Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lens Envy And A Joshua Hawk

Every now and then I get this wild and crazy idea to do something wild and crazy. Now, I’m not talking about bungee jumping off a bridge above a wilderness New Zealand river canyon, or heli-skiing down a remote peak in the Wrangell Mountains of Alaska, or sky–diving out of a plane above the Tibetan Plateau and parachuting into some unsuspecting yak herder’s living room. What I’m talking about here is going out into a sub–freezing January morning to hang with a group of birders from the St. George, Utah Winter Bird Festival. 


There were a couple of field trips offered with the festival that caught my interest, and since I had no plans involving Tibet this past weekend I signed up for the Saturday morning photography trip. I leaped out of bed at 6:00AM, fired myself up with three cups of coffee, layered myself beneath five pairs of thermals, and either buttoned or zipped myself into nearly every single piece of outerwear I own. For further fashionista warmth I wrapped my head in a scarf, two hats and a pair of ear bags. I would fidget with my camera controls through one pair of gloves.

The group gathered at a local park and was ready to drive the forty or so miles to Lytle Ranch before the sun was up. The plan was to photograph whatever happened to be flying, flapping, flittering, fluttering, soaring, swimming, circling, perching, nesting, roosting, tweeting, twittering, peeping, chirping, honking, taking off, riding the thermals or coming in for a landing with feet and flaps down. 

As we bounced along out of town the conversation turned, as it naturally does with photographers, to different cameras and lenses. By the time someone mentioned they would readily purchase a $3000 lens they saw for sale on craigslist I knew I was way out of my league. I gently and lovingly cradled my point–and–shoot Canon PowerShot SX10IS while cleaning the lens with a lint–free cloth. 

This takes nice pictures, I offered glibly. 

The others in the car were much too polite to do anything but smile and nod as they continued discussing the latest high–power 900 mm telephoto lenses capable of zooming in on a condor’s beak from a distance of 17 miles. Control chromatic aberrations and a 53–pound lens the size of a stretch limo that comes with its own Sherpa and on–call chiropractor were among other topics touched upon. 

Jeez… I really gotta get me one of those.
Soon we were turning onto the dirt road leading to Lytle Ranch, craning our necks every which way in search of something even faintly avian. 

Oh! Look!
IMG_0739 LoggerheadShrike

It was a something perched in a Joshua tree, gray feathers all fluffed up in the frigid sunshine, a grapefruit–sized lint ball with a beak. We screeched to a dusty stop and out came the cameras. The consensus was loggerhead shrike. A half mile or so further and we saw another, and then another, and another. 

There certainly seem to be a lot of loggerhead shrikes. Shouldn’t we see roadrunners out here? I want to see a roadrunner!
Nearing the ranch we spotted a raggedly–crested phainopepla perched overhead on a swaying utility wire. I had seen these birds in southern Arizona but never before in southern Utah and didn’t know they are common here.


We parked the cars and listened as the trip leader pointed out places we might go to view birds. I wandered in the direction of a small pond about a half mile away, dreaming of thousands of ducks that would be there paddling around in the water, cheerfully waiting for me to show up with my nifty 20X zoom point–and–shoot. 

Walking down the path I watched as a great blue heron took wing and soared away over the leafless trees. Gone before I could rip off a glove and compose a shot (dang birds never sit still), I walked on towards an old orchard where birds have been known to feed on what is left of last year’s pomegranates. Here, white–crowned sparrows flitted among the spindly branches and rustled about in the crackly leaves but none were seen snacking on old fruit dangling from trees.

Pomegranate orchard

IMG_0784White CrownedSparrow
White-crowned sparrow

Not seeing any other birdlife of much interest in the orchard, I pondered for a time a line of tawny cliffs on the other side of a dry, wide wash. I thought it might be part of the regional ash flow sheets that occurred around 22 million years ago but that is about as far as I got in the identification.

IMG_0753Nearby Cliffs
My thought - 22 million year old ash flow sheets

I arrived at the pond just in time to scatter some green–winged teal off the marshy water’s edge. Was their departure due to my scarf + ear bags + hat arrangement that was doing a bang–up job of keeping my head warm? In tight formation seven small ducks lifted up and swooped away beyond the scrubby hillsides. I figured they would return so I parked myself at a perch in low shrubs alongside the pond, leaning against a thin tree, as much out of the wind as I could manage. I stood there in the freezing wind chill for a full 20 minutes waiting for the teals return while considering how much I did not care to test the strength of a questionably intact structure extending into the water. 

Questionably intact structure

Eventually a small flock of shimmering light careened gracefully out of the sky and landed on the far side of the pond. My poor little 20X zoom lens and 10X binoculars did the best they could. 

IMG_0756Green WingedTeal
Green-winged teal
IMG_0774Green WingedTeal
Green-winged teal

On the drive out everyone was hoping for one last sighting of anything, but I was the one who identified it first. Silhouetted against a cloudless sapphire sky, a familiar shape sat upright on a dark green Joshua tree branch shifting and swaying with the wind. Someone said golden eagle, but I knew better. 

That’s a Joshua hawk.
What the heck are Joshua hawks? No one had ever heard of them. 

You know… when you see what you think is a bird perched in a distant Joshua tree, and you have to use binoculars or a scope or that 900mm lens to identify it, but then it turns out to be just the spent blossoms or bent branches of the tree. That’s a Joshua hawk. 
Right! Of course! 

IMG_0780Joshua TreeAndCreosote Bush
Joshua tree and smaller creosote bush

We bounced together back down the dusty dirt road and soon turned onto the paved highway. I smilingly patted my camera and binoculars. We get along pretty well together, after all.

IMG_0777PondAt LytleRanch
Pond at Lytle Ranch


  1. Nice bird shots! And I think that's a sweet camera - and they don't seem to make them quite like that anymore without going DSLR.

  2. Thanks, SF! The pic of the phainopepla was actually taken a few years ago at the AZ Sonoran Desert Museum in Tucson.
    I don't very often see ducks unless I search them out, which was my intention this trip. The trip leader told us that we might see blue-winged teal at the pond, but when I checked Sibley's they looked like green-winged.
    And I agree, my camera is pretty sweet, all things considered!

  3. These shots are Great! Even though I want a bigger/better camera I don't want to be a camera snob. Do have to think weight. I'm very surprised you didn't just head for the cliffs. ;)

    1. Gaelyn - If there hadn't been that pond I most likely would have scampered across the wash. I really wanted to see the teals, though, and it was worth the wait.
      My camera is actually a fairly nice point & shoot. We make the best with what we have!

  4. We figured digital cameras were just a fad, so we stuck with little cameras for a long time. Two years ago we coughed up the dough for a Canon 1ti or something. It's better than our Phd (press here dummy) cameras but not it the league of the Big Boys. And it takes hd movies. sweet.

    Where are the pics of your cold weather birder gear?

    1. Dang it - I KNEW some astute reader would want a photo of me in my fashionista get-up. I felt like Charlie Brown all bundled up.

  5. FINALLY! An ID on that snag hawk in New Hampshire. I believe they are closely (as these things go) related to your Joshua hawks out there.

    1. LauraJ - Nice to have snagged an ID on your hawk and know that it has cousins in the southwest.

      Very glad to have been of assistance!

  6. There are some very interesting birds here. Thanks for sharing these amazing pictures of them!


    1. Glad you like them, Josh. My bird pix can be hit or miss, and if I get a good shot I am thrilled.