Across the country again – this time for the annual Sierra Nevada backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness west of Lake Tahoe. It’s been 34 years since we made the first backpacking foray into the Sierras and we have rarely missed a year since then. This year all 12 family members participated, although not all from the same starting point, but we all met up at Lake Doris, had a welcome day off from packing gear to yet another destination, and celebrated with a day hike sans backpack! That was more or less the end of the way up…
One of the attractions of the Desolation Wilderness area is its glacially carved, clear lakes at the base of rugged granite peaks. Exceptionally clear water makes them excellent swimming holes, but at this time of year, it’s like swimming in melting ice water.
We had lots of opportunities to photograph hummers in flight while we were in Arizona. I must have taken 1000 photos of them — with about 10% success. Here are a few examples. Click on any of the images to enlarge them so you can see the colors of the birds in more detail.
The whole of southeastern Arizona is really an ecological potpourri of fauna and flora where the Sierra Madre mountains of northern Mexico meet the southern Rockies of the U.S. and where the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts converge. The Huachuca mountains rise steeply from the desert floor (as discussed in the last post on Cave Creek Canyon), creating another “sky island” with a mix of species from all those varied habitats: like apache and chihuahuan pines (found in the Mexican deserts) and of course, my favorite — the Elegant Trogon along with several other unique endemics from Mexico described below.
Ramsey Canyon (a Nature Conservancy preserve) is an elongate creek bed lined with shady sycamores, oaks, and maples and steep hillsides lined with pines, cacti, and yucca. It has the added attraction of a very nice bed and breakfast right next door to the preserve.
Naturally, we took in the highlights of the unique flora and fauna here with a couple of hikes up the canyon from our B&B.
The Chiracahua mountains of southeastern Arizona offer a multitude of scenic vistas, as well as a bounty of incredible wildlife to see.
The Chiricahua Mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the desert floor that surrounds them, making them “islands in a sea of desert”. A variety of life zones occur along a gradient from hot, dry desert to cool pine forest at peak elevation, which means these montane islands are a hot spot of biodiversity.
I should have posted this composite image of White-winged Doves coming to and leaving a perch yesterday — when it was National Pigeon/Dove day. Oh well….hence, the title of the post.
These doves are native to central America and Mexico, but expand northward into southern most CA, AZ, NM, and TX during their breeding season. They time their arrival with the blooming and fruiting of the saguaro cactus, feasting on its nectar, pollen, flowers, and seeds. In fact, the tiny seeds of the saguaro are the only ones the doves will consume, because they are so easy to pick out of the cup-shaped fruit.
Many dove species are particularly successful in hot, dry desert environments — they are the only birds that can pump or suck up water with their bills immersed so they can rehydrate quickly, and they are strong flyers that can search for waterholes within a wide radius of their nest. Once well hydrated doves can evaporatively cool themselves by panting, even at air temperatures in excess of 120 degrees F (50 degrees C). Amazing survivors!
Our morning photography sessions in the Alan Murphy Arizona photography workshop began at 4:30 a.m. with a drive into a canyon in the foothills southeast of Green Valley, AZ. A short hike down a steep hill brought us to an almost flat spot where we set up our cameras in a tent blind while workshop leader Alan Murphy and assistant Dano Grayson “decorated” the site with branches, flowers, and perches and loaded them with bird treats.
As any fan of morning cartoons from the 1950s knows, Roadrunners are very fast runners (more than twice as a fast as the average human), and they use that leg speed to run down and capture slower moving prey. We had a demonstration of that late one afternoon in our Alan Murphy photography workshop near Green Valley, AZ.
Lizards don’t usually perch this high on a dead cholla trunk, but they do climb into the middle of bushes or align themselves vertically on a bare stem in the middle of the day to avoid the direct solar radiation. However, in this case, the lizard is more or less a “sitting duck” on this high perch.
Down on the ground, the Roadrunner definitely has an advantage. They can sprint at top speeds of 26 mph, but are also capable of chasing over long distances at just under 20 mph (note: the average “fit” human can run a mile at 6-8 mph).
Roadrunners are opportunistic in their hunting; they can capture (and eat) a wide variety of animals such as grasshoppers and tarantula hawk wasps, tarantulas, scorpions, lizards (even venomous ones), snakes (even small rattlesnakes), small birds and nestlings, small mammals, some fruits and seeds from cactus and sumac. It is one of the few predators that can consume venomous prey!
While watching hummingbirds at a feeder last year in Portal, AZ, we saw a Roadrunner dash up to the feeder, leap into the air, and snatch a hummingbird while it was hovering. Needless to say, Roadrunners are amazingly quick!
We set up for our late afternoon photography sessions with Alan Murphy at a private home site about 13 miles south of Green Valley AZ, where a man-made pond drew in the wildlife as the heat of the day finally waned.
Water is not required for the survival of some desert animals: many lizard and bird species can save water by making a concentrated urinary-fecal paste instead of losing water as urine; and some desert mammals can make a highly concentrated urine that minimizes their water loss from that avenue. But most animal species will utilize fresh water for bathing and drinking if they have access to it.
After sunset, we set up our cameras to capture photos of bats flying across the pond by focusing on a particular spot, and then shooting continuous 20-sec exposures for the duration of the night (that’s 3 shots per minute, 60 minutes per hour, for about 12 hours = about 2000 shots). Bats flying across the pond would trigger a strobe light that provided the illumination for the images, and on the first night we tried this, I managed to get 63 images with bats, or parts of bats, in them. Not bad for a first try.
This was my fourth trip to southeastern Arizona — each time we have visited hoping to see the Elegant Trogon that nests in the canyons of the Chiricahua mountains near Portal, AZ. What is so special about this bird, you might wonder? This is the only Trogon species found north of Mexico — a tropical visitor bearing the brilliant colors of the Tropics. Sometimes we have visited too early before they arrive, sometimes we are too late, arriving after the breeding season. But this time was perfect — the Trogons were already nesting, and other people were seeing them, and especially the male regularly. We had three days to accomplish the task, and dutifully went out early in the morning and late in the afternoon and early evening in search of Trogons to photograph.
Day 1 – find a nest (we had heard about from another photographer)
Trogons are hole nesters, using sites originally excavated by woodpeckers and flickers who have the appropriate equipment (chisel-like bills) to create cavities in the soft wood of the sycamores that line Cave Creek. This mid-elevation pine-oak forest with sycamores lining the creek is the perfect habitat for these birds to find nest sites and feast on the insects and fruit in the area.
Day 2 – another long wait at this nest site right on the road. We did find the female sitting on a branch near the nest — but no sign of the male, and no vocalizations from him indicating his presence even nearby. Trogons sit quietly and inconspicuously (even the brightly colored male) on high branches, twisting their heads about, looking for insects or fruit.
Day 3 – We were feeling a little desperate by now, since this would be our last day at Cave Creek, and gave up on the roadside nest after seeing the male fly away down the canyon about 7 a.m. So we hiked a mile or so up the canyon to another nest we had heard about, found the nest hole and sat down on some rocks to wait for the occupants of this territory to show themselves.
At last, he arrived, and it was worth the wait! We estimated we had spent about 8 hours over the three days trying to photograph one of these birds. Persistence pays!
Elegant Trogons are a real draw for birding enthusiasts and photographers, and interest in them has spurred local birders in this region to survey their population during the breeding season. Currently, it is estimated that about 50 pairs breed in southeastern Arizona.
We had numerous opportunities to photograph birds in flight at Alan Murphy’s Bird photography workshop outside of Green Valley, Arizona this past week. There were so many good opportunities that I wanted to capture their flight in just one composited image. In case you’re not familiar with this technique, I overlaid successive images taken of their flight onto the image of the right-most bird in the photo — in this case using the double exposure tool in SnapSeed.
Alan has perfected the set-up for capturing birds in flight by placing entry points to feeding sites, so that birds fly directly across in front of us from one perch to another on the same focal plane. With cameras set at 1/1000-1/2000 second with a capture rate of 20-24 frames per second, we can capture 6-10 decent images of flight.
And just for fun, I tried my luck capturing the take-off of the golden paper wasp from the small pond in front of our blind…and luck it really was because I only managed to do it once.