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Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum - Tucson, Arizona

by Stacy Egan


Voted by residents as the number one tourist attraction in Tucson, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a world renowned zoo, natural history museum, and botanical garden. According to their website, their mission is to "inspire people to live in harmony with the natural world by fostering love, appreciation, and understanding of the Sonoran desert." To me, it's a great place to practice photography, particularly avian, fauna, flora, and macro photography, and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Whenever I visit I see several photographers with their cameras pointed at the many beautiful and wondrous subjects at the Desert Museum. Photographers there feel a camaraderie with one another, and many photo-buddy relations can be sparked.

The most thrilling attraction at the Desert Museum is the Raptor Free Flight program. During the cooler months (November through April), twice each day select birds-of-prey are brought out for a free-flying demonstration of natural behavior in a desert environment. Bird species typically showcased include a roadrunner, barn owl, ferruginous hawk, raven, or a family of Harris hawks. Spectators and photographers alike line up in the viewing area as a bird is released, coaxed to fly to various cholla and tree perches by bits of food, as a narrator describes natural history of this bird species. The most challenging and interesting to photograph are the Harris hawks as they fly from saguaro to saguaro, over the heads of the spectators, working together in search of prey. I've witnessed them plunging to the ground in attack of some unknown ground-dwelling creature. The difficult aspect of photographing birds in the Raptor Free Flight program, besides trying to successfully point the camera and focus the lens on a flying bird, is that you're almost always shooting the birds in a backlit situation. But the experience is still fun and exciting.

Another avian free-flight photography opportunity lies inside the Hummingbird Aviary. Inside this enclosure several species of hummingbirds flit between flowers and feeders. Hummingbirds nest inside this aviary, and one time I watched a mother feeding her little chicks as they poked their heads out of their tiny nest. I'm not skilled enough to photograph a hummingbird in flight, but I managed to catch a lazy one feeding from a flower as it sat on a perch. Tripods are allowed, but flash photography of the nestlings is not.

Several animal species reside at the Desert Museum. When I arrive in the morning I usually head directly to the 1/2-mile long Desert Loop Trail where I find javalinas and coyotes in their spacious enclosures. If there is a "mascot" of the Desert Museum, it would be the mountain lion; a large enclosure in the Mountain Woodland exhibit houses 2-3 females. Also included in the Mountain Woodland exhibit are Mexican grey wolves, black bear, and white-tail deer. A Desert Grassland exhibit features prairie dogs. The Riparian Corridor includes enclosures for beaver, otter, and coati, and leads to a rocky enclosure for bighorn sheep. Cat Canyon houses a bobcat, ocelot, and jaguarondi, viewable from above or at cat-level. Reptiles, invertebrates, amphibians, and fish are featured in exhibits near the museum entrance. The Desert Museum provides ample opportunity for animal portrait photography.

The Desert Museum is indeed a botanical garden as well. Pollinating gardens attract bees, moths, butterflies and hummingbirds. Attracted to the lush desert environs, wild birds such as cactus wren make their home here. Most desert flora species are represented on the museum grounds, complete with identifying placards, and interesting photographic subjects in themselves. Blooming flora on the museum grounds follow the usual Sonoran desert time-table: late February the brittlebrush, March the delicate wildflowers, April the prickly pear, and in May the saguaros and palo verde bloom. It seems the lantana bloom year-round.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is a great place to revel (along with many other visitors!) in the wonders of the Sonoran desert. This place abounds with life and provides many opportunities for portrait photography of beautiful and interesting subjects.


All images and text copyright Stacy Egan