Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Wednesday's with Audubon, Chapter 1

Maria and I received a wonderful belated wedding present from her great aunt and uncle this autumn in the form of John J. Audubon's journals. Compiled into two books and edited by his granddaughter, Maria R. Audubon, this incredible compilation was published in 1897, and provides for a fascinating insight into the life of the great explorer and ornithologist.

The books themselves are pieces of history, and demand a certain reverence and delicacy that is, at times, hard to maintain while adventuring along the Missouri River with J.J. Audubon. The binding of these books is so old that you have to cut the pages apart with a sharp knife as you progress through the stories (every two pages are actually attached on the right margin, so page 13 skips right to page 16 unless you lacerate the right-side margin to reveal pages 14 and 15).

I didn't know they ever bound books this way, but I guess it makes sense. It reminds me of a newspaper, as if they'd print the entire book out on one long sheet of paper, or several long sheets, and then fold them back in on themselves intermittently for a strong, non-adhesive binding. Fascinating!
My aspiration is to read a section each week and reproduce its highlights here every Wednesday, to the best of my ability, such that I can share these incredibly cool stories with all who are interested.

John J. Audubon's life began rather inauspiciously, on an unknown day, in an unknown year, on the French island of Santo Domingo (modern Dominican Republic). Audubon's mother was killed in a slave insurrection soon after his birth, and his father resettled in Nantes, France, where he remarried. With little knowledge of his early childhood, and none about his birth, Audubon's journals actually begin with a description of his father's: "John Audubon, my grandfather, was born and lived at the small village of Sable d'Olhonne, and was by trade a very humble fisherman. He appears to have made up for that want of wealth by the number of his children, twenty-one of whom he raised to man and womanhood...When my father had reached the age of twelve years, his father presented him with a coarse shirt, a stick, his blessing, and urged him to go and seek means for his future support...Some kind whaler or cod-fisherman took him on board as a "Boy"."

Audubon's father slowly grew in strength and skill. He achieved his own command of a fishing vessel at twenty-one, and owned several small crafts by twenty-eight, with which he sailed to the Caribbean, where he plied his trade until he could buy a small estate.  Within ten years, John Woodhouse Audubon was called to serve in the French navy, and he worked for both Rochambeau and Lafayette during the American Revolution,  "The war between England and her child of the West."

By his own account, Audubon took after his father, both in appearance and disposition: "My father and I were of the same height and stature, say about five feet ten inches, erect, and with muscles of steel; his manners were those of a most polished gentleman, for those and his natural understanding had been carefully improved both by observation and self-education. In temper we much resembled each other also, being warm, irascible, and at times violent; but it was like the blast of a hurricane, dreadful for a time, then calm almost instantly returned."

Despite the rather ruff-looking portrait that Audubon provides of his farther, he grew up in exceptional comfort. In fact his first vivid memory from France was of their pet monkey deliberately killing their pet parrot as it squawked for its morning meal: "I was tranquilized, the monkey was forever afterward chained, and Mignonne buried with all the pomp of a cherished lost one."

While Aududon's father insisted that he learn the value of hard work and perseverance from a young age, it was perhaps Audubon's stepmother who won out in the early years: "My stepmother, who was devotedly attached to me (she had no children of her own), far too much for my own good, was desirous that I should be brought up to live and die like a gentleman. She therefore completely spoiled me, hid my faults, boasted to every one of my youthful merits, and worse than all, said frequently in my presence that I was the handsomest boy in France."

It was assumed that Audubon would follow in his fathers footsteps and serve either as an officer in the French military or as an engineer. In addition to his normal schooling, he was afforded private tutors in mathematics, geometry, drawing, geography, and fencing. "My father being mostly absent on duty, my mother suffered me to do as I pleased; it was therefore not to be wondered at that, instead of applying closely to me studies, I preferred associating with boys of my age and disposition, who were more fond of going in search of birds' nests, fishing, or shooting...Thus almost every day, instead of going to school when I ought to have gone, I usually made for the fields, where I spent the the day; my little basket went with me, filled with good eatables, and when I returned home, during either winter or summer, it was replenished with what I called curiosities, such as birds' nests, birds' eggs, curious lichens, flowers of all sorts, and pebbles gathered along the shore of some rivulet."

Thus we can see that curiosity and love for nature beginning to grow in young Audubon, perhaps at the expense of other subjects. "The first time my father returned from sea, my room exhibited quite a show, and on entering it he was so pleased to see my various collections that he complimented me on my taste for such things. When he inquired what else I had done, and I, like a culprit, hung my head, he left me without saying another word."

That's all for this week. Tune in next  Wednesday for the beginning of John J. Audubon's adventures.
In the mean time, super bonus points to whoever can identify this bird engraved on the cover:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Autumn Staples

Visit any Phoenix pond between October and May, and you're likely to see 3 kinds of waterfowl. Mallards are year-round residents and are always well-represented. American Coots are also found throughout the year, but their numbers swell quite noticeably in the fall and winter months. In my experiences, the third most common waterfowl, and certainly the most numerous migrant, is the Ring-Necked Duck. I seldom take Mallard pictures anymore, but the Coots and Ring-Necks provide some difficult photographic challenges, and I always find them to be interesting subjects.

With the stark contrast between the dark head and yellow eye, and also between the black and white on the bill, the Ring-Necked Duck provides a significant challenge in getting the proper exposure. Too much light and you lose the detail in the eye and in the white stripes. Too little light and you lose the detail on the head, neck, and tip of the bill. With the proper angles, lighting, and exposure compensation, you can capture all of the facial contrasts, as well as the subtle purple iridescence of the head, and reveal what a visually complicated bird the Ring-Necked Duck really is.

Waterfowl often provide excellent photographic opportunities for a number of reasons. They tend to be larger, slow moving (except in flight), and not especially skittish. The physical aspects of their surroundings also provide for a fun photographic environment. Capturing the bird's reflection always adds another dimension to the image, and it's also pretty cool to capture the water coming off the bird, or congealing on its back.

This angle here afforded me a rare opportunity to actually see part of that infamous neck ring. I've often thought that Ring-Billed Duck would be the more appropriate label, and maybe someday I'll get enough signatures for a congressional overturn of the official name. When visible, the ring is a nice sort of cherry wood brown, providing a slight interim color between the black breast and dark purple on the head.

If you take enough pictures of a bird, eventually it'll have to blink! Generally they're much better about not blinking in pictures (especially compared to people!), and in fact it's pretty cool when you can catch them in the act. Like many waterbirds, the Ring-Necked Duck has a transparent eyelid. I assume this lets them see underwater, to an extent, without overly exposing their eyes to the murk.

By happy coincidence, this nearby Coot was in a blinking mood as well. I like how the closed eye, along with the leaning posture and bill slightly ajar, make this Coot look like its swimming in ecstasy.

Coot beaks present a similar problem to the Ring-Necked Ducks'. They're an alabaster white, with a bit of black. The Coot's slate-black body demands plenty of light to catch the details, but then, as you can see here, the beak often gets whitewashed.

It's a piercing red eye. When combined with the red shield on the forehead, it gives these birds a somewhat dinosauric look. In my opinion, their 'chirbb' call is also somewhat reptilian, as are their feet. Despite these interesting features, Coots are pretty mild birds. It's always fun and calming to observe them dinking around the city ponds.

They're not exotic, but these reliable pond squatters are always around to provide an easy and entertaining birding outlet for the urban birder.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Thanksgiving Fun

It was a great Thanksgiving week! Maria's family came down from Pennsylvania to visit, and so with them we shared the natural beauty of Arizona along with turkey and pie. There were not many birding opportunities throughout the week, but we still had some great outdoor excursions in the beautiful autumn weather.

Perhaps feeling a bit heavy, we decided to hike Camelback Mountain Friday morning, and later stopped by the DBG to get a feel for the Sonoran Desert scenery. Maria's family was very surprised to see the mountains contained within the city limits, and were very appreciative of the close proximity of so many neat natural features. Being a long-time Phoenix resident, I had come to take these sorts of things fore-granted, so it was great to see some of these Phoenix landmarks with that new perspective.

The south face of Camelback overlooks Arcadia and the Phoenician resort, but on a clear day you can see all the way out past Tempe, into Mesa and Gilbert. The change in elevation is pretty incredible given the close proximity of all the developments.

After some delicious reuben sandwiches, we rendezvoused with Maria's parents at the DBG for a more stylized exhibit of the desert flora. We set out around 3pm, not exactly a good time for birding, but the goal this time was a more in-depth examination of all the eccentric plant life in display--stuff I usually ignore unless it's hosting a bird.

The red fairy dusters were popular among the butterflies, and we saw lots of other interesting species in the wildflower gardens.

Waiting for us outside was a rather grumpy looking female Costa's Hummingbird. She looked a bit like she had been stood up on a date.

The Verdin is a desert specialist, and one of the few birds you can count on seeing at any time throughout the day. I didn't get many pictures that day, but I like here how, even from 30 feet away, the yellow head is catching the afternoon sunlight so well. It's unusual to see those colors so conspicuously with the naked eye.

Cacti have the reputation for being nasty neighbors, but these century plants have a pointy pension for piercing as well. Like many desert plants, they're beautiful to see, and less beautiful to touch.

There are certain areas in the DBG where the cactus has run wild. Like a den of snakes or some tentacled monster, these cactus patches swarm over any open space and other vegetation. Just looking at these prickly piles makes my skin start to itch.

Along with the Verdin and the Cactus Wren, the European Starling is another guaranteed sighting at the DBG. Of course, they're a guaranteed sighting just anywhere else, but it's nice to see them when pursuing your minimum 20-Bird daily requirement!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Close Encantos of the Bird Kind

I managed to squeeze in some early morning birding at Encanto Park on Sunday. Since I had been thinking I wouldn't be able to go birding at all this weekend, everything I saw and photographed was already a bonus. The first bird of the morning was a handsome White-Crowned Sparrow. This was a peculiar sighting in that there were maybe a dozen White-Crowned sparrows in this little area, but only two of them had their full adult plumage. I have never seen such a high ratio of juveniles to adults.
They all kept pretty low to the ground, so when this adult flew up into the light for 5 minute's peace, I quickly snapped the picture and carried on my way. 

It's been bugging me a little bit that I did not yet have good Grackle pictures. You can find the birds just about anywhere, but it can be hard to find good specimens for photography. You don't want any of the mangy birds that are usually missing feathers or hanging out in dirty/unphotogenic places. You also want to get the light at the right angle so you can showcase the Grackle's impressive iridescence. This bold contender was occupying a little rock in one of the golf course ponds. Although the yellow of the eye is a bit blown by the excessive light, I'm keeping the photo as it marks an important milestone. This is my first action shot of a defecating bird!

A nearby female provided another photo-op. She was more composed, or at least more polite in front of the camera. However, a few theatrics wouldn't have hurt. The female Grackle is perhaps one of the most dull birds you'll see. To be fair, she has a bit of the iridescent green on her shoulders and back, but it's hard for me to get past the monochromatic brown. I imagine part of my hang-up is that I usually see Grackles in dirty places, which makes the darker colors seem all the more corrupted, and it's hard to shake that stigma. Of course, there's more to a bird than its color, and I was glad to finally have a pair of Great-Tailed Grackles added to my photographic collection.   

Seeing this male Anna's Hummingbird in all of his scintillating glory was definitely the highlight of the day. I spotted the flash of red atop a bottle tree and snapped. This first picture was taken probably 15 feet from the base of the trunk, with the treetop being another 20 feet high (my mathematical wife tells me that means it was around 25 feet away). I'm including this initial picture just to give an idea of how incredibly eye-catching his ruby helmet was in the morning light, even from a distance. 

This precocious Anna's started to fly rounds between a couple of the nearby trees and bushes, stopping briefly to sound his trilling call, take a breath, and then quickly move on to his next checkpoint. I was very fortunate to have him stop close by and give me a great look at his broadside. It's amazing to me, given the previous coloration, the total lack of visible red when he was perpendicular to the sun. Looking at this picture alone, I'd never otherwise assume this Hummer had anything but dark grayish/greenish feathers on his face.

I was unlucky that he did not turn fully into the sun (just as well, it probably would have been blinding). Even this slight turn of his head, maybe 20 degrees, filled his face with color. I love that even the little side patch behind the eye lights up. The scaly green back and fluffy leggings alone would make this a beautiful bird, but with that scarlet headgear it's almost an overload!

I was leaving the park feeling pretty great. From no birding at all to a pooping Grackle and a super cool Hummingbird, it was already a great Sunday. So it was icing on the cake when this Harris's Hawk landed on the divider for the adjacent golf course driving range. He let out his recognizable, hoarse "scrawwww" and declared this telephone pole to be solely his property. I see Harris's hawks a lot on the east side of town, but this was my first ever in west Phoenix.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pretty Things

I won't be birding this weekend, so instead I'm looking over miscellaneous recent photos and sharing them here. First, for your approval, I submit here the fattest ground squirrel I've ever seen.

I've done earlier posts concerning bird tongues and bird feet. Now I have a couple photos of fluffy and fuzzy fannies. I just don't really know what to do with them...Bonus points though if you can name the two species shown here.

Perhaps the prettiest desert specialists you'll find in Arizona, Rosy-Faced Lovebirds are always great to see, even if they're eating your lawn.

This hummingbird (female Anna's?) was not the most colorful, but the soft lighting and salmon-colored flowers made for a great bokeh. Apart from featuring a female, there's something overtly feminine about this picture, and it's one of my favorite hummingbird photos. 

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Beautiful Birds at the Botanical Gardens

I had been having some difficulty getting quality photos at the DBG lately. The colorful birds seemed to be taking a break these last couple weeks, but they came out for the Saturday morning bird-walk with gusto! There were some surprising sightings to begin the day, including a Loggerhead Shrike and a Peregrine Falcon. Only a few minutes into the walk and I was already satisfied. At long last, I got some clear pictures of the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher!

It had quite the fuzzy fanny, and gave me a good look at the diagnostic white feathers on the tail. If there's white below, it's the Blue-Gray, and not the similar looking Black-Tailed.

Another highlight of the day was this male Cardinal. He stopped by to provide a nice contrast with the blue of the Gnatcatchers and the dim lighting of the overcast sky. It's unusual to see Cardinals this time of year in Arizona, and this came right after I had seen a female at the Water Ranch. Birding synchronicity strikes again!

He enjoyed the security of this Arizona rosewood tree and basked in the confidence that HE was the most colorful things at the Gardens today.

As we made a circuit around the Gardens, the Orange-Crowned Warblers and Kinglets began to emerge from the chaparral. There were plenty of Starlings and Mockingbirds , and one particularly audacious Curve-Billed Thrasher. He must be the sheriff in these parts. I watched him chase away two Mockers, a Cactus Wren, and even stand his ground against that the most heinous of nature's enemies...MAN!!! dun Dun DUN!

The other desert critters cowered before the awesome presence and authority of this mighty Thrasher!

It was a brief but brilliant morning of birding that both restored my confidence in the DBG and the payoffs of persistence (this was maybe the 12th time I've chased after Gnatcatchers for a picture). As a part of the DBG routine, I stopped by the Papago Ponds on the way home. The Wigeons and the Pintails weren't around today, but there was a peculiar Green Heron hanging out on one of the drainage valves.

His feet were holding on in such a way that it looked like he was trying to open the valve. With his efforts in vain, he turned a beady-eyed face towards the heavens, and contemplated his small, small existence in the universe. I like what this head position does with the rusty coloration on the sides. It looks like the world's most righteous ruddy mustache, gently cascading down his pointy face.

Something else I've been wondering about the Green Herons--where do their necks go? Other Egrets and Herons tend to keep their necks in the s-shaped wimple, but the Green Heron, like the Yellow and Black-Crowned Night Herons, can just kind of withdraw it. Cool birds, and curious too.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Weekend at the Ranch

This morning stayed overcast. The temperature held at a nice 60 degrees and the cloud cover stayed in place all day. This made for some GREAT birding, and some lousy photography. I saw three new birds today: a Northern Harrier, a Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, and a Ruddy Duck, and I've got the blurry photos to prove it!

After dropping Maria off at the airport for the weekend (that's not where she's spending her weekend, mind you), I needed to rebound. I got to the Gilbert Water Ranch nice and early, waiting for a beautiful sunrise and some avian action. The birds started to stir, but the sun just never really came up. A thick layer of clouds had rolled in during the night, and even as I write this now, they hold the valley in a dusky lighting. The birds and the birders loved the shade, and they were all over the place. The camera didn't like it so much, and anything more than ten feet away was going to be a blurry capture.

Nonetheless, the first bird of the day was a new one. This female Ruddy Duck was sitting, unescorted, at the dead center of the main pond. She seemed a bit surly, perhaps worried that the other ducks were prettier. While I assured her this was not the case, she still stayed well away and free from further scrutiny.


There were reports of a Eurasian Wigeon hidden somewhere among the dabbling ducks. Even though the Marsh Wrens kept me company in my stake-out, I didn't see any Eurasians. Soon, my attention moved on from the ducks to the local Coots, as it often does...

I've been taking lots of Coot photos lately, and this one may be my favorite so far, even though there are no Coot feet to be seen! This is the sort of pose you see Swans making in an ice sculpture, not so much Coots in a muddy pond. They're just full of surprises.

The desert shrubs that border the pond played host to the usual populations of Verdin, Abert's Towhee, and Sparrows. These chilly days have now brought the charming addition of Kinglets to the Phoenix area. With their soft yellows, bold eye-rings, and flashes of ruby and gold, they add a fluid vibrancy to the vegetation as it turns sallow in the dry autumn chill.

The Kinglets surfaced off and on throughout the morning, and at long last I had one perch just in front of me. Time seemed to slow down as the autofocus honed in. Kinglets can't hold still for more than 0.014 seconds though, and with the lighting so poor there was little chance of increasing shutter speed. As I pressed the button, the inevitable happened. The Kinglet had a spasm and then promptly flew off. See the crown? New bird number 2!

The always-handsome Lincoln's Sparrows could be seen flying in and out of the drying foliage at the water's edge. They never quite came out in the open, but I love that they have all of those autumn colors represented so well in their feathers and their choice of perches.


 The birds were moving around pretty quick this morning, but this Black Phoebe seemed a bit slow in the head. It wasn't doing very well at catching flies, and it seemed to be following and trying to imitate a group of Lesser Goldfinches. I was able to take advantage of his stupor to get close enough for some better photos of this usually skittish bird.


Space cadet

This female Northern Harrier was the third new bird of the day. Seeing this streamlined raptor flying low over the drying grass was totally unexpected. Even at a considerable distance, it was clear this was no Harris's or Red-Tailed Hawk. She didn't seem to be hunting so much as just terrorizing the Sparrows. She always kept her distance from me, but she continued to make her strafing runs throughout the morning.

The Osprey is a more common raptor at the Water Ranch and it is equally impressive. She spent a while on one of the constructed perches out in the middle of the ponds, but when she seemed to have a mind for breakfast, I began to really begrudge the gloomy weather.  She's pictured here retreating from some grackles. I always wondered why raptors let themselves get bullied by such birds. Maybe it's just not worth their energy to retaliate, but do they ever think of their reputation?

After chasing these predators around the ponds, I decided to pick a spot and sit for a while. I hid myself behind a couple granite boulders and waited to see birds came along to feed on the mesquite.

The Yellow-Rumped Warblers have to be some of the most commonly seen birds now in these late weeks of autumn. They outnumber the Mourning Doves at the Water Ranch, and would probably give the Eurasian Sparrows a run for their money. They typically like to stay hidden away in the trees and feast on insects, but every now and then they'll come down to ground level and forage.


This unfortunate Curve-Billed Thrasher was hanging out by the picnic area, and his unusual gait caught my eye. His right leg was missing just below the joint, and a large ball of scar tissue or infected tissue or maybe even a tumor had sealed it off. Despite this handicap, he was pretty mobile. He probably has one heck of a story to tell.

It's always a pleasure to see Say's Phoebes. They've got a bit of bulk to them, they're colorful, and they're pretty confident to boot. They're comfortable on the ground, in the trees, and hovering anywhere in between.


When this female cardinal flew into a nearby tree, I briefly exalted in the thought that my search for a Pyrrhuloxia had finally ended. No such luck, but the female Cardinal is still a beautiful bird, and they're increasingly uncommon this time of year.


 The Red-Wing Blackbirds seem to really congregate as the weather cools down, and I've been pursuing a good Blackbird photo in earnest now that they're plentiful in Phoenix. It's a tricky task to catch the black feathers and eye, while also showcasing the brilliant red and yellow shoulders. This picture came out a bit blurry, but I really liked the pointedness and sort of flame-like quality that the blur adds to the bird here. It was a bit of inadvertent artsiness.

There's been a funny trend to my recent birding outings in that the last bird I always see is a Snowy Egret. Solitary and composed birds, they usually make for good photographic subjects, and their methodical wading has a very calming effect on the observer. It was a lovely day of birding and a great day for the List. The Water Ranch never disappoints.