Prairie Falcon

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I see Prairie Falcons fairly frequently during my drives in rural southern Arizona, particularly in autumn and winter, but I almost never get the opportunity to photograph them.  They are extremely wary of humans and are prone to flying long before I can maneuver close enough to take a picture.  Yesterday morning, however, I was pleasantly surprised when one of these beautiful little raptors hung around just long enough for me to make its portrait.

Prairie Falcons are extraordinarily graceful birds of prey.  Their range includes most of the western United States and much of Mexico.  Their natural habitat is open country: grasslands, deserts, and areas under cultivation.   One of these birds weighs about 1 1/2 pounds and has a wingspan of about 3 1/2 feet.  Prairie Falcons are superb fliers, easy to pick out in the air by their narrow, pointed wings and their rapid and somewhat choppy wingbeats.  These falcons prey primarily on small mammals such as mice and rats, but they also pursue insects and even smaller birds.

Prairie Falcons are closely related to Peregrine Falcons and indeed, their territories overlap.  I’ve seen Peregrines on several occasions hanging out near where I found this Prairie Falcon yesterday, and when I first saw this bird — from a considerable distance — I assumed, incorrectly that it was a Peregrine.

That said, the two species are different in a lot of ways and they occupy different niches within their overlapping habitat.  Although Peregrines and Prairies coexist within the Prairie Falcons’ range, Peregrines are much more cosmopolitan than are Prairies.  Peregrines can be found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in habitats as diverse as plains, mountains, and urban skyscrapers.  Although the field guides all say that Prairies and Peregrines are about equal in size and weight, it’s been my experience that Peregrines are usually significantly bigger and more muscular looking than are Prairies.  Peregrines are the absolute champion fliers of the avian world.  Prairies are certainly adept at flight, but they are no match for Peregrines in terms of sheer flight speed and power.  Peregrines specialize in attacking other birds while in flight.  Prairies, by contrast, tend to hunt for creatures on the ground.

Most field guides tend to lump falcons, including Prairie Falcons, with other raptors.  In fact, falcons aren’t closely related to hawks, owls, or eagles.  Their closest relatives are actually parrots.  In southern Arizona we have four species of the falcon family:  Prairie Falcons, Peregrine Falcons, American Kestrels, and Crested Caracaras.  There are locations within a short drive of Tucson where it is possible to spot all of these birds in a morning, if you’re lucky.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f7.1 @ 1/2500.


Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

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White-Crowned Sparrows are migratory in our part of the country, showing up each fall and departing in the spring.  The adult birds are almost instantly recognizable by the bold black and white stripes on their heads.

It’s a somewhat different story with juveniles of this species.  The youngsters have head stripes of medium tan and pale buff.  From a distance these youngsters at least superficially resemble several other sparrow species.  When viewed from up close, however, the bird’s large orange-yellow beak is a prime identification factor.

These birds like brushy areas and they are pretty cosmopolitan in their choice of habitat.  I’ve seen them within Tucson’s city limits and in farmlands, as was the case with this bird.

Each year it seems as if I see as many juveniles of this species as I do adults.  These birds must be prolific and very successful breeders.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f7.1 @ 1/2500.


Curve-Billed Thrasher

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Curve-billed Thrashers are common in our local desert, grasslands, and agricultural areas.  They are highly adaptable, seemingly thriving anywhere that there is dense brush.  They are heard more often than seen.  They have a sharp two-note call that they utter frequently as they forage.  But, their most charming feature is their song.  Curve-billed Thrashers have one of the most complicated and melodic songs of all of  the birds in our community,  consisting of an extended series of trills and whistles that lasts for five or ten seconds.

These birds are members of a fairly large group of songbirds known as “mimids,” which includes several thrasher species and other familiar species like Northern Mockingbirds.  The species is uniquely southwestern with a range that includes the southern parts of Arizona and New Mexico and that extends well down into Mexico.  A Curve-billed Thrasher is about the same size as a mockingbird but is easily distinguishable by its bright yellow eye and long, downward curving beak.  The eye and beak give this bird a somewhat fierce appearance.  In fact, Curve-billed Thrashers are timid foragers in brush and low vegetation for insects and other food items.

I spotted this bird just at daybreak the other day while I was driving down a farm road.  It had hopped to the top of a dead bush and was announcing its presence by singing.  I heard it long before I saw it and was able to get this image before it reacted to me and dove down into the brush below its perch.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/4000.

Common Raven Giving Me The Eye

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Common Ravens are among the birds that I see most frequently as I drive around rural southern Arizona.  Paradoxically, I very rarely photograph them.  It’s not because I don’t find them to be photogenic.  I love to take pictures of these birds.  My relatively rare images of Common Ravens are the direct result of the ravens’ desire not to be photographed.  They are among the most difficult subjects to photograph that I encounter.

Ravens are smart.  They have an intellectual capacity that ranks them among the most intelligent of non-aquatic animals.  They are highly adaptive and they learn very quickly.  That brilliance becomes apparent when I attempt to photograph them.  I’ll often encounter one or more ravens perched by the side of the road.  As I approach them in my car they turn to watch me.  They maintain their position as I brake to a stop, watching me closely.  They’re airborne virtually the instant that I raise my camera to eye level.  I’ve seen this phenomenon dozens of times.

What accounts for it?  Why do the ravens invariably spook when I raise my camera with its long telephoto lens?  I have a theory.  There are several hunting seasons in rural Arizona including a dove season that begins in autumn.  During dove season I occasionally encounter hunters out in the open fields.  My suspicion is that not all of them are ultra-careful about what they shoot at.  But even if they are careful, their shotgun blasts are a major disruption of local wildlife.  My camera and telephoto lens may look awfully suspicious to a raven that has experienced dove hunting.

Ravens, being highly social, appear to learn from the behavior of their fellow ravens.  If one raven in a flock has had a bad experience with a hunter all of them will respond to that raven’s reaction to the next “hunter” who comes along, including a hunter armed with a camera and long lens rather than a shotgun.

So, I was gratified the other day when I encountered a raven that, for whatever reason, decided not to fly when I pointed my camera at it.  This bird was part of a large flock of ravens that I saw perching in a row of pecan trees along a rural road.  This individual stayed behind and looked me over for a few seconds even after its companions flew.

For those who are not familiar with Common Ravens, these are huge birds, the largest members of the family of birds that includes crows and jays.  A Common Raven weighs 2 1/2 pounds. By comparison, the smaller and much more common American Crow, the raven’s close cousin, weighs about a pound.

Ravens are not only extremely wary about being photographed, but they are technically difficult subjects as well.  It’s very easy to underexpose these birds when they pose against a bright background.  The black, glossy feathers of an underexposed raven come across in the image as a detail-free silhouette.  I’ll pat myself on the back for these images; I compensated the exposure in order to pick up details in the bird’s plumage.

This last image clearly depicts the raven’s most notable feature, its huge and powerful beak.  Think of that beak as the Swiss Army Knife of the avian world.  A Common Raven uses its beak to kill prey but also as a set of tongs, a pry bar, a hammer, and a shovel.  With that beak the raven can dig in the ground for insects, it can crack open pecans, it can tear open a food wrapper, and it can punch through a plastic garbage bag.  To a raven that beak is as important in facilitating its lifestyle as our hands are to governing how we adapt and survive.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f6.3 @ 1/2500.

Lark Sparrows

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We have finally (finally!!!!) started experiencing daytime high temperatures of less than 90 degrees.  This past October was the second hottest on record for this part of the country with average daytime highs of 93.  We have only seven weeks or so to go before winter officially arrives and we’ve yet to experience anything remotely resembling autumn.

Weather notwithstanding, many of the migratory species that make this locale their winter home have begun to arrive in numbers.  The other day I observed a pair of Lark Sparrows sitting on dry brush at the edge of a field.  I hadn’t seen this species since last year.

The field guides suggest that in some parts of southern Arizona Lark Sparrows maintain a year-round presence.  That may be so but I’ve never seen them here except in autumn and winter.  This may be a case where a few local residents are greatly augmented by seasonal migrants this time of year.  That’s certainly true with Red-tailed Hawks and Loggerhead Shrikes (as I discussed yesterday) so it’s probably the case with these sparrows as well.

In any event, they are among my favorite sparrows.  They certainly are the most colorful.  Lark Sparrows are very easy to identify because of their boldly marked faces and by the dark areas on their breasts.  They are a common species in the western United States.  Look for them at the edges of fields and in low brush.  That was exactly where I found these birds.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f5.6 @ 1/4000.

Loggerhead Shrike On Its Favorite Perch

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After years of wildlife photography I’ve learned a thing or two about the personalities and unique and interesting behaviors of my subjects.

Loggerhead Shrikes are an example.  Through observation and research I’ve discovered that these birds are every bit as territorial as are some other unrelated species such as flycatchers.  I’ve seen the same behavior on more than one occasion.  A shrike finds a favorite perch, or more likely, an area with several favorite perches, and it returns to those locations again and again.  Go to a shrike’s territory on multiple occasions and you’re likely to see the same bird hanging out there time after time.

Such is the case with this individual.

Last autumn I saw this bird for the first time, perching in a row of pecan trees across a rural dirt road from a farm house.  In the weeks that ensued I saw it again and again.  It disappeared during this past summer and I thought that it might be gone for good.  But, it showed up again beginning in late September and I have now observed it on at least four occasions, perching on the same trees and branches that it perched on a year ago.

How can I be certain that this is the same bird as last year’s shrike?  I can’t.  But, I’d lay odds that it is the same bird simply because it has occupied the exact trees and perches that the shrike used a year ago.  There’s a likely explanation for its absence during the summer months.  Shrikes are described as year-round residents of southern Arizona but the guides also point out that the local population is augmented substantially each fall and winter by migrants from northern latitudes.  My conjecture is that “my” shrike is one of those migrants that has chosen a particular stretch of farm road as its winter residence.

I believe that shrikes are among the most graceful and beautiful of all of the birds that I regularly see and photograph.  I’ve photographed this bird on several occasions, taking advantage of the fact that I know where it lives. There’s something else about this bird that makes it a great photography subject.  It is not at all fazed by my presence.  For whatever reason — perhaps the bird’s close proximity to a farm where there are people out and about during the day — this shrike is not concerned about human interlopers.

I have a number of additional nice photos of this bird and I’ll post them in a few days.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 800, f5.6.  First image shot at 1/2500, second at 1/3200.

Honeybee And Globe Mallow

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Autumn in most of the United States is a time when many insect species die off or go dormant after reproducing.  That is only partly true in southern Arizona.  Here, some species remain active throughout the year.  Honeybees are among those that remain active.  There are, at most, only a few weeks each year when there are not flowering plants in bloom here and so, the honeybees nearly always have a food source.  It very rarely gets below freezing in these parts — at least in the lower elevations — and thus, the bees rarely are adversely affected by cold weather.

Recently, I photographed this honeybee feeding on a globe mallow flower.

She was so engrossed in her work that she objected not at all when I positioned my camera’s lens and flash just a few inches from her in order to take her picture.

Honeybees are an Old World insect.  They were first introduced into the western hemisphere in the 17th Century by colonists who were interested in honey production.  The earliest introduced bees were of European origin.  A few decades ago, Brazilian researchers imported some African honeybees in an attempt to increase honey production.  Some of those bees escaped and spread, outcompeting and crowding out their European cousins.  In Arizona, virtually all wild honeybees are descended from those imported African honeybees.

African honeybees acquired the sobriquet of “killer bees” because they defend their hives much more fiercely than do honeybees of European origin.  People approach the Africans’ hives at their peril: there have been a few instances in which unwary interlopers have been stung dozens or even hundreds of times and there are rare human fatalities resulting from these encounters.

But, bee behavior changes markedly when they are not defending their hives.  When they are out foraging they pose little or no risk to humans.  This bee, undoubtedly of African origin, had no interest whatsoever in me and I was at no risk of being stung when I photographed her.

Image made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L macro lens assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 200, f16 @ 1/160.

Crested Caracaras In The Farmlands

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I’ve often said that I’ll happily photograph and write about anything with DNA.  But, as ecumenical as my tastes may be, there are certain species that I really like to photograph and a handful that I love to photograph.

Crested Caracaras fall into that latter category.  My infatuation with this species is a love affair that spans the last half decade.  I would do almost anything within reason to get some good images of these wonderful birds.  Why?  Well, begin with the fact that they are spectacular in their appearance.  I know of no other large bird in southeast Arizona that is so striking.  But, also there is the question of their mysterious and poorly described behavior.  The literature simply doesn’t provide much information about these birds and their intriguing lifestyles.

Caracaras show up in only a few locations in the United States. There is a population of these birds in southern Texas, a tiny community of them in central Florida, and of course, there are those who reside in southern Arizona.  That’s it.  They are, however, a common sight in much of Mexico, Central America, and the northern part of South America.  There is another species of Caracara that lives in the southern part of South America.

In Arizona these birds nest in spring and summer on or close to the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, a community of hundreds of square miles situated hard on the Mexican border.  But, in autumn and winter, many of them migrate north about 40 miles to the agricultural flatlands between Tucson and Phoenix.  No one knows why.  During their spring and summer breeding season, adult Caracaras live in monogamous pairs down on the reservation.  But, during the cooler months, they become social, hanging out in flocks that may include up to a 100 individuals or more.  Furthermore, during the cooler weather of fall and winter, Caracaras associate with Common Ravens, an unrelated species.  Again, no one has explained why.

Caracaras are members of the falcon family, although they don’t resemble falcons very much.

A Crested Caracara is a large bird, with nearly the body length and wing span of a Red-tailed Hawk although more lightly built.  Caracaras are mostly meat eaters although I’ve seen them eating pecans.  They scavenge, sometimes competing with vultures for the flesh of dead animals, but they also are capable of hunting.  They have very long legs and can run easily on the ground.  They have large, chisel-shaped beaks that are well-suited for tearing flesh.  Their feet are equipped with very long, murderous looking talons.  One decidedly unusual feature of these birds is their facial skin, which is devoid of feathers.  In adult birds this skin is typically deep orange (it’s pink in younger Caracaras), but it will change color depending on the bird’s mood.  An excited Caracara will sometimes display crimson facial skin.

They are very strong fliers, with long, pointed wings.  Unlike some species they tend to fly low, propelling themselves along with powerful wingbeats.  Superficially, one of these birds resembles a raven in flight but there are differences that make a Caracara easy to identify in the air once you know what to look for.  A Caracara’s wings have bold white patterns near their tips that distinguish Caracaras from other species.  Also, a Caracara tends to fly with its wings at a 90-degree angle to its body, giving it a “flying cross” appearance.

Finding these birds is a matter of diligence and patience.  I searched for them for nearly a year before I found my first one.  There are certain areas in the agricultural flatlands where they tend to hang out in the winter, but those flatlands exceed a hundred square miles and the Caracaras move easily within them.  I’ll sometimes go searching for them and not find them.  On other occasions I’ve rounded a bend in the road and encountered dozens.

I’ve been amassing images of Caracaras over the past few weeks.  In days to come I hope to post more photos of these wonderful birds.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 400, f7.1, 1/2500.

Burrowing Owl — Renewing An Old Acquaintance

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I feature images of Burrowing Owls from time to time.  They are irresistibly cute and at the same time interesting little birds.  Unlike many other owl species, Burrowing Owls have established homes consisting of their burrows that they reside in year round.  A Great Horned Owl, for example, will occupy a nest while she incubates and rears her young but then abandon it until the following breeding season.  Burrowing Owls, by contrast, tend to stay put for months or even years, long after their offspring have fledged.

The Burrowing Owl that I’m featuring here is one that I’ve followed for more than two years.  I re-visited her burrow the other day and took a few pictures.

I believe that this bird is a female because of her rather brightly marked plumage.  Male Burrowing Owls tend to have more faded plumage than do females because they spend more time out in the open, especially when the female is incubating and caring for her offspring.

This owl is typical of her species.  She’s quite small, probably a bit larger than a robin, but not by much.  Diminutive size notwithstanding, these owls are aggressive little opportunistic predators, feeding on insects, small rodents and reptiles, and occasionally, birds.

In this final image my owl friend is doing her best impression of a scene from the film The Exorcist.  She’s turned her head a full 180 degrees in order to look at me.  That is no problem for this bird.  In fact, Burrowing Owls can turn their heads well beyond 180 degrees.  Their ability to rotate their heads to an extreme degree is a result of their having  15 cervical vertebrae — as compared to our six — making for an extremely mobile neck.  This flexibility may be evolutionary compensation for the fact that owls cannot move their eyes in order to shift their glances.  Rather, they must turn their heads in order to look at something.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting.  Second and third images, ISO 800, f5.6, 1/8000 and 1/6400.  First image, ISO 400, f7.1 @ 1/2500.

Queen And Monarch Butterflies

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Recently, I posted an image of a Queen Butterfly.  I described this butterfly as a close relative of the better-known Monarch Butterfly.  I wrote a bit about the differences between the species.  When I wrote that post I regretted that I didn’t have current images of both species for comparison purposes.  A few days ago I got lucky and photographed both a Queen and a Monarch feeding on the same flowers under identical lighting conditions.  Here are the images.

First, the Queen.

And, next, the Monarch.

To my eye the differences in appearance between the two species are pretty obvious.  Not only is the Monarch larger than the Queen but it is much more brightly colored.  Notice also that the Queen has white spots inside the margins of its wings whereas the Monarch does not.

Monarchs have a broader distribution than Queens.  Monarchs show up all over the world.  They can be found on most continents.  They’ve obviously been around for a long time because they’ve evolved into separate species and many subspecies.  In the Western Hemisphere there are three identified species of Monarchs and at least six subspecies.  In Hawaii there is a Monarch known as the “White Monarch” because the surfaces of its wings inside the margins are so pale as to be nearly white.

Monarchs are famous for their migration.  In cooler weather they migrate to warmer climates where they may congregate in enormous numbers.  There are winter habitats for Monarchs in Mexico and Central America, in southern California and in Florida.

Sadly, Monarchs are on the wane in North America due largely to destruction of habitat in their winter sanctuaries.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f3.5L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite and stabilized by monopod, M setting, ISO 125.  First image f14 @ 1/125. Second image f14 @ 1/160.