Friday, January 29, 2010

Melinda's bird pics

Dean promised, in his previous post, that I would post my pictures from our recent bird here we go!

First up are my pictures from our Whitewater Draw trip, a few weeks ago. Even though we have now been there several times, there is something magical about seeing thousands of Sandhill Cranes together. These really are my 'best shots', as they are pretty difficult to photograph - especially in the air!

You really have to click on these photos to enlarge them, in order to see the detail on the birds.

Of course, there are other birds at Whitewater Draw. We see numerous Shovler's, Buffleheads, there were some Snow Geese hiding amongst the Cranes, and occasionally you see something that is totally a 'new' find on "your personal birding list". This was the case for me, this trip! While I have seen plenty of Cattle Egrets, I have never seen a Great Egret...until this fellow showed up! It can be tricky, picking out the specific characteristics that define each species. You can clearly see in this photo that this guy has the characterisic yellow beak, and black legs. He seems to enjoy watching the little Buffleheads bob around in the water as much as the human observers do. Seeing, and photographing, this majestic bird was a highlight for me on this trip!

Our next excursion, as you know, was locally to Sweetwater Wetlands. Since Sweetwater is only a few miles from our house we are really enjoying going there! Whitewater Draw is a good 1.5 hour drive; so if we can get find some good birds closer to home we're glad to go see them on a regular basis! Dean posted his pictures from the trip - including the bobcat we saw! Wow!! I was wishing we had brought a can of Fancy Feast to lure her closer. What a beautiful animal! I managed to get some decent bird pictures at Sweetwater.

First up is the Ruddy Duck, displaying breeding coloration, and his mate. If you didn't know that this was possible you may have thought someone painted this guy's bill with bright blue paint! How incredibly bizarre!

This little cutie is a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. I've been hoping to see one since seeing it in my National Audubon Society Field Guide. They are the smallest of birds, with the exception of hummingbirds, so not easy to find! This little one was quite friendly, and I think it would have landed on our heads if we had stayed quiet and still enough. As it was, it would land on branches within 2-3 feet of us! This picture is just about life size, without enlarging it to see detail....cute!!

You may need to click on this picture to enlarge it and see the sweet little Common Yellowthroat Warbler in this picture. It was hiding among the reeds and the grass, but belting out a song! Since this was the only one I saw all day, it's nice to give it some recognition. Like many warbler's, the Common Yellow Throat is quite small - much smaller than their voice. They seem to be the Ethel Merman's of the bird world!

Another warbler here. If you guessed this one's name to be "Yellow Warbler" you'd be right! There were lots of these flitting around, this one held still long enough for me to get a picture.

This guy has been getting a lot of local attention, among the birder's in the area. Leucistic Vermillion Flycatcher's are pretty rare, and often mistaken to be albino's, which they are not. An albino would have 'pink' eyes (absent of color, so appearing pink). This little guy has black eyes! While this is not the best picture taken of one of these, it's my picture - and I was really pleased to have gotten to see it and photograph it!

This last picture is of Dean with our friends, Jenny and Frank. Jenny and I work together and we had a great time introducing them to Sweetwater! Fieldtrips, like this, are always fun to share with friends!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

More Sweetwater

We made plans today to meet one of Melinda's co-workers at Sweetwater Wetlands if it wasn't raining this afternoon. While rain was in the area, we managed to stay dry for today's visit.

First up is actually a shot from Sunday of a Cinnamon Teal. He is spectacularly beautiful, especially in the reddish light of the lowering sun. His red eye is visually shocking, even in his reflection from the water.

Except for this picture, taken with the Meade 80mm F/6 APO lens, all of today's shots were taken with a Nikon 500mm F/8 mirror lens with an adaptor for the Canon camera.

While there were almost no human birders there today, we were not alone looking for action. In our amblings around the lagoons of the Wetlands, we spotted this female bobcat on several occasions as she rambled the same lagoons, looking for a careless bird near a shore. She certainly wasn't put off by us - she walked away rather than ran, and just the fact that we saw her several times indicated she tolerated humans pretty well. The left picture also demonstrates how well she blends in with the desert colors and patterns. She might have been difficult to spot if we hadn't seen her earlier where she didn't blend in as well.

The other good "get" for me today was of a male Ruddy Duck. We were on one of the several overlooks built over the water, and this fellow was ignoring us as he was "presenting" to several females . Evidently the males' bills turn blue in mating season. These two pictures are consecutive frames taken with the Canon, so are less than a half second apart. The male presses his bill against his breast, making a ticking sound, which simultaneously makes him bob in the water, and somehow produces a rush of bubbles as well. And the rightmost picture he appears to be smiling, looking very pleased with himself. If you hadn't witnessed the bobbing action, he almost appears as if he farted, producing the foam of bubbles evident. One of the two females following him around is shown here too.
Melinda has plans to catch up and post more pictures very soon. With her work week behind her, it is time for her to catch up!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sweetwater Wetlands

While we are definitely not serious birders, I've developed an interest the last couple years since astronomy isn't easy in the Chicago area. Living near the Fox River and all the local forest preserves there make a new kind of observing a challenge. And thanks to some friends that introduced us to Whitewater Draw a few years back, we enjoy watching the annual return of Sandhill Cranes and other favorites there.

Today a group of friends introduced us to the Sweetwater Wetlands. Interestingly, it is less than 5 miles from our house, and consists of 17 acres of constructed wetlands, built about 15 years ago that is part of the City of Tucson's waste water treatment system. With the wealth of plant life, there is also an incredible variety of birds. It is amazing how a semi-permanent body of water in the desert will attract wildlife. Since it consists of treated effluent, sometimes the odor is less attractive than the name implies, but the birds don't seem to mind!

Melinda and I met our photo expedition at 8am this morning - a chilly clear day with snow visible in the nearby mountains from our winter storm late in the week. Never having been there, we weren't sure what to expect, but we had heard of a wide variety of birds there, and have seen some of the photos in the reader galleries in the morning paper. One of our guides, Steve, a former Midwest resident and hunter, gave a detailed description of many of the wetland birds we were seeing - many of them new to me. The first one he pointed out to me was the Pied-billed Grebe that he spotted halfway across one of the lagoons. It didn't come very close, but it was so cute...

Another that he IDed for me was the American Wigeon, which I had never heard of, let alone seen. It seemed pretty common here at the wetlands, and was strikingly beautiful through optical aid. The first photo shows a male and female together, and the second taken a little later that shows the brilliant iridescent green patch behind his eye.

The last of the water fowl I'll post about now is a Common Moorhen. Steve thought it was unusual to see them in Arizona, though my Internet reading indicates it is one of the most common of the rails, behind the Coots in some areas, which were quite numerous at Sweetwater and Whitewater. This one was very shy and only revealed himself and his bright beak rarely. But he was easy to follow through the undergrowth with the bright flash of red.

Melinda and I left the photo crew about 11am, and headed back into town to catch the Spanish movie "Broken Embraces" - we highly recommend it! Melinda works tonight at UMC, so after the movie we returned home to get her a nap. With 90 minutes or 2 hours to kill, I went back over to Sweetwater to see what was out later in the afternoon when a little (very little!) warmer.

There was a steady stream of birders, and interestingly, I didn't see any flycatchers in the morning, but they were quite numerous in the afternoon. Steve had warned me in the morning to be on the lookout for an albino Vermillion Flycatcher, and sure enough, pretty much the first bird I saw, attracting a steady small crowd, was the very one! The Vermillion is my absolute favorite Arizona bird, and the albino version had the characteristic shape of course, even without the colors. There was the slightest bit of pink under his butt, otherwise the feathers were absolutely white.

One of the things I like about photographing the Vermillion Flycatchers in particular and the flycatchers in general is that while they don't tend to perch for very long, they take off on their little bug-catching orbit and more often than not, return to the same branch. So you can focus precisely on the branch (which takes time with my manual focus telescope) and the bird will likely return to the same branch for the photo. Besides the albino Vermillion (which seemed to have a normally drab female mate) there was a busy swarm of flycatchers, mostly Black Phoebes and a couple varieties of warblers I've not identified yet. And just as I was leaving the little encampment of flycatchers, I ran across a "normal" Vermillion Flycatcher, and after walking after him, he approached and almost dared me to get a closeup, so I obliged. You can see why they are one of my very favorites!

I think we'll have more to post - Melinda's pics are still in her camera, so look for more later. But with the walking trails and wide variety of birds, we'll be coming back here frequently! Oh, and by the way, all the above were taken with a Canon XSi, and except for the first wide shot of a lagoon, all were taken with a Meade 80mm F/6 triplet APO (480mm focal length).

Additional Note: I forgot to mention that we got another sign how small the word really is! As we were leaving Sweetwater in the morning to go to our movie, We happened to see a couple birders walking away from us, the fellow wearing what appeared to be a "St Charles" in big orange letters on the back of his black jacket. I asked after him "that wouldn't be St Charles, Illinois would it?" whose school colors are orange and black. They turned, and sure enough, it was John and Joy Duerr, who were not only long-term St Charles residents, but he has a forest preserve named for him, right across the Fox River from Tekakwitha Forest Preserve, only a mile from our house there! I guess if you spend a career administering the forest preserve system in Kane County, you get a forest preserve named for you. They are visiting Tucson for a month, and they are SERIOUS birders - they hired a professional birding guide (who knew you could do that in Tucson?!), and had already hit a dozen or more of the local hotspots, and were on their 5th or 6th trip to Sweetwater (don't forget it was our first, and we live here!). Small world, eh!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

West of the Pecos...

I've been trying to hone my photography skills, learning from Dean as much as I can. Here are a few pictures from our trip - as a wrap up from our travels in Texas....

Friday, January 22, 2010

Blast From The Past!

Three years ago yesterday, I was chasing lights in the sky. If you had seen these in the western sky, would you know what you were seeing?

Well, I won't keep you in suspense - it was from the comet of the still-young century, Comet McNaught! For weeks before hand, many observers saw it low in the southwest as it approached the sun. It brightened steadily, never straying far from our star till it exited into the Southern Hemisphere sky. Some observers even saw it in the daytime, but I was in the Midwest, visiting Melinda, and we didn't have any breaks in the clouds for my week-long visit.

Upon my return to Tucson, I had heard that even though the main part of the comet was spectacular in Southern Hemisphere skies, parts of the tail were visible in northern latitudes as well. We had clouds too, but on the 21st of January, there were some breaks in the western sky, so I loaded the van and headed out towards the base of Kitt Peak, where there was a temporary hole in the clouds. In the west the crescent Moon and Venus were setting. Suddenly the strange, contrail-looking glows appeared in the darkening sky superimposed on the Zodiacal Glow in the west - the tail of McNaught! The "streaky" features are called synchrones and are not-well understood features that develop in the tails of bright comets.

I was able to take a couple exposures with a 16mm fisheye (pictured at top), and 2 frames with a 50mm lens that I stacked for the exposure at left. Shortly afterwards, the clouds moved in and that was that. A few days later, with the Moon even higher and brighter, I went back out, and still detected the tail, but it required many exposures, stacking them, and stretching the contrast to see it. Meanwhile the show continued in the Southern Hemisphere.

This photo, taken by the comet discoverer himself, Rob McNaught in Australia, shows the comet about the same time as the photos above. Note how the striations in the tail bend down and disappear below the horizon at right. Well, if you can imagine me up in the Northern Hemisphere over that horizon, the continuation of the tail was visible, without the body or head of the comet above my horizon. This photo was the Astronomy Picture of the Day for 22 January, 2007.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Whirlwind Texas Tour

About 2 months ago our friends Dave and Joan from Dodgeville, Wisconsin indicated they were traveling to West Texas in January, specifically Alpine, Texas - sort of the northern edge of the Big Bend area. Well wouldn't you know, we are regulars in that part of the state, having visited our friend Elinor many times. So after checking with Elinor, we juggled Melinda's work schedule and were able to take a 3 day midweek trip to visit them all. After driving most of Tuesday, we relaxed and visited most of Wednesday and Thursday, returning Thursday night. Pictured here is Elinor, flanked by Joan and Dave at the Museum of the Big Bend, located at Sul Ross University.

While major metropolitan areas can all seem alike after a while, Alpine is like a whole other State! Elevation is nearly 5,000 feet(1500 meters), so temperatures are temperate, and a population of only 6,000 retains a rustic, rural feel. Elinor lives a few miles out of town up in the hills and her living room picture windows reveal a daily wildlife menagerie in their daily foraging. Besides the pictured javalina and deer, we've also seen numerous wild turkey, antelope and a wide variety of birds.

Dave's excuse for the trip was the dark sky and astronomical observing, so I brought my 14" Celestron and set up for a dark clear night on Tuesday. He was astounded by the dark sky quality - it was good (I'm spoiled by Arizona skies), but I wasn't used to the dew that fogged my corrector plate and hampered observing - something that doesn't bother us a few hundred miles to the west!

On Wednesday after an early dinner we had an expedition lead by Elinor's neighbor Barb over to Marfa to look for the Marfa Mystery Lights. The "Mystery Lights" are blamed on everything from campfires of Indian ghosts to lead spirits to the afterlife, electrical discharge from temperature-induced stress buildup in quartz deposits to car headlights. Barb, a former university instructor, has witnessed them and favors the piezoelectric effect of quartz deposits explanation. On Wednesday night, however, with cameras and astronomical observers we saw nothing mysterious, though that, in itself, is not unusual. The lights are not seen frequently, adding to the mystique of the phenomenon.

By lunch on Thursday, it was time to depart from our all-too-brief visit, and we left right at 1pm for the 9 hour trip back to Tucson. The van worked flawlessly for the thousand-mile round trip, and believe me, a boring trip is good! Just to prove that this area is a little odder than most, we spotted a couple "what the heck was that?!" objects. First was an art installation known as Prada Marfa, in the middle-of-nowhere between Valentine (population 200) and Van Horn, Texas. Along side this rural paved road was a Prada store, complete with handbags and fancy women's shoes visible through the windows! You don't often think of "art" like this in rural cattle country, but the first clue is the lack of a working door, and the fact that the nearest retail establishment (gas or convenience store) is 40 miles away. Supposedly the artists built it of adobe and was designed to "dissolve" into the environment, but evidently it is popular enough that they at least repair the graffiti on the walls.

The other item we saw on our trip was "Recycled Roadrunner" along I-10 on a ridge on the west side of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Made of "found" material, it was put together in the city dump and moved to it's present location when it closed 10 years ago. Clicking on the right image, you can see the belly and neck made mostly of shoes, and bike parts and metal scrap making the head feathers. Strangeness always makes a long trip interesting, and I guess roadside oddities get you to pay more attention to your surroundings. Worked for us!

Monday, January 11, 2010

Kitty update....January 2010

As a result of my "Global Neighborhood" post the other day, Dean received an email from one of our readers in Austria! In the course of the email our new friend asked how Scruffy, our former feral cat, is doing. You can click on his name to read his poor, pitiful, history - but we also need to update on all of the cats!

(Scruffy update...evening January 11, 2010: Dean took Scruffy in to the Vet today. They have admitted him for the next few days. His chest x-ray looked pretty good, however his blood pressure was very high. He does have a lot of head congestion, lab work was done and he was started on antibiotics and blood pressure medication. In fact, one of his meds is the same as what Dean takes! The Vet also felt that getting his blood pressure under control may help the very definite blindness that he has. Due to his increased need for medication, it was decided to let him stay at the Vet's while we take a short trip to Texas. While Jason, our cat-sitter is more than capable to give Scruffy his meds, it might be a lot to ask since these are new meds for Scruffy. We will give more of an update after we return and have the Scruffy-man home with us on Friday.)

I have managed to get a 'head shot' of each cat (with the exception of shy Lance) over the past few days...their names are included so you can tell each from the other. As far as how Scruffy is doing....he's causing us some concerns lately. He has become 'overly' well nourished, to say the least. He tends to eat anywhere from 1 - 3 bowls of food for dinner every night, so he's really packed on the weight! That's not so concerning, considering he was like a little skeleton kitty when he moved indoors last Spring. We have been noticing that his eyes are looking cloudy, and I can see cataracts quite easily when looking into his eyes. He still manages to get around his territory just fine however. We have also noticed that he is recently sounding very congested, and frequently has a runny nose and sneezes more than usual. His noisy breathing is very concerning to us, and so Dean is planning to take him in to the Vet to be checked out. We're hoping that it isn't anything too serious, maybe just a cold... As for the rest of the you can see, they were none too thrill to have Mom taking pictures of them when they were trying to relax, but they tolerated it fine! It's always amazing to me that they get along as well as they do. Sure, there's the occasional 'hissy fit', but not on a daily basis. Atticus is particularly fond of Scruffy, so he always tries to lay where he can see him or be near him. He will even go so far as to cuddle up next to him at night, when we turn the heat down a bit at bedtime! On any given day, Annie (the talker) and Hannah will pick the perfect places to sunbathe in the yard, sometimes that's on top of the grill (if need be). Girls will be girls!

Since Mia did her disappearing act a few months ago, she is now staying closer to home. She still prefers to not mingle with the others, so she is allowed to sleep in the guest room (which she prefers). We're one of the few places where the guest room comes with it's own kitty to cuddle! Mia doesn't like to socialize with the other cats, but she loves human attention and is more than happy anytime we have company staying over night!

Pixel is our other 'non-social' cat. He loves people, not too fond of cats however. He is becoming something of a "Mama's boy", letting me pick him up and snuggle him at will!

Hootie still comes when ever we call any of the cats... Hootie loves to be loved, which is easy to do!

Marley loves being indoors, but is more than happy to keep Lance company in the garage at night. Marley is the only one of the group that Lance likes to be around. They eat dinner together every night, and share Lance's heated blanket in the garage. Marley is an all-around good guy, in cat world!

Sugar Pants...I think he may be getting smarter? He's so pretty, but isn't the brightest of the group. He has figured out (finally) how to go out the cat door, but doesn't quite realize (yet) that he can come back in that same way. He'll get it's only taken him 5 years or so to figure it out this far!

Fortunately, we have wonderful neighbors who don't mind that we are running the local rescue group here. I've left out the current ferals who live in front of the house - only because I don't have their pictures available to post. They are Yellow Cat (because three other yellow cats just aren't enough), and Hootie2. Hootie2 is, obviously, a carbon copy of Hootie...though I think he may be a bit younger. They enjoy being petted and fussed over when we are in and out of the house. They have each made their way into the house on occasion, but decided that they weren't ready to join the rest of the colony. They usually greet me when I come home from work in the morning, and are happy to walk me to my car when I'm going to work in the evening. They are, of course, all neutered - with the exception of Yellow Cat, and he's looking worried!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Whitewater Draw 2010!

We finally made a trip down to Whitewater Draw yesterday to check out the current supply of sand hill cranes wintering in Arizona. I hadn't seen any numbers posted - last year's census was definitely below two years ago, so it is always with come trepidation when you turn down the access road and see in person if there are any cranes there.

The short answer is yes, we saw cranes! Lots and lots of cranes. The numbers are definitely up from last year, but at the same time, the water level looks lower and the distance from the trails and overlooks to the main gatherings seems farther. They do fly over quite frequently as they move from group to group, but with my small telescopes and lack of auto focus, the flybys are difficult shots to get. The first shot at left is of a mass ascension as a group got startled into the air as noise or a percieved threat got too near. It is amazing they don't run into each other in their rush to get airborne.

This trip we brought our friend Donna along, and also 2 more couples from the astronomy club, and they brought 2 more couples from the photography club, so we were responsible for opening up Whitewater to another dozen fans. There were lots of other birding fans there, but not really a lot for such a nice weekend. We were ready for cold temps, but long sleeves and a sweatshirt was enough to ward off the chill, though the sun was rarely out to add extra warmth.

It is always nice to see something new, and for me this trip was the yellow-headed blackbirds. I've never seen or noticed them before, but just like clockwork, they descended right at 5pm into the reed groves in the lagoons. Evidently they are closely related to the common red-winged blackbirds of the Midwest, in fact, there were a few scattered among these. The males yellow-heads in fact have white patches where the red-wings have their spot of color. Anyway, the yellow color was almost shockingly bright against the dark bodies. The female, shown at right, had less yellow on her head, more down the chest, and is missing the white chevron on the shoulder.

As I said, we'll be posting more from this trip - Melinda has yet to download hers, and with her auto focus, likely has closeups of their flybys. But it was an enjoyable day, and we stayed till well after it was too dark to shoot anymore. And even then in the growing darkness, you could still detect them (hear them more precisely) as they came in from the fields to spend the night in the safety of the water. More later!