Thursday, December 31, 2009

Great Horned Owl at The Azure Gate

For the last couple of days we have had this Great Horned Owl sitting in one of our pine trees. Unlike most other birds, owls don't fly off the moment they see humans. As long as you don't startle them or get too close they are content sitting still. This one was about 40 feet off the ground in an 120 foot pine. You might think, "how did I get this angle?" We have easy access to our roof top. So, I just went up on the roof, made sure he noticed me from a distance, and then slowly walked diagonally towards him. He looked and me as if to say, "I was here first, this is my spot, and you're not going to chase me off." Or, "I'm beautiful and not afraid, so take as many pictures as you want."

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Snow in Tucson

I have been doing these blogs first thing in the morning lately. And, even though this is Southern Arizona, it gets cold during the night in the winter. In fact, the period between December 15th and January 15th is usually the coldest. That means low 30's at night, low 60's during the day. Not exactly Rochester, but still feels cold in the morning. While there can be lots of snow on Mount Lemmon and throughout the surrounding mountain tops here, it rarely snows down where we are. The one exception was three years ago at this time. It started snowing shortly after the sun went down, didn't stop until the sun came up. We awoke to about five inches of snow. Our oasis was white with the exception of the blue cool water in the pool. It was quite a surprise to us --- just as it probably was to this broad tailed hummingbird sitting outside our dinning room door. I wanted to open the door and let him in to get warm, but he may never have left. I remember snow in Rochester (we lived there six years). There would be snow on the ground from November to April. Our Tucson snow didn't last past 9:00 am. It melted pretty quickly once the sun came up. But, it yielded a nice photo or two.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Medicine Lake, Alberta

On that same winter trip to Jasper National Park I drove up Maligne Road which passes Medicine Lake and ends at Maligne Lake. It was dawn and I was creating the first tracks of the day in the fresh snow on the road. Before reaching Medicine Lake, I came across a Moose cow and her calf. They were eating something in the snow on the road. Maybe the road had been salted the day before, don't know. I took several photos of the moose before they wandered off. I continued up the canyon and upon reaching Medicine Lake found this elk along the lake's edge. It was a day or two after finding the caribou on the lake. The way the elk was lying behind the snow covered rocks, it looked like just the bust of an elk. I thought it would be a good photo. The elk was very cooperative. He let me photograph him from many angles. After returning home and developing the film I realized ... maybe it was actually better than a good photo. Such is the "nature" of wildlife photography.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Caribou on the run

No the Christmas photo of the reindeer (caribou) was not taken in Tucson. I was on a winter trip up to Alberta to look for caribou. A combination of warming and development have pushed caribou a hundred miles north of Banff in Alberta. On my way, I stopped in Wells Grey, British Columbia, a favorite place which I talk about someday. I slept in the back of my truck; awoke in the morning, went to brush my teeth, and the toothpaste was frozen. In fact, everything was frozen -- except what I had put in the ice chest. The ice chest, even with ice in it, acted as an insulator from the cold. It was minus eleven degrees. Anyway, I finally reached my destination in Jasper National Park and was driving up to Medicine and Maligne Lakes where I had seen caribou before. When I got to the frozen, snow covered Medicine Lake I saw seven caribou out in the middle; maybe 300 yards away. So, I stopped the truck, got out, grabbed  my camera and tripod, and slid down the embankment (not intentionally) and on to the lake. I was still much to far away for a photograph. So, I walked out on the lake a hundred and fifty yards or so, thinking that was a safe distance. I set up my tripod and started taking photos. Soon the caribou started running parallel to me (the photo from Christmas). But, then, all of a sudden, the bull turns (as do the others) and starts running straight towards me. That's the photo above. I realized that I am not going to out run the caribou, especially in the snow. But, once they got 50 yards from me they stopped. I took a few more photos, said thank you to them, turned, and trudged back through the snow and up the embankment. By the time I reached the truck I was dripping with sweat. You see the temperature had risen to minus 7 degrees.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from The Azure Gate and Exclusively Wildlife Photos

Caribou photo taken on Medicine Lake in Alberta

May Santa's sleigh bring you abundance, joy, peace, and fulfillment this Christmas Day.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Bobcat at The Azure Gate

As I was coming back from the market this morning at 7:00 am a Bobcat walked across our driveway in about the same spot as this one did a couple of years ago. 30 minutes later a Cooper's Hawk was sitting atop the big tree in the oasis. Moments later, I look out and there is a Harris Hawk where the Cooper's was. The Harris Hawk swoops down and out of sight. Then the Cooper's Hawk comes back. This afternoon a Caliope Hummingbird (the smallest bird in North America) and occasional visitor to The Azure Gate came right up to my face and hovered in front of me.  Then went on to his feeder. As Christine and I were leaving to go for a walk, a Roadrunner ran across the road. Sometimes I want to just sit outside and watch what's going on. I remember something DeWitt Jones (a National Geographic photographer) said:  every once in a while leave your camera behind. Just go out and enjoy the beauty, the peace, and the spirit of nature. Yes indeed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Harris Hawk

A couple of days ago I was making breakfast and talking with guests when I noticed two Harris Hawks sitting at the top of a big Mesquite Tree in our "oasis". The Harris Hawk is pretty much restricted to Southern Arizona and Southwest Texas in the US. Then south into Argentina. It's main diet is small birds and mammals. It is unique in many ways. First, it usually hunts in families, two to four, although I remember once seeing 8 fly over The Azure Gate. Second, it has a very deep rasping voice, quite unlike other raptors. Both Christine and I have walked towards one only to have it "scold" us, like the one in the photo above. Third, it can be trained, so it is a popular hawk of falconry. In fact, the Sonoran Desert Museum here in Tucson has a "raptor show" every afternoon at 1:30 that includes three or four Harris Hawks. They are quite beautiful with their "burnt orange" color on their shoulders.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


The bottom photo is of a coyote at 7000 feet and minus 11 degrees F, taken in Alberta, Canada. The top photo is of a coyote here at The Azure Gate in Tucson with temperature over 100 degrees F. In both cases the tail is nice and full. But, the Alberta coyote has a fuller coat, with more fur on the paws than the Tucson coyote.  Yet, both look very healthy. They simply adapt to the climate. The Tucson coyote is carrying a carcass -- I suspect a rabbit from its size. Coyote and deer populations have been increasing dramatically over the past couple of decades -- probably due to the reduction in wolf and mountain lion populations. I read that government agencies kill approximately 90,000 coyotes a year. A staggering number. In fact, hard to believe. If that included road kill, maybe. I know that in Arizona, the Fish and Game department killed over 200 (by helicopter) in the area around Sonoita 40 miles southeast of Tucson two years ago. It was done as a complete surprise to the general public which was outraged after the fact. Citizens bombarded AZF&G and newspapers with comments. Coyote attacks on humans is very rare. There have been only two deaths from coyotes in the past 50 years. One was in California in 1981 and one in Nova Scotia just two months ago. It was a toddler in the first case, and a 19 year old in the latter. To put this into perspective, the latest studies show that in the United States 800,000 people are bitten by a dog each year and on average 1008 people are treated in emergency rooms for dog bites every single day. That is truly staggering. The number of fatal dog bites (attacks) has been increasing. In 2007 there were 33 deaths in the US from "domesticated" dogs. None from wolves or coyotes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Alberta Coyote

Sometimes you can get close to coyotes. Strangely, I haven't found that to be the case so much with the coyotes here at The Azure Gate. They come through often, yipping often at night or passing through during the day. Yet, when we see them they walk away swiftly -- or, they "Shape-Shift." Okay, an explanation is in order. The Native Americans believe that coyotes can change their shape. And, I am not one to say that belief is wrong. I was photographing a coyote here, heard yipping behind me, turned and saw a coyote. When I turned back around the coyote I was initially photographing was gone. I turned again and the second was gone. When I say "gone" I mean gone no sign of them, not running movement 20 - 30 yards, nothing. Well, except I would swear that was new prickly pear cactus that wasn't there before. Spooky! Anyway, back to Alberta the photo above. Occasionally, you see a coyote along a road and you stop and the coyote comes toward you. Chances are it is a coyote that has been fed by humans. Such a shame. Then again, sometimes in the middle of nowhere you see a coyote that doesn't run away but just stares at first. I wish I could say that is the case above. No, it was the first case, probably fed by humans. But, it did afford me a nice close up. Once he realized I wasn't going to feed him he walked away.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yellowstone Coyote

Even though I see coyotes often at or around The Azure Gate in Tucson, I am never bored seeing them. For example, this beautiful coyote in Yellowstone. Yes, I was looking for bears, moose, and wolves. But, a coyote in hand is better than two wolves in a bush -- or, something like that. I watched these two coyotes walking in a field of grass a couple hundred yards away. I was walking parallel to them. After awhile one of them turned and started walking diagonally in the same direction I was headed. Eventually, he was 20 yards away and I got this photo. I could have just said to myself, "myself, (I can't believe I just did that) you've seen coyotes before and these are 200 yards away. Just keep going."  But, over the years I have spent in the wilderness, I have learned a couple of things. First, you can spend hours on end looking and not finding what you are looking for. And, second is its corollary,  stay put when you find an animal - even if far away. He may reward you and give you a great unexpected photograph.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Cody Coyote

Christine and I just went to see the movie "Did Your Hear About the Morgans?" (Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker). The movie takes place in "Ray, Wyoming" which is supposed to be a town near Cody, Wyoming. The movie was actually filmed in New Mexico for some incoherent reason.  Anyway, Cody is the first town east of Yellowstone National Park. Two years ago I was driving along between Cody and Yellowstone and came across this coyote playing amongst the wildflowers. It was as delightful to watch as it seemed delightful to him to be playing there. Of course, he may have been chasing food and I just didn't see the mouse -- or whatever -- he was chasing. But, nonetheless, fun to watch. I know there are others who think coyotes are beautiful, right?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Columbia Icefields Coyote

Since I started the subject of coyotes, I thought I would share some of my favorite coyote photos/stories. Up next: Canada.  About half way between Banff and Jasper in Alberta is the Columbia Icefields. This area is surrounded by glaciers and creates an "ice-lake" of sorts; looks like a very large skating rink.  The Icefields represents a boom to wildlife: moose, caribou, elk, coyote, etc. It becomes a wildlife corridor, i.e. a walkway whose general purpose is travel. One cold January day, I spotted this coyote on the Icefields. I walked along its edge, side by side with the coyote for 45 minutes or so. Finally, the coyote turned towards me, with the intention to get to the adjacent mountain and disappear into the woods. But, in so doing I was able to get this wonderful photo. Then I got out of his path and he indeed disappeared.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Coyote!

The coyotes were yipping away several times last night. Like many mammals, coyotes gather together and run in "packs" during the winter months. I have seven as many as seven at a time here at The Azure Gate. We had guests about two weeks ago that were thrilled because they saw five one morning. We also hear them - the coyotes, not the guests - yipping more in the winter as well. This particular photo is a favorite of mine. I really like the coloration and the fullness of his coat. Almost looks like he has a little wolf in him. The paws aren't big enough though. That's creosote in the background. Coyotes are amazingly resilient animals. They were killed by the thousands during the early 20th century. Now, they exist in just about every climate, every elevation, and every part of the US and Canada. I have photographed them at 10,000 feet and at sea level; snow covered mountains and desert; 110 degrees and minus 10 degrees; extreme wilderness and in towns. To me, the stories of the scraggly looking coyote are merely for fiction. They are truly beautiful animals. Here's one to prove it.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Agua Caliente's Great Egret

From Whitewater Draw's Great Egret to Agua Caliente's Great Egret. Yesterday morning I didn't have to make breakfast so was up at the crack of dawn to drive  the 5 miles to Agua Caliente. It was 35 degrees, so a bit on the chilly side. I first startled a Great Blue Heron that flew across the pond to sit on top of a huge palm tree. But, then I came across this beautiful Great Egret. He wasn't the slightest bit nervous about my being around. He was totally focused on eating small fish and insects in the shallow water around the palm trees. One of the best things about digital photography -- from a wildlife photographer's point of view  -- is the lighting. But in my slide film days (actually just three years ago) I would need ASA 100 for sun shots and 200 or 400 ASA for shots in the woods. I remember at time near Roche Lake in British Columbia I saw a nice sized White Tail Deer buck eating grass in an open field. I had ASA 100 film which was ideal and started taking photos. Then I heard some noise behind me, and in the woods was a mother black bear and her two cubs. Although I took photos of the bear, none were really good. Another time I found Sea Lions in a cave on the Oregon Coast. I had ASA 400 with me, but that just ended up being a waste of film. Now, with my Canon 5D Mk II, I can shoot the Equivalent of ASA 50, turn around and shoot ASA 3200. That's almost in the dark. This egret is a perfect example. It was  dawn, the sun hadn't come up yet, and the egret was in water surrounded by huge palms. The camera registered 1600 ASA. How did we even do it without digital?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Whitewater Draw White Faced Ibis

Another "find" at Whitewater Draw is the White Faced Ibis. An awkward looking bird -- something from a Count Dracula film, maybe. They are about the size of a snowy egret. Males and females have identical plumage. They nest in low lying trees like other wading birds. Being named "white faced ibis" is somewhat misleading. The adult, when breeding has a white border around its eye. So much for the "white face." But also when breeding, its plumage turns to an iridescent burgundy color best seen when flying. The white faced ibis spends its summers in northern California, Nevada, and Utah; wintering in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northern Mexico. I have usually found them in numbers of 5 to 50, always where water is present. This can include farm lands that have been turned and watered recently. This often makes finding insects -- their main diet -- easier.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Owls of Whitewater Draw-Part Two

Typically, when the owls are nesting, the sandhill cranes are around in huge numbers; 25,000 is not unusual. With that many cranes making noise, visitors "flock" to see them (my apologies for the too obvious pun). Many of those visitors don't realize that barn owls and long eared owls are nesting a couple hundred yards away. The owls, rarely move around and make no sound at all during the day so are easily overlooked. Although the barn owls are more easily spotted if you are looking for them, the long eared owl is quite the opposite. While the barn owl likes branches nearer the top of the tree and further out from the tree trunk, the long eared owl likes to be close to the trunk. Even in winter when there are few leaves on the trees the coloration of the owl and of the tree make finding them difficult. I probably took 40 photos from every angle to get this one. You have to be quiet and careful not to disturb them as you move around. Christine was with me at the time. I tried to explain to her where to look. After five or more minutes she lit up like a Christmas Tree, obviously finding this quite beautiful owl staring at her (probably the entire time she was looking for it). Owls are one of my favorite birds to photograph. I think it is because they are typically still and stay in constant eye contact with you. Something about that feels like a relationship developing. And, of course, the photographs with those big eyes looking right at the observer recreate that feeling.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Owls of Whitewater Draw

Another attraction of Whitewater Draw is the owl nesting areas. Whitewater Draw consists of Chihuahuan desert grasslands and ponds in the heart of Sulphur Springs Valley, Arizona. Most of the attention goes to the 20-25,000 Sandhill Cranes that winter on the site. In fact, I had not even explored the willow trees just to the south of the ponds the first visit. The willows provide nesting for Barn Owls and Long Eared Owls. I counted 12 Barn Owls two years ago. I was told there were as many as 24 that year. (I'll talk about the Long Eared Owl tomorrow). Barn Owls are fairly easy to spot. The white face is a sure give-away. The area is "roped" off to caution visitors about disturbing the nesting site. So, getting a good photo is chancy, at best. Often there are too many trees or branches in the way. But when you can get a photo -- such as the one above -- you feel good. Even though it is a photo the owl looks like he is looking directly at you -- that intimate relationship I always try to capture in my photography.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whitewater Draw, Arizona

Another unexpected event -- a little one this time. Our guests needed to leave first thing yesterday morning, so: no breakfast. This allowed me to get off early to look for a photograph or two. I decided to check out Whitewater Draw about an hour and 30 minutes from us. It's about 20 minutes past Tombstone. There a several shallow lakes that provide winter homes for Sandhill Crane, Snow and Ross' Geese. It is also a nesting area for Great Horned, Barn, Burrowing, and Long Eared Owls (January, February, and March). But, here it is mid December so I'll need to wait a month or so for the owls to start arriving. However,  a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes had arrived. Sandhill Cranes are very noisy birds. You can hear them from a mile away. And, of course when there are a couple thousand flying at one time it is quite a sight. Also a couple hundred Geese and this Great Egret that allowed me several wonderful photos. Also present a pair of Buffleheads - uncommon in Southern Arizona. Unfortunately, they just were not going to come close enough to me for a good photo. Also got a nice photo of a male Vermillion Flycatcher and the much more common Killdeer. I checked out Lake Cochise as well, although not much there. Did get a decent Great Blue Heron, but disappointed that White Pelicans, White Faced Ibises, and Cattle Egrets hadn't arrived yet. But, that is the "nature" of the wildlife photographer.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Another bird unique to the extreme Southwest is the Verdin. It is about the same size as the lesser goldfinch, although weighs a little less. The top photo is a young female beginning to turn to her adult plumage. The bottom photo is the male. We have many "dish type" hummingbird feeders because they do a better job of keeping bees and ants off the feeders than the more typical glass gravity fed feeders. The dish feeder is pretty much restricted to birds (or animals) with long tongues. Animals, you say? Yes, the Mexican Long Tongued Bat and Mexican Long Nose Bat feast on our feeders during their migration (August to October). The gila woodpeckers also have long tongues and are a constant user. The little Verdins, though, smell the nectar but can't get at it. So, they are constantly moving around the feeder: the bottom, the sides, the top, looking for a way to get at it. They are very cute little birds. Not as abundant as the goldfinches; maybe five or six reside here. So we love to see them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Back to Tucson and The Azure Gate

Returning to The Azure Gate B&B, here in Tucson, we are always welcomed by our year round guests, the lesser goldfinches. We have between 40 and 60 on any given day. The male, as seen in the top photo, although black capped is a little different than his cousin, the American Goldfinch who has a black forehead. The female, (bottom photo) has a green back with a grayer head than the American Goldfinch. The lesser goldfinch is a little smaller and just as sweet -- maybe more so. These little guys are only found in the Southwest (and Mexico), whereas the American Goldfinch is found throughout the US. They love their thistle food, and make several trips to the water bowl every hour.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Joshua Tree National Park's Rock Formations

What was the biggest surprise about Joshua Tree National Park was the rock formations. We have some very unique mountains around Tucson. The huge rock piles in Texas Canyon of the Dragoon Mountains (about one hour east of us); the hoodoos on Mount Lemmon (just up the road from us); and the grottos and amazing formations of the Chiracahua Mountains at Chiracahua National Monument (just under two hours from us). But, for some reason I only pictured joshua trees at Joshua Tree National Park. We had just completed our "moderately strenuous" hike to 49 Palms, and it was getting close to dark when we came across these wonderful rock formations above.  The top photo is a rock formation that looks like an elephant to me. The bottom photo is of a rock formation called "skull rock." There is a Skull Rock campground with trail that our daughter Erin and family took a couple of years ago. We wished we had a lot more time exploring these trails. We'll be back!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Joshua Tree National Park

On to Joshua Tree National Park. There is good reason why this is a National Park. It is simply an amazing landscape. As unique in the world as Saguaro National Park or Organ Pipe National Park. The notion that the only place in the entire world where Saguaros grow is in the Sonoran Desert; or Organ Pipe Cactus only in the extreme Sourthwest Arizona; or Joshua Tree only in about 400,000 acres of Southeast California makes these parks very special. But, in addition to the joshua tree, the rock formations take your breath away (more tomorrow about that). We did a hike into 49 palms. This is a hike over a barren mountain (no joshua trees in this part of the park) to get into a small canyon where water exists year round -- along with 49 palm trees. Since there is water it attracts birds and animals. We found big horn sheep scat in several places, yet we came up empty again. There were lots of birds as expected. And the occasional red barrel cactus added a bit of color to the landscape. The hike was exhilarating and the 49 palms oasis worth the exercise. Our drive through the park at dusk gave us wonderful colorful views such as the Joshua Tree (s) above.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Indian Canyon, California

Indian Canyon is on the outskirts of Palm Springs (California). Or, is Palm Springs on the outskirts of Indian Canyon? Indian Canyon including Tahquitz Canyon is land owned by the Agua Caliente Band of  the Cahuilla Indians. The canyons are in the San Jacinto Mountains.  A Ranger told me that there are around 700 Bighorn Sheep in the San Jacintos. Problem: very little access. So, very seldom seen. Next trip I am going to head up the Colorado River toward Las Vegas in hopes of finding them. But, for now, it's Indian Canyon. I woke up as I usually do in order to get where I want to be by dawn. However, as I approached Indian Canyon there was a gate and a sign with hours 8:00 AM to whatever. So, I am sitting in my Jeep trying to decide on an alternative strategy, when I notice a flock of Western Bluebirds eating berries from the palm tree right next to me. Long story short, I was there for over an hour photographing a wide variety of birds such as the male western bluebird, female western bluebird, and mountain bluebird above.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fall Colors at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge

Fall comes late to the Southwest. And, yet just as I say this, Flagstaff is bracing for two feet of snow. And, they already have snow on the ground. But, Flagstaff is northern Arizona, 7000 feet. Raking all the mesquite leaves has only just begun here in Tucson. But, back to Cibola. As I mentioned Cibola has a lovely nature trail that leads to a blind for viewing waterbirds in the ponds along the Colorado River. I thought today, maybe just of few pictures of the fall colors along the trail at Cibola.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Cibola National Wildlife Refuge

My apologies for the break in the blog. On the spur of the moment a trip to Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, and Cibola National Wildlife Refuge became possible. Our son, Matt and his wife Rung, made a last minute change in their vacation plans: a time share in Palm Springs, only six hours from Tucson. It was such a delight to see them - an early Christmas Present for sure. So, for the next couple of days we will have some photos of that trip. One such photo, this Great Egret, was captured at Cibola National Wildlife Refuge. Cibola is unique in that the refuge is in Arizona, but there is no way to get to it from Arizona. Whether approaching from Yuma (Interstate 8) or Blythe (Interstate 10) it is at least two hours from Imperial National Wildlife Refuge (also Arizona) to which it shares a common border. (Although, obviously no road between them). We saw several hundred Sandhill Cranes and Canada Geese that winter on the refuge along with this egret. Also a hundred or more yellow headed blackbirds persistent in eating something that was all along the dirt road. For Christine, the short hike through the Cottonwood forest was the highlight. The combination of cottonwoods, honey and screwbean mesquite trees, willow trees, and the turning from fall to winter made for a colorful fairyland. Bobcat tracks and scat all along the trail -- but, I guess if I want to see a bobcat the best place is still our backyard. More tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

black bear sleeping

No this is NOT a "Zoo" photo. Bears occasionally - but actually - lie down and rest or sleep in the wild too. It's not just in the zoos.   This three or so year old was lying down when I came across him. He let me take several photos including this one where I too was lying down to get a better angle. What makes wildlife photography challenging is that you can't always get the angle you want, or remove obstructions. Can't powder the nose or forehead so to speak. Can't move a branch or some grass back away from the face. Can't ask the bear to move back just a bit. You take what you can get. It was, nonetheless, a sweet experience.