Thursday, November 27, 2008

Skywatch Friday: November Gold (Part 1)


Here in Sycamore Canyon under currently cloudy skies, the wind tattered Canna lilies are blooming once again before the cold and diminished hours of daylight kill them off for good.

A female great-tailed grackle sits atop a utility pole in Coolidge, AZ on November 2, 2008

The foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains are bathed in the golden light of a late November afternoon. Gus took this photo on our November 15th hike along the Sycamore Canyon Wash's west rim. November is a dry and golden month here also, but we get our gold from the grass and the late evening light, instead of from the leaves. It makes me wonder what colors December will bring!

Visit Skywatch Friday to see the colors of the skies from around the world!

Scroll down to see November Gray, photos I took this of this morning's rainy skies.

Photographer's notes: All photos taken with the Nikon D80

  1. Canna lily photo by Kathie 11-24-08 70-300mm lens 1/400, F 5.6
  2. Golden Grackle by Kathie 11-2-08 70-300mm lens 1/320, F 5.6
  3. Golden Foothills by Gus 11-15-08 70-300mm lens 1/500, F 4.5

Skywatch Friday: November Gray (part 2)

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain. It dripped like silver jewels from the twigs and tiny leaves of the acacia tree.

It fell like liquid diamonds from the eaves.

The heavy clouds obscured the mountains in a blanket of lead.

And the blossom of the canna lily sparkle with sequins even as its petals have withered and faded.

The once in every 10 years Thanksgiving storm arrived as predicted. Somehow for me it set the perfect mood for the day. Now it feels like November with this November gray.

Note: My original post, November Gold will publish in a few hours. but when I woke up to the pitter patter of rain this morning and saw the skies I couldn't resit taking these photos even though I'm suppose to be baking a turkey and some apple pie. I hope you enjoy these views of November Gold, November Gray. Happy Thanksgiving once again.

View more photos at Skywatch Friday.

Gotta go! It's time to get cooking!

Monday, November 24, 2008

My World: Signs of the Season

It’s the best time of day out here on the patio. The sunlight is soft and warm as it falls over the edge of Mt. Fagan. It casts a silvery golden luminescence over the slopes and into the sky. As I gaze off to the southeast towards the mountain, the air seems to simply sparkle at this time of the morning. It draws me towards it as if I could follow and find myself awake in a dream.

(Rock Wren by Gus Feb 2008)

I’m sitting here under the covered patio thinking of autumn and winter holidays. I am far from my family and all the familiar signs of the season. There are no honking geese overhead, no dry rustle of fallen leaves blowing about in the corners of the yard. I am in a new place with new signs of the change of seasons. Here I have the trill of the rock wrens as they bob along my block wall, or call from the neighbor’s rooftop.

Here the phainopeplas have returned to guard the mistletoe that is one of their food sources, the ripe berries red against azure blue skies.

Here in Sycamore Canyon the winter raptors have returned, and the Cooper’s hawk is hunting my bird feeder on an almost daily basis. Yesterday it once again dropped onto the fence along the wash peering deep into the brittle bush as if it had x-ray vision. Then I watched amazed as it dove deep into the foliage and was swallowed up by leaves. It emerged empty taloned and hungry and rose into the afternoon blue of a faded sky.

(Cooper's Hawk 11-23-08 by Kathie through the glass of the den window.)

This morning I am sitting here with my breakfast spread before me. I pulled a pair of pants on under my nightgown and threw on a sweater. I want to be out here before the light changes. I want to be out here in the magic. I notice that I am eating pumpkin muffins, and half a grapefruit. I am drinking Suisse Mocha in my red Christmas mug where a jolly snowman smiles back at me. This is the only snowman I will be seeing here in the desert. In another glass I have poured myself some apple cider. I realize I am craving the foods of autumn. It’s as if I want to eat the holidays.

The wind is starting to pick up as I sit here. We are in for a change the weatherman says. By Thanksgiving we could have temps in the low 60’s and rain. He said it has only rained one out of every ten Thanksgivings here in Tucson. I know that last year Gus and I ate breakfast on the patio in our shorts bathed in a warm autumn light. Today I see a few high thin clouds drifting across the sky. Are these the vanguards of the coming storm, or just a tease? I will find a new way to enjoy the holidays in this desert landscape. I am learning the new signs of the season. Like the wildlife around me, I will adapt and change and grow, but in my mind I will also remember New England where, at least in my childhood, we drove past naked trees over snow covered roads on the way to Nana’s house on Thanksgiving Day. The snow crunched under our feet as we traipsed from the car to the back door and entered the warmth of her house like an embrace.

Visit MY WORLD Tuesday for your own personal tour around the globe!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Skywatch Friday: Burrowing Owls

Blue sky reflected in water where the burrowing owl thought it wanted to live.
February 2008 in Sycamore Canyon.
(Click on this or any other photo to enlarge for the best view.)
Photo by Kathie or Gus with Nikon D80 70 to 300mm lens.

In last week's Skywatch Friday post I wrote about my search for a burrowing owl in a vacant lot in Coolidge, AZ. The post brought many questions about this interesting bird and I promised Jim that I would write a post and answer his and others' questions.

Burrowing owls got their name because they actually do live underground in burrows. They will use burrows dug by other animals, especially prairie dogs, but they are also capable of digging their own burrows if the need arises. They are found in the open country of the western United States and Florida. Burrowing owls will often line the opening to their burrows with manure to attract insects. When the dung beetles show up, the owls gobble them up. This small 9 ½ inch owl has long legs and is often seen perching on fence posts, or standing on one leg near its burrow. The males and females are roughly the same size, and the breeding season is in April with a clutch of 6 to 10 eggs. The young owlets stay with the parents for up to 40 days with both parents responsible for their care and feeding.

I saw my first burrowing owls in Colorado in the 1990’s. They had taken up residence in a prairie dog town and used the prairie dogs as a warning system for potential danger. The ever alert prairie dogs give a high pitched whistle or bark when danger is sighted. Then everyone disappears below ground until the all clear is given. Since then I have seen burrowing owls in Florida and right here in Sycamore Canyon. I had one show up here around Christmastime last year.

Burrowing Owl in Sycamore Canyon January 2008

It thought the drainage pipe in the wash next to the house would make a great burrow and it hung around for a few weeks until the rain came and filled the wash. Suddenly the little owl discovered it had lake front property. You or I might rejoice at such a discovery, but for the owl, this was bad news. It left the next day and I have not seen it back again since.

Water-filled wash after a winter storm. February 2008 Sycamore Canyon.

While I was bird watching in Coolidge recently, my son had told me he had seen a little owl standing on the ground in the vacant lot near the school. I assumed right away that it was a burrowing owl. I went searching for it twice.

Does it live here...

...or here?

I found lots of potential burrows, but no owl. Finally on November first in the evening I took a walk over there hoping to find the bird in the rapidly fading light of dusk. By then the dirt and scrub were all the same dull color, and I had just about given up hope. Besides, in that dim light, I was pretty sure my camera would not be able to get as decent photo anyway. Suddenly the little fluff ball flew up in front of me. I tried to follow its flight path and see where it landed, but then I made the mistake of trying to see where it had come from. When I looked back in the direction it had flown, all the clumps of grass and scrub looked exactly the same. In the dim light I saw an outline that I thought might be the bird. It even moved, but closer examination revealed a piece of newspaper stuck in a bush and flapping in the wind.

Due to loss of habitat, the burrowing owl is considered threatened in or endangered in many areas. To see a burrowing owl is a special privilege. I was thrilled to enjoy the company of the one that was in the wash next to my house for the few weeks it was here. I intend to keep on looking for the one in Coolidge. I hope it doesn’t lose its home anytime soon. But development is not the only threat to these little creatures. The vacant lot where I saw it is full of tire tracks from dirt bikes and ATVs. I can’t imagine that this kind of noise and activity is conducive to setting up housekeeping for these birds. In my efforts to see and possibly photograph the owls, I intend to keep a respectful distance so they don’t feel threatened in any way. I want the owl to be there for others to enjoy, now, and in the future.

Burrowing Owl in Sycamore Canyon January 2008

For more fantabulous sky photos visit Skywatch Friday!

To learn more about Burrowing Owls visit these links:

All About Birds: Burrowing Owls

The Owl Pages: Athene cunicularia

Wikipedia: Burrowing Owl

Burrowing Owl Facts Sheet from Saskatchewan Schools

The Peregrine Fund: Burrowing Owl info

Burrowing Owl Program

Sycamore Canyon: Two Birding Incidents

Sycamore Canyon: Burrowing Owl Confirmed

Sycamore Canyon: Evening Owl

Sycamore Canyon: Snow in Arizona

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My World: Sunset Hike in Sycamore Canyon

Note: All of today's Photography is brought to you by Gus.
Click on any photo to enlarge the image for better viewing.

Part of the attraction to living here in Sycamore Canyon is the easy access to nature. On Saturday afternoon Gus and I set out on a hike right across the street. Within five minutes we are crossing the big wash, gravel crunching under our feet. A gusty wind tangles my hair and I have left my hat at home, for I knew I would be fighting the wind to keep it on my head. The wind also keeps the birds down, but a few are brave enough to fight it. In the slanting light of late afternoon, My World is all silhouettes and shadows.

A housefinch clings tenaciously to a twig as we head down the path.

A phainopepla guards it's cache of mistletoe berries from high atop its perch over the wash.

Soft shadows fall across the desert grasses, now brown from autumn's dryness.

A cholla cactus with a permanent tilt still holds the remnants of the summer breeding season with the loose strands of a nest entwined with its spines.

I feel my spirit rise with the wind and take flight like a bird across the desert.

We cross the wash and connect with the dirt road that runs up the west rim of the canyon. I turn and look back at the neighborhood, a sea of roofs in the desert scrub.

This is new territory for me. I have never hiked up this road before. I walk ahead searching for birds. Gus follows with the camera shooting whatever seems to catch his fancy. For the moment, apparently it is me!

We've had unusually warm temperatures the past few days with highs in the low 80's. With this brisk wind and the sinking sun, I'm glad I have a long-sleeved shirt on over my tank top. I breathe deeply of the desert air and glance around my world. The low angle of the sun turns the waving grasses to gold.

A glance at the sun through the mesquite branches turns twigs to filigree.

Grandfather cactus keeps watch from his desert seat.

A cholla skeleton is a familiar sight in the desert. Its lacy bones are often brought home to decorate a house.

I keep following the trail, always wanting to know what is around the next corner.

I see a few sparrows hiding in the brush, and I hear the laughter of a Gila woodpecker as it flies across the desert. It tries to hide in the branches of a leafless ocatillo. I marvel at how it manages to cling to such a thorny perch.

Farther up the trail Grandmother Cactus is silhouetted against the soft violet-colored Santa Rita Mountains. We are far enough up the trail, that if I look in just the right direction I can't see anything man-made and I can imagine that I am as wild and free as the birds.

As the sun gets ever closer to the horizon, I know we must turn back. We've gone quite a ways and it will be a challenge to get down the trail and across the wash before dark. We did not bring a flashlight with us, and there have been reports of a mountain lion prowling the area. I am a bit surprised at this, since I have never seen any deer in this area since moving here a year and a half ago. Deer are a mountain lion's favorite prey, but perhaps ours likes to eat jackrabbits. we have an abundance of those.

The setting sun turns to fire in the sky,

then softens to shades of salmon and blue.

The road back winds down the hill, past Grandfather Cactus in the twilight where we can see the lights of Green Valley and Sahuarita just starting to twinkle in the distance.

Afterword: Yesterday I took our little dog, Blossom, for a walk across the wash on a lower section of the same dirt road. As we came over a little hill my jaw almost dropped as three mule deer walked towards me. As we were downwind from them and partly obscured by the crest of the hill, the deer kept coming. I saw 3 does at first and then a 6 point buck came out of the brush to join them! I did not have my camera with me, but I did have my binoculars and I stood there breathless, just watching them. Their coats were sleek and silvery, the buck's antlers polished smooth. They walked softly and slowly on their slender legs, long, mule-like ears twitching, searching for sounds. I watched the male trot over and sniff one of the does, but she was not ready for his attention. I don't know how long we would have stood there or if they would have continued towards me, but I pulled out my cell phone to call Gus and tell him what I was standing there looking at. Though I tried to speak softly, the deer heard me, and melted into the desert.

I hope you enjoyed your visit here today. Visit MY WORLD to continue your tour of this amazing planet we all share.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Hunting Lessons

Cooper's Hawk 11-14-08 by kathiesbirds
(Click to enlarge any photo for the best viewing)

After days of cool sunlight I awake to a warmer day. I have my windows open, but only silence greets me as the sunlight pours through the screen, illuminating my bedroom. By now the lesser goldfinches and house finches should be twittering away at the feeders. I should be hearing the “tcch, tchh, tcch!” of the hummingbirds, but nothing. I roll over tucking my thick quilt under my chin and speculate that a Cooper’s hawk is lurking about somewhere. I leave the warmth of my bed and, after dressing, take a look outside, but I see nothing.

With a cup of coffee, a bowl of cereal, and my binoculars, I take my seat on the patio. This morning’s warmth flows over me, permeating my skin and my inner being. I warmed through and through, the down-to-my-bones kind of warmth that only sunlight or a cozy fire can give. I search the surrounding rooftops and trees for signs of the hawk, but, I see nothing. Perhaps embolden by my presence a few lesser goldfinches arrive to pick their morning breakfast from the thistle feeder. Then the hummingbirds show up and I grab my binoculars to view a spectacular male Costa’s with his violet gorget flashing in the sun, the pointy ends streaming out far beyond his neck. Still, the birds are all nervous and jittery and few and far between.

After breakfast it’s time to process my most recent photos, including the ones I took last night at the Rosemont Mine meeting. As I sit at my computer in front of the den window a sudden motion catches my eye and there she is. A Cooper’s Hawk has just landed on the railing outside my window. I have my camera right in front of me, but the problem is that the side of the window I sit in front of has the screen on it, and that is where the hawk has landed. If I get up to move to the other side, the hawk will surely see me, and leave. I watch as it grasps the metal railing in its talons, eyes darting left and right and down into the brittle bush below. Are there actually sparrows hiding in the silvery foliage? While the hawk watches for birds, I watch it. We are both hunting, but for different reason. I want to capture an image, it wants to capture lunch!

I move slowly, waiting for its eyes to be diverted, but the phrase “eyes like a hawk” didn’t come out of nowhere, this bird is sharp-eyed and close. At only 10 feet from where I sit with only a window between us, it can see me as easily as I can see it. Though I try to move slowly and even drop below its range of view, the hawk catches my movement. In a desperate move it dives down into the brittle bush and sparrows fly out! Swiftly the hawk follows them towards the front of the house, and I assume my photo op is lost.

All this excitement has made me thirsty, so I get up and walk to the kitchen for a drink. Suddenly I hear the thump of a bird against glass, and I realize it did not come from the den, or the back windows, where I usually get window strikes. I head to the front of the house to see if I can spot where the bird has hit. I assume once again that the hawk has scared the birds out of the front yard bushes and into my windows. I look through the open slats of the shutters, expecting to find the outline of a bird body on the glass. Instead I find the Cooper’s hawk perched in one of my front yard acacia trees! Breathlessly I hurry back to the den for the camera, which still has the 18 to 70 mm lens on it from last night. I poke the extended lens out through the slats and start shooting. The slats of the shutters are working like a bird blind for me, for the hawk does not seem to notice my presence. Still at 12 to 15 feet away, I am not getting the close-ups I want. I quietly leave the window, and hurry to the den to change lenses.

To my surprise, the hawk is still there when I return. It grasps the tree branch and turns its head with eyes darting; looking, looking, for a meal.

I stand breathless and shoot, shoot, shoot. I have captured my prey, will the hawk catch his?

After many shots through the Low E glass windows, which lend a greenish tint to the images, I decide to see if I can sneak outside and creep along the side of the house to get a clear view shot. There is no grass to soften my footsteps. I try to tread lightly to minimize the sound of crunching gravel.

I think that I am doing good, but when I finally peak around the corner of the garage, the hawk is gone. I assume, once again, that it has left. So, I decide to walk the rest of the way around the front of the house to get a better shot of the brittle bush and fence where the hawk first landed. I want a photo to illustrate my story. As I step out from the corner and start to pass Gus’s truck, I once again catch some motion out of the corner of my eye, and there atop my roof is the hawk! Seeing me it drops down below the house to the feeder side and the fence where I originally saw it.

I hurry over hoping to get a shot of it as it flies away, and there it is on the fence. But the sharp-eyed hawk sees me and once again drops low, flying close to the ground across the wash, skimming over the fence towards the houses across the street.

I focus on the bird and snap away as it follows the contours of the land and the house where it flies up over the rooftop and disappears from sight.

I feel sorry the hawk did not catch its meal, especially since it was after these invasive house sparrows. As far as I am concerned, it can eat as many of them as it wants to! But I learned a lot about hunting from the hawk. I learned not to give up, to assume nothing, because your prey may be hiding right around the corner. I learned to use the landscape to my advantage and to keep my eyes and ears open, for that is the only way to survive in the desert.

It isn’t long after the hawk leaves before the birds return. Now I hear the cheerful twittering of finches outside my window. Then the merry laughter of a Gila woodpecker joins the cacophony of sounds. Outside my den window the house sparrows are at the feeder once again and I know that all is right in the bird world.

So, how did I get this photo of the Cooper's Hawk perched on the fence, outside my den window? Well, as I was sitting here typing up this story and editing my photos, he dropped like a gift from the sky onto the railing once again. this time he landed a little bit farther to the left, which allowed me to pick up my camera, which now has the 70 to 300mm lens on it, and lean over just enough to snap a few shots before it flew away. Also, I cleaned the lens between the first set of photos and these last 2. I think I can see the difference, can you?

Photographer’s Notes: I started with the 18-70mm lens, since that was what was on the camera. I tried using the programmed mode but with the multi-metering pattern the camera couldn’t decide what to focus on. I switched to sports mode which gave me the center focus I wanted without having to go into the menu and change settings. Time was of the essence! After loading the images onto the computer, I noticed the very greenish-gray tint to some of the photos. It seemed to matter at what angle I was shooting through the glass. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that by auto enhancing the photos, which sharpens, brightens and enhances the colors (if necessary) the greenish-gray tint all but disappeared. Some of these images are cropped and enlarged, but some are the original size. I hope you enjoy them all.