Sometimes, a location seems to have it all. Tucson with its hundreds of beautiful, sunny days, multiple mountain ranges, unique flora and fauna, and bookended by two divisions of Saguaro National Park is ambrosia for photographers. A top photography oasis within the area’s spectacular opportunities is the world-renowned Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum located at 2021 North Kinney Road in Tucson Mountain Park and adjacent to Gates Pass Overlook and the West division of Saguaro National Park. At its single, superb location, photographers discover the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a fusion encounter with natural shooting opportunities integral to a zoo, a natural history museum, and a botanical garden, all highlighting the flora and fauna of the Southwest and the Sonoran desert, as well as an education and research facility.
The expansive Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum offers both paved and dirt paths. Photographers can anticipate getting close to an interesting mix of wild and captive species in natural and natural-like, native habitat settings. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum features more than 230 animals and 1,200 varieties of desert plans. Ease of access combined with diversity maximizes photographic opportunities and delight.
Raptor Free Flight provides opportunities to see, learn about, and photograph completely untethered birds. Held daily at 10AM and 2 PM, from October through April (October 20, 2012 through April 14, 2013), the event creates close encounters with beautiful-to-photograph birds of prey. Not all species are flown at each presentation, but the broad diversity of Raptor Free Flight species can include the Great horned owl, Prairie falcon, Harris hawk, Ferruginous hawk, Red-tailed hawk, Chichuahuan ravens, Gray hawk, Barn owl, and Peregrine falcons.
Executive Director, Craig Ivanyi, indicates, “The birds fly so precisely and so close that visitors are often brushed by feathers and can feel the rush of air as the birds fly just above their heads.” Further, Craig Ivanyi states, “Forty-four raptor species inhabit the Sonoran Desert region and 37 species breed here. The Desert Museum’s Raptor Free Flight program provides visitors a chance to witness the amazing aerial maneuvers of these spectacular birds which they would rarely see while hiking in the desert.”
The Raptor Free Flight demonstrations are done on a path in the open desert. The site has bare, branched trees on both sides of the path, and the staff makes an effort to draw the untethered birds close to viewers. However, the exact responses of any demonstration are dependent on the natural, current inclinations of the birds.
As feeding is involved, the birds of the Raptor Free Flight event generally are cooperative. The taller trees along the path make excellent perches for the birds, allowing photographers to shoot very natural, exciting images. In-flight photographic opportunities are available on the path location as well as from a ramada overlooking the demonstration area.
There is no extra charge for the Raptor Free Flight experience, included with general admission. Additionally, there is no registration. Simply, follow the path signs to the Free Flight demonstration site. If you arrive just a few minutes early, you’ll easily be able to set up with a tripod near one of the trees, where the raptors land.
Another unique opportunity is the hummingbird aviary as well as its nearby Pollination Garden. Arizona is uniquely known as an extraordinary birding destination, where instead of the single ruby-throated hummingbird species available in the eastern United States, photographers can photograph over a dozen hummingbird species. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum’s hummingbird aviary offers the chance for close-up photography of species including Costas, Broad-billed, Black-chinned, Anna's, and Calliope hummingbirds as they breed, nest, lay eggs, and rear young.
Look for opportunities to photograph where the sun’s rays light up the iridescent, jewel-like tones of the male hummingbird’s head and throat feathers. During nesting season, peek into the leaves to spot tiny, walnut-sized nests made of leaf bits and spider webs. Look for brightly colored flowers in sunlit locations, so you can photograph hovering hummingbirds as they feed on nectar. Be ready to enjoy the buzz of hummingbird wings!
Bees, butterflies, and ground squirrels
Outside, in the Pollination Garden, watch for wild hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. On the paths approaching the Pollination Garden and near Phoebe’s Café, watch for cactus wrens, Arizona’s state bird. As you stroll the Desert Museum’s paths, keep an eye out for three species of ground squirrels: the rock squirrel, the Harris’ antelope ground squirrel, and the round-tailed ground squirrel.
Cougars, prairie dogs, and wolves
In natural settings, photographers also have the opportunity to view and photograph javelina, Mexican gray wolf, mountain lion, bighorn sheep, and bobcats. Stroll the Desert Grassland exhibit to view a merry prairie dog colony. View the Coati Exhibit to view animals in a recreation of Sycamore Canyon, a site on the Arizona-Mexico border. At the Riparian Corridor, view beavers and otters. At Arizona Uplands, keep an eye out for javalina in natural habitat settings. Be very sure to photograph in wonderful Cat Canyon (bobcats are here), in Mountain Woodland (your chance to photograph mountain lion, Mexican wolf, and black bear), and along the Desert Loop Trail (watch for the marked javalina hot spots).
Planning your visit
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is located at 2021 North Kinney Road. Hours and rates are available online. Featured events are updated regularly. Directions, maps, and membership information are online.
An app to help
The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum has a new technology resource for visitors with iPhones, iPads, and iTouch mobile devices. Its MyGeoTrex smartphone application functions as a virtual tour guide, allowing visitors to receive multimedia information such as text, photos, sound, and videos about the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum exhibits through their mobile device while visiting the museum. When visitors use MyGeoTrex while walking through the museum, the app uses GPS technology to pinpoint their location and provide information about nearby animals, gardens, and exhibits.
To use MyGeoTrex™, download the app from the Apple App Store. Once loaded, find the Desert Museum Trex in the "Museums, Aquariums and Zoos" category. You then can download the Desert Museum Trex by clicking on the small downward pointing arrow. That obtains a photographer a mobile, tech-assisted guide!
Accompanying this article is an original photographic slideshow of images taken at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, including images of birds of prey, hummingbirds, and even a mountain lion. For broader viewing of Arizona’s hummingbirds, view the “Best state to view abundant hummingbird species” slideshow. For a view of the start of hummingbird nesting season, see the “Hummingbirds begin nesting in southeastern Arizona” slideshow.
Capture memories and images
Ansel Adams once stated, “Sometimes I do get to places just when God's ready to have somebody click the shutter.” At a wonderful location, like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, nature seems poised for the photographer’s shutter. A photographer’s visit can result in delightful memories as well as a bouquet of wonderful images.
Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel as well as National Education materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other is former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.
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