Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best of 2013: Favorite spots, favorite critters and my favorite kid

2013 was a weird and busy year, and though I spent as much of it as possible at my favorite nature spots, life conspired to keep me from going out as often--or sharing as many photos--as I would like. Still, no matter what life throws at me and my family, being out in nature is our medicine. And sharing it with you all has made me more awesome friends than I deserve. I love it.

One of those excellent people, the inimitable Alex Wild, issued his annual call for the best science and nature photos of 2013. I'm coming in a little late, as is my wont, and these are just the best of the ones I've managed to go through. There are thousands yet to be processed. But here are mine, all taken this past year, winners in the categories you'd probably expect from me. Happy New Year, everyone.

Best spider:
Of course it's a black widow. Did you expect anything else?

We have a lot of other arachnid goodness--giant fuzzy tarantulas, jumping spiders in fabulous colors, giant crab spiders, wolfies, lynx spiders, you name it. But black widows have a special place in my heart (as long as they stay in my figurative heart and out of my literal hair and clothes).
Western black widow spider (Latrodectus hesperus), our house (don't tell my husband).

Best Combination of my Favorite Things:
A roseate skimmer dragonfly (Orthemis ferruginea) during sunset at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve. One of my favorite insects, at one of my favorite places, during my favorite time of day? Yes, please! One of my favorite people (my son) was just out of frame, and later we got to have chocolate ice cream and watch Star Wars. A good day.
Roseate skimmer dragonfly at Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Dragonfly:
Or, you know, one of them. I can't spend all night choosing. At the moment, I love this red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), captured at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler. I especially like the wings, as well as the fact that a few years ago, this shot wouldn't have happened--not because I didn't have the gear, but because I would've given up. I was chasing this dragonfly, and he insisted on perching way out of reach, directly above me and against a blown-out sky. I didn't get the closeup I was after, but I like what I got even better. And that's the great thing about my nature photography journey. Learning to use my gear? Please. Boring. But make the effort again and again and again (and again and again), and you start to learn a few things about focus and exposure in spite of yourself.
Red saddlebags dragonfly, Veterans Oasis Park.

Best Damselfly:
Not quite as flashy as the dragonflies, but they're just as gorgeous. This year was a great year for blue-ringed dancers (Argia sedula), and I got quite a few "mealtime" shots like this one, captured at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
A blue-ringed dancer (Argia sedula) munches a fly at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Little Bird, Closeup:
If I'm not chasing insects and spiders, I'm probably watching birds. Here's an Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), one of my favorites, at the Demonstration Garden at Boyce Thompson Arboretum.
Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna), Boyce Thompson Arboretum Demonstration Garden.

Best Little Bird, Full Body:
Mostly because I wanted an excuse to show off the broad-billed hummingbird as well. Also captured at Boyce Thompson Arboretum, which you totally need to visit if you're in the area.
Broad-billed Hummingbird (Cynanthus latirostris), Boyce Thompson Arboretum.

Best Big Bird:
Not the giant yellow alphabet lover. More like the giant grouchy fish stalker. A great blue heron (Ardea herodias) in early evening light at the Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
Great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Bird That Everyone Thinks is Our State Bird:
The cactus wren, not the roadrunner, is the Arizona state bird (New Mexico gets the roadrunner). It's a local treasure nonetheless, and 2013 was a fantastic year for roadrunners in our neck of the desert. (Sorry, cactus wrens. You'll get play again when I restart Species a Day.) I liked this one because it showed off the insanely gorgeous iridescence in the bird's tail.
Greater roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus), Veterans Oasis Park.

Best Animal I Usually Suck at Capturing:
I don't know what it is about snowy egrets. I see them semi-regularly, and every single time I mess up the shot. The image is overexposed, or blurry, or I scare the bird away, or it's nothing but tail and legs. I think I've invented new ways of missing a snowy egret shot. So I was happy when this one came out kind of nicely (though it doesn't make up for the fact that my 11-year-old has more keepers of the bird than I do).
Snowy egret (Egretta thula), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

Best Look Everyone; I Can Photograph Mammals Too!:
It's not all bugs and birds (it's just mostly birds and bugs). This young male elk (Cervus canadensis) watched us as we were surrounded by half a dozen of "his" females coming out of Bear Canyon Lake after a camping trip this year. It was the most wonderful thing--another young family, with a 3- or 4-year-old girl, was there as well. We were afraid she'd scare them away, but she learned from her parents, who were splendid examples. Everyone was still and quiet, and the elk knew we weren't a threat. That's how to appreciate nature.

Best Scenery:
Snow on the Superstitions this past winter. Also a runner-up for Best Shot I Ran Out to Take Even Though I Should Have Been Doing Other Things. Rare snowfall, followed by a short-lived break in the clouds for some afternoon sunlight, all topped off with our iconic saguaros. I took a detour just to take the shot. I don't remember what my excuse was for being late to my actual appointment, but I think it was worth it.
Snow on Superstiton Mountain, February 2013.
Best Water and Best Sunset:
I'll probably share entire posts on both sunsets and water soon, but this shot as the sun set at Veterans Oasis Park in Chandler captured the goodness of both at once. The great thing is, this is just a 15-minute drive from our house. The nature opportunities around here are pretty awesome.
Sunset reflected in the pond at Veterans Oasis Park, Chandler.

Best Kid Holding Insect(s):
We attended the grand opening of Butterfly Wonderland, the largest butterfly atrium in North America. Many people just slowly but constantly made their way through and around the huge enclosure. Not my kid. He sat for ages in humid corners, gazing at the huge insects. At one point this mating pair of blue morpho butterflies fluttered from a shaken branch to his finger. He quickly made a more comfortable perch for them, sat down, and hosted the pair (and fascinated bipedal onlookers) for several minutes. Never have I seen someone so thrilled at a designation like "the boy with the mating pair on his hands."
My son holding a pair of blue morpho butterflies (Morpho peleides) at Butterfly Wonderland.

Best Kid Not Having Much Choice About Holding Insect:
Silence of the kid? Actually, it was, and you have no idea how rare that is. This yellow-edged giant owl butterfly decided to perch on his nose for ages. He was quite thrilled, even though it was surprisingly heavy and its legs plucked and pulled at his skin, and the butterfly showed no sign of wanting to move. He might still be there if we hadn't coaxed it onto a nearby bush.
Yellow-edged giant owl butterfly (Caligo atreus) and a happy kid. 

Best Kid Holding Arachnid:
It's not an insect, so I totally get to share this too. We went to the University of Arizona's annual Arizona Insect Festival in September, and this was a favorite of both of ours. My favorite thing as my son held this giant vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus) was that his face doesn't say "Ew, gross!" or even "OMG; there's a monster on my hand!" but rather something like affection. Indeed, he said he found the docile creature "adorable." What's that they say about apples and the trees from which they fall?
Giant vinegaroon (Mastigoproctus giganteus) and very happy boy (Homo sapiens), Arizona Insect Festival, University of Arizona.
Best Macro:
I didn't have the stellar macros that I was able to get last year when I rented the heavy-hitting MP-E 65 mm lens. Still, even a kit lens and a cooperative widow skimmer dragonfly do well to show off some of those 30,000 facets.
Female widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.
Best "Secret" Spot:
One of my son's favorite spots on the planet. At the riparian preserve, if you veer slightly off-trail at a spot he is insisting I keep quiet, there are some really inhospitable bushes. If you tunnel through them--after picking stickers out of some very uncomfortable places--you come to a shoreline clearing that doesn't disrupt a single animal, but is beneath a huge tree full of egrets. We sat there for a hour the first evening, watching them soar in and listening to their barks and belches. It's not all that secret, but it's secluded, and it's nature, and it's special to us. The best kind.
Great egrets (Ardea alba), Gilbert Riparian Preserve.

I hope everyone had a wonderful year, or at least some wonderful parts of it. Happy New Year, and happy nature watching.