Sunday, March 20, 2016

Celebrating Spring in the West Desert

I celebrated the arrival of spring by making a visit to the sagebrush-desert habitat of Utah and Tooele (pronounced too-will-uh) Counties Saturday morning. My wife has owned my time on the weekends for several weeks in a row as we've engaged in spring cleaning to prepare for some family visitors. All that spring cleaning gave me spring fever so going to the desert seemed like the perfect antidote yesterday.

I spent the first part of the morning with my friend Eric in Tooele County. We found a Prairie Falcon, a late Rough-legged Hawk along with a few Bald Eagles that should be on their way back to Alaska and Northwest Canada, and some of the first Sandhill Cranes of the season. The Sage Thrashers have returned from the southern climes and the Meadowlarks were singing up a storm in hopes of attracting a mate and perpetuating a new generation.

I love the soft spring colors in the background of this image of a Sage Thrasher. The blue is from a clear sky and the lavender is what remains in the image of distant, out-of-focus mountains under morning light. I guess that's evidence of the "purple mountain majesties" we sing of in America the Beautiful. Sage Thrashers spend a great deal of time on the ground in Sagebrush habitat so they don't often show themselves well for photographs, but this one was perched up nicely along the roadside as Eric and I pulled up in his van (aka our mobile blind).

After enjoying the wildlife and scenery of Tooele County for an hour or so we drove back to where we had met earlier so I could retrieve my truck. We visited a small stream near the cozy town of Fairfield to see if Wilson's Snipes might be there. A pair of Canada Geese was seen without effort, but it took a little fine-tooth combing along the grassy edges of the stream to find a handful of Wilson's Snipes doing what they do, wading and drilling for food with their long bills.

After photographing the elusive snipes I drove through a sea of sagebrush toward Soldier Pass on the south end of Lake Mountain in Utah County. I wanted to see which spring visitors had arrived from their vacation homes in more southern places. I stopped to observe two separate Golden Eagles along the way. Ravens, Horned Larks, Jack Rabbits, and Cotton-tailed Rabbits were in abundance. The Golden Eagles love the rabbit food the sagebrush habitat provides.

My first target bird at Soldier Pass was Sagebrush Sparrow. They breed in the area during the spring and summer months and seem to be among the "early birds" so to speak. I'm pretty sure I see some of the same individuals each spring so I went to the usual place and...sure enough they were right where I'd hoped they would be. First there was one perched up on sagebrush.

And then there were two! I suspect this is a breeding pair, but I'm not sure you can distinguish between male and female by plumage alone.

After confirming the presence of the Sagebrush Sparrows I crossed my fingers and went looking for Black-throated Sparrows. I think it is still a little early for them so I wasn't surprised when I didn't find any during the short time I spent at Soldier Pass.

I checked on the campsite my sons and I used a couple of times over the winter and was hugely disappointed by the damage people had done to the nice fireplace we had built for others to enjoy. The rock wall had been demolished. The campsite we had cleaned over the winter was destroyed just as quickly as the sun could melt the winter snow. Beer cans, shotgun shells, food cans, and pieces of assorted junk were everywhere. Someone even destroyed a juniper tree to see if it would burn. I thought about taking a photo or video and chose against doing so in order to make the few moments I had left a positive experience with nature.

As I stood in the desecrated campsite I heard the familiar song of a Juniper Titmouse, another desert specialty I enjoy seeing at Soldier Pass. I captured a series of images of multiple titmice.

This is a heavily cropped image to show some of the detail that goes into making the typical head of a Juniper Titmouse.

I'm always amazed at the diversity of bird species. Many have well defined crests. I guess for a plain gray bird a pointed head can make for a mark of distinction.

The songs and chatter of titmice was interrupted by another unique yet familiar sound, the laughing calls of a flying flock of Pinyon Jays. These nomadic birds are not often seen due to their roaming nature. Soldier Pass includes both sagebrush and pinyon-juniper habitat so it was a nice coincidence that I experienced Sagebrush Sparrows, followed by Juniper Titmice, and then Pinyon Jays. A small flock of about thirty jays flew over my head and landed just up the road from me. The lighting was nice and the sun was behind my back as I captured images of one Pinyon Jay while I could.

Apparently blue and gray were the official team colors for the desert birds Saturday. After the Pinyon Jays showed up every bird thereafter was some mix or shade of blue and gray, including the Loggerhead Shrikes I didn't photograph. Mountain Bluebirds and Western Scrub-Jays graced me with their presence.

I wanted to stay longer, but spring cleaning awaited me back home. I was already planning my next trip to the desert before I even left Soldier Pass. I was thinking of the Lark Sparrows, Common Nighthawks, Flycatchers, Vireos, reptiles, and more that would be adding new life to the desert in the next few weeks and months.

True to my habits, I stopped one more time along the route home because I saw a family of Yellow-bellied Marmots moving along a rock embankment on the Jordan River.

I keep asking myself if I missed a wonderful career based on nature and the outdoors, but I have been tremendously blessed in my career and I have a nice mix of people, work, and income that allow nature to be a bit of icing on the cake. I'll enjoy it as I can. As my Blogger bio states, "I love people and nature and the places they meet" (minus the part where people destroy the natural places they find).

Saturday, February 27, 2016

In Search of the Great Gray Owl

Last Friday I was up by 3:30 AM and picking up my friend Eric by 4 AM so we could start a five-hour drive north to parts of Idaho and Wyoming where we planned to search for and photograph my first-ever Great Gray Owl. Having found and photographed the world's smallest owl, the Elf Owl, several years ago in Arizona I was excited for the prospect of finding and photographing the tallest owl in North America, the Great Gray Owl. In order to increase our odds for success with the Great Gray, Eric and I decided to spend the night in the area so we'd have all day Saturday if needed. Despite being very cloudy, our first glimpse of the Grand Tetons was memorable.

We scoured several roads bordered by the type of deciduous habit shown below in our initial attempts to locate a roosting Great Gray. Unfortunately, our first few hours in Idaho were unproductive. The woods were extremely quiet and presented little to no actual bird activity.

After hearing and seeing a few Black-capped Chickadees pass through the woods in front of us I decided to capture a few images to test my lens and camera settings. The Chickadees were not quite the size we were looking for, but they were fun little birds to photograph.

We decided to move our Great Gray search over to the Jackson, Wyoming for the afternoon hours. We saw a number of raptors perched on power poles along the roads we traveled. One Rough-legged Hawk was accommodating. The low-light conditions caused the images of the hawk to look almost like a painting.

It's a simple image, but I loved seeing the under side field marks of a soaring Rough-legged Hawk as it made lazy circles in the sky above us. Since this species nests in the northwest parts of Canada and Alaska it is a winter privilege to see them in the western states of the US.

The Wyoming search came up empty in terms of Great Grays as well, but we enjoyed some other birds and wildlife during our search. Several distant adult Bald Eagles were intermittently perching on poles and flying over a field at one point. The images are heavily cropped in order to make them appear a bit closer.

Mammals took a brief priority over birds when a distant and lone coyote crossed a field on its way to a wooded area we had planned to include in our Great Gray search. 

As we were leaving our Wyoming search area we came across a male Belted Kingfisher that was perch hunting from a power line near a bridge we crossed. The kingfisher would occasionally fly down to the water to attempt to catch some small fish.

We were under dark skies again as we were leaving the Jackson area, but we stopped and looked back to capture some images of the Teton Mountains before heading back over to the Idaho side.

Back in Idaho and with the Grand Tetons on the eastern horizon we began the last search of day one for our elusive owls. The shadows of the trees were growing longer so the day was fading quickly.

From a distance the silhouette of a large bulky bird gave us hope. However, we soon recognized that large bird as an adult Bald Eagle as we drove closer. The eagle was facing the setting sun on the far side of a large deciduous tree. I tried for a few minutes to find a perspective from which I had a clear view of the eagle. It turned out that all but the one angle below were obscured with a tangle of branches. I like how the rays from the setting sun highlighted the eagle's eye.

The look from the eagle in this deeply cropped image is piercing. I was surprised to see how much detail actually remained after cropping the image so much. The capabilities of today's digital cameras, lenses, and processing software is impressive.

Further down the road was a Eurasian Collared-Dove that seemed curious about what we were doing.

The sun was still above the horizon when we encountered our first owls of the trip. We heard the hooting of Great Horned Owls and soon located a couple of them.

The owl below actually landed in the top section of a tree just where the last rays of sunlight were illuminating the tree. The lower parts of the tree were in the shadows so I actually said thanks when I realized what a great place the owl had picked.  

We remained on the road below as owls called back and forth to each other. We believe we encountered  two separate pairs of Great Horned Owls. One owl unexpectedly flew over my head. I pulled up the lens to focus and release the shutter as quickly as I could. Lighting and zoom were inadequate. I clipped the wings from the frame, but I was able to lighten the image to show the details. You can see the last bit of sunlight illuminating the soft belly and wing pit feathers as the owl flew away from the sun.

I captured the image below from a unique position. It doesn't appear that I'm looking straight up to the owl, but the image that follows this one shows exactly what I was doing to capture that image.

Eric captured this image with his phone. You already know I'm the crazy guy in the road, but you may have to look twice to see the Great Horned Owl at the very top of the tree. Believe it or not, I was more comfortable on my back than I was cranking my neck.

Just as we were about to call it a day, Eric spotted our first Great Gray Owl. It was way down the road, perched on a power pole right next to where we had parked my truck. The sun had set and the light was dimming quickly so we made our way toward the owl as quickly as we could without causing it to flush. We reached the truck and used it as a blind to get closer. A few vehicles passed and the owl flew over to a branch on the other side of the shaded road.

And so ended our first day of searching for Great Gray Owls. We were successful in the waning moments of the day.

Day 2

After spending the night in a local lodge we set out early Saturday morning and searched a new location for Great Grays. It didn't take long on day two to encounter four separate Great Gray Owls. Two of those individuals are shown below.

I captured short video clips of two owls and uploaded them to my YouTube channel. Once again I was hand holding the big lens fully zoomed without the aid of a tripod or monopod so it's a little shaky, but I'm always impressed with the range of motion these owls enjoy with their heads and necks. I saved the video to play best at 1080p HD so be sure to use that or your best HD setting for the best resolution.

Satisfied with our Great Gray encounters we turned our focus to some smaller birds and entertained ourselves by photographing White-breasted Nuthatches and a Downy Woodpecker.

A last-minute decision to take a turn down "one more" road before heading home resulted in a few minutes of watching and photographing a weasel in its winter coat.

The drive was long and the visit was short, but the experiences made it all worthwhile. It was a trip to places new to me and I was once again impressed with the variety of wildlife and scenery our world has to offer. I can't wait for my next adventure into our great outdoors. I love people and nature and the places they meet.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Very Short Documentary: Mountain Bluebird Feeding Behaviors

I shared some images of Mountain Bluebirds feeding in frost-covered Russian olive trees in my last post. This time I'm sharing a very short documentary consisting of several video clips of some of the feeding behaviors of these beautiful birds. Some of the unique moments are shown in real and slow motion to more fully present them. The bright blue colors of the male Mountain Bluebirds contrasts beautifully with the frost-covered trees.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Bluebirds, Russian Olives, and the Hoarfroast

Darkness and a thick fog covered the valley and the temperature was 5° Fahrenheit (-15 Celsius) when my friend Eric and I set out to look for birds and other wildlife this past Saturday morning. We expected to find some wintering raptors, and we did, but the highlight of our morning came unexpectedly as the sun rose over the mountains and began to dissipate the thick blanket of fog. As the first rays of the morning sun shone on the some nearby Russian olive trees we found ourselves engulfed by a winter wonderland--every tree, stem, and blade of grass was clothed in hoarfrost. Tiny crystal upon tiny crystal had formed overnight as water vapor molecules from the fog turned from a gas to a solid state upon contact with the subfreezing surfaces of the ground and plants.

I took in the scene by looking northward toward trees that remained in the morning shade of the mountain.

And then turned to look southward toward trees in full sunlight. It was a moment I appreciated as much as I could because I knew that it would not last.

The quiet and impressive scene was soon punctuated by the bright blue flashes and morning calls of male Mountain Bluebirds flying into and feeding on the fruit of several Russian olive trees. We approached and waited. Waited and approached. Eventually we stood in awe as birds came and went and allowed us to observe them gorging themselves with the olive fruit. It was a feast for Bluebirds, a few Robins, and a lone Cedar Waxwing.

One bird allowed a sequence of images to be captured as it plucked, tossed, and swallowed the fruit of the Russian olive. I was pleased to capture the first action shot below with the olive midair and to see the tongue of the bird revealed in each subsequent image. The camera captured and froze moments in time that happen so quickly we miss them completely with the naked eye alone.

American Robins came and went in small numbers. They spent most of their time, however, feeding deeper within the trees where tangles of branches made it difficult to capture a focused image. One bird did allow a brief opportunity to capture an image that shows the beautiful contrast of colors I enjoyed while watching them feed in the frosted trees.

A color-muted female Mountain Bluebird with only a touch of blue in her wings struck me as rather content. She sat still in the same perch while other birds came and went busily. She was soft and fluffy, puffing her feathers to provide insulation against the frigid temperatures. Her still, soft, and calm presence represented warmth and brought a sense of peace to me. The bright blue color of the males was striking, especially against the white frost, but the lone female spoke volumes to me without all the activity and flashiness of the males.

What I saw and experienced that freezing yet beautiful morning will be forever visible in my mind. I've shared these images and my experience hoping that you might feel some sense of the peace and appreciation we felt. It was a blessing to witness.

I have a very short documentary I've created from video I captured to show some of the unique behaviors we observed as the birds went about their simple survival routines. I'll be sharing that video in the next few days.