Joshua Trees, A Red-tailed Hawk And Waiting For The Moon

My recent camping trip to the Mojave Desert of southwestern Utah was slow on birds but I didn’t come home “skunked” either.


joshua tree 2068 ron dudley

Most folks think St. George is the hottest place in Utah with the lowest elevation.  They’re wrong on both counts.  That distinction belongs to Beaver Dam Wash in the extreme southwest corner of the state where the elevation is about 2178 feet compared to the average elevation of St. George of 2800 feet. One of the major indicator species of the Mojave Desert is the Joshua Tree, a type of yucca whose trunk is made of thousands of small fibers (thus it lacks annual rings) and can live up to 1000 years.   They have bayonet-shaped evergreen leaves that taper to a very sharp point and are arranged in a dense spiral at the apex of the stems.  This photo was taken near Beaver Dam wash.

The distinctive common name of this tree was bestowed by a group of Mormon pioneers in the 1850’s because its unique shape reminded them of the Biblical story of Joshua as he reached his hands into the sky in prayer (works for me…)

As a child in the 50’s my family drove the 1400+ miles between northern Montana and southern California twice every year (long story) and as we traveled south from Cedar City to St. George (long before Interstate 15 was built) it was always a competition between the five of us to see who would spot the first Joshua Tree.  My mother adored those trees.   Looking back I suspect it was an effort by my parents to keep us rambunctious and bored kids entertained and mostly out of trouble.  Back then it was a long, slow and tortuous trip.



yellow-rumped warbler 8815 ron dudley

 1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

Here’s a closer look at a spiral leaf cluster at the end of one of the stems.  Notice how the older leaves hang down when they die.  These trees help to provide critical habitat to many species of vertebrates and invertebrates including this Yellow-rumped Warbler (butter butt) but sadly Joshua Trees are critically threatened by climate change and their long-term survival hangs in the balance.



red-tailed hawk 8786 ron dudley

  1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM +1.4 tc, not baited, set up or called in

One morning on the dirt road leading to Beaver Dam Wash we found this adult Red-tailed Hawk perched in a dead Joshua Tree.  I was amused by how much the remaining cluster of hanging dead leaves resembled a faux tail on the hawk.



red-tailed hawk 4449b ron dudley

1/1250, f/11, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 220mm, not baited, set up or called in

Here’s a look at the bird and setting at only 220 mm.  The setting moon was still bright in the sky this early in the morning so I hung around for quite a while as I waited for it to get low enough to include in some of the images I took of the hawk with the longer lens.  I was barely able to include it by using my zoom lens at 220 mm and shooting vertically but…



red-tailed hawk 8796 ron dudley

 1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 400, Canon 7D, Canon  EF500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

the hawk took off before the moon was low enough to include in a shot like this.  Cropped differently (and awkwardly) this image includes half of the moon up top.

After a day and a half of looking for birds on this trip and mostly failing to find them we put our tails between our legs and came home.  It’s a beautiful and unique area and we enjoyed the sights as we explored mostly back roads but it was the weekend and lots of other folks had the same idea (since I retired I’ve become much less fond of weekends and holidays).

As I often say, bird photography isn’t easy.



Rock Squirrels

Today’s post is a change of pace for me involving Rock Squirrels, my own ignorance about my subjects and my evolution as a nature photographer.

A recent conversation with Mia brought up the subject of Rock Squirrels, a species that I was unaware of which embarrasses me a little because they’re apparently common in much of the southwestern U. S (including parts of Utah) and as the largest ground squirrel within their range they’re physically conspicuous.  The conversation brought back memories of some of the earliest nature photographs I ever took – images of some kind of squirrel I encountered at Farmington Bay WMA seven years ago.  I never did identify the species of squirrel and had forgotten about the images until a few days ago.  So I went rummaging around in an old computer until I found them.  Sure enough, they were Rock Squirrels.


rock squirrel 9030 ron dudley

 1/400, f/7.1, ISO 200, Canon Rebel XIi, Canon EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM @ 400mm, not baited, set up or called in 

I photographed this squirrel on May 6, 2007 in the rocks lining one of the ponds at Farmington.  I remember being surprised at how large it was (length 16 – 20″ and wt. about 1 1/2 lbs) and by its long, relatively bushy tail (for a ground squirrel).  This species more closely resembles typical tree squirrels than it does typical ground squirrels.

I looked for these squirrels every time I visited Farmington that summer and never found one again until…



rock squirrel 9827 ron dudley

 1/640, f/13, ISO 400, Canon Rebel XTi, Canon EF500mm f/4L IS II USM, not baited, set up or called in

5 1/2 months later (Oct. 21, 2007) when I encountered this one in the same area as the first squirrel.  I estimate that I’ve visited Farmington between 500 and 600 times since the summer of 2007 and I’ve never seen one there since (or anywhere else for that matter, that I’m aware of).

For several reasons these photos remind me of my development as a photographer.  The first image was actually taken as a JPEG rather than shot in RAW.  It’s been so long since I’ve shot in JPEG that I’d forgotten about the angst I went through when I was trying to decide whether or not to switch over to RAW.  Man, I’m glad I made that switch early in my “career”, even though learning to process RAW files was a bit of a struggle for a while.  Last night I actually winced when I realized that I was going to have to process a JPEG for this post.  I also winced a little when I noticed my camera settings for these photos – they’re not what I’d choose today.

These images (and their subject) may not hold much interest for some but for me they were a trip down memory lane.