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!
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!
The North American monsoon, variously known as the Southwest monsoon, the Mexican monsoon, the New Mexican monsoon, or the Arizona monsoon, is a pattern of pronounced increase in thunderstorms and rainfall over large areas of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico, typically occurring between July and mid September. During the monsoon, thunderstorms are fueled by daytime heating and build up during the late afternoon-early evening. –North American Monsoon, Wikipedia
June in Cave Creek Canyon was unusual this year in that it rained heavily several times at low elevation. Since the second week in July, it has rained often: The monsoon is here! The vegetation is beginning to green up, and soon some angiosperm species will begin to flower. Some animals have changed their behavior, too. No longer pressed for places to drink, traffic at our dripper has decreased. Driving the roads at night is thankfully no longer a video-game-like experience of trying to avoid hitting roaming cottontails and jackrabbits on desperate searches for water.
I confess to sometimes being at a loss as how to proceed with nature photography in Cave Creek Canyon. It is such a rich environment (and getting richer every day with the rains) that it is a challenge to decide which equipment to bring out on a hike or birding trip. Most of the canyon hikes I have been on (especially the ones with the local hiking club) have been too arduous to bring the big glass (600mm f/4L). Sometimes when I bring the big glass, I regret not having the macro.
A few times I have attempted to bring both the big glass and the macro set-up (100mm f/2.8L Macro plus macro ring-flash) and have been rewarded with complete exhaustion. Often, I have hiked with binoculars only with that idea that if we find interesting plants or insects or an area rich in birds I would return with appropriate additional optics. A few times, I have brought the 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L as a compromise. In those cases, there has generally been an interesting bird just out of range for such a middle-of-the-road lens!
Only additional experience, I suspect, will allow me to know how to proceed most effectively. In only a few weeks here, I have seen a number of tough-to-see bird species including Elegant Trogon, Plumbeous Vireo, and Thick-billed Kingbird–but haven’t gotten the big glass on them, yet. Time and continued effort should remedy this situation (I hope!).
Our world is made up of a myriad of microcosms, of tiny worlds, each with its own habitués, every one known to the others.–Louis L’Amour, Education of a Wandering Man
The last several weeks have found us swamped with work and moving (again!). A thousand-mile move finds us in Portal, Arizona for most of the summer. June is by local standards the “worst” month to be out here, but by Houston standards it is quite pleasant. The days have been hot and dry (around 90° F) with nights in the 60º’s F (although 50º’s are more typical historically). Strangely, over the past few days a monsoon-like pattern has developed with brief showers in the afternoon. The real monsoon should appear next month, when the “best” time of the year begins complete with the blooming of the desert.
While unpacking and working on the house, I wanted an “easy” photography project to unwind, and much to my delight the mystery vine that is threaded through the patio and onto an arbor has turned out to be a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) literally crawling with a host of insect species, including ants, flies, bugs (Homoptera), bees and wasps, and butterflies. As a bonus, while watering the vine yesterday a huge tarantula hawk (Pompilidae) appeared to drink from a splash on the patio. Many of these denizens of the Trumpet Vine World were large enough to photograph with a standard macro lens. It will be quite the task to identify the arthropodan menagerie of this mini-world–but I’ll put it on the list of Arizona projects!
This vine is also serving as a food plant for hummingbirds–nectar and associated insects. In the past two days, we have observed three hummingbird species drinking from the flowers: Blue-throated, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Likely there are also Magnificent Hummingbirds around, but we haven’t spotted any, yet. We’re not quite ready to start going after the birds seriously, at least for now. According to a neighbor, because of all the feeders, Magnificent and Blue-throated hummingbirds are now year-round residents in Cave Creek Canyon.
Finally, trumpet vine has a bad reputation among gardeners because of its aggressive and invasive nature. It is native to the eastern United States and naturalized in parts of the West. I personally love flowering vines, and once we are installed here permanently, I can foresee a diversity of native vines to feed our resident and itinerant hummingbirds–and the vast and largely unnoticed arthropod community.
When you have seen one ant, one bird, one tree, you have not seen them all. –E. O. Wilson
Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke.–Benjamin Disraeli
If Disraeli was correct, then Rufous Hummingbirds are both fire and smoke.
I recently took the time to peruse our collection of images of hummingbirds from the Tom Mays Unit of Franklin Mountains State Park in West Texas. Specifically, I was looking for evidence of the presence of Allen’s Hummingbirds, those little flying gems that are often indistinguishable from Rufous Hummingbirds. One of our field guides shows the migratory range of the Allen’s Hummingbird just barely touching the western extremity of Texas. Maybe . . . . But alas, no Allen’ Hummingbirds were in evidence.
But Rufous Hummingbirds are common in this desert park. One of the most aggressive of all hummingbirds, the males are known for their spectacular aerial fights–and their ruthless defense of nectar resources. Immatures are often frustratingly difficult to distinguish from females. But young and old, male and female perch, bold as brass, on the yuccas, agaves, desert willows, and ocotillos of the Franklin Mountains.
The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. –Marcel Proust
Don’t forget to join us for . . . .
Topic: Birding Cave Creek Canyon (and Other Adventures), Arizona and West Texas
Time/date: 7 pm/May 2, 2018
Place: Houston Audubon’s Edith L. Moore Nature Sanctuary, 440 Wilchester Blvd, Houston, TX 77079
Synopsis: Cave Creek Canyon (CCC) in the Chiricahuas of southeast Arizona is one of the great birding destinations of the United States. Especially known for a diversity and abundance of hummingbirds, CCC is an important migratory route for Neotropical migrant songbirds entering the West and contains birds and other biota from the surrounding deserts, grasslands, and Madrean Highlands (Sky Islands). Since they first visited CCC about five years ago, Chris and Elisa have been drawing up plans to visit as often as possible and ultimately wish to retire to this area. Although they have much yet to learn, join this husband/wife photo-birding team at they relate some of their first avian encounters in this incredible area. We will also discuss the Franklin Mountains of West Texas, a frequent stopover site on the way to CCC with excellent photobirding and a similar avifauna.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself. –William Blake
The southern Oregon Coast has to be considered one of the great botanical treasures of the country. In late spring, sometimes bordering on Majorelle, the surrounding wild profusion of plant diversity can be overwhelming, forcing the photographer to be choosy. It would take a lifetime to truly appreciate Oregon’s botany.
As a birder it often pays to know your plants. Azalea Park in Brookings could be the poster child for the debate over natives versus exotics. This spectacular little city park is loaded with exotics and cultivars and contains few natives. Our Falcon Guide for Oregon indicated that this park is frequented by Rufous, Allen’s, and Anna’s Hummingbirds during summer.
After combing the park and seeing almost no birds whatsoever, Elisa finally located one native bearberry honeysuckle on the margin of the park. The tubular yellow flowers are a magnet for the hummers, and we quickly spotted Rufous and Allen’s(?) Hummingbirds. The only other interesting bird we spotted in the park was a single Chestnut-backed Chickaee—and this we sighted less than 10 feet from the bearberry, too! Message? If you want wildlife, then plant some natives! It’s just that simple!
Despite the spectacular scenery and huge breeding colonies of Common Murres and other seabirds, we both felt that the “routine birding” on the southwest Oregon Coast was a little disappointing—even after visiting every type of habitat from tidal mudflats to rocky coasts to redwood forests. One of the great advantages of traveling to bird is that what’s common in your travel destination may be new to the traveler.
But most of the places we went simply were not that birdy. We saw much of what was “supposed” to be there, but only one or two individuals. We saw a Black Oystercatcher here, and a Whimbrel there. We saw one Red Crossbill. We saw no American Dippers, even in appropriate habitat—unless dippers are no longer interested in rocky mountain streams within their range. Huge tracts of apparently perfect habitat were almost devoid of birds. No rails. No mergansers. One Killdeer. American Goldfinches in huge flocks of . . . um, three. Two Harlequin Ducks, and so on.
At one point, Elisa was so perplexed about the absence of waders (we saw one Great Blue Heron and two Great Herons in a week) she probed the mud to see if there were invertebrates to be eaten or to provide food for fish, and there were plenty. Perhaps we’ve become spoiled by Texas, or perhaps the Oregon Coast, like many areas of the country, have suffered huge losses in the bird population sizes. We suspect the latter.
Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.—Louis Pasteur
Pasteur’s brilliant and famous expression above (“Chance favors the prepared mind” in streamlined English translation) is undoubtably one of life’s great truths. Ultimately, seeing a particular bird species or avian behavior is a matter of chance. In all the singular sightings of difficult-to-see species (Tropical Parula, Red-faced Warbler, Clay-colored Robin, Black Rail, etc) that I’ve made, I realize that had I been looking in a slightly different direction for a fraction of a second, I would have missed the bird entirely. But being in the right place at the right time to even have a possibility of making the observation in the first place is decidedly a matter of preparation (and effort), not chance.
Photographing birds is even more subject to the vagaries of chance than simply seeing birds. A passing cloud, a wind gust, a stray blade of grass in front of the subject, stepping in a hole or ant nest, or getting stung in face by a nasty bug at the precise moment a shutter should have been activated can all doom a photo that, a fraction of a second before, held great promise. The fact that rare, unpredictable natural events can be captured at all is sometimes a matter of some amazement to me given the difficulty of the problem. I think, for example, that after thousands of hours of photo-birding I’ve seen birds eating walkingsticks a total of three times in my life, and, incredibly, I was able to photograph it each time! On the other hand, I’ve never captured a single decent image of some species of birds I’ve seen dozens of times!
From time-to-time, I talk with photographers who have quit trying to photograph birds, or are at least considering quitting. They cite the difficulty and not getting any good results. What they seem to be hoping for is serendipity, or at least great good fortune. But after slogging through swamps and jungles, being pelted by rain and blasted by the sun from deserts to plains and mountain-tops, and shooting tens of thousands of images, I’ve started to doubt that serendipity or even good luck is much of a factor in photo-birding. I think that there are only drive and statistics. If you want some bird photos, then clear your calendar, break out the sunscreen and bug repellent, and get out there and photograph some birds (and enjoy the process)!
Pick a flower on Earth and you move the farthest star.–Paul Dirac
We’ve gotten into the habit of stopping at the Quintana Neotropical Bird Sanctuary (QNBS) on the way back from birding Bryan Beach and the lagoons behind—even outside the times of spring and fall migration, when it’s unlikely that there will be many birds around. I am interested in having a feel for Gulf Coast migrant traps year-round. These migrant traps are, to my mind, some of the most precious natural resources along the Gulf Coast. Likely the first major trip we’ll take upon retirement will be an April coastal road trip from Dauphin Island, Alabama to Paradise Pond, Texas hitting as many migrant traps as possible. On our last trip to Quintana, though, we saw only Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Brown Thrasher, and an Eastern Phoebe in the sanctuary itself.
The Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and the Town of Quintana, the entities that maintain the QNBS, have planted a number of native and non-native nectar plants for birds, hummingbirds in particular. The taxonomic diversity of nectar plants insures that blooms will be present when the birds, mostly Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, pass through in spring (March, April, and into May) and late summer (August and September). The plants also attract insects which serve as food for insectivorous birds like warblers, tanagers, vireos, and flycatchers. I much prefer the aesthetics of food plants, even if they are not native, to feeders. What could be better than a sighting or an image of a hummingbird or oriole drinking nectar from a flower, especially a native flower? These food plants are part of chain of resources that allow the movement of birds back and forth between the Neotropics and North America . . . they literally reach out and touch the entire biosphere of the Americas . . . .
Not having many birds around allows me to focus on my neophyte macrophotography skills. Blooms can be beautiful, but clearly the presence of an insect adds a lot to any flower image. No matter how spectacular the bloom my eye is always drawn to the bug, no matter how drab or nondescript (as in the shrimp plant above).
In conclusion, one piece of advice for budding flower photographers: get a macro ring flash. Are you reading this, MP? The naturalist at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area (southeast Oklahoma), David Arbour, was kind enough to take us on birding tour of the refuge several years ago and said that flash was not only helpful, but necessary for macrophotography. After several years in the field since then, I completely agree.
Visiting Cave Creek Ranch in Portal, Arizona, and environs in Cave Creek Canyon for a few days each year has become a Two Shutterbirds birding tradition. We arrive each time hoping to discover or photograph something new or obtain better shots of species we have photographed before. Usually we do see or document things new to us. This July’s visit was no exception.
At Cave Creek, we spend days exploring places like Barfoot Park, South Fork, and the Vista trail—trying to include a mix of new and familiar locales. Because the terrain can often be steep, these are typically pure birding trips (binoculars or, at most, small glass only). This July, Hermit Thrushes, Western Wood-Pewees, and Sulphur-bellied Flycatchers were the most commonly encountered birds at lower elevations, and Yellow-eyed Juncos predominated at higher ones. In the evenings, once we were beat, and upon return to the ranch, we sometimes spent a few hours hanging around shooting the numerous birds that visit the seed and nectar feeders.
Seed feeders at Cave Creek Ranch attract large numbers of House Finches, Lesser Goldfinches, Mexican Jays, and Acorn Woodpeckers. Occasionally a White-Breasted Nuthatch, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Arizona Cardinal, Hepatic or Summer Tanager, or Curve-billed Thrasher showed up as we watched. In the thickets along the road behind the office we saw Cassin’s Kingbirds, Black Phoebes, and Canyon and Bewick’s Wrens. At the nectar feeders, Black-chinned and Broad-billed Hummingbirds predominated. We saw a few Blue-throated and a single Anna’s Hummingbird. Another birder saw a single Violet-crowned Hummingbird, but Chris was looking the other way. A lifer missed by a fraction of a second! A Plain-capped Starthroat was reported in the area (we saw one a few days earlier in Madera Canyon). Without exaggeration, Cave Creek Canyon is a magical place, and place not to be missed by anyone interested in birds or nature.
Tradition is a guide and not a jailer.—W. Somerset Maugham
Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I, too, can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more?—Richard P. Feynman
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is an interesting and highly recommended institution nestled within Saguaro National Park. Composed of zoo, botanical garden, nature park, wildlife refuge, and natural history museum, the 21-acre campus blends into the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Some animals are free to come and go as they please, and others are captive.
According to museum literature, the hummingbird aviary contains up to seven species. On the day we visited it contained only four: Anna’s, Costa’s, Black-chinned, and Broad-billed. Because Black-chinned and Broad-billed are common in the areas we bird, we focused our attention primarily on Anna’s and Costa’s.
The covered aviary made for a weird, muted light in which it was difficult to capture the iridescent colors of male humming bird gorgets. Because these colors are the result of the physical optics of the feathers, not pigmentation, getting the colors to show well depends on the spatial relationship between light source(s), bird, and camera. On the whole, shooting hummingbirds in the aviary was a bit unsettling: We are used to hummers being will-o’-the-wisps, and free to wander.
We also saw a variety of wild desert birds. Cactus Wrens and White-winged Doves were the most common and were seen singing on saguaros and other plants. Verdin, Phainopepla, and Gila Woodpeckers were also about. Some Ash-throated Flycatchers and Gambel’s Quail made brief appearances.
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also boasts an impressive assortment of desert plants. A number of species were in bloom including fishhook barrel cactus, red yucca, a variety of legumes, and the spectacular red bird-of-paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrina), a naturalized native of the Neotropics. Some saguaros were in bloom, but coming to the end of their flowering season.
Our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum brought up many philosophical issues about the place of nature in a human-dominated landscape. We have hinted at some of these issues before, but Elisa hopes to explore them more deeply in future writings.