7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

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Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

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Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

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Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

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Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.

Beyond Birds: Other Animals at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

During our visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, my sister and I saw raptors and lots of other birds, but there were plenty of animals to observe as well. While the museum’s focus on species that are native to Arizona limits the number of exhibits, there’s a sense that the animals are very much at home in their botanical garden setting. Many of them come from the same habitat and go together as a result.

The promise that we would be seeing wildlife was given to us as soon as we got out of the car. The parking lot had several of these unusual “do not feed the animals” signs.

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We didn’t get to see any coyotes that day, but the bighorn sheep were out. They were so focused, that I never got to see the ram from the front end.

Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep (ram), photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bighorn sheep, photo by Kit Dunsmore

Thanks to the unusually warm weather that day, many of the mammals were napping in the afternoon. The gray fox was coy, with his tail over his nose, but the mountain lion was keeping an eye on us all.

Gray fox, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Gray fox, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mountain lion, photo by Kit Dunsmore
Mountain lion, photo by Kit Dunsmore

Not all the animals were furry. I spent some time watching frogs in the riparian exhibit. I never realized just how odd they look until I tried to draw them.

Frogs (I forgot to write down the species!), photo by Kit Dunsmore
Frogs (I forgot to write down the species!), photo by Kit Dunsmore

Looking at my photos from the visit to the ASDM, I keep thinking two things: I should have taken a lot more pictures of this remarkable place and its wonderful inhabitants and I am eager to visit again some time soon.

Have you ever been to the ASDM? What’s your favorite zoo and why?

Raptors Fly Free at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

While I was in Tucson in February, I was fortunate enough to spend a day that the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Despite the name, the Museum is really a bunch of things: botanical garden, zoo, aquarium, and museum, all dedicated to species that are native to Arizona. I’d visited once before when I was living in Phoenix in the 80s and what I remembered were the remarkable aviaries — huge netted areas you could walk through, observing the birds up close. But this trip, I was struck by the birds that truly fly free.

The Museum has two Raptor Free-Flights a day, and they are exactly what they sound like. The birds fly into an open desert area and perch on the trees and cacti there, encouraged to do so by trainers who leave them treats.

An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there.
An ASDM trainer sets food on a natural perch to entice a raptor to land there. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

There are no nets, no jesses, no hoods, nothing to constrain or hold the birds in any way. The only fence is a railing to keep people on the section of path that the raptors fly over. Visitors are warned to keep their hands and cameras below their heads in case the birds come near, and it was good advice. The birds swooped right over us, close enough to touch.

During the Free Flight we watched, they let out a barn owl, and then a family group of Harris’s hawks.

A barn owl perching during a Raptor Free Flight.
A barn owl perching during the Raptor Free Flight program. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
One of the four Harris's hawks that came out for the Free Flight.
One of the four Harris’s hawks that came out for the Free Flight. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

While one of the trainers told us about them, the raptors perched nearby, flew overhead, and otherwise captivated those watching. The birds sleep in cages, but are let out daily. Sometimes they come out, sometimes they don’t. They aren’t forced to do anything. They are fed well, live comfortably, and given the chance to fly away and never return on a daily basis. But they don’t. Some were raised in captivity, but others started out wild, became injured and were rehabilitated. The trainer who spoke after the Free Flight was over told us that the birds have it cushy and know it. Apparently their instincts aren’t strong enough to inspire them to leave the museum for good.

A Harris's hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases.
A Harris’s hawk with a trainer, free to come and go as she pleases. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Just because it’s comfy in their cages doesn’t mean the birds come back right away. Occasionally, a bird will hunt and spend a few hours on top of a saguaro picking at the kill, or will spend an entire night sleeping out in the desert, ignoring the signal that tells the raptors that invites them to return to their home base.

I was awe-struck by the faith the trainers showed in the raptors. They let them choose what they will do and trust them to come home again when they are ready. Watching the hawks circling together overhead and sensing how natural it was for them only made the fact that they do come back day after day all the more remarkable. They clearly love to fly. But life at the Museum is not to be discarded lightly. As long as they keep getting time to fly free and hunt if they wish, the raptors are content to return to their cages when day is done. They seem to know that the choice is theirs.

Harris's hawk perched on a saguaro.
Harris’s hawk perched on a saguaro. Photo by Kit Dunsmore

Unexpected Gifts on the Road Less Traveled

photo by Kit Dunsmore
photo by Kit Dunsmore

We spent Labor Day at Grand Teton National Park with my parents. Despite the holiday, the park wasn’t all that crowded. We were able to park at the Jenny Lake Overlook and get pictures of the mountains towering over the lake without getting jostled. We even found an empty table at the picnic area at noon. While we appreciated that the number of visitors was lower than usual, my whole family prefers to get away from crowds, so when my husband Kurt suggested we drive the River Road on our way back out of the park, it seemed like a good idea.

The River Road is unpaved and runs across the valley. It gets closer to the Snake River than Teton Park Road does, so we figured this was our chance to see the river. The road is 4-wheel drive only. Kurt figured this would mean even fewer crowds. He checked at the visitor’s center to make sure it was in decent shape and they said our car had high enough clearance and would be fine.

We weren’t on the road long before we all began to wonder if we had made a mistake. Initially, the road was covered in small rocks, bigger than gravel, with random water-filled holes in it. Later, it changed to a rutted dirt track.

Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we've gotten ourselves into.
Kurt and Dad look at the road and wonder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Even in our backroad-loving car, the ride was rough, with lots of bumping and jerking. Kurt kept apologizing to my parents for the bouncy ride, but they graciously said it was worth it.

The views we got looking back towards the mountains were spectacular, but we’d also spent the whole morning admiring and photographing the same mountain range. The afternoon light wasn’t as favorable for mountains to our west, and even jaw-dropping beauty gets old after a few hours.

Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Grand Teton mountain range as seen from River Road; photo by Kit Dunsmore

We were definitely away from the crowds. During our four hour drive, we saw ten other cars at most, a big change from the steady stream of traffic along the main road.

We also got much closer to the river. At times, the road ran right along the cliff edge. We stopped multiple times to get out and enjoy the view of the Snake River, which twisted like satin ribbon along the valley floor below us.

Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore
Snake River, Wyoming; photo by Kit Dunsmore

After a few hours of having our fillings shaken out of our head, we all started to wonder if we would ever reach the end of the road. We got out the map and realized it was nearly fifteen miles long, not five like we’d thought. We were lucky to go 25 mph along some stretches, so it was no wonder the drive seemed eternal.

We all got in the car again and gritted our teeth. We saw rafts on the river and hawks in trees, but no sign of the T in the road that would take us back to pavement and a smooth ride.

A pick-up truck came over a hill and stopped to tell us that there were bison ahead, some off to the left and some off to the right. We thanked the driver and got excited. We were going to see some wildlife!

We came over a rise, and there they were, between us and the mountains. Two bison wading through the grass. Close enough to recognize but too far for my camera’s short lens. Brown dots on green, but definitely bison.

Can you find the bison? (They're on the bottom right.)
Can you find the bison? (They’re on the bottom right.)

We were ecstatic and took lots of photos. Kurt kept inching us down the road, which improved the view and also got us closer to the end of our arduous ride. We agreed we’d taken all the photos we wanted and went on our way.

That’s when we saw more bison, off to the right, and closer. More clicking cameras. As we came around bend, we realized the bison were very close to the road. We were going to get a much better view. Then it became clear that they weren’t near it — they were on it. We would be driving right through the herd.

Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!
Papa Bison, Mommy Bison, and Baby Bison were all in our way!

The herd was at least one hundred animals strong and moving west to east, straight across our path. They didn’t seem to care about us much one way or the other, but the males had a way of turning to stare at us that froze my blood. We watched them sniffing the females, heard them grunting at one another, and saw one big male chase several others away from a female. There were calves in the herd, too, but clearly the males were in rut, or getting ready for it, and the females would be in heat soon.

Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore
Bison are big. And scary. photo by Kit Dunsmore

One ton of bison is intimidating to get close to. One ton of bison pumped full of hormones is downright scary. Fortunately, Kurt had previous experience driving through a giraffe herd and knew when to inch forward and when to wait. It took us twenty minutes to go maybe fifty feet as the bison sauntered past us. The animals got so close we could have reached out and touched them, but we weren’t about to try it.

Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.
Bison through the car window. They got really close to the car.

When we finally got back to the road, we stopped at the park lodge for dinner. All we could talk about was the bison we’d seen on River Road, bison we would never have seen at all if we’d stayed on the main road with the rest of the crowd. The teeth shaking and bumps were forgotten, as was the length of the drive. Our adventure had reminded us that the gifts of road less traveled outweigh the challenges.

Found Art: Heart Symbols in Rock and Cloud

When I’m out in the wild, I look for patterns and shapes. For some reason, the one I come across the most is the stylized heart common on Valentine’s Day cards. Here are a few I’ve seen over the years.

Double heart found near Brainard Lake; photo by Kit Dunsmore

(OK, I confess. These were in the parking lot.)

Another found heart, this one on a trail in Wyoming.

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Rock heart; photo by Kit Dunsmore

According to the rock expert with me at the time, the striations are glacial in origin.

And last but perhaps most amazing, a negative-space heart in the clouds, seen while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park:

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Little Matterhorn, Rocky Mountain National Park; photo by Dana Geary

Do you see things in rocks and clouds? What have you found?

Flashback: A Day In the Rockies… With Cameras

It’s that time of year: my parents are visiting us in Colorado. The following is a post from their visit in 2010, but I can guarantee we are out somewhere with cameras recording the beauties of the American West.

Rocky Mountain National Park

We were fortunate enough to spend last Friday up in the mountains showing my parents the splendor of the Rockies in summer. The mountains cooperated beautifully: sunny but cool weather, light breezes, abundant wildlife, and buckets of wildflowers. And we were armed to take advantage of it: everyone had a camera.

Kurt, Mom, and Dad shooting the landscape

In fact, as a professional photographer, Dad had two.   Mom records images she is considering using in her ceramic work. Kurt is just getting back into photography, and had a great time learning how to use the camera we just bought.

Kurt with the new camera

With so many art photographers on the job, I was more relaxed than usual. I still took plenty of pictures (over 200) of the natural scenes that intrigued me. But I also made an effort to get pictures of people, even myself.

Shadow self-portrait

Overall, my family took over 1000 digital pictures that day, which is completely unbelievable when I  remember what it was like to use film. At 36 exposures a roll, 1000 photos would require 28 rolls of film. I could spend a whole week on vacation and only shoot 4 rolls.  I didn’t realize how much the expense of film photography kept me from taking pictures.  Of course, many of my digital photos aren’t worth keeping, but I get more that I like now that I take so many more to begin with.

My Favorite Videos From Cephalopod Week: the Octopus and the Vampire Squid

As with most things, I found out about Cephalopod Week when it was nearly over. Fortunately, I can claim I was celebrating at the time, because I did knit an octopus while it was happening.

In honor of the celebration I missed, here are the two videos I loved best from Science Friday’s collection. (They are all great.)

First, Where is the Octopus? demonstrates the incredible instant camouflage these creatures have evolved. They don’t just match color, but pattern and texture, too.

Second, The Vampire Squid From Hell is a gorgeous creature that has almost nothing to do with its horrific name, but who cares? Make sure you watch this critter turn inside out. Every move it makes is beautiful.