Great Horned Owl — Larry, Curly, and Moe

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Photographing an adult Great Horned Owl at her nest was an extremely rewarding experience but my main objective was to photograph her owlets.  That proved to be extremely difficult.  The nest, formerly a Red-tailed Hawk nest, was deeply embedded amongst the uppermost limbs of a large pine, about 60 feet above the street.  There were only a couple of tiny windows through all of the vegetation that gave me a clear image of the nest.  On my first visit I craned my neck and stared upward for what seemed to be forever, actually about 5 minutes, before something stirred in the nest.  As I stared, a small, fluffy creature popped up and stared back at me.

Baby Great Horned Owls are almost excruciatingly cute.  Indeed, I don’t think anything cuter than these youngsters exists in nature.  They are coated in white down almost until they are ready to fly, and their eyes are gigantic in proportion to their heads and bodies.  They remind me a lot of the 1960s portraits of big-eyed waifs that were falsely claimed by Walter Keane and later established to have been painted by his then-wife Margaret (check out the film “Big Eyes” to get a better understanding of my analogy).

The little owlet sat silently, looking back at me as I took picture after picture.

And, then, to my delight, it was joined by a second owlet.

I was thrilled.  It can’t get better than this, I thought, as I photographed them.

I was wrong.  After a minute or so a third owlet popped up and joined its siblings.

I named the trio “Larry, Curly, and Moe.”  All of my American readers will immediately get the reference, but if you’re not from this country and intimately familiar with our pop culture, then google “Three Stooges.”

You’ll notice that the owlets came in three distinct sizes, with Larry being the smallest, Curly (in the middle) the largest, and Moe somewhere in between.  There are two explanations for that size disparity.  Female Great Horned Owls do not lay their eggs all at once.  Generally, they lay them a day apart.  So, Curly might be as much as two days older than Larry and a day older than Moe.  That can mean a lot in terms of owlet development given that these birds grow from hatchlings to adult size in a mere 30 days or so.  The second explanation lies in the size differences between the sexes of adult Great Horned Owls.  Like many raptors, Great Horned Owls display sexual dimorphism, with the females being larger — sometimes much larger — than the males.  So Curly may very well be a female, Larry a male, and Moe either a female or a male.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, supported by monopod, ISO 2000, f8 @ 1/320.


Great Horned Owl And Family

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I have returned from a week away and am resuming posting.  I’ll be away for another week at the end of this month but in the meantime, it’s full steam ahead.

In late April I got a tip from a friend, Dan Weisz, that a pair of Great Horned Owls had established a nest and was raising a family virtually in the center of Tucson.  The owls had taken over a Red-tailed Hawk nest high in a pine not far from the Arizona Inn, a large resort that sits in the heart of an urban neighborhood.  I spent the next few mornings or afternoons photographing the family.

Great Horned Owls are relatively common throughout the United States and in much of the world as well.  When we think of owls we usually think of these birds first.  Paradoxically, these are birds that most people don’t see.  That has everything to do with their lifestyle.  Great Horned Owls are crepuscular hunters, meaning that they hunt in the hours after sunset and just before sunrise.  They’re virtually invisible in dim light.  During the day, they often perch in dense vegetation, again making them very hard to see.  In fact, one more often hears them than sees them.  Great Horned Owls utter the familiar “hoot” as they call to each other.  Other species of owls have their own distinctive calls but they don’t hoot.

Spotting the mother owl during daylight wasn’t easy.  Her appropriated nest was extremely well concealed and I could see it only from one or two spots.  During the day the mother perched on branches adjacent to the nest but often, she was obscured by twigs and foliage.  Still, I was able to obtain some nice images of her at rest.

During daylight hours these birds are generally inactive.  Ms. Owl mostly slept, although she’d occasionally open her eyes in response to noise from the street beneath her perch.

Great Horned Owls show some color variation among individuals.  This owl is resplendent in tones of chestnut and white.  Other owls of this species often have gray and white plumage.  One aspect of this bird is evident and that is her huge feet and talons.  Those talons, an inch or so in length, are extremely sharp and are the owl’s principal killing tool.  Great Horned Owls kill their prey by seizing it and penetrating it with their talons to lethal effect.  These birds have enormously strong feet, with gripping strength being five times or more than that of a human.

There are all sorts of urban legends about Great Horned Owls capturing pets ranging from domestic cats to poodles.  I believe that these stories are largely untrue.  A Great Horned Owl, as large as it is, weighs only about 3 pounds.  A bird that size is not going to take on a 10-pound cat or a 20-pound dog.  That’s not to understate these birds’ predatory abilities.  Great Horned Owls will take prey as large as rabbits, squirrels, and skunks.  They are also indiscriminate hunters, feeding on literally everything that moves that is of the right size, from small rodents to reptiles, and other birds.  I’ll speak more about these birds’ hunting abilities in days to come.

Sometimes, the owl shifted her position or stretched.  This next image catchers her stretching and demonstrates how big her wing is.  Great Horned Owls have a wingspan of about four feet, pretty immense for a three-pound bird.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+2x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1600, f8 @ 1/640.

Steller’s Jay

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This blog will be on hiatus until May 12 when I’ll resume posting.  It’s vacation time for us and I’m going to be in a location where I won’t have ready access to the net.

Coincidentally, today’s post is the last of my series of posts about wildlife on Mt. Lemmon.  When I return I’m going to introduce some new subjects.  I’m pretty excited about some of the images that are good to go and I hope you’ll like them as well.

Steller’s Jay is a western species, a very close relative of the eastern Blue Jay.  It’s a bit larger than a Blue Jay, but like the Blue Jay, it has a very visible crest.

Steller’s Jays are large, handsome birds, with bright blue plumage on their backs, bellies, outer wings and tails, and navy blue or dark gray plumage on their heads, necks, and chests.  They are denizens of coniferous forests.  In southern Arizona that means that they can be found only near or at the mountaintops like Mt. Lemmon’s summit.  I’ve never seen these birds at elevations less than about 7500 feet (about 2250 meters) in southern Arizona.  At lower elevations, down to about 5000 feet (about 1600 meters) one finds a relative, the Mexican Jay, a jay that lacks a crest.  There are Mexican Jays on Mt. Lemmon along with the Steller’s Jays but the species tend to segregate by altitude.

Photographing these birds has been a  frustration for me until very recently.  They’re a common sight on Mt. Lemmon’s upper slopes but they’re damn elusive and have a tendency to perch only in deep shade.  Catching one or two of them out in the open, as I did with these individuals, was a moment of elation.

Steller’s Jays tend to travel in small flocks of a half-dozen or so birds.  They are extremely raucous, and one often hears them before they are visible.  Jays are members of the corvid group of birds, meaning that they are related to crows and ravens. They are very intelligent, as is the case with other corvids.  They are opportunistic feeders, eating just about anything.  There are a few picnic areas scattered around the higher elevations of Mt. Lemmon and one can often find Steller’s Jays hanging out there, looking for the opportunity seize a discarded piece of sandwich or some cookie crumbs, or to clean out the leftovers in a bag of potato chips.

They are also reputed to be excellent mimics as is also true with other corvids.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod.  First image shot at ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/320.  Second and third images shot at ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/1250.

Pygmy Nuthatch

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Today I’m featuring images of Pygmy Nuthatches, yet another species that I found residing high on the slopes of Mt. Lemmon.

Nuthatches belong to a genus of birds that have woodpecker-like lifestyles.  One often finds these birds foraging on the trunks of trees in forests, digging for insects in the bark or picking for seeds.  There are nuthatch species that reside in almost every type of forest.  I have photographed a nuthatch — the White-breasted Nuthatch — in the riparian area at Sabino Canyon at an elevation that is about the same as that of our Tucson home.

The Pygmy Nuthatch, however, is not a species of nuthatch that shows up at lower elevations in southern Arizona.  This little bird — the smallest of the nuthatches and considerably smaller than a sparrow — is a mature pine forest specialist.  In our part of Arizona mature pine forests exist only near the summits of our higher mountains at elevations of about 7500 feet (about 2200 meters) or higher.

Pygmy Nuthatches are a western species, whereas its White- and Red-breasted cousins have ranges that include much of the continental United States and the lower part of Canada.

Pygmy Nuthatches  are endearing little birds.

They are very easy to identify by their slate gray backs, pale breasts, and elongated beaks.  They have a somewhat crouching posture that distinguishes them from many other species.

When they forage they are quite active, seldom staying still on a perch for more than a few seconds.  Typically, one of these little birds will tap on bark, somewhat like a woodpecker, searching out soft spots and defects that may harbor insects.  Once it locates an insect it will pry it out with its beak, then advance along the tree by “walking” up the trunk or along a branch.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, shutter speeds ranging from 1/1600 to 1/2500.

Hairy Woodpecker

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Here’s one more woodpecker that I photographed near the summit of Mt. Lemmon.  This is a Hairy Woodpecker.  It is a fairly large woodpecker, a denizen of mature forests such as those found near Mt. Lemmon’s peak, with a range that covers nearly all of the United States, much of Canada, and much of interior Alaska.  It is a mountain dwelling species in Arizona only because its preferred habitat only exists on our mountains’ higher slopes.  In other parts of the United States and Canada it can be found down to sea level.

The bird whose image I’m featuring is a female.  Males have red caps on their heads.

Hairy Woodpeckers are distinguishable from almost all other woodpecker species by the large white patch on their backs.  That patch is plainly visible in the second image.  There is one copycat species of woodpecker, however, and that is the Downy Woodpecker.  Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers have essentially identical plumage, which sometimes makes it difficult to tell the two species apart.  The critical differences are size, with Hairy Woodpeckers being much larger than their Downy cousins, and beak length.  Hairy Woodpeckers have large, robust beaks whereas Downy Woodpeckers have shorter and somewhat daintier beaks.

Unlike the Acorn Woodpecker that I featured yesterday, Hairy Woodpeckers are mostly solitary birds.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6.  First and third images shot at 1/3200, second image at 1/2500.

Acorn Woodpecker

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If I ever get around to making a list of my favorite Arizona photography subjects Acorn Woodpeckers would certainly be near the top.  They are utterly beautiful birds, brilliantly colored and invariably photogenic.  Add to that a truly amazing lifestyle and you get a perfect subject to photograph and to write about.

These are relatively large woodpeckers.  As their name implies, acorns are a major part of their diet.  In southern Arizona they can be found anywhere that there are oaks and that generally means elevations of a mile (1600 meters) or higher.  I photographed the individuals depicted here near Mt. Lemmon’s summit, but I’ve seen them at lower elevations on Mt. Lemmon and in other hilly parts of southern Arizona.  Their range in the United States includes southern Arizona and New Mexico as well as the upland regions along the West Coast.

They are gregarious birds, usually showing up in flocks of a half dozen or more individuals.  Often one hears them before one sees them.  They are extremely noisy, emitting loud calls that can vary somewhat, from a raucous “Wraaaack” to a repeated “Wacka-wacka-wacka.”  

The males of the species differ from the females in that they have larger and more prominent red patches on their heads than the females have.  All of the individuals that I saw on my recent trips to Mt. Lemmon were males.  I’m speculating that the females may be nesting.

They are unique among woodpeckers — and perhaps among most birds — in that they have a truly communal lifestyle.  Individual members of a flock store acorns at a common site.  They will often drill hundreds of holes into the bark of a single tree where they deposit acorns that are later used as food by members of the flock.

They also practice something akin to group sex.  Females often mate with more than one male.  Members of a flock share in the raising of offspring.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting.  Images shot at ISO 1000. First three images, f5.6 @ 1/1250, fourth image, f5.6 @ 1/2500.


Yellow-eyed Junco

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If you spend any time at all at or near the summit of Mt. Lemmon you will encounter Yellow-eyed Juncos.  This sparrow-like species is a common sight on the mountain’s upper slopes.  It favors pine forests, precisely the habitat that exists near Mt. Lemmon’s summit.

They are quite beautiful and very photogenic with their intensely yellow eyes, their blue-gray breasts, and their russet backs.  

Yellow-eyed Juncos are predominately a latin American species.  In Mexico they populate the Sierra Madre Mountains that run from north to south near that country’s western edge.  In the United States the appear only in the mountains of southern Arizona.  So, although these beautiful little birds are quite common on Mt. Lemmon and nearby peaks they live nowhere else in this country.

Something as beautiful as this species is not to be taken for granted even if its easy to find in a couple of locations in Arizona.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/2500.


Cliff Chipmunk

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Today I’ll digress briefly from bird images and show a small mammal that thrives on Mt. Lemmon’s slopes.  This is the Cliff Chipmunk.

As its name implies this little ground squirrel prefers rocky habitats, living in crevices.  Like most ground squirrels it is primarily a seed eater.  Cliff Chipmunks might win the prize for cutest mammal in Arizona if there was a contest for that award.  They are utterly charming.

But, they also tell a tale about how animals adapt to their environments through evolution.

One never sees Cliff Chipmunks down on the desert.  There are some dwelling in the upper reaches of Sabino Canyon but that’s about 1000 feet (300 meters) above the desert below.  The desert is too hot, and possibly, too dry, for these animals to survive.

However, there is a very similar looking ground squirrel that thrives in the desert, the Harris’ Antelope Squirrel.  In size and appearance it resembles the Cliff Chipmunk but it has evolved a totally different lifestyle and capabilities.  The Harris’ Antelope Squirrel has evolved to withstand the hottest temperatures and the driest conditions.  One sometimes sees these animals scampering about on June afternoons with the temperature well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  Those are conditions that drive almost everything else into dormancy.

So, two similar looking ground squirrels but with very different lifestyles living within a couple of miles from each other as the crow flies.  It would be interesting to learn if the Cliff Chipmunk and the Harris’ Antelope Squirrel have a common ancestor.  One might infer that just based on these animals’ appearance and the proximity of their habitats, but DNA analysis would tell the tale.  In any event I never cease to be amazed at the capacity of organisms to adapt to their environments via evolution.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, ISO 800, f5.6 @ 1/4000.

Black-headed Grosbeak

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Black-headed Grosbeaks are another species that one typically finds on Mt. Lemmon’s upper slopes.  This beautiful large finch-like bird is a migratory species whose summer range includes the forested regions of the western United States.  It is a habitué of mature forests, precisely the kind of habitat that one sees on Mt. Lemmon’s upper slopes.  These birds do not reside in the desert although I once saw a pair of them taking a drink at our swimming pool, evidently making a brief stopover during their migration.

On my first trip to Mt. Lemmon’s summit, two weekends ago, I saw none of these birds.  When I returned last Sunday they seemed to be everywhere.  In the course of an hour’s observation I counted more than a dozen Black-headed Grosbeaks.  One of the residents of Summerhaven, the hamlet near Mt. Lemmon’s peak, told me that the grosbeaks had arrived en masse just two days previously.

The bird shown here is a male.  Females are much drabber than the males and lack their bright orange and black plumage.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f5.6 @ 1/1250.



Spotted Towhee

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Spotted Towhees are another species that one sees on the upper slopes of our local mountains but not down in the desert below.  They are common west of the Mississippi River, and year-round residents of southern Arizona’s highlands.

They are remarkably attractive birds, bigger than sparrows, but not large.  When I first photographed this individual I confused it with another species, the Black-headed Grosbeak.  But, in fact, the two species look quite different as I will make clear in a day or two when I post some grosbeak images.

Spotted Towhees are inhabitants of woodlands, showing up in clearings and meadows in open forests.  Mt. Lemmon’s upper slopes, forested with Ponderosa Pines and maples, are an ideal habitat for this species.  Spotted Towhees would be out of place down in the desert.  I’ve never seen one of these birds at the elevation of our home, although I suppose there could be passers-through from time to time.

There is another towhee species, the Eastern Towhee, that looks a lot like the Spotted Towhee.  The difference is that the eastern variety lacks spots on its wings.

The bird depicted here is a male.  Females of the species aren’t as intensely colored as are the males and their heads are dark grayish brown as opposed to the males’ black heads.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 400 DO II lens+1.4x telextender, supported by monopod, aperture priority setting, ISO 500, f5.6 @ 1/800.