Mississippi Kite In Cochise County

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The other day I posted some images of a relatively uncommon bird — a young Gray Hawk making the transition from juvenile to adult plumage.  Today, I’m posting images of something that is much more uncommon, at least in southern Arizona.  This is a Mississippi Kite.

Mississippi Kites are hawk-like raptors whose native range includes much of the southern United States.  That range extends westward into Texas and the southeastern corner of New Mexico.  And, there it stops.  Except that there are a couple of tiny populations of these birds — just a handful of them — in southern Arizona.  In Cochise County, between Benson and Tombstone, there is a community of perhaps a half-dozen or so Mississippi Kites.  How they got there is anyone’s guess.

Mississippi Kites are insectivores, feeding mainly on large insects like dragonflies, which they capture on the wing.  They are impressive fliers.  Like much smaller insectivores, flycatchers for example, Mississippi Kites are capable of awe-inspiring aerial maneuvers as they chase down their prey.  Dragonflies are extraordinarily adept fliers in their own right and often engage in aerobatics that may include loops and rolls.  The kites, somehow, are capable of pursuing these insects, matching their maneuvers, and seizing them from mid-air.

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These birds have very distinctive plumage, solid gray on their backs and outer wings, pearly white on their breasts, abdomens, and heads. They also have distinctive eyes, which range in color from deep red with some individuals to dark amber.

The southern Arizona population of Mississippi Kites is a breeding population and that raises hopes that they may expand their numbers here.  I’ll go back to the kites’ location later this summer to see if I can find fledglings.

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

 

Bullfrogs

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I think that many who don’t live in our desert are surprised when they learn that it is home to several species of amphibians.  All amphibians depend on water to one extent or another.  Some live in water full time, others are never far away from water, and all amphibians lay their eggs in water.  In southern Arizona several native amphibian species have adapted to the extremely dry climate by being dormant for most of the year, becoming active only after our summer rains have begun (which, thankfully, has finally happened).

And then there are Bullfrogs.  Bullfrogs are an introduced species.  It’s unclear how they got here but they have thrived.  Every pond or canal in southern Arizona seems to have its resident population of non-native Bullfrogs.

They are a nuisance.  Bullfrogs are huge — up to nine inches in length and weighing nearly a pound — they are voracious predators, and they breed prolifically.  They are also almost legendarily tough, having the ability to travel for substantial distances out of water as they search for new homes.  In southern Arizona, they’ve outcompeted most of the local frogs.  Ponds that once were populated with native species are now exclusively the bullfrogs’ home.  Bullfrogs are predators and pretty ferocious ones at that.  They’ll eat anything that they can grab with their huge mouths, including fish, aquatic bird hatchlings, and other frogs, including smaller Bullfrogs.

These invaders are here to stay.  No one has come up with a means to eliminate them.  Evidently, Americans’ appetite for frog legs (or, at least,  Arizonans’ appetite) is insufficient to pose a significant threat to our Bullfrogs.  Given that, one might as well accept their presence and admire them.  Because, invasive or not, they are beautiful.

I photographed both of these individuals one morning a couple of weeks ago at Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson.  No two of these frogs have exactly the same coloration and the patterns on each frog’s body are unique.  Some come in muted tones, as is the case with this first individual.  Others are much more brightly colored and patterned as the second frog demonstrates.

All of these frogs have characteristically beautiful golden eyes.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1000, f6.3, with the camera supported by bracing it against a fence railing.  The first image shot at 1/250, the second at 1/160.

Yearling Gray Hawk

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I’m back!  I’ve spent the last week in Alaska photographing Brown Bears and several other wildlife species.  I took over 7000 images during the week and have a mountain of material to wade through and process.  It was a tremendously exciting and pleasurable week and I suspect you’ll be interested in and will enjoy some of my images.  I anticipate posting the fruits of my labors beginning in a few days and it is likely that I’ll dedicate a number of posts to Alaska’s unique and spectacular wildlife.

Meanwhile let’s turn to a more local subject, a subject that one rarely sees.  A couple of weeks ago my friend Ned Harris was kind enough to show me a yearling Gray Hawk living in Cochise County, southeast of Tucson.  The bird is unique in that its plumage is neither that of a juvenile bird nor that of an adult, but rather, it is a melange of juvenile and adult plumage.

Adult Gray Hawks are, as their name implies, predominately gray in color with gray and white patterned breasts and abdomens, and tails that are banded gray and white.  Fledglings and juveniles are mostly chestnut colored.  This bird has lost some of its juvenile plumage.  Its breast and abdomen are growing out gray and white and there are gray feathers on its back and wings.  However, it still retains mostly juvenile plumage.

Most Gray Hawks live in Latin America.  There is a very small population of these birds in southern Arizona, perhaps a couple hundred nesting pairs.  They tend to hang out in large cottonwood trees that grow adjacent to streams.  They often hide in the cottonwoods’ dense crowns where they are invisible to the casual walker or hiker.

However, if adult Gray Hawks are rare in the United States, youngsters making the transition from childhood to adult are even rarer.  The bird depicted here is the first and only one of its type that I’ve observed.  The plumage is remarkable, sort of a crazy quit of chestnut, gray, and white.  In a few months this bird will look completely different, having grown in the all-gray and white adult plumage.  Meanwhile, it is a highly unusual individual.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 ISII zoom lens+1.4x extender,  aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1640.

Green Heron Preening

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Before turning to today’s post, a brief note:  The blog will be on hiatus beginning tomorrow until next Wednesday.  It should be worth it if things go as planned. I’m off on a photographic adventure and hope to have many images to post on my return.

I was at Sweetwater Wetlands very early one morning about a week ago, standing on an overlook of one of the wetlands’ several ponds.  I saw a Green Heron fly in and land about 75 feet from where I was standing.  That was an unusual event: these little herons are wary of humans.  Evidently, the heron hadn’t noticed me because it was extremely relaxed.

For my money, Green Herons are the most beautiful of the aquatic birds that we see in southern Arizona.  These chicken-size herons have extraordinarily beautiful plumage, ranging from slate blue to green on their backs, necks and wings, to a deep rich russet and white on their necks.

The heron perched on a floating tree branch, occasionally seizing a tiny fish from the water.  After a few minutes, it began to preen, carefully cleaning its feathers.

Preening is an important daily chore for all birds but especially for wading birds.  These herons don’t swim but they are exposed to water and waterlogged feathers would weigh them down and make flight impossible.  Consequently, they spend considerable time assuring that their feathers are dust and dirt free and transferring oil to their feathers from glands on their backs, in order to make the feathers as water-resistant as possible.

I watched this heron groom itself systematically. It paid considerable attention to detail, seemingly obsessed with certain areas and specific feathers.

I was surprised that the heron never noticed my presence.  I was standing in plain view of the bird and my camera’s shutter is pretty noisy.  But, the heron was so focused on the job at hand that it remained oblivious to me.

The heron was still preening after about 15 minutes when I left it to its task.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640,  f6.3 @ 1/2500.

Fledgling Northern Rough-winged Swallow

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I suspect that many of my readers don’t share my passion for tarantulas.  So, after a one-day diversion to exercise my arachnophilia, I’m resuming posting images of other life forms.

The other day, while out for a walk at Sweetwater Wetlands, I noticed several small birds sitting on a wire fence.  With one exception, all of them flew as I approached.  One bird stayed behind and seemed reluctant to fly.  I approached it more closely until I was a scant five feet from the bird and still, it wouldn’t fly.  I photographed it and walked on with the bird still on the fence.  The bird was a fledgling Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows are among at least three species of swallows that show up in southeastern Arizona (the other two species commonly seen in this area are Barn and Cliff Swallows).  Northern Rough-winged Swallows seem to have a preference for hunting over water and I find them often in parks with ponds or lakes.  They are hyperactive little birds, diving and swooping ceaselessly in pursuit of small insects, which they capture on the wing.  Like all swallows they are social, showing up in flocks that sometimes number hundreds of birds.

I know from its plumage that the bird that I photographed is a fledgling.  Adult Northern Rough-winged Swallows have solid gray plumage on their wings and backs whereas young birds have russet areas mixed in with the gray, as is the case with this individual.

I know also from its behavior that this bird is a fledgling.  Fledgling birds are often like small children — naive and less timid around humans than are adults.  An adult bird would never have let me approach as closely as this youngster allowed me to do.  This little swallow seemed to be genuinely curious about me, as if it had never seen a human up close.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400 f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 2000, f6.3 @ 1/160.

“Quentin,” The Tarantula

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I’ve been posting a lot of images of birds, flowers, and cute mammals lately.  I thought I’d change things up a bit today.  Today, I’m featuring some images of a Desert Blonde Tarantula (a/k/a “Mexican Blonde Tarantula” and “Arizona Blonde Tarantula”) that lives just a few feet away from our front door.  I’ve named it “Quentin” after my favorite Hollywood director, Quentin Tarantino.  Please excuse the heavy handed play on words.

Look, I think that Quentin actually is pretty cute, but that’s just me.

Quentin has a burrow right by the sidewalk in front of our house.  The burrow entrance, a gaping hole, is about two inches in diameter.  Quentin spends its days underground.  Quentin is strictly nocturnal like all tarantulas of its species.  I took all of the images in today’s post in full darkness, using a flash to illuminate the scene.  When I first discovered this tarantula I assumed that it was a male.  I’m not certain anymore.  Quentin has both male and female characteristics.  Its blond forelegs are typical of a female and its dark abdomen is more representative of males. I’ve been told that immature tarantulas often have characteristics of both sexes and that they acquire typical adult appearance only after they mature.  Adult male tarantulas live up to about 10 years and females to 20 years or more, so Quentin may have a way to go before becoming fully mature.

Quentin is about three or three and one-half inches in diameter.  That’s medium size for a tarantula of its species.  I’ve seen them up to five inches across.

Seeing Quentin completely outside its burrow as it is in the first image is unusual.  Normally it sits with part or all of its body in its burrow, as in the second image, ready to beat a strategic retreat at a moment’s notice.

Tarantulas are ambush hunters.  They do not roam about in search of food, although adult males will leave their burrows during breeding season and roam in search of mates.  Typically, one sits at its burrow entrance, patiently waiting for something — a small invertebrate such as a cricket or a centipede — to come along that it can pounce on.  A tarantula’s metabolism is perfectly suited for this lifestyle.  It burns very little energy sitting and waiting and therefore, it needs to eat only every couple of weeks or so.

Here’s a closeup.  Quentin’s “head” (cephalothorax) is the tan area on the front of its body.  The tarantula has eight pinhead-size eyes arranged at the front of its cephalothorax.  Some of them are visible in this image.  Tarantulas probably cannot see more than gradations of light and dark.  They lack ears and noses so they really don’t hear or detect odors.

But, they have an exquisite sensitivity to vibrations.  Do you see those hundreds of tiny hairs on Quentin’s legs?  They are sensory organs.  They can pick up the slightest vibration.  A tarantula can detect something as small as a small insect walking along the ground a few feet away.  It can estimate something’s location, its size, its rate of movement, and its direction, all from the vibrations that it creates.

I have a great affection for tarantulas and I’m delighted to share our yard with Quentin.  Tarantulas are completely harmless to humans.  Quentin and all others of its species are extremely timid in humans’ presence.  I had to tiptoe up to it in order to take its picture.  Quentin would have retreated instantly back into its burrow if I had stepped too heavily.  I look forward to sharing our yard with Quentin, hopefully for years to come.

Images made with a Canon 5DS-R, 180mm f4L Macro Lens, assisted by Canon 600EX-RT Speedlite, M setting, ISO 160, f16 @ 1/160.

Coyotes On The Banks Of The Santa Cruz

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Of all of the creatures that I see in our desert and its environs Coyotes are the most interesting and, for my money, the most admirable.  We humans have done our best over the past century to exterminate them.  They’ve been hunted, trapped, and poisoned.  And, despite our best (worst!) efforts, they have survived, expanded their range, and increased their population.  Coyotes are among those animals and birds that have benefitted from human activity.  They now inhabit every state in the continental United States and virtually every city has its population of these animals.  There are numerous Coyotes living in our neighborhood in suburban Tucson, judging from the howls that I hear most early mornings.

They’ve survived and prospered in large measure due to their intelligence.  They are far smarter than we realize.  They watch us carefully, they study our habits, they learn what they can and cannot get away with, and they exploit the situation.

Recently, I came across a family of Coyotes living on the banks of the Santa Cruz River in urban Tucson.  In Tucson the Santa Cruz is a river in name only most of the year.  These days it is a dry riverbed.  It may run again once the monsoon rains begin in earnest — if they ever do.  The river bottom is heavily overgrown now with brush and even small trees and for the Coyotes it is home and a highway as well.

The family includes several adults and at least a half-dozen puppies.  I caught a glimpse of the puppies as they lounged together near a den.

Look closely at the image and you’ll see four puppies, two in the foreground and parts of two more at the rear.  The puppies appear to be of different ages, suggesting that two litters had merged together in a family.  In order to get this picture I crept slowly up  to a narrow opening in the brush where I could observe the den location.  The puppies weren’t fooled at all. They studied me carefully for a few seconds and silently retreated.

On another occasion I photographed a female Coyote as she headed down an embankment into the riverbed.

She, too, watched me warily before disappearing into the brush at the river’s bottom.

I made several visits to the Coyotes before I was able to get these images.  For a few days they hung out at the same location.  But, the instant they saw me approach they became invisible.  On one occasion I saw three adults approaching me from a distance of about 100 yards.  I concealed myself behind a large mesquite, waiting for them to come close enough so that I could photograph them.  They sensed my presence long before they got into camera range and quickly faded into the undergrowth.  I wasn’t disappointed because the episode was a good lesson about just how clever these animals are.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 1250.  All images shot at f5.6.  The first image @ 1/500, the second and third images @ 1/1250.

Vultures In Paradise

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A couple of Sundays ago my friend Ned Harris and I wandered around southeast Arizona looking for subjects to photograph.  Our meandering eventually took us to the outskirts of Nogales, a small city that straddles the border with Mexico, fifty miles or so south of Tucson.  It was an extremely hot day with the temperature already approaching 100 by about ten in the morning.  We took a side road and came upon a mixed group of Turkey and Black Vultures.  The vultures were gorging themselves on garbage.  Some conscience-free individual had dumped several bags of the stuff alongside the road and the vultures, being vultures, had descended for the feast.  There were more than a dozen birds in all, mostly Blacks with a few Turkeys mixed in.

I set aside my disgust, held my breath,  and began photographing the birds.  At first I turned my attention to this Turkey Vulture, who perched by itself on a dead tree.  The bird is easily identifiable by its prominent red head, pale beak, and deep brown plumage.

After photographing the Turkey Vulture I turned my attention to another dead tree, about 20 yards away from the first tree.  A group of about eight Black Vultures perched there.

To my eye, Turkey and Black Vultures look very different.  Black Vultures have more compact bodies than have Turkey Vultures.  Black Vultures’ plumage is truly black as opposed to Turkey Vultures’ deep brown plumage.  Black vultures have dark gray heads, easily distinguishable from Turkey Vultures’ red heads. Black Vultures have long, straight, gray beaks with a hook at the tip as compared to Turkey Vultures’ short, white and more deeply curved beaks.

The two species also lead different lives. Turkey Vultures are mostly solitary although they will gather in flocks around a feeding site and during their migration.  Black Vultures, by contrast, are quite social.  These birds love to roost in groups.

It occurred to me that the location where we found these birds was a veritable vulture paradise.  They had plenty to eat on a very hot morning and lots of dead limbs and snags on which to perch.  What more could a vulture want?

I’ve often written about my affection for vultures.  They are much maligned by many because they are associated with death and decay.  Many also consider them to be unclean given their penchant for feeding on carrion and garbage.  In fact, these birds are fastidious in their personal hygiene.  They also perform a very useful service as nature’s cleanup crew.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 500.  First image shot at f8 @ 1/640.  The second and third images shot at f8 @ 1/1250.  The final image shot at f8 @ 1/640.

 

Western Kingbird On A Post

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Recently, I took this picture of a Western Kingbird sitting on a fencepost in grasslands not far from Patagonia, about 50 miles southeast of Tucson.

Western Kingbirds are yet another species of flycatcher that shows up in the Tucson area.  These birds are seasonal residents whose habitat consists mainly of open country broken by scattered trees, precisely the terrain that one sees in the grasslands of southern Arizona.  They also show up from time to time in isolated venues in and around Tucson, even though they’re not really a desert species.  I’ve seen them occasionally at Sweetwater Wetlands, for example.

These are noisy, active flycatchers who can often be identified by their chattering calls before one sees them.  It’s not at all unusual to see them hanging out in small flocks.  They’re difficult to photograph because they never sit still for more than a few seconds.  I consider myself lucky that this individual posed long enough for me to take its picture.

Much of the grasslands where I took this picture have been consumed by fire in the past couple of months.  There are at present large swaths of blackened terrain in Patagonia and in nearby Sonoita.  Some of the burned areas cover several square miles.  Although these fires jeopardize structures and human habitations and in the short term leave ugly black scars on the countryside they do no long-term damage.  Indeed, in some respects they are beneficial because they may serve to create a healthy ecosystem in the long run.  The grass will regenerate once the summer rains begin (if they begin!) and the ash from the fires will actually serve as fertilizer for new growth.  The fires are, in fact, part of an age-old natural cycle.  We humans have disrupted that cycle by fighting the fires and allowing overgrowth of brush in some areas.  Then, when the fires inevitably come they are far hotter and more intense than they would have been had we just let nature take its course.

Image made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens, aperture priority setting, ISO 640, f8 at 1/1600.

Female Vermilion Flycatcher With A Cicada (And A Dilemma)

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I’ve described how Vermilion Flycatchers excel at catching insects in flight.  he ability to run down and seize tiny flying insects, some almost invisible to the human eye, is something that they share with other flycatcher species.  The other day I photographed a female Vermilion Flycatcher who had hit the jackpot.  She’d captured a cicada during its last pre-adult molt, apparently plucking the insect as it rested on a tree.  Cicadas spend most of their lives underground as larvae.  After years underground, as many as 17 years, they surface, climb up the trunk of a tree, undergo a final molt, and then emerge as fully fledged insects.  They are very vulnerable to being preyed upon during that last molt and for many birds the emergence of cicadas is a feeding bonanza.

The catch was a real prize for the flycatcher, many times the size of the much smaller insects that she normally captures.  A cicada-size meal is probably the equivalent of Thanksgiving dinner for one of these little birds.

But, now she faced a dilemma.  How to swallow her prize?  The insect was huge in comparison to the flycatcher’s tiny beak and gullet.  I watched for more than a minute as she struggled to get the meal down her throat, with no apparent success.  Flycatchers, lacking teeth and chewing muscles, swallow their prey whole.   The cicada seemed to be more than a mouthful for the little bird.

Eventually, she flew away, still clutching her prize.  I have no idea whether she was successful eventually or not.

Images made with a Canon 5Div, 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 ISII zoom lens+1.4x telextender, M setting, ISO 640, f8 @ 1/1250.