Life is one long process of getting tired. –Samuel Butler
As summer winds down, and we try to wrap up a long list of projects, we find ourselves overwhelmed and exhausted (again). We’ll have to put bird photography on the back burner for a while. Never fear, friends, soon we’ll be back with more adventures involving our feathered friends!
We must cultivate our own garden. When man was put in the garden of Eden he was put there so that he should work, which proves that man was not born to rest. –Voltaire
The last week or so has been an incredibly hectic and exhausting time of clearing and hauling brush, painting, making minor repairs, and taking long trips to acquire tools and supplies. Mixed in with all that was a series of visits to botanical gardens (Tucson Botanical Gardens, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum; Tohono Chul) and a nursery (Desert Survivors) to gather ideas for our future desert gardens, which will surround the house. More on that project as it develops . . . .
Because the primary reason for the visits to these gardens was for landscaping and horticultural ideas, we left the big glass and tripods behind. We shot almost exclusively with the 100mm f/2.8L Macro and the 300mm f/4L. Elisa used the 50mm f/1.4, too, for landscape and planting shots. (A bird photographer using a normal lens!?!) This innocuous-sounding gear was plenty heavy enough as it was, as the temperature topped 100 degrees on every visit to the gardens. A 600mm f/4 and tripod would have been the coup de grace.
We spend most of our desert birding time in the Chihuahuan Desert, but on this trip we were mostly in the Sonoran Desert, to the west of the Chiricahuas where we now spend part of the year. Aesthetically, the Sonoran Desert has it hands down over the Chihuahuan, primarily because of the botany. The Sonoran, with its saguaros, organ pipe cacti, and forests of teddy bear chollas is easily one of the most spectacular places on earth. We have decided, though, to plant only native species in our gardens. But there will be places for exotics, namely in pots on the patios and in the sun rooms. All birds, no matter their origin are welcome, though.
As a break from work projects, I took an hour or so to photograph hummers in the Hummingbird Aviary at the Arizona Sonoran Desert Museum. But as is usually the case, I worked harder on that than I typically do working! It was hot, hot! Early in the morning, the light was low and required breaking a few rules–namely shooting below 1/300 hand-held with a 300mm lens and above ISO 800. By mid-day, the glare was absurd, and the temp was above the tolerance of this Minnesota boy! No matter the pain, I still highly recommend brief visits to the world’s harsh places!
Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.–Albert Camus
During the past week or so we’ve been settling into a steady routine of working on the property and taking hikes and local walks. We even took one long hike with the local hiking group. As we walk, we keep learning new tidbits of information about the local natural history: A new bug, here, a new flower, there . . .
On the long hike up the North Fork of Cave Creek, for example, we noticed large chunks of obsidian in the stream bed, and this led to a discussion of collecting rocks and minerals among the group. Turns out there are many places to collect minerals in the area. One of the group leaders even owns an abandoned zinc mine where a variety of ore minerals can be found (thanks A.B.!).
But every so often, like today, we’re taking a day to let the scrapes and bruises heal–and to contemplate what’s next. As you reach middle age, it’s hard to “waste” a day, but sometimes the body just gives out (and stays in)!
He (the Turkey) is besides, tho’ a little vain and silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.–Ben Franklin
On an early morning binocular bird walk in the neighborhood, I was both delighted and annoyed when a flock of Bullock’s Orioles decided to perch not more than twenty feet from me and call and sing. There were males, females, and immatures–all right out in the open–and me without my big glass! Once home, a bit dejected, I got back to work in the yard.
But to my surprise, a mother Wild Turkey slowly started to cross our property, a flock of youngsters in tow! Silently, I sneaked back to the garage to retrieve my big rig. A few images later they were gone. I have seen Wild Turkeys in Cave Creek Canyon Before (Barfoot Park, South Fork), but never this far east. It takes a while to know a place–and in birdwatching luck can turn from bad to good quickly!
When you’re safe at home you wish you were having an adventure; when you’re having an adventure you wish you were safe at home.–Thornton Wilder
As much as we love birding around the Houston area, the crush of humanity–mostly traffic and yahoo encounters–has become a bit much of late. This sentiment figured prominently in our choice of retirement location: Birding had to be available right outside our door. And now there are many birding sites within a few miles of our desert home. So presently I can work myself into a near stupor with building and maintenance projects and still get out to bird once in a while . . . .
And if the birding doesn’t pan out, as was the case this morning, daubs of wildflower color do dot the landscape and are available for macro work. This day I went out to South Fork, Cave Creek seeking an image of the Elegant Trogon, but had to settle for flowers and bugs (and hearing the bird’s call). Maybe next time.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.–Henry David Thoreau
Less than two miles from downtown Portal, Arizona lies Jasper’s Feeders, a well-known birding attraction in the Cave Creek area–my understanding is that the name derives from a previous owner, the current owner continuing to allow public access. Here, a small clearing is equipped with several seed feeders and a water supply. Out in the flats of the blistering Chihuahuan Desert, food and water are a godsend for a variety of birds.
In the three or so hours I spent there (once in the evening and once in the morning), I saw White-winged Dove, Band-tailed Pigeon, Eurasian Collared Dove, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, Gambel’s Quail, Curve-billed and Crissal(?) Thrasher, Yellow-breasted Chat, House Finch, Ash-throated Flycatcher, a small Empidonax Flycatcher, Black-throated Sparrow, Broad-billed Hummingbird, Canyon Towhee, Pyrrhuloxia, and Bell’s Vireo. I question the Crissal Thrasher because, although I saw the black mustache, the bird was in shadow, and I didn’t get that good a look. In any case, signs of renewal of life were everywhere: Flocks of quail chicks scooted across the dust, and young thrashers, fledgling Pyrrhuloxia, and baby House Finches battled a tough crowd for limited resources.
Unless it’s obvious from geography, I visit new locales in the morning and evening to see when the light is best for photography. At this time of year, the feeders are hopeless in the morning: The best photography is to be had along the trail leading to the feeders, where the photographer can keep the sun to his/her back and image birds in the trees and brush. It is possible to get some nice shots at the feeders in the evening at this time of year. I look forward to visiting throughout the year to see how the light changes and who else shows up! Jasper’s Feeders are well worth a visit if you are in the area. And don’t forget to drop a few bucks in the donation box!
The more unintelligent a man is, the less mysterious existence seems to him. –Arthur Schopenhauer
Well, another grueling academic year is in the rear-view mirror, and it’s now time to get my head screwed back on properly. According to the locals, June is the most miserable month to spend in Cave Creek Canyon, Arizona. Too hot they say! Certainly by late morning it’s too hot for a pudgy 55-year-old physics teacher to be doing hard manual labor outside, but the early mornings, evenings, and nights are beautiful. With the windows open, sleeping is comfy under a wool blanket! Try that in the sweltering hell that is Houston!
Thus far, the birding has all been about flycatchers. Say’s Phoebes and Ash-throated Flycatchers are everywhere, calling and hawking insects. While out binocular birding early one morning, I saw an Ash-throated Flycatcher with a dragonfly slip into a cavity in the bloom stalk of a large dead agave. The next day I came back with the big glass and staked out the agave. In less than two minutes, a flycatcher returned with a grasshopper to feed babies. The bird just perched on top of the agave and would not enter the cavity, probably not wanting to give away the location of its young. I took that as a cue and slipped away with a few images, probably having spent less than four minutes there. All Myiarchus tyrant flycatchers (Ash-throated, Dusky-capped, and Brown-crested) that breed in southeastern Arizona nest in cavities–definitely something to watch out for.
By 9 AM or so, it’s far too bright for super telephoto bird photography. Around this time, I’ve been exploring the landscape for macro opportunities. Splashes of color now dot the Arizona landscape–so off I go looking for bugs and flowers . . . .
Prickly poppy, cholla, desert willow, and a variety of small yellow and white composites are in bloom at my elevation (around 5000 feet). Generally I have been surprised at how few bees and Lepidoptera are around–perhaps a manifestation of the unfolding global crisis in insect populations (Guess who’s to blame? Right!). In any case, the elderberries are also currently in flower, but the fruit is still not ripe. Soon the elderberry trees will be an irresistible draw for many of the birds in the area–and for me and my big glass!
Summer is the season of inferior sledding.–Eskimo proverb
During the last hours of our holiday visit to Cave Creek Canyon, I took a walk in the wintery landscape. The previous day a blizzard deposited about eight inches of snow. On this trek, I saw mostly common species that I’ve seen many times before (except for a Fox Sparrow!), but the light was bright and clear, and the sky was blue–a welcome change from days of fog, rain, and snow flurries.
According to the locals, this sort of heavy snowfall is highly unusual for Cave Creek Canyon. The last time it happened was about a dozen years ago. I made an attempt at photography the previous day, during the blizzard, but that turned out to be fruitless: It was a weird combination of darkness and glare. It’s tough getting satisfactory results involving quick songbirds at ISO 1600 and above and shutter speeds at 1/320 second or below at 840mm. On this trip, I really discovered the limitations of the sensor in a 7DII–and wished I had a 1DXII or a Nikon D5!
But on the bright, clear day, the 7DII performed just fine. I had some worries about glare from the snow and blowing out the whites while photographing dark-colored birds against the snow, but these turned out to be mostly unfounded. Overall, with the creamy white backgrounds, rather than green foliage, the results were very different from the normal sorts of images I capture in steamy Gulf Coast Texas.
Hopefully this day of shooting will serve as a practice session for trips to photograph boreal species that I’ve been dreaming about for some time. It was mostly practice on sparrows for time with rosy-finches, redpolls, and crossbills . . . .
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“’Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”–Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
A few nights ago as we lay in bed, around 4 am, an eerie scratching noise pried us from the arms of Morpheus. Having had roof rats in our Houston house many years ago, we were terrified that rodents had found their way into our new Arizona house–those suckers were really hard to get rid of! After wondering who or what was making the noise, Chris got out of bed, grabbed a flashlight, and proceeded out the balcony door. Fully expecting to find a cliff chipmunk living it up on our roof, he was startled to discover a female Northern Flicker attempting to chisel her way into the stucco beneath the eaves! “You have a whole forest, but you have to drill into my house!” exclaimed Chris.
Even the most dedicated bird-lovers must have doubts from time-to-time when it comes to woodpeckers. Up in the North Woods of Minnesota they are reviled pests. Once Chris watched in fascination as a Hairy Woodpecker chiseling into a log cabin at a lodge in the Colorado Rockies. He was fascinated, mainly because he had never before had such a good look at this species,* but also at the audacity of the creature. Taking such liberties with private property in broad daylight, ten feet from a human onlooker! Doubtful the owner of the lodge would have been so charmed.
Despite their tendency to knock holes in trees and human structures, woodpeckers are among our favorite birds. We are always thrilled to see them. Even in the middle of the night. Well . . . .
*Even though they look very much alike in books, Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers are readily distinguishable in person. The size and robustness of the bill is very different.
If my leg falls off, I’ll get a prosthetic. There’d be no deep sadness about. I’d just get on with it! It’s called life, and I love life. You have to be positive, and you have to crack on no matter what. –John Lydon
Food, water, and cover are essentials for wildlife. All of these resources vary in their distribution over time depending on climate and weather. As a newcomer to Cave Creek, my forays out into the desert have lately been mostly about finding food plants–so I can find the birds and bugs!
Currently a number of plants are in bloom in the lower valley. Cenizo or Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), mountain yucca (Yucca schottii), Palmer’s agave (Agave palmeri), and trumpet vine and elderberry (as noted in previous posts), are all providing food for birds and other animals. When not clearing brush or refinishing woodwork, I have been hanging around these plants hoping to see some visitors.
I have, for example, spent several hours on several occasions camped out by a large Palmer’s Agave. Although hoping for Bullock’s Orioles (Never mind the Bullocks, MP!), which I’ve seen at other agaves while driving through the canyon, the only birds I’ve seen at this particular plant have been hummingbirds and Black-headed Grosbeaks. I’ll give the orioles the old college try a few more times!
Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own. Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you. –John Muir
On a blazingly bright morning this week I took a long, hot walk in the Chihuahuan Desert. Signs of the renewal of life were everywhere. Cactus Wrens gathered nesting materials, Curve-billed Thrashers squabbled over territory, and young birds of several species, under the ever-watchful eyes of parents, explored their newly-discovered world . . . .
Out on the desert flats, the best hope for photographing birds is to keep an eye on agave or yucca bloom stalks or the tops of prickly pear cacti. Photographing here, though, can be a challenge. In addition to cataract-inducing glare, birds can see you coming from a long way off, and they have thousands of square miles of similar habitat to choose from.
On this trip, an adult monitored and fed a pair of young Western Kingbirds. The fledglings exhibited begging behavior as the adult approached. Occasionally, the adult would call out over the desert. Eventually I pushed my luck too far, and the adult flew off. The young birds flowed a minute or so after.
In this same general area, I have seen kingbirds hawking insects in a rather un-flycatcher-like fashion. Rather than grabbing bugs on the wing and returning to a perch to consume them, they swirled and darted in the air while consuming prey, without landing. Beautiful and interesting to observe, but nearly impossible to photograph (at least by me!).