Sunday, November 27, 2016

Winter Has Come

It is now a quieter time of birding here in Arizona. This is not to say that there isn't any great birding.  Far from it!  But with most people distracted by the holidays, many public and natural areas have less human traffic thanks in part for their need to shop. 

Great deal on Friskies Pate!
For birders, we just need to keep our eyes on the road for erratic driving.  I already have had someone dent my car from the Black Friday madness.  All I wanted was some pate for my cats!:) We, of course, forgot it was Black Friday and by that time, it was too late for us to escape. 

Lesser Scaup
The cooler temps and storms begin to usher in a new group of wintering ducks, cranes and raptors. 

Birders change their focus from mountain tops to water areas. We begin to head to local watering ponds to search for such rarities as Long-tailed Ducks or Horned Grebes. Maybe even a rare gull?

Cooper's Hawk
Some birds that are naturally difficult to see during the summer become a bit more visible as they feed from seed that has fallen to the ground. 

One of my favorite bird groups, the sparrows, begin to arrive back in great numbers.  This Brewer's Sparrow(below) is so plain and yet I think it's a gorgeous bird. 

Brewer's Sparrow
We also begin to scour the ag fields in places like Avra Valley or the infamous Santa Cruz Flats.  When I first began birding, these places were intimidating to me because their areas were so vast.  Today, it's all second nature. 

A random Osprey at the sod farm of Tweedy and Pretzer roads
As we comb the sod farms, groves of pecan trees, cattle ranches, drainage areas and barren desert expanses, we discover that all of our regular wintering guests such as the Mountain Plovers and Crested Caracaras have come back. 

Northern Harrier
We also note that there are several hundred Lark Buntings feeding from the miles of sorgum along the stretches of dirt roads.  

Crested Caracara

Cotton trucks cover us in layers of dust as we try to get a fix on the nearly invisible Mountain Plovers zig-zagging on the sod farms.  They are perfectly camouflaged as they feed from the lingering green vegetation. 

Mountain Plover
 As we exit the Santa Cruz Flats, we stop at Arizona City Lake.  Over the years, I have tried to figure out this strange community.  It is built around an artificial lake. The homes all looked rather nice at one time, but there appears to be some wear and tear now.  The fountain at the center of the lake no longer sprays regularly and now acts more like a desert island for cormorants, gulls and pelicans.  Yes, this is a great birding hotspot. 

A rare Horned Grebe. Normally rare, but this year it seems like there are more Horned Grebes than the similar looking  winter molts of the Eared species
 It's a fantastic spot for lots of rarities such as this Horned Grebe above.  Every time I see the now defunct fountain, I imagine it's where the residents bury their dead.  

The Arizona City Lake fountain used to look like this.....but not anymore.  Now it just sits like an ancient pyramid where they bury their dead. 
Well.  I do have an active imagination. The truth? It was too costly for them to run all this water all the time. Plus it's a waste of water. If residents individually want the fountain to run, they can pay for it themselves and will sporadically do so.  But I think, burial ground makes it more interesting:)

Yes, winter has finally arrived here in Arizona.  Joggers can jog.  Bikers can bike. Birders can bird. And everyone can smile and not worry about dying from heat exhaustion after 15 minutes of outside exposure:) Birders can sleep in late until 7 AM(when the sun rises) and bird until 5(when the sun sets). With a little more than a month to go before the year ends, Las Aventuras will try to make it to the 500 bird mark.  I'll leave you all with some recent visits to three of the places we visited this past week.  

Count 1. The Avra Valley area

Snow Goose in Blue Molt
Count 2.  The Santa Cruz Flats

A stunning male Vermilion Flycatcher
Count 3.  Arizona City Lake

Until next time........

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dreaming Trees

These Cottonwoods will be trimmed instead of getting cut down.  Many visitors signed petitions to keep the trees where they are. Storm damage had caused several of these trees to drop their large limbs around the San Pedro house prompting action.  These trees are home to several woodpecker species and owls and provide food and shade during the hot summer months. It's one of the few reliable places you can find Pyrrholoxias and Common Ground-Doves

This past weekend I quietly walked along the paths of the riparian corridors in Southern Arizona. 

Babs observes a rare juvenile Common Black Hawk on the DeAnza Trail
I was joined by Babs Buck for one of the treks.  We enjoyed wonderful views of many birds while celebrating the cooler temps again.

A Santa Cruz resident takes Molly, her horse, for a much needed exercise.
Our challenge? Could we find something rare? We went to find what we could find but without expectations.  It was a fun morning out.

Juvenile Common Black Hawk

It didn't take long before we spotted a juvenile Common Black Hawk!  It fed from grasshoppers along the Santa Cruz river.

The bird seemed to follow us along the DeAnza trail.  This hawk should be down in Mexico or Central America right now, but it has decided to hang around Tubac.  It has been an unusually warm fall so this may explain why this bird is still hanging around the Santa Cruz river.

While not rare, we found the orestera subspecies of the Orange-crowned Warbler.  It's not the most common subspecies here in the state.  Most of the Orange-crowned Warblers here in AZ fall under the brighter yellowish/green lutescens subspecies.

Orange-crowned Warbler(orestera subspecies)
This was an exciting addition to the other Orange-crowned Warbler finds.  Altogether, there are 4 subspecies. I can now say that I have officially seen 3 of the 4 subspecies.

lutescens subspecies

The lutescens subspecies is shown above with the orange-crown showing(rare).  The sordida subspecies was found on Catalina Island off the coast of California.  It has been mentioned that this bird may be separated as a new species down the road. It lives on the Channel Islands year round. 

sordida subspecies
Birding is so diverse.  You get as nerdy as ID'ing subspecies or meeting up with artists.  Here is Michael Summers inspiring onlookers with his talent at the Scottsdale's DeRubeis Fine Art Gallery.  Ideas were exchanged for an art show. It would be so much fun to collaborate with him BUT I need to clone myself.  Money for birding trips?  Or money for putting a photo gallery together? Such decisions!

Michael Summers at work
But on this weekend, I took it slow.  It was a quiet walk alone to several places.  I watched a juvenile Peregrine Falcon at sunset as I let my body absorb the cold temps.  It felt so good.  This summer has been relentless.  I am looking forward to the winter ahead.

Juvenile Peregrine Falcon
The trees along the riparian corridor are rich with life right now. 

The trees are about to sleep for several months.

Babs snapped this shot of me.  We had a great morning out.
And as I walk under these dreaming trees, I plan to take my birding into a quieter chapter of my life.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Where The Wild Things Are

Bald Eagle
A meteor exploded a kilometer over my car in the dark skies.  I drove watching this bizarre light approach my vehicle over the moonscape. What was it?  Hopefully not a UFO.  How would I explain that one?  No.  The light began to waver and exploded into three green fragments as they hit a cotton field.  What if that meteor had hit my car?  What if......

It was a nice distraction from the dark thoughts of late. We began our day with feral horses. A colt looks at us for the first time during a hike along the fast flowing Verde River.

We watch this beautiful scene play out as the horses cross the river.

I let the anxiety go and just enjoy the moment with my bud Gordon. I have not been well for several weeks.  This is my first real outing in a long time.

Two Bald Eagles, America's national symbol, fly over our heads.  They didn't choose to be symbols. But here they were riding the thermals up higher and higher into the bright blue sky. 

Rivers flow.  Eagles fly. And horses sip from the sweet waters of the river. This is my America.

The beautiful Verde River
Over the weekend, we all come together and enjoy some road tripping.  We needed fresh air to breathe after such a terrible week of news. It has not been easy to smile lately. 

Anxiety can create some of the worst pain ever with the knowledge that there are savages out there who'd take this country back 50 years!

Rosy-faced Lovebird in Tempe, AZ
Rosy-faced Lovebirds were never native to Phoenix and yet, they now live here in the 10's of thousands.  We have embraced them as part of our Arizona bird community. They add color to our lives. They show each other compassion as they cuddle up on the branches of trees. And it is here that they peacefully coexist among all the other birds in this city. Although, they do need to keep their eyes open for those prickly cacti!

It's not easy waking up in the morning realizing that things like our environment or people's rights are in jeopardy.  No one should live in fear except maybe that bright red Vermilion Flycatcher on the telephone wire.  American Kestrels and Merlins love little birds:)

Vermilion Flycatcher-male
No. It's not easy knowing that my country is bitterly divided. As an observer of the wild world, I worry most about our environment and the damage it will endure from a man who doesn't believe in global warming.

So I, along with over half the American voters, will be watching as these very difficult 4 years unfold. Until next time......

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Behind The Lens

A spontaneous moment at sunset along Imperial Beach
Recently, I was asked about the work behind my photos. Photography is a fantastic way to tell a story and help inspire the writer to write. But there's a lot of thought that goes on behind the camera work.  It also helps having a great lens for a decent price(the AF-S Nikkor 200-500 mm f/5.6E ED VR lens). It's a heavy lens, but still "light" enough for me to carry around on my wildlife shoots.  Today I'll share some of the thinking behind the pictures taken with my camera. 

a spontaneous moment at Lover's Point near Monterey, CA
Practice practice practice.  I look at my old photos, which I thought were great at the time, and scratch my head.  How in the world did I think those were ever good?  Of course, we are our own worst critics when it comes to our own work.  The simple fact is that it takes time and practice to capture that "perfect" moment. And I'm still perfecting my craft.....

a good example about keeping a steady hand while on a rocking boat in Monterey Bay, CA
Be ready at any time for that "spontaneous" moment. Never leave your camera home thinking you won't need it. This summer, I missed an opportunity to snap a photo of the American Woodcock in flight because I was too lazy to bring my camera with me. I am still kicking myself over it:)

Gray-collared Chipmunk in Greer, AZ, "shhhhhhh, be very very quiet."

Be patient.  That's something I still need to practice.  I get antsy and like to move around a lot. But with wildlife, we have to move slowly or stand perfectly still for that perfect moment.

Pronghorn at Las Ciénagas Grasslands, near Sonoita, AZ

Lighting. I always have to remember where the sun is located when I'm snapping off photos of my subjects.  Never shoot directly into the sun as you can burn out your lens and always try to have the sun behind you as you are filming your subject.  And remember, sunsets always have a special kind of lighting that makes for great selfies:) In Arizona, we often can have too much light which makes for terrible and overexposed photos. So it's important for me to attach the hood to the lens and filter out the extra light.  Also, certain times of the day are worse than others.  Mid-afternoon is way too bright. So time of day is also important.

the Botteri's Sparrow poses nicely at the Ciénagas Grasslands in Southern Arizona.  Perfect lighting and perfect pose.
Sports mode. Capturing wildlife while out in the field can be tricky.  I recommend using the sports mode to shoot off a rapid line of photos for those action shots.  You may take 500 photos of nothing, but there is a rare chance that you will get one "perfect" picture that makes it into a national magazine.  That's part of the fun and challenge of photography.

A Snow Goose in flight, use the sports mode on your camera to capture a bird in flight
Random moments.  I am not a fan of people posing for photos.  Like many photographers, we want to capture that random moment. Take for example my niece(below) this summer in Wisconsin.  She was looking out from the bow of the ship when she turned to ask me a question.  I was ready to capture that moment.

ISO settings. Wildlife can be tricky and lighting is always an issue because wildlife is spontaneous.  So on overcast days or in shady woods bump your ISO up.

A Five-striped Sparrow perches on a limb in the infamous California Gulch along the Mexican-US border during a rainy day.
Composition. Or what I like to call the artistic side of photography is very important.  A lot of thought and prep can go into capturing the right kind of color, movement, lighting, etc.  Here are two photos that I love.  One was random and the other was planned. 

A Cedar Waxwing makes for the perfect picture on a farm near Brillion, WI
Research beforehand helps put together the "perfect picture" A Rosy-faced Lovebird feeds from the blossoms of an Ocotillo plant in Tucson, AZ

A steady hand. I must be able to hike. In my opinion, anything over 6 pounds is too heavy...especially when you're carrying binoculars and a water pack(for our summers here in Arizona or in Central America). Some would even say that 6 pounds is too heavy. So, make sure you can handle the camera out in the field.  A camera that is too heavy will make your steady hand shaky. There is a camera and lens that is just right for YOU. But you need to find it.

Sunrise makes for a great morning during this shoot with a Sandhill Crane in Manitowoc, WI
When I photograph from the car, I always make sure I shut the engine off to cut the vibration down so that I won't have blurry photos. When I'm on a pelagic(an ocean trek) where the boat is constantly moving, I try to find a rail or a wall to lean against to help keep my hands steady.  That is TRULY challenging!  Sometimes I just sit down and plant my feet in a good spot to anchor myself.

Ring-necked Pheasant at Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary.  I took this shot to see how the colors and feather detail would sort out in the photo. 
Safety first. Always be careful while you're out in the field.  I've heard funny stories and sad ones about the photographer being so focused on their subject that they actually put themselves in danger!  Take for example a birder who was looking at an Elegant Trogon in Madera Canyon.  She was so focused on the bird that she didn't realize she was next to a bear!  When both bear and birder noticed one another, both parties ran in opposite directions.

A lot of hiking went into this first ever reported Pine Flycatcher; we brought our waterpacks and cameras. Experiment with different cameras and find the right fit for you. 
In the desert, I have been known to almost step on a rattlesnake or fall into a cactus while capturing my subjects on camera. I do my best to understand my surroundings but there are times I am not paying attention like I should be on the trails. In any case, these treks always come with lots of great stories:)

Understanding habitat can help connect the dots between plant and wildlife.  Here a Gilded Flicker hangs out on top of a Saguaro Cactus at Saguaro National Park in Tucson, AZ
When you find something sacred like an owl or rare animal, always remember THEIR safety.  I only tell people where these special critters are if I  know and trust them.  Why?  Well, I have discovered that there are people who will do anything to get that picture.  I'm not one of them.  I'll never risk the life of bird, reptile or mammal to get that picture.

Spotted Owls pose for perfectly for the camera in Miller Canyon near Sierra Vista, AZ

The most important part about photography is to have fun.  Experiment with settings or angles or lighting.......

A random moment in Avalon on Catalina Island makes for a fun pic

And remember, it's all about the lens. When I first began my photography, I used a simple point and shoot.  But as I worked my way up the "photography ladder", I wanted clearer and more detailed photos.  There's always a better lens out there, but my attitude is that if I can't hike because I need to bring a tripod with me, it's not worth it.  I like the mobility factor.  The bigger and more expensive the lens; the heavier the camera can get.

Detail is everything to a wildlife photographer.  A Broad-billed Hummingbird poses at a feeder at Santa Rita Lodge in Madera Canyon, AZ
Every shoot is different.  And each day brings with it a new challenge.  It's what makes photography so much fun.  Until next time.....

A coatimundi surprises me on a winter's day in Ramsey Canyon, AZ