desert

Chasing Greater Roadrunners

The vast sage desert undulates with almost imperceptible tides like the oceans. –Frank Waters

Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas
Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas. This bird is in a characteristic hunting posture. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

When the weather is dank and dreary like this along the Texas Upper Gulf Coast, my mind turns to just about anywhere else. Getting back out to the desert is always a top priority. Among the most interesting desert birds to pursue is the Greater Roadrunner (and the Lesser Roadrunner, too, I’ll bet, but that species doesn’t occur in the U.S., and I’m not up for living The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Greater Roadrunners occur all across Texas, but we rarely see them anywhere but in the desert or scrublands.

Roadrunners are highly predatory, mostly terrestrial cuckoos. A common birding occurrence is to be walking in the desert and to see a Roadrunner skulk off into the brush as the bird detects your presence. Sometimes you’ll see one scurry across a trail ahead with a lizard or small snake in its beak. Sometimes the tail of a large snake (or lizard?) will be poking out of the beak. In this case, the anterior portion of the herp is being digested, and the rest of animal is slowly being fed down the gullet.

Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas
Icy Stare: Greater Roadrunner, World Birding Center, Edinburg, Texas. Canon EOS 7D/100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS. Natural light.

Roadrunners are masters of dispatching dangerous prey. Scorpions, centipedes, horned lizards, even venomous snakes are on the menu. Seeing a Roadrunner with prey is one thing, photographing it is another. Several times I’ve gone after Roadrunners in the field, prey dangling from their beaks. By the time I catch up to them, the prey is down the hatch! But with effort, documenting a Roadrunner with a dangerous, squirming victim is just a matter of time!

Greater Roadrunner in Tree, Big Bend National Park, West Texas
Greater Roadrunner in Tree, Big Bend National Park, West Texas. Roadrunners spend most of their time on the ground. If you startle one, it may fly a short distance–although it will more likely just quickly scurry away. This bird was just sitting around on a branch early one morning. Perhaps a big juicy snake was digesting away inside its belly! Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2018 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 2): Franklin Mountains, West Texas

As a remedy to life in society I would suggest the big city. Nowadays, it is the only desert within our means.–Albert Camus

Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Curve-billed Thrasher, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

The Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park is literally minutes outside the margins of El Paso. Here, a fiberglass blind sits in the Chihuahuan Desert. A water feature and feeders attract a variety of desert and migratory birds–admittedly mostly common species. The place is thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds during migrations.

Ergonomically, the blind has a few issues, but is really quite usable for a blind in a state park. Being isolated and lacking ferris wheels, noisy yokel tourists rarely find it. Rather than the guy wanting to know how much your camera cost, most of your miseries associated with this blind will stem from attempts to use a tripod inside. Tripods can not coexist with this blind. Accept it. You must rest the foot plate of your super-telephoto on the window ledge . . . .

Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Lesser Goldfinch, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

But as I hope these images show, it is possible to capture fine images here with nice bokeh and uncluttered, natural-looking context. The next time you are on your way to a major birding mecca like Bosque del Apache or the Chiricahuas, I recommend making a pit stop in the Franklins. It may ultimately make your short-list of favorite photo-birding spots as it has ours.

Cactus Wren, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas
Cha-cha-cha: Cactus Wren on Log at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the High Desert Southwest in Fall (Part 1): Davis Mountains, West Texas

If the Texans had kept out of my country there might have been peace . . . . –Ten Bears

Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Portrait: Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. The blinds at Davis Mountains State Park are a bit gloomy, but occasionally birds will emerge from the shade and offer up a portrait. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Over Thanksgiving week we took an epic road trip across the desert Southwest from West Texas to southeast Arizona. During that time we photo-birded at three main spots: Davis Mountains State Park (Texas), Franklin Mountains State Park (Texas), and Cave Creek Canyon (Arizona). Although the weather was perfect along the way, we shot under a variety of conditions. This is due to shooting mainly at blinds–a typical strategy for us on road trips with limited time.

Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Red-naped Sapsucker, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. This bird was drinking from a quasi-natural looking dripper. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

On this trip I was less concerned with the philosophical problems associated with shooting from blinds than the practical ones. The two blinds at Davis Mountains SP are ergonomic nightmares with lots of dark, shady areas, obstructions, unnatural-looking masonry, and terrible angles.

The blind near the Montezuma Quail Trail is the better of he two given that birds sometimes emerge from the gloom. In general, I would say that the Davis Mountain blinds are better for birders than photo-birders and are loaded with birds this time of year–but they are also loaded with many unbelievably noisy tourists. Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, Lesser Goldfinches, a variety of woodpeckers, and White-crowned and Lincoln Sparrows were abundant. A lone Pyrrhuloxia made an appearance while we were there, too.

Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas
Hermit Thrush, Davis Mountains State Park, Texas. Hermit Thrushes are a common sight in shady areas across the desert Southwest at this time of year. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Our next stop, the blind at Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, is not without its problems, but is light-years better than the one at Davis Mountains SP. Stay tuned!

Western Scrub Jay, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Formerly Western Scrub-Jay) at Dusk, Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas. Technically speaking, the blind at Franklin Mountains SP is one of the better blinds in Texas Parks (that I know of). Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

©2017 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding Big Bend, Texas in Summer (Part 3): Canyon Towhees at Dawn and Dusk

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.–George Eastman

Canyon Towhee at Dusk, Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Canyon Towhee at Dusk, the Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas. At dusk in the Basin, the landscape is bathed in a warm red light just as the sun disappears below the mountains. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Canyon Towhees are usually described as drab (“dirt-colored”) nonmigratory desert sparrows of the Southwest. Their charms are, perhaps, a little more difficult to appreciate than those of most birds, but closer inspection reveals a subtle beauty . . . cinnamon undertail coverts, speckling on the breast, a rusty mohawk. And careful observation reveals a few charming behaviors, notably picking dead bugs off parked vehicles and huddling together in the chill of the desert night. In the harsh scrubland environments that these birds inhabit, none of the elements of survival can be wasted–especially not on flamboyance of any kind!.

Basin at Dusk, Big Bend National Park, Texas
The Basin at Dusk, Big Bend National Park, Texas. Canon EOS 7DII/Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 @16mm. Natural light.

The blistering desert sun of a Big Bend summer requires the photo-birder to operate primarily at dusk and dawn. In the Basin, where Canyon Towhees are most observable, the optical conditions at dawn are quite different from those at dusk. Dawn light is cool and gray-green, whereas just before sunset the basin is bathed in a warm red light as noted above. It’s hard to tell, though, how much of the reddish light comes from atmospheric physics and how much is light reflected from the oxide staining that covers the Chisos.

Canyon Towhee at Dawn, Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas
Canyon Towhee at Dawn, the Basin, Big Bend National Park, Texas. This bird is enjoying the last of the cool air of the day . . . before the blast furnace fires up. Canon EOS 7DII/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light.

Like many desert birds, Canyon Towhees are curious and will allow a close approach (or they may even approach the birder!). But once they decide the actions of the intruder are threatening or inscrutable, they disappear into the arid landscape.

©2015 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Photographing Cactus Flowers (Of All Things)

Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona.
Mammillaria grahamii at Saguaro National Park, Arizona. This small cactus grows in the shadows cast by other, larger cacti and desert plants. All images Canon EOS 7D/100mm f/2.8L IS macro. Hand-held, high-speed synchronized ring flash.

In last week’s post, I noted that due to lousy weather we had been stuck indoors a lot lately contemplating future projects. One pet project I want to work on is building a collection of images of cactus flowers (and developing the skill to do it well). Currently I do shoot plants and animals other than birds when there are no birds around. Up to this point, I’ve been using our 100mm f/2.8L IS macro lens for this work, but I have purchased (after reading technical reports and moping around the house for a week or two) a used 90mm Canon tilt-shift f/2.8, primarily for botanical work. I can’t wait to use it!

Tilt-shift lenses employ the Scheimpflug Principle and convert a plane of sharp of focus into a wedge, thus increasing the apparent depth of field. Shallow depth of field in macro photography, frankly, has what has prevented me from becoming really interested in “macro” work. (Note: I put macro in quotes because much of this work is not true macro, i.e. 1: 1 or greater, but rather just fairly close up using a macro lens.) Depth of field is a function of three variables: aperture (f-stop), focal length, and object distance. Super telephoto work has its own idiosyncrasies and difficulties (like heavy, bulky and expensive lenses, inordinate susceptibility to vibration, etc.), but macro has always seemed especially fussy. Dazzlingly bright light (read bright light and flash) is usually required to capture a macro image that is close enough to present enough detail to be interesting with sufficient depth of field to not look like a child took the photo. Maybe the tilt-shift will help.

Cholla flower at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona.
Stale Cane(?) Cholla Flower (Cylindropuntia sp.) at Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Looking for a fun time? Check out Cylinderopuntia taxonomy.

But why cactus flowers, of all things? I must confess a special affection for desert organisms, and deserts in general. The most spectacular places I’ve ever visited are in deserts. As a child, I studied the Arizona Highways magazines at the local library and by February often dreamed of moving away from the frozen wastes of Minnesota. Cactus flowers are especially beautiful–the hummingbirds of the plant world–and I have decided that I would travel just to see and photograph them. Like hummingbirds, they are native to the New World only, and I feel lucky to be able to see and photograph them in the wild.

Up to this point, I’ve only photographed the most common species encountered while chasing birds around, and I know very little about cacti other than that the flowers are pretty and the plants grow in exotic places that I love. Getting serious about cactus flower photography would mean, of course, learning the taxonomy, ecology, and biogeography of the plants. At present this seems a daunting task . . . but it would involve trips to places like Big Bend, the Painted Desert, and . . . dozens of really, really interesting places (i.e., not Houston). Are these just the fantasies of a Dog Days of Houston shut-in? We’ll see.

Prickly Pear flower with bee at Balcones
Prickly Pear (Opuntia robusta) Flower with Bee at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge, Central Texas.

When I write “paradise” I mean not only apple trees and golden women but also scorpions and tarantulas and flies, rattlesnakes and Gila monsters, sandstorms, volcanoes and earthquakes, bacteria and bear, cactus, yucca, bladderweed, ocotillo and mesquite, flash floods and quicksand, and yes — disease and death and the rotting of flesh.—Edward Abbey, Down the River

©2014 Christopher R. Cunningham. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.

Birding the Desert Southwest in Summer: Franklin Mountains, West Texas to Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona

Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, Texas
Male Calliope Hummingbird at Franklin Mountains State Park, West Texas. Canon EOS 7D 500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

We just returned from a fantastic road trip across West Texas, New Mexico, and southeastern Arizona. Along the way we stopped at four places, and each of these stops will serve as the basis for a dedicated post or two in the future. In the meantime, here are some highlights.

The first stop was the observation blind at the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park, just north of El Paso, Texas. We have visited  this locale before during other seasons. Sparrows and finches dominate during the cooler months (take a look here at our sparrow collection), but during the summer, hummingbirds rule! The air was thick with Black-chinned, Rufous, and Calliope Hummingbirds. Oodles of Calliope Hummingbirds in the middle of summer in Texas? Yes–and that will be a future post!

Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona
Cactus Wren at Cave Creek Ranch, Arizona. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

After the Franklin Mountains came Cave Creek Canyon in the Chiricahua Mountains of extreme southeastern Arizona. This is the first time we visited Portal and environs in summer, and it was amazing. Just coming to grips with the botany and entomology in this arid Garden of Eden would take a lifetime. The birding was also phenomenal, and we added several species that can only be seen in southeast Arizona (or perhaps the southern extremities of New Mexico and/or Texas) within the U.S. including Blue-throated and Broad-billed Hummingbirds, Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers, Brown-backed (a.k.a. Strickland’s or Arizona) Woodpeckers, and Yellow-eyed Juncos, among others. We look forward to writing much more about Cave Creek in the future!

On the way back, we took a “minor” detour through Roswell, New Mexico to scope out Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. On the way, we read about a colony of Burrowing Owls that live in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog town located in Roswell’s Spring River Park and Zoo. We couldn’t resist–even though we were bleary-eyed from seven hours in the car.

At this park, you could make the case that the prairie dogs are captive animals, although they routinely burrow under the park wall and could walk away if they wanted. The owls, however, are wild animals that stay in this prarie-dog town in close proximity to humans of their own volition–although their choices are limited. About 99% of prairie dogs have been exterminated in the U.S., and the owls rely on the burrows of these rodents. Another future post!

Burrowing Owl at Roswell, New Mexico
Burrowing Owl at Twilight, Roswell, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/600mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). Natural light: the huge eyes and tapetum lucidum (and resulting eyeshine) of these birds make flash photography problematic.

Finally, we stopped at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a major wintering ground for waterfowl along the western extremity of the Central Flyway, and reportedly one of the best areas to see dragonflies in the U.S. during the hot months: just what we need to fuel our nascent interest in dragonfly photography. This sun-baked desert oasis, no doubt, will warrant future mention on Twoshutterbirds. We are already planning future visits to the desert Southwest while we eagerly await the fall cool down along the Texas Gulf Coast and the beginning of the fall migration.

Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake NWR, New Mexico
Female Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. Canon EOS 7D/500mm f/4L IS (+1.4x TC). High-speed synchronized fill-flash.

“I was born on the prairies where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures.”–Geronimo

©2013 Christopher R. Cunningham and Elisa D. Lewis. All rights reserved. No text or images may be duplicated or distributed without permission.