as a falcon based on either its appearance or its lifestyle, but evidently, it is genetically closer to falcons than to any other family of birds.  These birds are instantly recognizable with their lanky build, their very long legs, their striking plumage and, most evidently, their bare facial skin, which changes colors depending the birds’ moods.  Caracaras are, like most of the other falcon species, inhabitants of open country.  However, Caracaras often associate with human activity.  They often hang out near feed lots and farm structures and are attracted to livestock such as sheep and cattle.  Crested Caracaras are opportunistic feeders that will happily eat carrion, small rodents, insects, and even pecans.  I’ve photographed one of these birds with a freshly killed rattlesnake.

The sheer variety of species is one of the reasons that I am so excited about making wildlife images in southern Arizona.  There are few places in this hemisphere that offer so many opportunities to the enterprising and dogged photographer.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens.  All images made with the addition of a 1.4x telextender except for the third image, which was made with the addition of a 2x telextender.  All images made either hand held, or supported by a bean bag on my car’s driver’s side window ledge, with the exception of the third image, which was supported by a monopod.  All images aperture priority setting.  First image, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/3200.  Second image, ISO 1600, f8 @ 1/640.  third image, ISO 1600, f8 @ 1/640.  Fourth image, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250. Fifth image, ISO 1000, f6.3 @ 1/2000.


Common Raven On The Buenos Aires National Wildlife Preserve — Talking And Doing The Crow Hop

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Last week I spent some time driving through the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Preserve.  The preserve is a gigantic tract of land, formerly a cattle ranch, located along Arizona Highway 286 and extending for miles until it reaches the Mexican border.  It is located in virtually unpopulated country.  On my two visits to the preserve I had this enormous property all to myself.  I was the preserve’s sole visitor.

The preserve is an ocean of grass bounded by the Baboquivari Mountains on its western edge.

I photographed several species of birds.  Among them was an extremely engaging Common Raven.

When I first saw the bird it was perched atop a tall pine at the preserve’s Visitors’ Center.  The raven was engrossed in a seemingly endless stream of chatter.  As I photographed it it talked almost nonstop, emitting a varied and highly entertaining series of grunts, whistles, rattles, honks, and chuckles.

It apparently directed its vocalization at two other ravens perched in a nearby tree.  These ravens didn’t answer the first raven’s calls.  The talking raven showed no urgency or distress.  To the contrary, it seemed to be enjoying itself as it chattered away.  After a few minutes of this the bird descended from its perch to the grass beneath it.  There, it began to forage, walking slowly through the grass and occasionally picking up items and apparently eating them.  I was too far away to be able to see what the raven was eating but it was very involved in its foraging and paid no attention to me.

I watched the raven make a little hop as it foraged, jumping a couple of inches in the air with outspread wings.  It immediately settled back to the ground and foraged some more.  I watched it hop a couple of more times before it eventually flew up to join its companions.

Ravens and other corvids such as crows engage in this hopping behavior.  Perhaps these birds hop to stir up insects hiding in the grass, but that’s just a guess on my part.  In any event, it’s a relatively common and intriguing bit of raven behavior.

The term “crow hop” has found its way into our language but it’s not used to describe corvid behavior.  It’s an old baseball term to describe what a fielder does when he tries to gain momentum while throwing.  A fielder scoops up a batted ball on the run and while in the act of throwing takes a couple of hop steps.  How that term evolved is a mystery but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone, perhaps a sportswriter, coined it after watching players and analogizing their movements  to corvids’ hopping.  There’s a more direct relationship between the term “crow hop” and Native American culture.  The Cree Indians call a traditional dance the “crow hop” because the dancers imitate crows’ and ravens’ hopping.

First image made with a Canon 5Diii, 24-70mm f2.8 L lens+polarizing filter @ 70mm, aperture priority setting, ISO 320, f8 @ 1/250.  Second and third images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting,  ISO 640, f5.6.  Second image shot at 1/640, third image shot at 1/800.

Peregrine Falcon’s Breakfast, Part II

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I remained for nearly one-half hour observing our neighborhood Peregrine Falcon.  After she polished off the dove, she relaxed.  She’s quite fastidious, it seems.  She meticulously cleaned her talons.

For a while, she sat lazily, just looking around but not doing anything in particular.

She never paid any attention to me, even though I stood only a few yards away from her perch, continuously photographing her.

My objective in hanging around this bird, in addition to simply observing and admiring her, was to get a sequence of images of her taking off from her perch.  I knew that, inevitably, she’d take to the air.  I also knew that, when she did, I’d have almost no warning.  In a post a couple of weeks ago I wrote about how Red-tailed Hawks signal their intention to fly by crouching a second or two before they take off. That’s because they launch themselves with their legs, jumping upward before engaging their wings.  It’s different with Peregrines.  Based on my observation they may dive from their perches without any particular preparatory movement aside from spreading their wings and leaning forward.  So, catching one at the moment of takeoff is extremely difficult and often, a matter of luck.

I stood with my camera trained on the Peregrine for about 10 minutes, waiting for the liftoff, my lens pre-focused on the bird and my finger on the shutter button.  In time I developed an extremely stiff neck, waiting for her to fly.  And, then, she did something that made my task relatively easy.

She pooped.

Hawks and falcons often poop an instant before they take off.  I have no idea why.  Some jokingly say that they lighten their loads that way.  In any event, when a perching hawk or falcon poops it often means takeoff is imminent.  I tightened my finger on my shutter button and, an instant later . . . .

Notice, the absence of verticality to this bird’s launch. It’s a tribute to the immense power in her breast and shoulder muscles that she can propel herself so efficiently without leaping upward first.

Many think of Peregrine Falcons as an exotic species.  It’s true that they remain relatively uncommon.  Although their numbers have rebounded greatly from the near extinction caused by DDT use, these birds probably have not yet fully repopulated this country.   But, their numbers are increasing in many areas, and in surprising places.  Unlike some raptor species, Peregrines urbanize well.  In cities such as New York, Peregrines have established nest sites on the window ledges of skyscrapers.  In urban areas they happily feast on pigeons, which make excellent prey.  The Peregrine Falcons in our neighborhood have lived here comfortably for years.  I know of another Peregrine that has lived for several years atop a tall utility pole on a busy urban street in central Tucson.

So, if one day you see a large, bullet-shaped bird streaking across the sky in your community, look closely.  It just might be a Peregrine Falcon.  And, if you do, celebrate the fact that we were able to resurrect this gorgeous bird before it was too late.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+2x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8, shutter speeds varied between 1/1250 and 1/2000.

Peregrine Falcon’s Breakfast — Part I

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For years a pair of Peregrine Falcons has resided in our neighborhood during the fall and winter months.  These raptors often perch on the tops of utility poles.  They’ve subsisted handsomely on unwitting Mourning Doves.  Life is easy for the falcons.  The doves perch on wires beneath the tops of the poles and, evidently, lack the smarts to look up.  When a falcon is hungry it need only drop in on the perching doves.

I’ve attempted to photograph the falcons on numerous occasions and I’ve obtained a number of images but nothing that I’m particularly proud of and certainly nothing that I’d post here.  For the past couple of months I’ve made periodic runs along the roads where the falcons are likely to perch, but without any luck.

That changed one morning about two weeks ago when I received a text from my friend Dan Weisz, who lives about two miles from our house.  Dan informed me that one of the Peregrines was in the process of plucking a dove that it had killed and that it was perched on a specific pole.  I immediately jumped in my car and within five minutes I was ensconced below the falcon and photographing it.  Over the next half hour or so I watched as the Peregrine devoured its prey, preened, and then flew away.  The falcon was too busy eating to care about me and that gave the opportunity to make numerous images of the bird.

The sun was rising through a thin cloud layer as I made my photos, and the light and color balance changed continuously.  Although I made all of my images within minutes of each other, the appearance or “feel” of the pictures changed with the changing light.  I’ve opted not to try to make the white balance identical in each image but rather, show the bird as it appeared in the changing morning light.

Peregrine Falcons are in many ways the most spectacular of all raptors.  They fly faster than any bird and attain speeds — in some instances over 200 miles per hour (over 320 kph) in dives — that no creature on earth can match.  They are as streamlined as any bird and in flight resemble feathered torpedoes.  A Peregrine often catches its prey in flight and it is perfectly capable of subduing other birds, such as ducks, that are larger than it is.  A Peregrine kills its prey by smashing into it at blinding speed, either killing it outright or causing it to fall senseless to the ground.

Peregrine Falcons live throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere.  In this country there are year-round populations in coastal regions, in the mid-eastern states, and in the southwest.  Peregrines winter in Florida and along the gulf coast.  The rest of this country sees these birds during their migration.

Peregrines’ very distinctive plumage makes them easy to identify.  Typically, a Peregrine Falcon has a dark crest and dark malar stripes extending beneath its eyes that make it look almost as if it is wearing a helmet.  Some individuals, such as the bird that I photographed, have so much dark facial plumage that their “helmets” cover virtually their entire heads.  Peregrines have dark backs and outer wings and contrasting lighter breasts, abdomens, and wing undersides.  Often, their breasts and abdomens have dark markings.  There are regional variations in Peregrines’ plumage.  The regional variations have become blurred by virtue of the fact that individual birds have been reintroduced in locations that are outside of their native regions in an effort — highly successful — to repopulate areas where the falcon population was once decimated by the now-banned pesticide DDT.

The bird that I photographed is a very large Peregrine, as large as any that I’ve seen. She’s almost certainly a female.

Peregrine Falcons — like many raptors — exhibit a trait known as reverse sexual dimorphism, which is a very elegant way of saying that the girls tend to be bigger than the boys.

The field guides say that Peregrine Falcons are about the same size as their close cousin, the Prairie Falcon.  That isn’t so based on what I’ve seen in the field.  I suppose that there may be very small Peregrines that approximate large Prairie Falcons in size, but to my eyes, Peregrines are much more muscular looking than are their Prairie Falcon cousins.

I’ll have more to say about our neighborhood falcon tomorrow.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II f4 lens+2x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.

Burrowing Owl — Acting Blasé

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I never tire of photographing Burrowing Owls.  These little owls invariably are a crowd pleaser, because they define the word “cute.”  A couple of weekends ago I photographed this individual as she sat by her burrow at roadside (I’m pretty sure this owl’s a female.  Male and female Burrowing Owls have identical plumage but the males spend more time sitting in the sun, guarding their burrows, than do the females and the sun bleaches their plumage.  This bird’s plumage is decidedly not bleached).

I’ve often had the same experience when I photograph these owls.  I can park my car quite close to them and photograph them at my leisure so long as I do so through an open window.  The little owls clearly are aware of my presence but don’t seem to be upset by it — unless I exit my vehicle.  This owl is typical: she barely reacted to my presence, turning occasionally to look at me but mostly seeming to ignore me.

Why are Burrowing Owls so seemingly blasé?  I think it’s because these birds are intensely attached to their burrows.  Their burrows are the center of their universe and they don’t want to surrender them to an interloper unless flight is imperative.  So, one of these owls will sit at burrow’s edge as I photograph it and make no move to leave just so long as I don’t become too intrusive.

In years past I’d often see how closely I could approach one of these birds before it either dove into its burrow or flew away.  I don’t do that any more.  My interest lies in getting nice photographs, not in pressuring wildlife.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm f4 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/2000.

Crested Caracara — Immature

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Of all the species that I photograph: birds, mammals, reptiles andinvertebrates, caracaras are my absolute favorite.  I have other favorites, of course, but they all take a back seat to these birds.

Why am I so obsessed with them?  For me, they combine everything that excites me about wildlife photography.  They are beautiful, elusive, and mysterious.

The bird depicted here — which I photographed recently — is a young bird making the transition from juvenile to adulthood.  I’m guessing that this bird is probably a second-year or even a third-year bird.

As the caracara matures it will exchange its predominately brown and beige plumage for black and white feathers.  The bare flesh on its face — pink in young birds — will turn a deep burnt orange and its legs and feet will become bright yellow.

I find caracaras to be visually extraordinary.  They remind me of their ancient therapod dinosaur ancestors, with their big heads, bare faces, and huge, chisel-shaped beaks.

Photographing these birds isn’t easy.  The toughest aspect of photographing Crested Caracaras is finding them.  There aren’t that many of these birds in southern Arizona — perhaps a couple hundred of them — that are accessible to a photographer.  They are distinctly nomadic, so there is no guarantee that you will find them at any given location.  In autumn and winter caracaras congregate in the farmlands between Tucson and Phoenix, but that is a huge area, comprising hundreds of square miles, and looking for them in those giant fields sometimes is like looking for a needle in a haystack.  It can be frustrating, but on the other hand, why hunt for caracaras if finding them is easy?  I never cease to be thrilled if I find one or more of these birds after hours of searching for them.

Their mysterious lifestyle certainly ads to the fun of photographing them.  No one knows why Crested Caracaras show up in Arizona’s farmlands in the winter and no one knows for sure where they come from.  There is a year-round population of caracaras in a few communities at the extreme southern edge of southeastern Arizona and caracaras are common in Mexico.  Do the farmlands’ caracaras migrate north each year from Mexico?  Possibly but that’s not been established definitively.

A final mystery about caracaras is this: they associate with Common Ravens.  When I search for caracaras I look for large flocks of ravens.  Often, there will be a few caracaras hanging out with the ravens.  The ravens, which aren’t all that tolerant of interlopers, seem to interact amiably with the caracaras.  Why?  We don’t know.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f16 @ 1/200.


Horned Lark

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I recently photographed a Horned Lark as it posed and sang on a dirt clod adjacent to an agricultural field.  Horned Larks have a distribution that includes much of the United States.  They are sparrow-size little omnivores that are happy eating insects or seeds.

The species gets its name from its “horns,” which are actually little tufts of feathers that often appear at the rear of the lark’s head (one tuft on either side).  These very attractive little birds are common, but there’s a catch . . . . as common as they may be, they are secretive birds that rarely perch out in the open.  Predatory raptors, such as Merlins, love to capture and eat Horned Larks.  I rarely see these birds even though they are everywhere in farm country.

There are three races of Horned Lark that show up in parts of western North America: a Western Arctic race, a Pacific Northwest race, and an Interior West race.  The bird depicted here is of the Interior West Race.

There are color differences in the plumage of the three races, showing up mainly in the extent of yellow plumage under each race’s throat and the intensity of color on each race’s back.

The bird is vocalizing in this third image.  Its call is melodic and complex.

Horned Larks very often show up in flocks, sometimes large flocks of hundreds of individuals.  The bird that I photographed was posing by itself but, very likely, numerous others of its species were foraging nearby.  The field adjacent to this lark’s perch was covered with brushy vegetation, providing ideal habitat for larks to forage on the ground and out of sight of predators and ambitious photographers.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/3200.

Prairie Falcon — In My Face!

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We’re back from a wonderful and relaxing week at the Elkhorn Ranch in the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains southwest of Tucson.  I made some nice photos while I was there and I’ll be posting them soon.

Meanwhile, here’s an image that I made a couple of weeks ago, of a Prairie Falcon at the moment of takeoff.


I think that it’s a pretty unique shot.  Normally, the birds that I photograph take off either at right angles to me or away from me.  That stands to reason because as a rule birds don’t want to fly in the direction of the intruder who is making photographs of them. I can probably count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of times I’ve witnessed a bird take off right at me, as this bird is doing.  In fact, this falcon flew directly above my head as it lifted off.

However, I think  that there’s a reasonable explanation for this event.  When birds take off, they generally prefer to do so into the prevailing wind.  Birds are so light that many species can rise like kites or gliders, floating on wind currents.  The wind pushes against a bird’s wings and tail, literally lifting it as a wave lifts a surfer floating at its crest.  This falcon took off directly into a fairly stiff breeze.

The image evidences the falcon’s remarkable athleticism.  Notice how its wings are cupped, so as to provide it with maximum lift on the downstroke.  Notice also that the bird has spread its tail.  And, finally, notice that the falcon isn’t horizontal in this image, but that its tail is slightly lower than its wings.  The falcon is positioned very much like a kite, with the wind pressing from underneath its body, wings and tail, and lifting it upward.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/5000.

Ferruginous Hawk, At Rest And In Flight

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A brief note: We’re headed off to the Elkhorn Ranch in the foothills of the Baboquivari Mountains, about 60 miles southwest of our home, for a week of rest and relaxation.  I probably won’t be posting during the week but I am taking my camera and there will be lots of images when we return.   The Elkhorn Ranch is one of America’s premier guest ranches.  If you’re interested in a truly unique vacation experience you should visit their site and consider booking a stay.

A couple of weeks ago I posted images of light and color variants of Ferruginous Hawks.  Today, I’m posting two more images.  These are photos of the “pale” version of this hawk.  This is the color morph that one sees in about 9/10 of the Ferruginous Hawks that one encounters.

These huge hawks are notable for both their size and their striking appearance.  If you encounter one sitting facing the sun it almost appears to glow.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of these hawks may be visible from as far as a half mile away on southeastern Arizona’s flat farm roads.

The bird whose image I’m posting has an exceptionally white breast, even for a Ferruginous Hawk.  It’s pretty typical that these birds have some rust-colored markings on their breasts.  This individual, with its almost pure white breast, is unusual.

The size of one of these hawks becomes much more apparent when it is airborne.

A Ferruginous Hawk has a wingspan of nearly five feet (about 1.5 meters).  It may weigh up to about 4 pounds (about 1.8kg).  That is truly huge as raptors go.  Only eagles and ospreys are larger than Ferruginous Hawks.  In the air, a Ferruginous Hawk’s dominant feature, aside from its huge wingspan, is its very broad breast.  These birds are much beefier than other buteos such as Red-tailed Hawks.

Ferruginous Hawks are a western North American species.  Their summer range includes our Northern Plains and western Canada’s prairies.  Presently, these birds are strictly fall/winter migrants to southern Arizona.  That wasn’t always so: our area used to harbor a breeding population of these hawks.  However, the birds were dependent on Prairie Dogs to feed their offspring.  They moved on when ranchers eradicated the Prairie Dogs.  Efforts are being made to reintroduce Prairie Dogs to southern Arizona’s grasslands.  That gives me some small hope that some day, we’ll see the return of a year-round population of these magnificent raptors.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400mm DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/4000.