Immature Grasshopper

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Every once in a while I’ll grab a camera and wander slowly around our back yard looking for photographic possibilities.  It can be a very rewarding experience but it requires a complete change of perspective.  In order to have any chance at success I must look closely at the leaves and branches of the vegetation in our yard.  Contemplating the plants that way requires patience.  At first, everything appears as a jumbled mass of leaves. Then, gradually, small objects begin to come into focus.  I look for anomalies, things that are different from the surrounding foliage.  Eventually, I can perceive all sorts of tiny fauna, ranging from very small insects to spiders and other arthropods.

Yesterday, I found this immature grasshopper hidden among the leaves of a Red Bird of Paradise plant in our yard.  This is a tiny insect, barely one-half inch long.

It is strikingly handsome, with its brilliant green body and its surprisingly striped and colorful eyes.

Grasshoppers, like all insects, have external skeletons (exoskeletons).  Infant grasshoppers undergo a series of molts as they grow in which they shed their exoskeletons and grow new ones.  With each shed the emerging youngster looks more and more like an adult until, with its final molt, the mature grasshopper emerges.  This young grasshopper has only vestigial wings, which will develop with maturation until the grasshopper has a full set and is capable of flight.  At this stage, however, the immature grasshopper is flightless and very much at the mercy of a host of predators.  Camouflage is its main defense against being captured and eaten.  Needless to say, this individual’s camouflage is superb.  I noticed it only because its shape and color differ just slightly from the surrounding leaves.

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

Great Blue Heron — In The Desert?

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Here’s a photo of a Great Blue Heron that I took a few days ago.  It’s not a particularly exciting photograph.  I’ve made many images of this species that are far more dramatic than this one.

I’m posting it because it illustrates a point: human activity that degrades or destroys habitat usually works to the disadvantage of those creatures that are native to that habitat, but it also sometimes benefits other species.

I photographed this bird in the agricultural flatlands northwest of Tucson.  The area is an immense and nearly level plain and much of it was desert before humans transformed it by installing fields and irrigation systems.  Traveling through the flatlands, surrounded on all sides by desert, one would expect to see typical desert creatures.   In fact, the fauna that one sees there isn’t particularly typical of what one finds in our local desert.

This Great Blue Heron is an example.  There is a fairly robust community of these birds in the flatlands.  I encounter one or more of them on virtually every trip that I make there.  They’ve clearly benefitted from human activity.

Great Blue Herons are normally semi-aquatic birds.  Typically, one finds them hanging out near bodies of water.  They survive by stalking the shallows of marshes and creeks, looking for small aquatic creatures that they can snatch with their six-inch long beaks.

There are no natural bodies of water in the flatlands, with the exception of the Santa Cruz River, reduced to a trickle at best, in one corner of the area.  But, the herons have learned how to exploit the fields and they’re doing quite well without creeks or lakes.  The flatlands are criss-crossed with man-made irrigation canals.  The heron pictured here is standing next to one of them.  The canals attract aquatic life.  There’s a food chain in them, beginning with algae and culminating with bullfrogs.  The herons hunt the bullfrogs.  Furthermore, the big agricultural fields in the flatlands offer the Great Blue Herons food opportunities that they normally don’t encounter.  The grain and other crops planted in these fields attract rodents in large numbers.  The herons have learned to abandon their water-based lifestyle and to hunt for rodents in the fields.  It’s not unusual to see a Great Blue Heron standing in the midst of an agricultural field, far from the nearest water.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f7.1 @ 1/1000.

Red-spotted Toads

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Our summer monsoon rains appear to have fizzled out.  July was a much wetter than normal month but August is on pace to be very dry.  The fauna that one typically sees during the monsoon have gone to ground, in many cases to remain dormant for 10 or 11 months.  Today’s post is in tribute to one of these creatures, the Red-spotted Toad.

These little toads, ranging in length from a bit over an inch to about two and one-half inches, are iconic monsoon animals.  They show up only after the summer rains have begun and they pretty much disappear as soon as the rains quit.  They are almost entirely nocturnal.  At the peak of the monsoon one sees them everywhere in the desert at night, especially after a recent rain.  It’s not unusual on a dark night to encounter a half-dozen or more of these toads along a 100-yard stretch of road or trail.

They can be identified easily by the red spots on their bodies.  There are other species that resemble them physically, such as Canyon Tree Frogs, but none of them share this toad’s characteristic red spots.

If ugly can be cute then Red-spotted Toads are almost irresistibly cute.  They are quite phlegmatic.  When I see one at night it seldom puts much energy into hopping away.  It might make a few half-hearted jumps but then, it usually just sits there, evidently hoping that I’ll leave it be.  These toads have gorgeous amber-colored eyes.  Note also the very subtle colors on their bodies — not just the red spots, but the faint blue pigment on their flanks and around their eyes.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160.  First image shot at  f11 @ 1/160, second image shot at f14 @ 1/160.

Juvenile Swainson’s Hawks

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Before beginning today’s post, a correction.  In yesterday’s post a I showed an image of a female dragonfly that I identified as possibly being a female Roseate Skimmer.  Last evening I was informed by Rich Bailowitz, via his wife, Elaine Greenapple, that the female is much more likely a female Wandering Glider than it is a female Roseate Skimmer.  There are similarities between the two but also significant differences.  Rich literally wrote the book on Arizona dragonflies, so I trust his judgment on this.  Thanks!

Now, to today’s post.  I confess to being somewhat of a Swainson’s Hawk addict.  I find them to be among the most beautiful of buteos — colorful and graceful at once.  Observing them is very much a seasonal pleasure as they migrate away from here in the cooler months from October into March.  Each autumn and spring, many thousands of these hawks pass through southern Arizona as part of their migration.  A few remain for the summer and they breed and raise offspring here.

The fall migration appears to have begun.  Recently, I’ve observed an uptick in the local population, which suggests that our summer residents are being augmented by the vanguard of the great wave of migrating Swainson’s.  The migration will reach a peak around the fourth week of September.

The hawks that I’ve seen recently include several very young birds that fledged this summer.  It’s impossible to say with certainty that these young hawks were born locally but I suspect that to be the case.  Recently, I photographed some youngsters in the vicinity of Whitewater Draw, a marshland located about 70 miles or so southeast of Tucson.

The extremely bright plumage and pale eye of this bird strongly suggest that it is a fledgling/juvenile Swainson’s Hawk.  Its behavior is also that of a very young bird.  Fledgling and juvenile hawks frequently are less averse to human presence than are adult birds.  An adult Swainson’s Hawk is much less likely to perch out in the open, as this bird is perching, and allow a photographer to approach it as this bird allowed me to do.

Here’s another fledgling in flight.  These birds develop their flying skills amazingly fast.  They’re adept flyers within days of taking their first flights.  This bird displays not only the bright and heavily marked plumage of a youngster but also shows off the Swainson’s Hawk’s trademark long, narrow, and pointed wings.

Developing flying skills in a hurry is of critical importance to these youngsters.  Within a few weeks all of the Swainson’s Hawks in our area are going to be headed for points south.  Eventually, the Swainson’s migration reaches Argentina, where the hawks stay for a few months before returning north.

Nature shows no mercy to the weak and unskilled.  These young birds must fly every bit as far as will the older generations of hawks.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting. First and fourth images, ISO 500,  f6.3 @ 1/1600,  Second and third images, ISO 640, f7.1 @ 1/2000.


Roseate Skimmer

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Who wins the prize for the most flamboyantly colored dragonfly?  There are a lot of competitors for that award.  Male dragonflies and their cousins, damselflies, come in every color of the rainbow and many come in combinations of brilliant colors.  Just when you see one that is completely over the top when it comes to hue and/or pattern another comes along that is even more garish and bright.

Here’s one that is certainly in the running for the gaudiest — at least in southern Arizona.  This is a Roseate Skimmer.

This incredibly colored dragonfly comes in tints of pink, cranberry, and mauve.  It’s a not-uncommon sight in this area.  Look for it at the borders of ponds and sluggish streams, especially in areas where there is unobstructed sunlight.

There is no question that dragonflies are among the most brilliantly colored fauna.  The question that intrigues me is: why are the males of most species so spectacularly tinted?  I can think of two likely reasons and they both have to do with sex and reproduction.  There are a lot of dragonfly species, dozens of them in Arizona alone.  Many species resemble others very closely but for their colors.  When the males of each species sport distinctive colors it may help the females pick prospective mates out of a crowded field.  Second, the males within a given species may utilize their brilliant colors to compete for females within that species.  Perhaps the females go for bling and the males sporting the most bling have a competitive advantage over others of their species who come adorned in more subdued hues.

I’ve thought of a third possibility —  very speculative, I suppose, but not out of the question.  There are several species of birds that prey on dragonflies.  American Kestrels, Mississippi Kites, and many others go after these insects.  I’m certain that the brightly colored male dragonflies are a lot easier for these predators to spot than are the almost invariably drab females.

Here’s an example of a female, an individual that I think may be a female Roseate Skimmer.  She’s very plain compared to the male, so much so that she blends into her background.

Perhaps, by being so brilliantly colored, male dragonflies serve as bait for predators, sparing the females (or at least, some of them) and enabling the females to lay their eggs in relative security.

First image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f6.3 @ 1/2000.  Second image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens+1.4x telextender,  assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 320, f18 @ 1/160.

Gray Hawk

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The other day I posted some images of a Mississippi Kite, a raptor that lives in only a couple of locations in southern Arizona and in very small numbers.  Here’s an image of another uncommon raptor, a Gray Hawk.

Gray Hawks are common throughout much of Mexico and Central America.  They are extremely uncommon in the United States with a range that includes only the southern tip of Texas and a very small area in southeastern Arizona.  There are, perhaps, a couple of hundred nesting pairs of these small buteos living in Arizona.

They are strikingly beautiful with their slate gray plumage and dark eyes.  Gray Hawks are predominately a riparian species.  In this country they dwell almost exclusively near the banks of streams and they prefer to nest in cottonwood and sycamore trees.  They specialize in hunting lizards.

One often hears these birds without seeing them, due to their habit of roosting deep within trees’ canopies.  They have a one-note, very high pitched call that sounds almost like an extended whistle.  They can be frustrating to search for because they can remain invisible for quite a while while calling.  I’ve had the experience more than once of standing right underneath a tree on which a Gray Hawk was perching and calling without ever being able to spot the bird.

I photographed this bird near the banks of the San Pedro River in Cochise County, about 45 miles southeast of Tucson.  Several weeks ago I posted a photo of young Gray Hawk transitioning from juvenile to adult plumage.  This may be the same bird, now wearing adult plumage.  At any rate, I took my photographs in virtually the same location.

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

Male Tarantula

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Summer is the season in southern Arizona when it is easiest to observe and to photograph tarantulas.  These huge but harmless spiders are active and visible at night this time of year.  A female tarantula almost never leaves the immediate vicinity of her burrow, but she often can be encountered on a warm summer night sitting at her burrow’s edge in the hope that prey — almost always insects — will walk within ambush range.  We have a female (“Quentin,” whose image I posted a few weeks ago) living by the sidewalk near the front of our house.  I check on her several nights a week and she’s doing well.

The males, on the other hand, become wanderers on summer nights.  When males mature the urge to reproduce impels them to leave the shelter of their burrows and go looking for a receptive female with which to mate.  On a summer night it is not unusual to spot amorous males walking around in the desert.

Recently, I photographed a male as he searched for a mate.

This is a very large male, perhaps five inches in diameter (including his legs).  I identify him as a male for two reasons: first, females never wander; and second, because he is nearly black with the exception of his tan cephalothorax.  Females of this species, the Desert Blonde Tarantula, are mostly tan in color.

Tarantulas are gentle giants.  They are quite timid and their reaction is to flee any human that approaches them.  Quentin, our female, invariably retreats into her burrow if I walk to within five feet of her.  They are capable of biting — their bites are about as painful as a bee sting and do no harm — but will never do so unless provoked.  Many people keep them as pets.

The male depicted here wanted nothing more than to be left alone as he pursued romance.  I obliged him after taking a few photos.

Tarantulas are very long lived.  A male becomes sexually mature at about age 10.  He will die within weeks of mating, his life’s purpose fulfilled.  Females, however, live much longer than the males.  A female tarantula may live for 20 years or more.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens assisted by a Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f11 @ 1/160.


Mississippi Kite

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

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

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

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

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

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

White-lined Sphinx Moth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Kingbird On A Wire

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

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

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

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

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