Immature Red-tailed Hawk

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There’s nothing particularly special about this Red-tailed Hawk.  The bird is almost certainly of the southwestern variety of this species.  It has somewhat more white on its back and its head is a bit paler than many of its contemporaries.  As it matures and with successive molts red tail feathers will replace its present barred tail ones.  The plumage on its back and head may darken eventually while the bird’s belly and breast will remain pale.  Perhaps it will eventually show a band of darker feathers across its belly.

Although by no means unusual, it is a handsome bird.  I like the image, particularly the attitude of the hawk’s head, and I’m posting it for that reason.

This hawk is almost certainly a yearling.  Its pale eyes and the absence of a red tail are convincing evidence that the bird is still immature.  Additional proof lies in the fact that it evidently hasn’t yet found a mate.  This is breeding season for Red-tailed Hawks and the adults are in pairs (Red Tails mate for life) and those pairs are quite busy tending nests.  Chicks should emerge at any moment, if they haven’t done so already.  By around June 1 a whole new crop of fledgling Red Tails will be out and about.  As for this young hawk, it will have to wait for next year or perhaps, the year after that, in order to find love and join in the fun.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/2000.

Western Kingbird In Sonoita

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I took this picture of a Western Kingbird a couple of weekends ago while driving through Sonoita.   Kingbirds are flycatchers.  They summer in great numbers in the Tucson area.

Although Sonoita is only about 30 miles from Tucson its terrain and habitat are quite different from Tucson’s desert.  Sonoita is about 1000 feet higher in elevation than is Tucson.  It’s a bit cooler there in summer, colder in winter, and wetter overall.  Grasslands are the predominate habitat in and around Sonoita.

I’m thinking a lot about Sonoita today.  At this moment the area, including the spot where I took this image, is menaced by an expanding and rapidly advancing fire.  As of yesterday it had burned 7,500 acres.  As of today the burned acreage is up to 20,000.  Winds keep pushing the fire east, threatening Sonoita’s grasslands, several homes and ranches,  and the communities beyond the Sonoita area.  I’ve got my fingers crossed that this thing gets contained soon.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting,  ISO 640, f10 @ 1/800

Loggerhead Shrike In Open Country

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I think that I’ve become addicted to photographing Loggerhead Shrikes.  I just love these birds.  They may be the most subtly beautiful of all of the birds that I photograph.

Here’s the odd thing about my addiction.  I almost never photographed shrikes until about six months ago.  It’s not that I didn’t want to photograph them but that I seldom saw them.  I deluded myself into thinking that they are uncommon.  That was incorrect. They’re actually a pretty common species in certain locations within an easy drive of Tucson.  I was looking for them in all of the wrong places.

Loggerhead Shrikes aren’t really a desert species.  These birds inhabit grasslands.  I had to drive to the grasslands of Sonoita and Patagonia, to the open farmlands of the Sulphur Springs Valley, or to the vast agricultural areas northwest of Tucson in order to see these birds.  Once there, I had remind myself to look at the right objects in order increase the probability of finding shrikes.  Loggerhead Shrikes, unlike some other perch-hunting species, often perch low.  Yes, they will perch on utility wires, but they seem to prefer lower perches like fences, posts, and small trees and shrubs.  They are also territorial, meaning that they tend to fly from and return to the same perch over and over.

I photographed this individual perching on a small mesquite a couple of weeks ago while driving through the Sulphur Springs Valley.  It was perching only about five feet above ground.

When I first saw the shrike it was sharing its perch with a second shrike, possibly its mate.  I hyperventilated at the thought of getting two birds in one image.  Unfortunately, the second bird flew before I could photograph the pair, leaving me with only one shrike to work with.  Nevertheless, I’m not displeased.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f8 @ 1/1000.

Gopher Snake

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Yesterday, our search for birds to photograph was almost a complete bust.  That sometimes happens.  My friend Ned Harris and I decided to drive into some areas that neither of us had explored in any depth previously.  What we’d hoped would be active simply wasn’t.

But, the day wasn’t a total loss. While driving along a rural road we saw a fair-sized snake basking on the asphalt.  We stopped to take a closer look.  It was a Gopher Snake.

Gopher Snakes are among the more common snakes in southern Arizona.  Like all snakes they are predators.  Gopher Snakes specialize in hunting small rodents like mice, rats, and ground squirrels.  This time of the year they are diurnal.  When the weather really heats up in another month or so they will switch to a nocturnal lifestyle along with pretty much every other reptile and small mammal in our desert.

Gopher Snakes are non-venomous.  They are constrictors, dispatching their prey via suffocation.  They are utterly harmless to humans.  Indeed, they are known for their amiable dispositions.  People keep these snakes as pets.

They are the largest of our local snakes.  An adult Gopher Snake can reach a length of eight feet or more, although that’s pretty rare.  More typically, they grow to a length of between five and six feet.  The snake that we saw was about four or four and one-half feet long, medium size for one of these snakes.

Gopher Snakes are preyed on by numerous predators.  Bobcats, coyotes, Red-tailed Hawks, roadrunners, all of them hunt these snakes.  The snakes don’t have much going for them as defensive weapons but they are fairly adept mimics.  When cornered a Gopher Snake will do its best to imitate a rattlesnake.  It will coil up in a defensive posture, it will vibrate its tail, it will flatten its head into a triangular shape, and it will emit a hissing noise that sort of sounds like a rattlesnake’s rattles.

These snakes can be strikingly beautiful.  The one that we photographed yesterday certainly was.  The snake’s color-coordinated eyes and scales should win a prize for best snake costume.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400,  f5.6 @ 1/3200.

Springtime For Red-winged Blackbirds

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I make it a habit every spring to photograph Red-winged Blackbirds’ courtship behavior.  I’ve come to see it as emblematic of the change of seasons in this area.

Red-winged Blackbirds live in great numbers in the Tucson area.  Paradoxically, they’re not a desert-dwelling species.  They favor grasslands and wetlands.  They seem to have benefitted enormously from humans’ agricultural activities.  One can find them easily in the farmlands northwest of Tucson.  In town, they show up near ponds and man-made bodies of water such as Sweetwater Wetlands, where I took these pictures.

Males do all of the work during the blackbirds’ courtship.  The males stake out favorite perches — tree limbs, reeds, fence posts — where they are visible to the females.  There, they sing and display, flashing their scarlet and gold shoulder epaulets, strutting and posturing.  Their songs are extremely loud, especially considering that each male weighs less than two ounces.

Sometimes, one can find a dozen or more males showing off simultaneously in a small area.  At Sweetwater Wetlands, the prime courting area seems to be the small ponds by the road at the front of the wetlands’ north edge.  There, the blackbirds congregate beginning at sunrise.

The female blackbirds sit nearby, always on perches that are lower in height than those that the males have selected, demurely watching the males on display.

They don’t appear to be in any rush to show their approval.  Often, they hide just out of sight among the reeds.  The females don’t participate in the courtship singing but may vocalize with a soft call or two every now and then.

How a female chooses among the competing males is a good question.  During courtship I never see the males and females intermingling.  Often, however, I watch males diving into the reeds at the wetlands, down to where the females are located.  If mating is going on down there it isn’t visible to me.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting.  The first and second images at ISO 500, f8.  The first image, @ 1/500, the second, @ 1/1250.  The third and fourth images at ISO 640, f8 and 1/500.

Swainson’s Hawks Return

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Swainson’s Hawks are seasonal residents in southern Arizona.  They show up in late March or early April.  They are a plains species and they seek out the grasslands and agricultural valleys that lie close to Mexico or to Tucson’s northwest.  There, they establish breeding populations.  There are also brief seasonal surges in Swainson’s Hawk populations in autumn and spring when huge numbers of these birds pass through, either on their way to their winter residences in south America or northward, to America’s plains and intermountain plateaus.

Last weekend, I went with a friend, Ned Harris, to the Sulphur Springs Valley, about 60 miles southeast of Tucson, and we found Swainson’s Hawks in abundance.

They are extraordinary  birds.  A Swainson’s Hawk is slightly smaller than its close cousin, the Red-tailed Hawk.  It has longer, more pointed wings than a Red Tail and a somewhat leaner, more graceful profile.

Distinguishing these birds from Red Tails isn’t always easy.  One distinguishing factor is that most Swainson’s Hawks have an area of bright yellow skin at the base of their beaks, a feature that Red Tails lack.  In flight, the Swainson’s long and pointed wings are a giveaway.

Sometimes, the easiest way to tell the species apart is plumage patterns and color.  Swainson’s Hawks have the most varied plumage of all hawks.  They come in every conceivable shade of brown, tan, and gray, and some have pure or nearly pure white breasts and abdomens.  Many Swainson’s Hawks have a “bib,” a patch of dark feathers, starting just below their necks and extending onto their chests.

The bird in this second image clearly displays this feature.

The color variations sported by this species can be truly impressive.  This third bird has overall darker plumage than the first two, but is definitely a Swainson’s Hawk.  The bib on this bird is a little less evident than on the second one because this bird has a rufous breast and abdomen.

There are also very dark-colored Swainson’s Hawks.

It’s breeding season for these birds and it’s not unusual to hear and see them vocalizing.  A Swainson’s Hawk’s call sounds nothing like the classic Red Tail’s call.  It’s much higher pitched and has a plaintive tone to it.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting.  The second image shot at ISO 640, f8 @ 1/800.  Remaining images shot at ISO 500 and f8.  The first image @ 1/1000, the third image @ 1/1250, the fourth image @ 1/1600, the final image @ 1/1000.


Two Lynxes And A Jackal

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Last year I was delighted to identify and photograph a Green Lynx Spider living in our back yard.  The spider had taken up residence on a Prickly Pear Cactus, where she lived for several weeks before disappearing.  She made a good living by preying on the small insects that fed on the Prickly Pear’s flowers when they were in bloom.  She found a ready supply of other insects to capture and devour after the blooms faded.

The other day I noticed that the Prickly Pear was again in bloom.  “I wonder if . . . . ?” I thought to myself, and checked out the flowers.  Sure enough, there was a Green Lynx Spider on one of the blooms.  And, to my great pleasure, I found a second Lynx Spider prowling just a few flowers away from the first one.

Green Lynx Spiders (only some of the members of this species are actually green) are superb and efficient predators.  They don’t trap their victims in webs.  Rather, they lurk in ambush and pursue and capture their victims like wild cats.  Hence, their name.

These spiders are fast and agile.  A Lynx Spider can run for a very short distance at a blinding speed by spider standards.  I’ve watched one seize prey and its movement was so quick, over a distance of perhaps half an inch, that I couldn’t follow it.  The spider seemed to be in two places at once.

This first image shows one of the  spiders in context.  The Prickly Pear flower is about 1 1/2 inch in diameter and the spider (legs included) is just a bit larger than my thumbnail.  The Lynx Spider has seized a tiny fly that was feeding on the Prickly Pear’s nectar.   Notice how long its legs are in proportion to its body.  Those long legs give the spider great leaping and running ability.

Here’s a closer view of the second spider.  Its “head” (technically called a “cephalothorax”) is surmounted by eight tiny eyes, arranged in a circle.  It is probable that this spider can’t see much more than shadings of light and dark, although its vision may detect movement.  The cephalothorax contains the spider’s brain, which is huge for an invertebrate.  The spider has no nose and no ears.  That doesn’t mean that it is without senses.  Do you see those tiny hairs on the spider’s legs?  Those are actually sensory organs.  They are exquisitely sensitive to vibrations, to changes in air pressure, to temperature changes, and to wind.  A spider literally can feel its environment with its legs.

Notice also that there’s a “jackal” in this second image.  Look to the right side of the image and you’ll see that a tiny ant is scavenging the corpse of a fly already consumed by the spider.

A Lynx Spider doesn’t weave a web.  But, it does have silk organs at the end of its abdomen.  It spins a series of long strands of silk that surround the spider as it waits for prey to approach.  It keeps its legs in contact with these silken strands.  An insect walking through the spider’s immediate neighborhood will likely come into contact with a strand.  Instantly, the spider knows that something possibly edible is in its presence.  It also knows how big the insect is by the intensity of the vibration that it triggers when it contacts the silk and the spider can also detect precisely where the insect is located.

Lynx Spiders are beneficial.  Farmers love them because they consume harmful insects that eat crops.  They can bite but their venom is harmless to humans.  One neat feature about these spiders is that they can spit venom a distance of at least a couple of inches.  Supposedly the venom is rather irritating if you get it in your eyes.  I’ve never had the experience, however, and almost certainly never will inasmuch as I wear glasses.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, mounted on tripod and assisted by Canon 600EX-RT speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f18 @ 1/160.

Young Female Cooper’s Hawk — “What Did We Just Do?”

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A few mornings ago I took an early walk at Sweetwater Wetlands.  Part of the Wetlands is rimmed by large trees, mostly Cottonwoods and willows.  The trees are favorite perches and foraging areas for a variety of birds.  As I was walking under the trees’ canopy I suddenly heard a loud squawking sound and saw some branches rustling.  I recognized he noise, a rapidly repeated series of one-note cries, as a Cooper’s Hawk’s call.  I had no idea why the branches were shaking, so I stepped back to get a better look.

I saw two Cooper’s Hawks having sex.  They were an odd couple at first blush.  The female was very young, judging from her plumage.  She still sported the feathers of a juvenile bird, although her eyes showed signs of turning orange (juvenile Cooper’s Hawks have pale yellow eyes).  The male was tiny in comparison to the female, not much more than half her size.  That isn’t unusual — as a general rule, male Cooper’s Hawks are much smaller than females.  The male sported the plumage and red eyes of an adult bird.  He was at least a year or two older than the female.

The birds finished before I could take a photo.  The male flew to a branch about 10 feet above the female’s perch and the pair sat silently for a second.  And, then, the female looked up at the male, twisting her head almost 180 degrees from its normal plane in order to see her lover.

It’s impossible to gauge a bird’s mood from its facial expressions because birds don’t have facial muscles.  They cannot smile, frown, or grimace.  But, to me, this hawk’s body language suggested her state of mind.  She seemed to be genuinely puzzled about what had just occurred and she also plainly continued to have deep interest in her paramour.

Male and female Cooper’s Hawks mate for life.  The pairs are inseparable during the breeding season.  They cooperate in nest building.  The male brings food to the female while she incubates her eggs and continues to hunt for the family for the first 30 days or so after the eggs hatch.  Once the youngsters fledge the parents both hunt on behalf of the fledglings for another three weeks or so.  During the non-breeding season, the adults may separate somewhat but they never really go their separate ways.  The female depicted here is not only that male’s lover, but she is his “wife.”

It is not unheard of for female Cooper’s Hawks to breed as yearlings.  This female may be a child bride but she isn’t exceptional in that respect.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/500.

Loggerhead Shrike — Two Views With Different Emphasis

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Before beginning today’s post I’d note that I’ve received a couple of communications recently from subscribers telling me that the e-mails that they’ve received informing them of each day’s post are sometimes without content.  I’m completely at a loss to explain that.  But, if it happens, just go to the website’s address:, and you’ll see the post there.

A couple of weeks ago, Louisa and I were driving through the San Rafael Valley, not far from Patagonia, when we saw a Loggerhead Shrike sitting on an old and decaying wooden post.  I made several images of the bird.  It was a perfect setting: the weathered post and the background, consisting of yellowed grass and the dark blue of some distant mountains complemented the shrike perfectly. And, the lighting was terrific.

But, now I’m faced with a dilemma.  How to compose the final image?  I came away with two compositions made from two separate photographs and I’m unable to decide which of them I prefer.

The first image has the shrike as its centerpiece.

The post is a secondary element of the composition.  I don’t think that there’s anything that I dislike about the image.  The bird, the post, and the background are all in harmony and the colors are beautiful.  I really like shrikes.  I think that they are among the most photogenic of all bird species and I think that this image shows off the bird’s pugnacious personality.

Now, here’s the second image.

Here, the post is the main subject, with the bird complementing the post.  What I love about the post is its weatherbeaten appearance and the orange lichens.  I wonder how long that post has been there.   Settlers from the United States came to Arizona in the 1870s and 1880s.  But, Mexican settlers had been there already for about 200 years when the Anglos showed up.  And of course, the land was the home of Native Americans for thousands of years.  That post could have been there for a very long time indeed, given how slowly things decompose in our ultra-dry climate.  I was also intrigued by the fact that the post stood by the roadside, all by itself.  It didn’t appear to be attached to or related to anything nearby.  What was its original purpose?

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f10 @ 1/400.

Fledgling Mourning Dove

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Each species of bird has its own reproductive strategy.  Prey species tend to be prolific breeders and their offspring tend to mature more quickly than those of predators.  But, even among prey species there are differences.  That pair of Gambel’s Quail that I discussed the other day hatched 10 offspring.  It took about three weeks for the eggs to hatch and upon hatching the youngsters were immediately capable of foraging.  Mourning Doves — another prey species — are also prolific breeders but they utilize a very different strategy than that used by the quail.  Mourning Doves raise one or two offspring at a time but breed repeatedly when conditions are right.  A pair of Mourning Doves may reproduce three or more times during the spring and summer.

There is a Mourning Dove nest on a beam underneath the roof of our back porch.  A pair of doves, mates for life, constructed the nest — a loose pile of twigs and small sticks — last summer.  By my count, they’ve raised at least four broods of one or two youngsters since then, two last year and two so far this year.  The most recent generation of offspring, consisting of two babies, hatched about three weeks ago.  After about two weeks the youngsters, tiny and helpless at birth,  but which appear to double in size every day, fledged and left the nest.

Mourning Doves are devoted parents.  I was surprised to learn that the male and female dove take turns sitting on the eggs during gestation with the male generally working the day shift and the female sitting on the eggs at night.  When the eggs hatch the adults feed the hatchlings by regurgitating food, which the youngsters take directly out of their parents’ mouths.

For the first day or two after fledging young Mourning Doves are very easy pickings for predators.  The youngsters hide under vegetation for a couple of days while the parents feed them.  After that they’re on their own.  The other day I found one fledgling hiding under a bush in our back yard.

This little dove is about 2/3 the size of an adult bird and almost indescribably cute.  Its most prominent feature is its huge eyes, much larger in proportion to its body than are the eyes of an adult.

After about 48 hours this youngster was gone, having matured sufficiently to fend for itself.

Amazingly, the adult doves were nesting again, within 24 hours of the youngster’s departure.  A new crop of youngsters is well on its way, and there will be hatchlings, if all goes well, in less than two weeks.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f9 @ 1/160.