23 November 2009

Paper Wasps

Melanie spotted a wasp nest in the back yard the other day, and its location goes to show how well wasp nests can just blend in. Paper wasps are known for often constructing their nests in conspicuous areas, often under the eaves of houses. However, they also like to construct them on the under side of branches and limbs, as is the case here. Of course, this picture doesn't do it justice since I photographed it from an unobstructed direction.

Moving closer, you can partly see a wasp on the backside of the nest:

And closer still:

I didn't see much in the way of activity at the nest the few times I've checked on it. Most wasps are much less active this time of year, and it might be the case for this species as well. In fact, I haven't been able to confirm the exact species because I haven't gotten a good look, but I am assuming Golden Paper Wasp.

Paper wasps are known for having a particularly painful sting, even as wasps go, so I haven't tried to stick my head into the bushes to get a better look.

And keeping with the wasp and bee theme of this post, here is a honey bee on a Mexican Blood Flower. Honey bees (most are the Africanized kind around here) are still very active this time of year. In fact, only on the coldest few days of the year do they seem to disappear.

The above photo was with a 300 mm f/4.0 handheld. I was unlucky in that it focused on the bee's body rather than his head.

26 October 2009

Grand Canyon

Saturday October 24 marked my first excursion into the Grand Canyon (and first trip to the Canyon since moving to Arizona over 3 years ago). The itinerary for the day was moderately aggressive - a 4 AM wake-up in Tusayon, drive to the Bright Angel Lodge, take a shuttle bus to the South Kaibab trailhead, and hopefully be on the trail before sunrise. We'd take that trail to the canyon bottom, cross the Colorado River to Phantom Ranch to meet some friends for a short 30-45 minute break, then head back over the river to the Bright Angel trail and back up to the South Rim.

Things went pretty much according to plan, though we didn't reach the trailhead until just past 6 AM (about 30 minutes later than we wanted). Our party of 4 was entirely out of the canyon by 2:30 PM, with some out by 2 PM.

South Kaibab begins on the South Rim at about 7200 feet elevation. The temperature was likely in the upper 20's. Sunrise occurred about 30 minutes into the hike, and provided for some brilliant red/orange lighting of the already reddish rock.

Grand Canyon Sunrise View
Grand Canyon Rock Formation
Grand Canyon View

About an hour or two after sunrise, photography in the canyon gets very difficult. The rock faces and bright sun make for very high contrast scenes that cameras just don't handle well without playing some tricks. With no tripod on the hike, I had to rely on handheld shots, which further limits some of the tricks that can be played to improve the dynamic range of the photos.

Around 7:30 AM the Colorado River first comes into view. The photo below demonstrates the issues with the high contrast scene. The shadows are too dark and the sunlit areas look bland, and this is after some photoshoping.

Distant Colorado River

With a tripod, I could have bracketed my exposures and merged them for a more pleasing view. Maybe next time.

Continuing down the canyon, the vegetation begins to noticeably change. The rim is lined with Ponderosa Pine and some fir trees. Gambels Oak are seen just below the rim (and perhaps even at the rim, though I didn't see any). Shortly there after, pinyon pine and juniper begin to take over. There are some yuccas and cacti on the rim, but these increase in variety and number through the descent.

Prickly Pear Cactus

A solitary Desert Bighorn Sheep was seen about 1/2 way down the canyon. It was first spotted a few hundred yards away - you can see it in the middle of the frame below the trail in this photo. You can click on any of the photos for a larger view.

Distant Bighorn Sheep

The sheep was heading towards the trail, so we picked up the pace and nearly caught up to it by the time it reached the trail. The sheep had no concern for us, and continued down the trail at a slow pace for a few minutes.

Desert Bighorn Sheep

It eventually went above the trail and posed for a couple of pictures. It soon got tired of our gawking and started towards us, making it clear that it had enough and wanted us to move on.

Desert Bighorn Sheep
Desert Bighorn Sheep

Another great view awaited us, with the Colorado in the foreground and great rock formations in the background. Again, the photo doesn't do the scenes justice due to the contrast.

Colorado River View
Canyon Walls and Colorado River

Once at the bottom of the canyon, we cross the bridge over the Colorado River. Here is the bridge and some views from on it:

Kaibab Bridge over Colorado River

This point marked about 4800 feet of descent.

Along the river and tributaries numerous deer were foraging among willows and grass. They were extremely tame, used to campers at the nearby Phantom Ranch facility.

While at the bottom, nearby canyon walls obscure the taller more distant walls. From this vantage point you'd have no idea how large of a canyon you were in.

We crossed the river again to connect to the Bright Angel trail.

Colorado River from Canyon Floor

After a steep 15-20 minute ascent, hikers get a view of just how much higher they have to go.

Bright Angel Trail Ascent

The first 60-90 minutes of Bright Angel has 3 or 4 stream crossings. The trail runs parallel to a stream for awhile, providing a nice winding line of Fremont Cottonwood trees and a cooling effect. Temperatures at the canyon bottom can be 25-35 degrees warmer than the south rim, and 40 or more warmer than the north rim.

Bright Angel Trail View
Stream Crossing
Riparian View on Bright Angel Trail

Bright Angel doesn't provide many great photographic opportunities as you reach the middle and upper elevations. I skipped the few that did occur as my focus turned to maintaining a pace and getting out of the canyon. I made it around 2:30 PM despite being slowed by a flare up of some knee pain. The total length was 18 miles, with 4800 feet of descent, and about 4400 feet on the ascent (Bright Angel trailhead is about 400 feet lower than South Kaibab).

Here is a shot of the team, me behind the lens, Paul, Xarold, and Chris:

Paul, Xarold, and Chris

23 August 2009

Low Desert Birds in Maricopa

My wife and I have lived in Maricopa, AZ for a little over 3 years now. Maricopa is located in the middle of the low Sonoran desert south of Phoenix - some of the hottest and driest areas of Arizona. The land is quite flat and only light desert scrub grows in most of the area. While much of the Sonoran desert is relatively lush, that is not the case in the surrounding areas.

The closest areas with decent vegetation and more varied habitat are the Maricopa mountains about 10-15 miles WSW, the Table Top wilderness about 25-30 miles south, the Estrella Mountains about 15-25 miles WNW, and a variety of washes that are dry for 10 or 11 months of the year (including the Santa Rosa wash that meanders through the town but only has sparse Palo Verde and shrubs).

Southern Arizona is known for its diverse wildlife, but most of that diversity comes from the "sky islands" - scattered mountain ranges reaching to 9000' providing sanctuaries and diverse habitat. Maricopa, on the other hand, is located in the middle of a dry, baron land that doesn't provide much shade, water, or cover for wildlife.

However, Maricopa's location may actually provide a lot of potential for bird life in the future, however. The town is by and large a new city, having really sprung up during the housing boom in the 2004-2007 era. Prior to that, it was a small agricultural community with just a few hundred residences. Now the population is thought to exceed 30,000.

How is this good for wildlife, and more specifically bird life? Well, it may not be good for year-round low desert inhabitants such as snakes, the Sonoran Desert Toad, and other hearty species. But Maricopa's location may provide an "oasis" affect for migratory birds. With homes comes diverse vegetation, bird baths, water fountains, irrigation, and man-made lakes and ponds. As time progresses all of the new/immature landscaping planted in the last few years will begin to grow and provide improved habitat.

In my own back yard our maturing landscaping is continually resulting in new bird arrivals. Orioles are becoming more common, migrants not previously seen are showing up fairly regularly, and more desert regulars are showing up. Below is one example of a migrant - a Western Tanager that has shown up twice in the last two weeks.

Our yard has attracted 5 warbler species including the Yellow-Breasted Chat, 5 hummingbird species, 2 oriole species, and lesser goldfinch (which take up residence for 9 months of the year) - in all 37 species of birds. That number expands to 45 when including sitings are ponds within town. While 37 (or even 45) is not a lot compared to the potential, this is not bad considering such low desert staples as Gila Woodpecker, Curve-Billed Thrasher, Cactus Wren, and Northern Mockingbird have yet to make an appearance.

16 August 2009

Brown Pelican in Arizona

A posting on a local online forum alerted me to the fact that a Brown Pelican showed up on a small pond (approximately 2 acres) in my hometown of Maricopa, AZ. Brown Pelicans aren't extremely rare in Arizona, though they are uncommon. Unlike White Pelicans, Brown Pelicans infrequently leave coastal areas, and tend to like deeper water where they can fish by diving head first from the air. It is a little odd that this pelican showed up so far inland on such a small pond.

There have been several cases of western Brown Pelicans becoming disoriented and ending up in places they typically don't inhabit. This made the news quite a bit in 2008 and early 2009, where cases of Brown Pelicans walking onto busy freeways, hitting boats, and one case where a bird ended up on a snow covered peak highlighted the issue. This bird in Maricopa appeared in good health. It flew around the park one a couple of occasions, and actively swam in the water. It didn't demonstrate any abnormal behavior that I could discern, though I'm not an expert.

The park where the pelican was seen (Pacana Park) is less than three years old, and I typically don't search for interesting birds at it. The vegetation is young and the lake is small, though it is stocked with fish. Other interesting birds seen at the park while the Pelican was there included Green Heron and a Neotropic Cormorant. Driving by in the past I've seen Great Blue Heron and Great Egret.

19 July 2009

Life of a Dust Storm

Dust storms are common occurrences during the summer months in the Arizona low deserts. The intense heat and nearby mountains give rise to thunderstorm development within the mountain regions. Often these storms meander out of the mountains and into the low desert around Phoenix, Gila Bend, and Casa Grande. However, there are often numerous factors that make these thunderstorms unlikely to sustain themselves.

These desert storms are powered by the uplift created by the intense heat and mountains (some of which reach 7000-9000 feet elevation). Unlike in the eastern half of the US, there are rarely weather disturbances (such as cold fronts) to provide energy to sustain storm development. Usually if either the heat or the mountains are taken out of the equation, these desert storms collapse. This is especially true since deep atmospheric moisture is not very common.

Late June through the end of September is the peak of the Arizona thunderstorm season. This coincides with weather patterns that bring in moisture, often from as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, or on occasion the Gulf of California. Dew points can reach 55 or even 65 degrees on rare occasions, providing more than enough moisture to fire up the storms over the mountains. Those rare 65 degree dew point days often provide enough 'fuel' to fire storms over the low desert as well, even after the sun has set and temperatures start to cool.

Dust storms occur when a storm collapses. The uplift inside a thunderstorm can push air as high as 50000 feet. When the ingredients for the storms dissipate, all of this air rushes towards the ground and fans out. This spectacular collapse of thunderstorms, while not unique to Arizona, occurs much more frequently in the desert southwest than other parts of the US. This collapse kicks up winds of 40+ mph, sometimes as high as 60 mph. Tree branches are often broken, some trees uprooted, and on rare occasions, light poles, roofs, and other structures are damaged. With those intense winds along the storms outflow boundaries, dust is kicked up creating 30-50 mile wide dust storms, with "walls" of dust reaching up to a couple thousand feet into the air.

The video linked below was taken July 18. The dust storm itself was not a very strong one, but the direction of approach and timing made it convenient to take a video.

Click Play and wait patiently for the video to buffer

Below is a frame capture from the lightning in the video above.

One other interesting factor is that these outflow boundaries can on occasion collide (i.e. if two thunderstorms on opposite sides of the valley collapse). If there is sufficient moisture, sometimes this collision can create the necessary uplift to spawn a thunderstorm. These sorts of interactions make predictions of storms very difficult. This time of year it is pretty much a daily 30-40% chance in the mountains, and 10% or so chance in the low desert.

08 June 2009

Boyce Thompson Butterflies

A cool spell (around 90 degrees) allowed for a quick trip to Boyce Thompson Arboretum on Sunday. The highlight had to be the huge numbers of butterflies, some of which are shown here.

Ceraunus Blue - there were hundreds, if not thousands of these

Texan Crescent

Giant Swallowtail - interesting perspective

And another Giant Swallowtail:

Southern Dogface

There were also several dozen Queen's, some pipevine swallowtails, and western pygmy blue's.

31 May 2009

Patagonia-Sonoita Preserve

A few highlights from a 3 hour visit to the Patagonia-Sonoita Preserve near Patagonia, AZ.

Vermilion Flycatcher (male)

Vermilion Flycatcher (female)

Clark's Spiny Lizard

Ash-Throated Flycatcher

Ash-Throated Flycatcher (tentative)

Female House Finch

Black Phoebe - When I first saw this, I thought it was a Black Phoebe, until it flew a little closer allowing me to see the light wing bars and pale yellow underside. The very dark grey or black color is seems to be unique among flycatchers with pale yellow undersides. Thanks to the BIRDWG05 maillist for help in confirming it as a Black Phoebe - just an abnormally yellow one.

Unidentified Bird (Flycatcher)

Unidentified Flycatcher

White Tailed Deer

Female Broad-Billed Hummingbird

Checkered White Butterfly

Other sitings (not photographed) include numerous Queen butterflies, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Gila Woodpecker, Norther Flicker (red-shafted), Blue Grosbeak, Black-headed Grosbeak, Northern Cardinal, House Finch, Common Yellowthroat, White Breasted Nuthatch, Bewick's Wren, Phainopepla, Lark Sparrow, Gambel's Quail, Barn Swallow, Canyon Towhee, Cliff Swallow, Song Sparrow, Broad-Billed Hummingbird, and Yellow Warbler.

24 April 2009

Arizona Butterflies

In addition to being a premier location for birds, Arizona is also a great location for butterflies. Throughout the year, my backyard will see Monarchs, Queens, Gulf Fritillarys, Black Swallowtails, Western Pygmy Blues, Marine Blues, Leda Ministreak, Painted lady, Orange Sulphur, and many others.

Today I happened to notice a large number of Marine Blue's in a patch of Blue Cornflower. This is a tiny butterfly that without careful observation, looks like a generally plain white-ish butterfly. However, with the help of a macro lens, it turns out to be quite an interesting little lepid.

The Marine Blue is close to double the size of a Western Pygmy Blue, which is truly tiny - perhaps 1.5 cm across.

My other recent find was another tiny butterfly in Madera Canyon in southeastern Arizona. Here, several Arizona Hairstreaks were seen basking in the sun. The exterior of their wings are green and orange, as seen here. However, the interior is a deep blue.