Sweetwater Wetlands Great Horned Owl

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The Owl. Sony HX400V at 2400mm equivalent field of view.

Sweetwater Wetlands in Tucson Arizona was one of the first “municipal wetlands” in the US: waste-water reclamation ponds converted to a birding destination. This year they took Sweetwater off-line and replaced it with a new, modern facility down the road, but it has become such a poplar and well-known birding spot in the Tucson area that they are still pumping enough water to keep the ponds full. August us not the time to visit, but it was when we were in Tucson, and it is still good enough birding not to miss. We were, in fact, there three times, once in the early evening and once in the early morning on our own, and again in the early morning with a group from the Tucson Birding Festival.

On the first visit we walked up on a Great Horned Owl sitting between the trail and the pond. We pretty much photographed it from every angle and framed it with the full range of the zoom on the Sony HX400V.

When we walked on the bird was still sitting there. The next morning a group of birders had already found the Owl when we got to that side of the ponds. In fat they had seen it take a Coot, behead it, and fly up to a branch to eat it. Again we took all the photos we wanted before the Owl had had its fill.

Sweetwater Wetlands, of course has other attractions, especially in other seasons, but a Great Horned Owl is always a treat.

Madera Canyon 8/2044

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Coming up through the grasslands to Madera Canyon. In-camera HDR with some "creative" processing on the sky.

Madera Canyon is one of the first birding destinations I ever visited. It is primarily known for Buff-collard Nightjar (in the grasslands on the way in), Elph Owl, and hummingbirds…some of the rarest Hummers in the US visit the feeders at Santa Rita Lodge in the Canyon on a semi-regular basis. In recent years the upper Canyon has also become a reliable spot for Elegant Trogon, and this year, though I was not aware of it before our visit, a bevy of Montezuma Quail has been regular along the watercourse behind the Lodge. Madera Canyon is about 45 minutes south of downtown Tucson, and we’ll worth a visit any time you are in the area.

As mentioned in the Photoprowl on the Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum, on this trip I was traveling light with a single superzoom Point & Shoot camera: the Sony HX400V.

We had only a very short time to visit the Canyon one morning before the vendor hours at the Tucson Birding Festival, so we knew Trogon was pretty much out of the question. Though they have been seen and heard as low as the Lodge, to really have a good chance you have to hike well up form the end of the Canyon road. We parked at the Amphitheater and Nature Trail parking lot and hiked back among the creek bed behind the Lodge to the Parking lot below the Lodge, then climbed back up the Lodge to finish with some Hummingbird watching at the feeders. The creek was, in August, dry, but the Canyon was still lush and green. We found wildflowers on the slopes and birds deeper in.

The first bird we saw in the Canyon was the Rock Wren, but the most common bird was the Mexican Jay. A large flock was working along the water course, looking for bugs. Ash-throated Flycatcher was also there, and, of course Squirrels and Lizards, but the real treat was finding the bevy of Montezuma Quail, though we only saw the sentry bird up on a rock standing guard. The rest of the birds were well down in the brush. This was my first good look at a Montezuma Quail. I had only ever seen them once before…a bevy running across the road in my headlights as I drove in Southeast Arizona many years ago. This was better :-)

Of course the upper Canyon has a beauty all its own, unique the the Sky Islands of the Southwest.

We spent the last half hour of our visit sitting on the benches overlooking the feeders at the Santa Rita Lodge. As mentioned, these feeders have attracted some of the rarest Hummingbirds to be seen North of the Mexican Boarder, along with all of the Arizona specialities. Broad-billed was by far the most common on our visit, and as I have written elsewhere, it really deserves a better name! It is a magnificent hummingbird, but of course that name is already taken. Besides the Broad-billed we also saw a few Anna’s, and I am sure if we had had more time we would have seen all the usual Madera Canyon Hummers.

Of course the highlight of the visit is the worst photo. A Brown-capped Starthroat had been reported at the feeder nearest the building and there were several photographers camped out on and behind the nearest bench. I had to settle for distant, and somewhat random shots, hoping to catch the bird. In this image it is the very large Hummer making the Broad-bills look small.

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I hope on my next visit to Madera Canyon to have more time. The Canyon deserves more. :-)

Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum 8/13/2014

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Looking out over the Desert Experience walk.

The Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum is the highest rated destination in the Tucson area, according to TripAdvisor…and I will certainly not argue the point. Personally, I would not consider any trip to Southern Arizona complete without a morning at the Desert Museum. If you have never visited, “museum” hardly does the place justice, and may, in fact, be misleading. The SDM is, certainly, part traditional Museum, with display rooms and exhibits, but it is also part Zoo with many of the animals of the region in modern natural enclosures, and part Botanical garden. In addition to a formal Cactus garden featuring native species, and demonstration Desert Gardens, the grounds themselves are layed out and landscaped to represent the best features of the region. For birders and bird lovers, the animal displays include a large Aviary with free flying birds of the Sonoran Desert (currently closed for renovation, but scheduled to reopen this fall) and a smaller (but very intense) Hummingbird Aviary…but, of course, the grounds are home to many of the native species of the area. It is a great birding destination in its own right.

I was in Tucson recently for the 4th annual Tucson Birding and Nature Festival and my colleague and I did spend a morning at the SDM. For this trip I limited myself to a single camera: the Sony DSC-HX400V… though it is hardly a limitation with its 24mm-1200mm equivalent zoom, excellent macro capability, and exposure modes to handle any conceivable situation.

The Museum opens at 7:30 AM during the summer months and you want to be there early to catch the desert animals still active, especially in the AugustĀ  heat. We were still on our way to the Mountain Woodlands displays to try to catch the Mountain Lion when we came across this group of Rock Squirrels. Touch any image in the tiled gallery below to see a larger version. The Rock Squirrels were exceptionally cooperative and allowed me to frame them with a variety of zoom settings for everything from intimate portraits to group shots

It took several passes by the Mountain Lion enclosure before we caught the cat prowling, but it was worth the effort. The SDM had some of the first “natural” wildlife enclosures, built of artifical stone, with water features and native plantings, to resemble as closely as possible the actual habitat of the animals on display. The Mountain Lion enclosure is particularly successful, especially from a photographer’s point of view. It is possible to catch images that could pass for shots from the wild.

Further along the same loop of trail you come to Cat Canyon, another natural enclosure housing the smaller cats of the Sonoran Desert: Ocelot and Bobcat, along with the Porcupine and a Grey Fox. In my experience the smaller cats and other animals here are hard to see even in the enclosures intended to display them. The enclosure features two levels…a lower level with windows looking on the floor of the canyons and an upper level looking down into the canyons. The Ocelot was just barely visible on a high shelf behind vegetation, I did not see the Porcupine or Fox, but the Bobcats were both out. The full profile shot is through the glass on the lower level. The others are from the top.

Also in the Mountain Forest and Desert Grassland section you will find the Mexican Wolf and White-tailed Deer enclosures, along with a minature Prairie Dog town behind glass.

We decided to take the Desert Loop Trail early, before the full heat of the August day desended. When I first saw the Coyote standing the shade of of the mesquite tree I thought it was a wild visitor to the SDM. The fine mesh fence that encloses the Coyotes is all but invisible from some angles. The Cactus Wrens are indeed wild, and we were happy to find our first Fishhook Cactus in bloom.

Life on the Rocks is a new display, not yet completed, which is the SDM’s most ambitious attempt at a natural enclosure yet.

One of my favorite enclosures is the Hummingbird Aviary. It is not big but the Hummingbirds have space to fly and feed naturally and often perch within a foot or two of quiet visitors. Most of these images were taken at less that 600mm equivalent field of view. The Aviary uses special feeders, developed at the SDM by one of the volunteers, which do not attract bees. This has made a major difference in the Aviary since my last visit. Both the hummingbirds and the visitors can be more relaxed. :-) Though there are more species in the Aviary I was able to get decent shots of Anna’s, Costa’s, and Black-chinned (the western cognate of the Ruby-throated).

Next to the Hummingbird Aviary is a small Butterfly Oasis with plants to attract a variety of Sonoran Desert and Southwest species. The well worn Red-spotted Purples would not sit still for me. Monarchs and Gulf Fritillaries were easier, and of course the Green Shield Bug sat perfectly still and allowed a true macro at about 80mm equivalent field of view. Away from the special plantings of the oasis the most common Butterfly was the Gulf Fritillery, which we saw in every section of the SDM.

We continued around past the main Aviary, which was temporary closed for renovation. When open it is my favorite spot at the SDM. The renovated Aviary will, according to a volunteer we met, have even more species. Beyond the Aviary you come to the Desert Bighorn Sheep enclosure and another of the two level enclosures…thus one with underwater and above water views of Beaver and River Otter. The beavers were in their den which has a glass wall. Pressing the light switch gives you a glimpse of them. The Otters, on the other hand, were active and playful. It might be anthropomorphic to say, but nothing in the natural world seems to have as much fun as an Otter at play. The water of the Beaver and Otter enclosures attracts dragonflies, like the big brilliant Flame Skimmer and the smaller Blue Dasher.

Flowing water and plantings attract just about every native bird to the grounds of the SDM, and the same factors make Lizards abundant along the paths everywhere. Zibra-tailed Lizards is the most striking, but there are also Sonoran Desert Whiptails and Eastern Collared Lizard. We also encountered a Chuckwalla.

Though August is not prime flowering season no visit to the SDM is complete without a little time in the Cactus Garden.

Though the Earth Sciences Display comes early in the usual path through the SDM, I always skip it and leave it until near the end of my visit…not because I don’t like it…it is one of my favorites, but because it is underground and relatively cool. In August, that makes a difference as the day warms up. You enter the display through a well designed and constructed replica of a natural limestone cavern…and a wet cave at that. You can even choose the narrow loop that gives you something like the sense of wriggling through a living cave. Deep in the heart of the display there are two rooms, one devoted to a geological history of the Sonoran Desert region, and one filled with mineral specimens on display.

The Reptile House and Aquarium are in the building to the right and left of the main entrance to the SDM, and are, like the Earth Science display, best left to the last, especially in August when you will, by then, need some relief from the sun and heat (the Aquarium is directly behind the gift shop). The images here were all taken without flash in the subdued light of the enclosures using the Sony HX400V’s Anti-Motion Blur mode.

Though it is not the most typical creature of the SDM, I will finish with an another image of the Flame Skimmer we found in the Desert Garden display…just because I like it! And I can almost guarantee that you will find something to like on any visit to the Tucson Sonoran Desert Museum!

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