Potpourri: a mixture, assortment, collection, selection, assemblage, medley, miscellany, melange, mix, variety, motley collection . . . . . . (Ref: Google Dictionary)
A motley collection for the beginning of spring, a post that starts at Sweetwater Wetlands in early March (OK, I know, not really spring yet), then to Tubac and Patagonia, then back north to Agua Caliente and some nests . . . . .
Sweetwater Mudflats . . . . . *
* OK not really. We know it is Sweetwater Wetlands, but once a year the Tucson Water Department redistributes the water in the ponds in preparation for a controlled burn to reduce the mass of reeds before new growth in the spring. So, the "wetlands" become "mudlands" for a few days. These photos were taken on Sunday March 3rd, a day before the controlled burn.
Let's start with a Sora.
The Sora is a rail in the order Gruiformes, along with other rails, Cranes, the trumpeters of South America, the finfoots and the Limpkin (but hey, you knew that!). Within that order, the Sora is in the family Rallidae (Rails, Gallinules and Coots). This family grouping is the one you will likely find in texts and field guides. (References: Kenn Kaufman, Lives of North American Birds, David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds, Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America).
The Sora is widespread and common across North America, wintering in SE Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and south into Mexico and South America. Distribution maps put their breeding north of Tucson from northern Arizona into Canada.
This bird stays out of sight among the reeds in marshes, often calling with characteristic whistles and whinnies, but rarely seen. However, the draining of the wetlands in preparation for the controlled burn exposed the mud floor of the basins, and brought this Sora out in the open to feed.
Above a Sora with its characteristic yellow bill and short cocked tail looking for food. Below we get a good look at the raised short tail and can see the generous size of their feet in the mud tracks.
Below, the body and tail don't look ideal for flight, but these birds do migrate long distances into South America for the winter. This image shows the size of the feet, ideal for grabbing reeds in the wetlands.
Next, an Orange-crowned Warbler on a cattail.
Orange-crowned Warblers winter south of us in Mexico, and breed north of SE Arizona into Canada - so this bird may be a migrant. Although they are named "Orange-crowned" the orange crown is rarely seen, and then only when the bird is excited and raises its crown feathers. They eat mostly insects supplemented with fruit, berries and seeds. It seems to be eating seeds in the cattails, although there could be insects in there as well.
Hawk Watch in Tubac
A Black Vulture in flight just east of Tubac
One of the rights of spring in SE Arizona is the March Hawk Watch in Tubac. If you have been there, you will understand that this is another kind of March madness! See my post from March 2017.
Every spring raptors migrate north from their winter homes in Mexico and parts south. This migration is followed very closely by the Hawk Migration Association of North America. There are 200 HawkCount sites in North America, one of them is in our own backyard here in Tubac, at the Ronald R. Morriss Park on the Santa Cruz River. On any given day during the month, there are dozens of hawk watchers at the park from dawn to dusk participating in the count. Hawks come north from Mexico into the U.S. resting overnight near the river, waking up in the morning, and generally moving into the air between 9 and 10 am, as the desert floor heats up producing thermals.
We made our yearly pilgrimage on March 19th, and I captured two images of note. Above is a Black Vulture. These are large raptors with bare heads and white feathers at the wing tips that looks like "mittens." Black Vultures have white mittens. Their range is throughout Mexico, Central and South America and the SE United States, just coming north over the border into Arizona, but not into Utah or Nevada.
Below is a Common Black Hawk, soaring high and difficult to photograph! Common Black Hawks live well to the south of us, with only an estimated 250 mating pairs in the United States breeding in Arizona, Texas and New Mexico. They live and hunt near wooded streams, eating fish, frogs and lizards.
In the image below we see that the bird has broad wings and is all black except for a white band on a short tail and white spots at the base of the primaries in flight.
Female Pyrrhuloxia, Patagonia Lake State Park.
After the Hawk Watch we ventured east to Patagonia Lake State Park, and walked east on the Sonoita Creek Trail. For more on the park and the trail see my post from February 2018.
Above and below is a female Pyrrhuloxia, perhaps a juvenile, given the large head in relation to the body. Just a guess.
The Pyrrhuloxia is a close relative of the Northern Cardinal, with a range limited to the desert southwest, sticking to the southern border of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, and south into Mexico.
Here we can see a distinguishing feature, a curved bill or culmen, which makes the bill a great nutcracker.
Our walk by the creek was marked by many sightings of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, small hyperactive songbirds that move very fast in the low growth close to the stream. They are very hard to photograph. Below is my best image, taken at some distance. Fortunately I was able to capture the ruby crown which is usually not visible. Note the broken white eye-ring and rear wingbar edged with black.
Nesting at Agua Caliente
Anna's Hummingbird, on her nest.
It is spring nesting time at Agua Caliente, in the Tanque Verde Valley on Roger Road. Above is an Anna's Hummingbird sitting on her nest, not far from the main pond.
For this species the female does all the work. The male provides his genetic material, then disappears. The female builds the nest out of bits and pieces of leaves and twigs with a big component of spider webs, which can be seen on close inspection in the images above and below. The clutch size is always two eggs, and as the young grow the nest expands to accommodate their increasing size. Like having a house built of spandex. I hope for more images of hatchlings later this month.
Below, two images of a female Vermilion Flycatcher sitting on her nest, and the male, not too far away. Her presence is intermittent, probably indicating no eggs yet, but hopefully soon. Unlike the Anna's Hummingbird, the male is a major helper for his mate, helping with the nest, and feeding mom while she sits on the eggs.
The final spring entry, a female Phainopepla sitting on her nest. These are striking birds of the southwest, the male a silky black with a crest. They are seen around Tucson mostly in the winter, feasting on mistletoe berries in Mesquite trees.
This is the first nest I have seen. It is located about 4 feet above the ground, deep in a mesquite tree. Below, the female is sitting on the nest earlier in March, incubating her clutch.
Below, a hatchling. There may be two, it is hard to see from this angle. The nest is very well built and deep.
The morning sun transilluminates the chick. "I am hungry! Where's breakfast!"
Below, mom returns, and feeds her hatchling in the second frame.
The image below shows what is probably early feather growth on the hatchling's head.
That's all for now! Stay tuned, spring is just beginning, more good stuff to come!
My last post on Sweetwater Wetlands was early October. As the fall has progressed so has the bird count. Cooler weather has brought more birds out, and the waterfowl are reappearing in larger numbers. This post features 11 of our feathered friends spotted in November, plus one mammal (keep reading to find out who the mystery critter is!). All images captured on one of the Wednesday morning Audubon walks led by Luke Safford, Audubon Volunteer Coordinator.
I lead off with a Red-tailed Hawk from the November 22nd walk. Red-tailed Hawks are common in North America, often seen soaring above fields or perched on telephone poles looking for prey. This one was perched on dead branches south of the wetlands, likely looking for breakfast.
Red-tailed Hawks are large with broad rounded wings and a short wide tail. Most are brown above, and pale below with a streaked belly. The underside of the wing has a characteristic dark bar between the shoulder and wrist, as seen in the two infight images below.
I usually try to "wait out" a sitting raptor for some shots on the wing, knowing they spend a good part of their day in the air. They usually wait until I look down to check my camera settings to take off, but in this case I got lucky, and was ready at flight time.
Northern Flicker, western "Red-shafted."
Northern Flickers are large woodpeckers that eat ants and beetles which puts them foraging on the ground more often than hammering away on a tree trunk. The western birds have a red malar stripe (males) and red on the flight feathers. The eastern birds have a black malar stripe and yellow wing markings. And, to make things even more confusing, the two populations will interbreed in the middle of the county to create interesting combinations. For more on this, and stunning photographs, see Tom Grey's Website.
Above and below, male "Red-shafted" with red malar stripe.
Below, a male Northern Flicker in flight. The red wing markings are just visible.
Below, likely a female without the red malar stripe in flight. Red coloration of the wing feathers is evident.
American Wigeons are ducks that breed in the summer in the northwest U.S. and Canada and winter in the southwest into Mexico, and Florida. The male has a green streak running back from the eye, with a narrow white patch on the crown. Above and below we see Widgeons in flight above the wetlands.
Below a female followed by a male.
The White-crowned Sparrow is a medium to large sparrow with a long tail and a square tip. They are regular winter residents at the wetlands, as well as bushy areas throughout SE Arizona. They may be seen in flocks. Above, a member sitting on a branch, and below in flight. It is fun to get the birds in flight, but as I mentioned earlier, a challenge.
The American Bittern is a stocky brown heron that inhabits marshes and lakes with reeds. At rest or when approached it will stand rigid with the bill pointing up, as though trying to blend in with the reeds. Prefers marshes to trees, and are tough to spot.
This bird was spotted by a fellow birder on November 8th on the western portion of the wetlands. Even after finding him, it was hard to relocate and point out to others.
The image above shows the detailed markings of the bird. Below the wider shot shows how well the bird can blend in with surroundings.
Snowy Egrets are regular inhabitants at the wetlands, with their summer (breeding) and winter (non-breeding) territories overlapping in SE Arizona. For more on Snowy Egrets, see my blog post from October 2017, click here.
To the right is our subject sitting for an early morning portrait with good side lighting.
Below is a landing sequence I captured on November 8th from the west side of the wetlands. I love getting birds in flight, and in this case we can see the Egret slowing down for a tree landing, legs down, head feathers up, wings pumping to maintain lift as he slows down.
Pause: Time to guess the mystery mammal!
Hint: has four legs, a tail. Could have been Wilbur or Wilma, I am not sure . . . .
Coming soon, keep reading . . . . .
Red-naped Sapsuckers are woodpeckers with a fondness for sugar. They peck holes in the bark of aspen, birch and willow to suck out the sweet sap. These images were captured on two separate days, but likely in the same tree: this bird's version of Circle K with unlimited fountain services. These birds are tough to photograph, moving very fast in and out of the shadows.
Drum roll . . . . and the mystery mammal is: Bobcat!
The Bobcat is a nocturnal cat roughly twice the size of a house cat with large paws and tufted ears, and a short tail with a black tip. The cat's name comes from the tail, which appears to have been clipped or "bobbed." They are mostly nocturnal, and although observant birders have smelled their urine on morning walks, seeing them is unusual.
On the morning of Wednesday November 15th, I decided to walk back to the parking lot early along with another birder/photographer. He first spotted this cat right on the walking path, just a bit west of the first pond and overlook with the ramada. We followed our subject carefully from a distance. Below you can see a sequence, "the hunt." He has clearly spotted something in the reeds, crouches and then disappears into the reeds. He did emerge, but without his prey. He preened a bit, then disappeared down the path.
The image below shows the tail and leg marking well. You can see the tufted ears in profile.
Time to preen a bit and move on!
The Black Phoebe is a flycatcher, described as sooty gray on the upper parts and chest, and clean white on the belly. They commonly perch on branches looking for insects, making photography easier. The images above and below were captured on November 29th.
Below are a sequence of images captured in late December 2015 on the San Pedro River in Hereford, close to the San Pedro House. The bird was flying a route next to the river, moving from perch to perch, catching insects along the way. With a bit of patience, it was possible to learn the route, and focus on a perch, knowing that in time the flycatcher would return to the perch. The bird was close, and the light was good. Last image shows the bird in flight heading for the next bug.
Oregon Dark-eyed Junco
The Oregon Dark-eyed Junco summers throughout Canada and into Alaska and winters as far south as SE Arizona and northern Mexico. This was the first of the species for Sweetwater this year, image captured on November 29th. The bird was moving fast near the recharge basin, and this is the best image I could get.
Below are two images I captured at Cave Creek Canyon, Portal, Arizona, in January of 2016.
Black and White Warbler
Black and White Warblers summer for breeding in the east and northeast U.S. all the way up into eastern Canada, and winter in Florida, Mexico and Central America and south to South America. Their migration territory includes the central U. S. and northern Mexico, which just barely includes SE Arizona north of the border with Mexico. It is great to see them here.
They are boldly striped in black and white, and forage for insects more like nuthatches than warblers. All images here captured on November 29th. Like nuthatches, they move very fast and will forage upside down.
Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owls are powerful raptors present throughout the United States, and common throughout SE Arizona. A pair lives at Agua Caliente, there are several pairs at Catalina State Park, however, this was the first Great Horned Owl I have seen at Sweetwater. This bird was on the southwest portion of the pathway, sitting quietly in a mesquite tree mid-morning. They are nocturnal, and when spotted at Agua Caliente they are commonly snoozing, but this fellow looks awake.
That's a wrap !
Thanks for "clicking in" everyone.
Happy trails !
Every Wednesday morning Luke Safford leads a Tucson Audubon field trip at Sweetwater Wetlands, just west of Interstate 10, north of Prince and south of Ruthrauff Road. October start times are 7 am. Wednesday October 4th we had a good group of about 20 friendly birders trekking around the ponds, identifying a total of 65 species. Here is a non-random sampling* of what we saw.
*Non-random sample: What I was able to photograph and post here!
The Snowy Egret is considered the most elegant of Heron's, a slim bird with snowy white feathers, a long black bill, long black legs and bright yellow feet. For SE Arizona, Richard Taylor's handbook (Birds of Southeastern Arizona) considers them uncommon in summer and "casual" in winter, although they seem to be regulars at Sweetwater. On October 4th, they were many in flight, best viewed later in the morning from the western side of the park.
Below are three images of these beautiful birds in flight, showing how they can fold up their long necks. Like the Green Heron we saw in a prior post, the long neck combined with the sharp bill is a great asset for spearing live prey under the water. Their very long legs extend well beyond their tails in flight.
The following three images show the bird almost overhead, with their white wings transilluminated against a blue sky, showing the bone structure of the wing in relation to the wing feathers.
The last image shows the outline of the bones of the wing. Bird wings correspond to human arms. Above, the short bone closest to the body is the humerus, with the next set of bones the ulna and radius. The most distal part of the wing is a mixed fusion of what is the wrist and hand for us. The Primary Feathers, responsible for power lifting and maneuvering are attached to these distal hand/wrist bones. The Secondaries, important for maintaining lift are attached to the Ulna. For "Everyhing You Need to Know About Feathers," see this page from the Cornell Lab Bird Academy.
Finally, to round things out, here is an image from January of 2016, Sweetwater Wetlands, of a Snowy Egret at the edge of one of the ponds, perhaps shopping for lunch.
Heron #2 for the day, the Black-crowned Night-Heron, stands in contrast with the elegant Snowy Egret, being stocky with a short thick neck with red eyes. They forage at night and dusk, roosting during the day. We were lucky to spot these two herons, an adult and a juvenile, sitting in a tree close to the water. The two images below are the adult.
Below the juvenile.
The image that follows shows them sharing a tree. Junior seems to have the basement apartment.
Black-crowned Night-Heron's are social birds, breeding in colonies in stick nests often built over water. They are the most widespread Heron in the world.
The Sora is secretive resident of fresh water marshes, hiding in reeds. They are easy to hear and tough to see. We were fortunate that this one actually came out into the sun for a few minutes foraging for food. We can see the yellow bill and short tail held up in a characteristic fashion showing the white underparts.
The images below show the long yellow legs and feet that are great for walking on reeds.
The Sora is the most common and widely distributed rail in North America.
We spotted this Verdin early on the walk. It is a small and active songbird of the southwest United States and Mexico. In the order Passeriformes (songbirds) it is the only North American member of the penduline-tit family, Remizidae. The bird is gray with a yellow head, and a rufous shoulder patch, not often seen, but visible here. They are present year around in SE Arizona.
Let's finish up with Heron #3 for the day, a Green Heron, who greeted us early in the walk, this time without a frog! (For the frog, see this link).
That's all for now! Come join us any Wednesday morning. For details see the Audubon site.
"Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." Mark Twain
I found another bird that reads Mark Twain.
In January of 2016 I posted a Pied-Billed Grebe eating a frog, That post has turned out to be one of the most popular on this site. Rumor has it that some Arizona Game and Fish staff saw the post and declared, "Finally, a good use for a bullfrog!" [Note that bullfrogs are invasive species in Arizona and deplete our native wildlife.]
Wednesday morning September 20th I joined Luke Safford and a small gaggle of fellow birders for Luke's weekly Audubon walk at Sweetwater Wetlands. Just as we started, Luke spotted a Green Heron sitting on the edge of the water feature at the front entrance. Camera in hand, I could not resist spending some time getting some images. Below is our subject, likely a juvenile based on incomplete coloration.
A note for photo geeks: All of these images were captured shortly after 7 am, (only 45 minutes after sunrise) in very low light, facing east. To get a shutter speed of ~1/320th I had to crank the ISO up to 2000 on a Canon 7D (cropped sensor) attached to a Sigma 150-600 Contemporary series lens, hand held. So, cruddy light and lots of noise. Be kind. Post-production processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom using almost every trick I know.
Above, our subject scanning the pond. Below, he becomes more focused to his right
Below, the hunter is in a crouch, weight on the right leg, left leg ready to push off. If you look carefully on the far left side of the picture in the water, you can see a frog's head just above the surface.
Our hunter springs for the frog, and comes up with his prize.
Below we see our successful hunter getting his prey ready to eat. Note that I shot a total of ~200 frames, most of them showing the heron dunking the frog into the water, crushing it in its beak, or almost swallowing it, then dropping it and trying again. I have edited it down to the representative images that follow.
Finally our hunter has his prey lined up, and in one large gulp, swallows it.
The heron stretches his neck up repeatedly to get the frog down. They have very long necks.
Time for a drink.
Our Heron looks content, and definitely bigger than at the beginning of the sequence.
I have searched the internet but found it difficult to get an estimate of the total number of calories in a complete frog. Likely they provide balanced nutrition with their natural mix of protein, fat, carbohydrates and minerals (remember they have bones and a skull). And talk about probiotics! Our heron swallowed a whole digestive tract!
For spectacular images of Green Herons, including juveniles and nestlings, see Tom Grey's website at this link.
Have a great day everyone!
Spring is definitely here! We are seeing more nesting, as well as birds in migration. Luke Safford's Audubon walks at the wetlands begin at 7 am Wednesday mornings, just as the sun has risen, and bird activity begins. On the 22nd we spotted this Yellow Warbler, singing like crazy on a high branch, making for a great photo-op. Good location, good light.
The males have red/chesnut streaking on the breast, which we can see on some of the images. I am assuming this is a male, but not with full coloration yet.
For a good site on Warblers in general, with a nice listing of all Warblers in North America, see Classic Collection of North American Birds (CCNAB).
Early in the walk a small flock of large birds flew overhead, and I was able to capture the two images below. We concluded that these were Double-crested Cormorants, which may be gray to black, with or without crests.
Double-crested Cormorants are larger birds than the more common (in Tucson) Neotropic Cormorant, with different markings. The Neotropic Cormorant (images below) is smaller, and the yellow skin behind the bill comes to a point that is separated from the neck with a white line. For a good description of this difference and excellent photos, see Tom Grey's entry on the Neotropic Cormorant.
The images of the Neotropic Cormorant below are among literally hundreds I captured at Reid Park on February 13th. There were many birds at the pond, resting, taking off and landing, making for great photo-ops in the morning sun. The white marking behind the bill is evident.
Red-winged Blackbirds are common throughout Southeastern Arizona. On the 22nd this male was in "Song Spread" display, defending his territory from other males, and attracting females. This was a very noisy bird!
Red-winged Blackbirds will hang out with other blackbirds, as well as close cousins, as can be seen in this series of images captured at Bosque del Apache in January of 2016. What appeared to be a pile of leaves next to a resting Sand Hill Crane at dawn turned into a mosaic of birds taking off all at once.
The image below is a cropped version of the image above. For sure we can see Red-winged Blackbirds as well as Yellow-headed Blackbirds.
Early on our walk on 22nd a small contingent of birders who were taking up the rear spotted a bird jumping and climbing around among the leaves. As I recall, several species were offered as the "bird-ID". Based on these photos this looks like a Plumbeous Vireo. Tucson is in their summer breeding range. This bird may have recently arrived from winter vacation in Mexico.
On one of the ponds we spotted several Northern Shoveler, a dabbling duck with a long spoon shaped bill with comb-like projections at the end of the bill that facilitates filter-feeding. Below for reference are two Shovelers in flight at Whitewater Draw in December of 2015. The next image was captured on March 22nd on one of the ponds at SW Wetlands. We can see the end of the bill as the duck scratches with his right foot. The image that follows shows the projections on the end of the bill, put into relief by the duck's white neck and breast.
At the end of the walk, Dorothy and I were heading for the parking lot and spotted an Abert's Towhee taking his morning bath. For reference, the image below shows the bird as seen on Jeff Babson's Thursday morning walk at Agua Caliente on March 9th of this year. All dressed up and ready to sing!
In contrast, below are the images from March 22nd at SW Wetlands, proving that these birds do care about bathing!
Wet or dry, Abert's Towhee is a very large sparrow that lives in the Sonoran Desert along riparian corridors. These birds have a plain brown body with a black face, are secretive and can be hard to spot.
That's it for now! Stay tuned - lots of bird activity this spring!
An interlude for Photo-Geeks: One way to create a pleasing image from that all-so-common good but not great photo.
The past year this blog has focused on Mt. Lemmon and various birding trips around Arizona and Oregon, with an emphasis on the birds and the locations. For a break, I am going to show what can be done with one photo, which like most of my photos (and I suspect most of yours) is good, but not great. The final image after processing is to the right, a white crowned sparrow, likely a juvenile, captured at Sweetwater Wetlands here in Tucson on January 25th. Don't strain to see this larger at this point, a bigger image will appear at the end of the post. This post will appeal to bird photographers who do post-production processing with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, but is relevant to anyone capturing images and manipulating them to make them better.
For bird photography I either handhold or use a tripod with a gimbal head. Although everyone raves about how smooth the gimball heads are, and what great photos you get, the rig is heavy, and when birding with a group the tripod legs get in everyone's way. So, I usually handhold with the help of a stock (stay tuned, a post on my gear is in the planning phase). My birding buddies seem more sociable when I am not swinging a tripod left and right, accompanied by grunting and groaning, plus handholding gives me more mobility, especially important when walking with a group at a reasonable pace. The problem with handholding is that, well, you are handholding, and even with image stabilization there is camera shake.
Chances you are also handholding, and like me, are using the best equipment available within a budget. For me it is a Sigma 150-600 mm C series (for a nice review of this lens see this link) which weighs in at 5 lbs, combined with a Canon 7D Mark II. Add a Stedi-stock with a strap from Peak Design and the total rig is about 8 lbs. Not light, but think of it as one of those wimpy 8 lb hand weights at the gym, and it suddenly gets lighter!
The Sigma 150-600mm is probably sharpest at 500mm, f/8, but for those small birds in the distance, I run it at 600 mm and wide open, which is f/6.3. I try for shutter speeds in the 1/500th to 1/1000th range, although I can hold pretty steady down to 1/300th. So, with the shutter speed and f-stop fixed, I let the ISO float, or run it at 400 to 1200 depending on the light. For early morning birding, in the shade, the ISO climbs up.
So, as always, practice is not the same as ideal. If I get a good shot at a bird, I take it, regardless of distance or light. This means that the following is common:
While birding this past Wednesday with Luke Safford and the Audubon crew at Sweetwater Wetlands, I took a series of images of a White-crowned Sparrow. I like the one below because he is vocalizing, making the image more than just another bird-on-a-stick. This was shot with a Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C, at 600mm, f/6.3, 1/2500. The bird is well lit, and had I been more "ISO aware" I could have moved the ISO down and still been able to work in a good shutter speed range.
I shoot in RAW at the highest resolution. After importing to Lightroom, this image was 22.8 megs.
I use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC (same as Lightroom 6), and squeeze everything I can out of the program. I am a big fan of Scott Kelby and his many Lightroom books, and his video courses. Much of my workflow is derived from his courses and books.
Once I had picked this image for more processing, I moved from the Library to the Develop mode (tabs upper right), and then to cropping. The screenshot below shows how much (or little) of the frame I decided to save. The background is really not that interesting, so placing the bird at a corner to highlight a flower or clump of berries was not an option.
The image below is my final crop choice, without any other editing
The image has a certain soft quality to it, is a bit flat, and some noise in the background. Here a lower ISO would have helped, especially considering the degree of enlargement I have imposed.
This is not a Lightroom tutorial, so I am going to list (rather than show) what I did, although I think any Lightroom user could adapt these changes. All changes done with the modules and sliders in the right panel in the Develop mode.
That's it! The final image is below. The combination of noise reduction with masked sharpening creates an effect similar to that of an oil painting. Artists have the advantage of being able to create perfectly smooth backgrounds while selectively sharpening edges. In this case, I was able to take a slightly dull, not so sharp and somewhat noisy (grainy) over-cropped image and modify it into a not unpleasant image, suitable for a small print or a greeting card. This might be just the trick for that less than perfect image of that oh-so-rare bird which you desperately want to print and send to friends!
I have been birding on a regular basis this fall, getting the images downloaded and edited, but not getting them to this page. So here is a "catch-up" post of some of my "keepers" as well as some average images of some above average birds. I will walk us east to west, from Agua Caliente Park to Sweetwater Wetlands, to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
There is a large population of Phainopepla, a Silky-flycatcher (Family Ptilogonatidae, Order Passeriformes) living at Agua Caliente right now, feeding on insects and mistletoe berries in the mesquite trees. One day I was able to stand right in front of a mesquite near a path on the western side of the park, while a sizable population of females fed in the tree and posed in the early morning sun.
Males are present as one would expect, black and silky with the characteristic crest.
For images of a partial albino male, see my posting from Sabino Canyon earlier this fall. For more on Phainopepla, see The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior by David Allen Sibley, 2001, pp 488-89.
I always photograph Vermilion Flycatchers whenever I see them - who can resist! In this case a male was perched high on a palm tree, in the south east end of the park, facing the morning sun. The branch is grey and white, looking much like the birds wings. The background is shaded and distant, turning to black in the photo.
On another morning walk, not far from where I captured the flycatcher above, we spotted a Great Horned Owl, who seems to be a regular resident. You will see better images of this species captured at the Desert Museum raptor free flight, but in this case, we have a wild resident, running on his own schedule, and appearing when he wants. They are nocturnal, hunting at night. Looks a bit sleepy:
Below, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, with an insect in its beak (bug-McMuffin?).
Below, a White-crowned Sparrow. The white crown is out of view at the top of the head.
Below, a Northern Mockingbird, at rest and in song:
Below, an American Kestrel, described by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology as North America's littlest falcon. This Kestrel hangs out at Agua Caliente, and any birding visit to the park warrants searching the high perches for this falcon. In this case, he was high on a tree branch, holding tight in a high wind. For some spectacular photos of male and female Kestrel's, perched and hovering, see Tom Gray's website. For great photos and text on raptors, see Birds of Prey in the American West, photographs by Tom Vezo, text by Richard L. Glinski. Available online or in our local Audubon Nature shops.
The freshwater wetlands in Tucson are home to rallids, consisting of Rails, Gallinules, and Coots. The Common Gallinule is a resident at Agua Caliente, see prior posting for images. Coots are common at Sweetwater Wetlands, and the Sora, the most common rail in North America, lives a secretive life in the reeds at Agua Caliente. Every birding session seems to begin with the refrain, "Can we see the Sora today?" He lives in a patch of reeds on the far side of the pond across from the ranch house, and rarely shows himself. When seen, it is usually only his head for a few seconds. When out in the water or foraging in the mud, by the time binoculars or cameras are ready, he has scooted back into the reeds.
However, last Thursday morning he hung out longer than usual, pulling food out of the mud adjacent to the reeds. The images below are among the best I got, albeit not optimal. I could not get closer without swimming (not an option) so these images are enlargements of frames shot at 600mm with a cropped sensor.
These show his yellow bill, long legs and large feet, as well as the short tail. There is some striping effect on the body in some images that I think represent reflections off of the water.
For more on rallids, see The Sibley Guide to Life and Behavior, illustrated by David Allen Sibley, 2001, pp 246-250.
I cannot leave Agua Caliente and the Tanque Verde Valley without at least one shot of a bird on a saguaro, in this case a female Gila Woodpecker with what looks like fruit or a nut from a palm tree:
Wednesday, November 16th, I joined the weekly Audubon bird walk at Sweetwater Wetlands, led by Luke Safford. High on a branch, close to the parking lot we spotted this Snowy Egret, a white bird against an overcast sky, with the sun trying to break through. These medium sized herons have long sharp bills to spear fish and small aquatic animals. Here we can see their characteristic long black legs, and yellow feet.
On the Wednesday bird walk on December 7th, we spotted this Baltimore Oriole. These are migrants, summering and breeding in the midwest and northeast, wintering toward the southeast, but generally not as far west as Arizona. This bird has been seen at the wetlands recently, and we were fortunate to spot it on the 7th. This was shot at some distance, the sun to the right of the frame. I did post-production processing in Lightroom to bring up the shadows enough to see the beak, eye and breast.
Below, an "Audubon's" Yellow-rumped Warbler, often known by his nick-name, "Butter Butt," for the yellow patch on the rump that looks like a pat of butter. Rump not shown in this photo. Said to be the most abundant wintering warbler in Southern Arizona [Ref: Richard Cachor Taylor, Birds of Southeastern Arizona, p 329]
Finally, an Orange-crowned Warbler, sitting on a Cattail going to seed. For more on plants at Sweetwater Wetlands, see this link. Check out this link for Tom Grey's site.
Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM)
I recently discovered the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) thanks to birding friends Tom and Steve. NANPA has a local meetup group, which sponsors meetings and outings, check out the website if you are interested. November 13th we met at the ASDM, in large part to check out the raptor free-flight they offer October to April, 10 am and 2 pm. Go to their website for details, www.desertmuseum.org. It was a great trip. I had such a good time that I came back on my own Monday morning! For more on the ASDM see my post from November 2015
November 13th and 14th I caught the 10 am free flight. They flew a Great Horned Owl, a Prairie Falcon, and a Ferruginous Hawk.
The museum runs the free flight on an expanse of desert to the south and a bit east on park grounds. They have created a viewing area with railings, with snags adjaceent to the area. They have one docent explaining the flights using an excellent sound system, and several trainers, and assistants. Bits of raw meat are set up on the snags, and the trainer has the birds fly from snag to snag, often right over the heads of the visitors.
First bird out was the Great Horned Owl. Below are four images of the bird in flight. For more images, see my posting from the ASDM a year ago
Great Horned Owls are nightime hunters, going after large mammals and birds, as well as smaller rodents and frogs. It is unusual to see them fly during the day, but in this case they have been trained to go after food in the morning for the exhibit.
Next was the Prairie Falcon described by the Cornell Lab as, "A raptor of the West’s wide-open spaces, (they) glide above shrubby deserts and grasslands searching for ground squirrels and other small mammals and birds. In flight, look for the dark triangle of 'armpit' feathers that distinguish it from other light-colored falcons."
I think you can see the dark "armpit" on the second image, below.
Last on the flight line was the Ferruginous Hawk, the largest of the North American hawks, living on the prairies, deserts and open ranges of the west. This hawk has rusty (ferruginous) shoulders and legs with white underparts, and enjoys small mammals. In fact, on the 14th the flight was cut short when the hawk spotted prey to the east of the flight area and disappeared! Word came back by radio from the trainer (along with a shrug!) that our hawk had spotted something better than their bait for breakfast, and would not be back for a while.
That is it for fall 2016! Got this one in just under (or on) the wire, with Wednesday December 21st being the first day of winter. Best wishes for the holidays!
Wednesday, June 15th, we returned to the wetlands for some June birding. Arriving at 8 am we missed the Wednesday Audubon birding walk, which during the summer starts at 6am! However, we did find shade, and birds. The one below by our best estimate is a Tropical Kingbird, but could also be a Western Kingbird, although the latter has a white rim around the tail, which we don't see here.
The Tropical Kingbird summers in Northern Mexico and Southern Arizona spending the rest of the year in Central and South America. A summer resident, and apparently a regular at the wetlands.
Other birds this morning included redwing blackbirds - busy in flight, and perching on snags for photos, and a Cormorant, drying out on the pond:
Red-winged Blackbird, above, and below likely a Neotropic Cormorant. And oh yes, a Coot in the wings (pun intended), pretending he is a Cormorant.
Last, but not least, a male Yellow Warbler. Not the sharpest image. Light not great, and tough to get good focus with adjacent leaves on the trees:
Have a great day! Heading to the mountain soon.
"Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." Mark Twain
Warning: If seeing a Grebe down an adult frog makes you feel queasy, best to move on to another post on this blog, or just stop to enjoy pictures of snow on Mt. Lemmon on the Winter pages.
January 3, 2016. Another great morning at Sweetwater Wetlands birding with some friends. We stopped on one of the decks built over the wetlands, and spotted a Pied-billed Grebe playing with something in the water, which looked at first like seaweed. Closer inspection however showed his item of interest to be breakfast, a frog. I captured well over 100 images, picking the ones below to create the feeding sequence.
Our best guess is that this is a Pied-billed Grebe. They are common in Mexico and the United States. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes them as "part bird, part submarine," using their thick bills to kill and eat a variety of crustaceans, fish, amphibians, insects and other invertebrates. Their legs are attached close to the buttucks and they have lobbed, not webbed, toes, making diving easier. They swallow their own feathers, which protect their intestines from damage from rough swallow parts. They will regurgitate indigestible hard parts.
The Grebe tossed the frog around, made one early pass at swallowing it, then began feeding in earnest. The following images are captured in sequence. All photos shot with Canon 6D, Sigma 150-600 contemporary, at 600 mm. Post production processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
Best wishes for a Happy New Year!
On Friday November 20th, I returned to the Wetlands again, this time bringing my wife and master bird spotter. The following images were captured that morning. Again, we did the best we could to identify what we saw and photographed, but no guarantees!
A Vireo and a Phoebe
Above, a Green Heron, sitting on a snag at the edge of the water. One of the better shots with a reasonably clean background. The vegetation is a mixed blessing. When out of focus it can create rich backgrounds, but when close to the subject it creates visual distractions, and gives the autofocus in my Canon/Sigma rig fits. During the morning I resorted to manual focus several times, with mixed results.
Great Egret in flight
This Egret arrived, as usual, unannounced, a passing player on the stage. I caught 19 frames on the fly, these two are reasonably sharp, and have the advantage of the Catalina range to the northeast in the background.
Henry Johnson, photographer and author of this site. For more detail, see About