Monday, December 1, 2014

Arizona - August 2014

In August, we took a quick trip to Tucson that was half business and half pleasure.  We tried to get as much hiking and wildlife watching in as we could since the area is fantastic for both.  We actually did much better than we expected including a few big highlights.

For the first part of the trip we stayed at the base of the Catalina mountains.  This rocky and mountainous terrain is incredibly beautiful:



and the wildlife viewing opportunities are pretty good as well:

Desert Tortoise

 Black-tailed Rattlesnake

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

 By far, the highlight of this part of the trip was stumbling upon our first wild Gila Monster.  It didn't seem too bothered by us and just went about its business.  At one point I got a little too close with my camera (my telephoto lens was in the shop and a 55mm reach isn't great for wildlife) and it hissed at me.  That was my queue to leave it alone and I really got no decent pictures anyway.  I did manage to capture some video of this Gila Monster and (spoiler alert) the two others we saw later in the trip:

For the second half of the trip we stayed in Vail, Az which is Southwest of Tucson.  This area is also quite scenic and is a good starting point to see Saguaro National Park and Madera Canyon. 

Local Scenery:


On the drive back to our place one night we spotted another Gila Monster on the side of the road.  At first, we were worried that it was dead, but it turned out to be very much alive and it posed nicely for photos:

We have been to Madera Canyon before and seen lots of incredible wildlife.  But, we had never seen a Ring-tailed Cat or an Elegant Trogon.  Both are seen in the canyon but you have to know where to look and you have to be lucky.  We know where to look for the Trogon but if they aren't calling it is next to impossible to spot one.  Luckily for us, on our way back down from a long hike I saw some color move on the far side of the canyon.  It was a Trogon.  It had flown from one branch to another which is the only reason why we saw it.

We wanted to spend more time in the canyon but it started to rain and got really dark.  We made it out to the safety of our car just as the heavens opened and the monsoon rains began.

We made one last stop at Saguaro National Park. The driving tour is a great way to see the park and we were hoping to see something along the road.  Not one mile in our wishes came true.  Our third and final Gila Monster was crossing the road:

All in all, it was a very successful trip.  Not only did we spend lots of time wandering along beautiful desert trails but we also saw our first Gila Monster and Elegant Trogon.  This part of the country never fails to disappoint which is why we plan to move here someday.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Idaho - July 2014

We took a quick trip back to Northern Idaho this month to see family and some of the local wildlife.  The area around lake Coeur d’Alene continues to recover from years of mining. This is evident by native flora and fauna returning to the area in abundance.

The big wildlife news this summer was twofold.  First, a black bear was spotted in our family orchard for the first time ever.  It was up in one of the cherry trees eating before my parents chased it away.  Second, two families of Striped Skunks were living nearby and making daily excursions to our yard to graze on sunflower seeds dropped by the birds around the feeders.

In addition to these rare sightings (how often can you stand 10 feet from a family of skunks as they happily forage for food?).  We also saw dozens of Osprey (they have really recovered), three Moose, lots of White-tailed deer, muskrat, beaver and our first Idaho snake.  Lastly, we also saw two American Mink. Our first ever Mink sightings so we weren’t 100% sure they were Mink (versus juvenile River Otters) until we saw the video that I managed to hastily take.

Unfortunately, my main camera lens died on the trip so I have few pictures to share.  Luckily, our little hand-held Sony camera takes great video. We compiled all the footage from the trip here.

American Goldfinch:

Striped Skunk Family:

White-tailed Deer Fawn:

Painted Turtles:

Common Garter Snake:

Unknown Shrew.  We found this little guy beside a bike path.  He was still moving so I put him underneath a bush and he was able to standup a little so we hope he made it.

New Mammals:
American Mink
Unidentified Shrew

New Herps:
Common Garter Snake
Western Skink

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Florida - May 4, 2014

Where do we go to escape the California heat?...Florida.  Yup, you heard right...Florida.  I had this great idea to visit a bird rookery in St Augustine and scope out some areas on Florida's west coast as well.  I had been to Florida in May 20+ years ago for a golf tournament and it was hot and sticky.    That was southern Florida and for the next week we were headed to northern Florida.   It was supposed to be cooler and dryer there...

Boy those cross country flights are nasty even though ours went as well as it could.  6 foot 4 inch people don't fit well in coach.  Heck, we don't fit well in cars, old houses,or Munchking gangs either.  Luckily, we didn't expect to run into the latter this far from Kansas.

We found our way from Jacksonville to our hotel in St Augustine with no problems and retired early after the long travel day.

The next morning we were out around 7:30AM.  We needed to be at the St Augustine Alligator Farm gate by 8AM to be let in.  We purchased special photography passes for $80 each that let us in an hour early which is key to getting decent morning light and to avoid the crowds (so we thought).

We arrived at the farm before 8AM only to see about 50 people in line ahead of us.  Mental note for next time, don't plan a trip to the alligator farm during the Birding and Photo Fest.  Luckily, the boardwalks in the bird rookery are wide and all the photographers were very courteous so the crowd really didn't present any problem.

The rookery itself is a fantastic place to observe birds and their behavior.  You can get so close to these birds that big lenses are not needed.

Tri-colored Heron:
Tricolored Heron

Snowy Egret:
Snowy Egret

You can also get pretty close to the alligators which are below the raised boardwalk throughout the rookery:
American Alligator

Great Egret with nest building material:
Great Egret in Flight

"Ahem...a little privacy please..."
Tricolored Herons Mating

Roseate Spoonbill:
Roseate Spoonbill Landing

Wood Stork:
Wood Stork Gathering Nesting Material

Cattle Egret:
Cattle Egret

Tri-colored Heron on Nest:
Tricolored Heron on Nest

Another Wood Stork:
Wood Stork in Flight

If you can't tell, the photo ops are virtually endless here.  It's quite a surreal scene with birds flying left and right, others in the trees building nests, and all the hungry chicks crying out for food.  All that is going on while hundreds of hungry gators are just feet below waiting for one bird to slip and fall.

American Alligators

Wood Stork with chicks:
Wood Stork with Chicks

We watched those chicks get fed and amazingly even at such a young age they were able to flip the fish around in the air with their bills to get them to go down head first.  It was great fun to watch.
Baby Wood Stork Positioning Fish

Here's a wider view of one area of the rookery:
St Augustine Alligator Farm

By 10AM the light got harsher and we decided to call it a morning.

We spent the afternoon hiking at Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (Boy, that's a mouthful. Don't ask me to spell it...)  This reserve has multiple habitats and turned out to be an excellent place to hike.

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve

As we always do, we walked slowly and quietly hoping that the native wildlife would reveal itself.  We were not disappointed.

Broadhead Skink:
Broadhead Skink

Nothing gets your heart pumping like a venomous snake but this one was so small it took some close inspection (but not TOO close) to figure out it was venomous.

Pygmy Rattlesnake:
Pygmy Rattlesnake

Pygmy Rattlesnake Closeup

We saw another snake but couldn't get a good enough picture to identify it as it bolted quickly across the trail in front of us.

The topper to the hike was seeing and photographing an Armadillo.  I know that they are quite common in the south and east but we love these guys and even though we have seen them before I had never gotten a decent picture until now...

Nine-banded Armadillo:
Nine-banded Armadillo

What's the best way to cap off a day photographing and hiking in the south?  Yup, go to Cracker Barrel and have a nice cold adult beverage.   But, after walking in, we saw no bar.  So, we asked the waitress if they had a bar.  To which she said "No....but we have root beer"

So, my ice cold beverage turned out to be lemonade.   It was quite good actually.


Thursday, May 8, 2014

Florida - May 5, 2014

We only planned two full days in St. Augustine so today would be our last day at the rookery.  Once again we arrived before 8AM and the line ahead of us was less than half what it was yesterday.  It turns out that the last day of the Photo Fest was yesterday so that did make a big difference.

We were in for a treat at the rookery this morning because when we arrived the alligators were starting to bellow.  We had never seen this in person before (only through the eyes of the great Jeff Corwin) and it was amazing.  Not only could you hear the low frequency bellow but you could see all the dancing droplets of water around the gator and you could literally feel the call as well.

We captured some decent video of the behavior that can be seen here.

The rest of the rookery experience was quite similar to yesterday but I tried to concentrate more on the chicks today.

Juvenile Egrets learning how to carry and place sticks:
Great Egret Stick Battle

Great Egret Chicks:
Great Egret Chicks

Great Egret Chick Stretching

Of course, all the adult birds posed nicely as well.

Tri-colored Heron:
Tricolored Heron

Roseate Spoonbill:
Roseate Spoonbill

Would you build a nest here?
Tricolored Heron Nest Site

While the highlight of the Alligator Farm is clearly the rookery, they do have a decent zoo complete with all types of crocodilia and even some rainforest mammals like tamarin and marmosets.  But, we aren't great fans of zoos since we would rather see these animals in the wild when possible. The zoo appeared to have good sized enclosures and they appeared to take good care of the animals.

We left the rookery a bit early today since we had a 10AM boat trip booked.  The trip takes you around the St Augustine harbor and estuary and turned out to be quite nice. 

Osprey with lunch:
Osprey with Lunch

Atlantic Bottle-nose Dolphin:
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin

Ponce de Leon Replica Ship:
Ponce de Leon Replica Ship

We also spotted Least Tern, jumping Mullet and a Green Sea Turtle on the boat trip.

After a great lunch at the A1A Ale House, we hit the highway for a drive across the state to Crystal River.  The drive is pretty scenic and we did have a great excuse to get out and stretch our legs at one point.

Sandhill Cranes:
Sandhill Crane Family

The next two nights were spent in the care of the nice folks at Citrus Hills.  We wanted to check out Citrus Hills as a possible place to live someday so we signed up for the 3 day tour.  So, the next report will be a multi-day one since we didn't get out to see the local nature as much as we typically would.