Curious Red-tailed Hawks

When you encounter a bird in the wild, there’s a standard series of events that occur. Far too often, the encounter ends when the bird flies away as you approach.  Hence the challenge for a bird photographer!! But every once in a while, the quarry seems just as interested as the photographer.  Today was one of those experiences.

I was birding a little bit in western Minnehaha County, west of Sioux Falls. I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks sitting on adjacent fence posts on the road in front of me. In these situations, I always have my camera ready when I approach, just on the off change that the bird would actually stay perched and not flush. However, as per usual, the pair both took off well before I got in camera range.

Was was NOT per usual is their behavior after taking flight. Instead of flying off to a distant perch, the pair banked…and turned back towards me as I stood on the side of the road. For the next 3 or four minutes, both of them lazily circled above and around me as I furiously clicked away.  Getting nice flight photos of wild raptors is ALWAYS a welcome opportunity…here are some photos of the pair.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensisRed-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Telling the difference between hawks (Buteos)

Ferruginous Hawk - Buteo regalis

When this guy flew by and I took photos, what first came to mind was dark-phase of a Rough-legged Hawk. It’s actually a dark-phase Ferruginous Hawk. The vast majority of Ferruginous Hawks that you run across are light phase, so this guy is a perfect example of how confusing it can be sometimes to identify Buteo hawk species.

As I look through visitor stats for my main website, one of the sections that is visited the most is a “Difficult ID’s” section.  That actually surprised me a bit, given that it’s a fairly small part of the website, and not a section that I’ve revised for quite some time.  The section is devoted to helping birders differentiate between certain species that tend to be difficult to identify, with photos, identification tips, key plumage characteristics, and other information.  I only had 10 different classes of birds that it helped to differentiate…thus my surprise to see how many visitors those pages get.  For the first time in probably 7 or 8 years, I updated several of those pages, providing more detailed identification keys, new photos, and range maps to help people see where and when certain species are likely to be present. I also started to think about other species that birders may have trouble identifying.

As I was going through my photos from my day-long trip to central South Dakota to look for winter raptors, one bird had me stumped.  It was a dark-plumaged bird that I originally was sure was a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk.  After processing the photos, however, it became clear that it was actually a dark-morph Ferruginous Hawk, a color morph I just haven’t run across very often.  Given the variability between the different “Buteo” Hawk species, and given the variability WITHIN a single species in terms of plumage differences between different color morphs, and between adult and juvenile birds, what better addition to the “Difficult ID’s” pages than a very detailed description of how to tell apart Buteo hawks?  I’ve just uploaded the following new page:

How to differentiate between “Buteo” Hawk species

On these pages, I’ve restricted myself to the more common Buteo species that are found in South Dakota and the U.S. as a whole. The more rare or geographically restricted species, such as Gray Hawk, Zone-tailed Hawk, or Short-tailed Hawk, were excluded, so the page could concentrate on the more common species in the U.S.  Species included are Red-tailed Hawk, Ferruginous Hawk, Swainson’s Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Broad-winged Hawk.

For these 6 species I have several pieces of information to assist birders in identification challenges.  That of course include photos that offer a variety of angles, color morphs, bird ages, etc., as well as identification keys and species range maps.  The Buteo Hawk page is undoubtedly the most comprehensive of the “difficult ID’s” pages that I’ve put together to date…I hope that people find it helpful!

Given how much attention those pages are getting, I will likely add new categories of “difficult ID’s” in the coming weeks. If you have any suggestions, let me know!  In the meantime, here are the other species groups that are offered on the difficult ID’s page:

Where have my songbirds gone?

Cooper's Hawk - Accipiter cooperii

“Clyde”, the very fat Cooper’s Hawk who has slowly been consuming all birds in the neighborhood.

What shows up at your feeders is so unpredictable.  In winter, I always expect Dark-eyed Juncos foraging on the ground below my feeders.  Many winters, they’re about the only bird it seems I ever see, in my yard or elsewhere.  Not this year, where they’ve been scarce in my yard.  That’s been made up for with many more American Goldfinches than normal.  I have one very tall tube feeder, and most of the winter it’s been very crowded, with most perches full and other Goldfinches waiting in the nearby tree for an open spot.  It’s been a good year for Chickadees, Downy Woodpeckers, and I have at least two (a male and a female) gorgeous Red-bellied Woodpeckers who are quite regular at my suet. Despite the lack of Dark-eyed Juncos, it’s been a fairly “birdy” winter in my yard.

That “birdiness” level has been slowly declining all winter though.  Simple attrition from a snowy winter would probably explain it, but in my yard, there’s another obvious factor.  That factor is Clyde.  Clyde is the Cooper’s Hawk that has been frequenting my yard, and buzzing my feeders all winter long.  Why “Clyde”?  I dunno.  It starts with a C.  He looks like a “Clyde”.  Very workman-like and efficient, very “blue-collar”. Comes in regularly every day, punches the clock, does his thing, kills a bird or two…just the same hum-drum “Clyde” kind of a life for a Cooper’s Hawk.

My wife is not fond of Clyde.  My wife does not appreciate the “nature” occurring in the yard. Clyde isn’t exactly subtle when he buzzes the yard and grabs a songbird.  He’s also getting quite bold. Last week I opened the front door, and Clyde was sitting on the front step, munching on a goldfinch.  Normally, you’d expect a wild bird to immediately bolt.  Not Clyde.  Clyde looked up at me, paused a second, before seemingly sighing and reluctantly flying off with his breakfast, clearly put out that I had interrupted him.I do have one concern about Clyde.  He appears to be gaining weight at an alarming clip.  He’s had a well-fed winter in my yard!  It’s showing on his waist line, as he is one FAT Cooper’s Hawk!

Unlike my wife, I do think it’s very cool to have Clyde around. With the Big Sioux Recreation Area and a lot of forested habitat right across the street, Clyde may end up sticking around the area permanently.

Gorgeous Fall Birding

Osprey in flight - Pandion haliaetus

An osprey circling over Lake Alvin, near Sioux Falls.

In about, oh, 2 weeks, I’m likely to bemoan the fact that I live in often frigid South Dakota.  Winter here isn’t for the faint of heart, and even moving just one state up from where I grew up (Nebraska), it’s clearly, much colder here. But, I have to admit…May through October are usually freakin’ spectacular in terms of weather.  Yes, we get some hot muggy days, but more often than not, we have some truly wonderful weather from late spring through mid-fall.

The weather this fall has been above-and-beyond wonderful, with crisp nights, but typically sunny and warm days.  Today, November 1st, and it was sunny most of the day, high of about 65, with nary a breeze.  I took the opportunity to go birding this morning, with the intention of doing my first real hard searching for Saw-whet Owls.  People banding them in the state have been catching them, so clearly they’re moving through.  I bush-whacked through thick cedar stands for about 3 hours this morning with nary a hint of an owl.  Not only no owls, but not a bit of “whitewash” (the white-stained tree branches and ground below their frequent roosts), and no pellets.  My guess is that it’s still just too early.

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk protecting a kill. Another was just a few feet away, hoping for a bite.

It still was a wonderful day to get out and walk around, and I did have other birds that “saved the day”.  First, an Osprey circling over Lake Alvin, just south of Sioux Falls.  Osprey aren’t a species you see all that often around here, so it was nice to get good close looks at him.

Near there I came across a pair of (young?) Red-tailed Hawks, hanging out on the ground on the edge of a tilled field.  One was clearly protecting something that it had caught, with it’s wings spread a bit and hovering over the prey like a protective umbrella. This bird was feeding while another was sitting about 10 feet away.  You definitely don’t think of raptors like this “sharing”, so I would bet that 2nd bird ended up going hungry.

American Robin - Turdus migratorius

American Robin gorging on berries in a cedar tree. An awfully common species…but in frigid South Dakota, one I’m not likely to see much of for the next 5 months!

The other thing of note this morning were the scads of birds gorging on berries of cedar/juniper.  We get a few American Robins that actually over-winter here, but overall most move south of South Dakota a little ways.  This time of year though you certainly can see many Robins gorging on berries in preparation for winter.  It wasn’t just Robins, and there were also many Cedar Waxwings joining the feast.  I know encroaching eastern red cedar isn’t a popular thing for many, but one thing you do have to admit is they provide a heck of a lot of good habitat and food for some species of birds.

One last nice bird to end the birding portion of the day…a beautiful male Red-bellied Woodpecker at our feeder at home.  We live across the street from the Big Sioux Recreation Area, a State Park with a lot of mature forest.  You often see (and hear!) Red-bellied Woodpeckers in the park, but it’s not very often one makes the effort to cross the street and visit my yard.

Great way to end a gorgeous fall birding day in South Dakota!

Playing “Jenga” with nature

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga...take one piece away you don't know what will happen.

Ecosystems are like the game of Jenga…take one piece away you don’t know what will happen.

You never know what will happen when you remove one piece of the puzzle.  Can it survive for a little while longer, albeit in a weakened state?  Or will it all come crashing down when that one piece gets removed?

Yes, I could be talking about the game of “Jenga”, something many of us have played.  But in this case I’m talking about nature.  In the journal Science Advances, research was just published that discusses a link between hawk populations in the southwestern U.S. and breeding success of Black-chinned Hummingbirds.  One wouldn’t immediately think there was much of a link between the two species.  Hummingbirds are far too small and quick for most hawk species to deal with.  They likely couldn’t capture them, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be more than a mouthful.  So how are the species linked?

As the paper discusses, there are actually three bird species who interact to affect nesting success of the hummingbird.  In addition to the Black-chinned Hummingbird, the study looked at Cooper’s Hawks and Mexican Jays.  What they found was that nesting success was much higher for the hummingbirds when they nested very close to Cooper’s Hawk nests.  The Cooper’s Hawks don’t feed on the hummingbirds, but they ARE a threat to Mexican Jays, and Mexican Jays will readily eat hummingbird eggs and young if they get a chance.  In one case, after Cooper’s Hawks left one nesting location, the researchers immediately saw Mexican Jays move in and decimate all hummingbird nests in the area.

Jenga…ala Mother Nature.  That’s what so scary when human beings start to interfere in natural systems.  One of the most publicized impacts of the removal of one species from a system is the Yellowstone ecosystem, before and after the reintroduction of wolves.  It was expected that the reintroduction would impact ungulate populations in the area, but it soon became apparent just how far-reaching an impact wolves have on the ecosystem.  Without wolves, elk and deer browsed freely in lowlands, resulting in nearly all young aspen trees to be browsed to the ground.  Aspen habitat all but disappeared in the park, but with the reintroduction of wolves, that habitat is now being reborn.  With increased aspen came more beavers.  With more aspen habitat and beaver ponds came an influx of more songbirds and other species that use those habitat.  With more wolves, there were fewer coyotes, which meant more small mammals and an increase in numbers of red fox, eagles, and ravens.

All due to the removal of one species.

Be it hawks in the Southwest or wolves in Yellowstone, the removal of one key species can have cascading impacts on the entire ecosystem.  The same certainly can be true in the “reverse” case, where a new, exotic species is introduced into the system.  As a scientist, it’s fascinating to see the incredible impacts humans have on ecosystems, both through how they manage the landscape, and in how they manage the wildlife within that landscape. As just a human being…it also can be pretty depressing to see how we negatively impact so many ecosystems.

Birds adapting to people

Red-tailed Hawk - Buteo jamaicensis

Red-tailed Hawk, seemingly oblivious to all the human activity going on several feet below it.

While out birding the other day, I was standing on a bridge, trying to shoot (photograph!) Cliff Swallows that roosted under the bridge and were flying all over the place feeding on flying insects.  A car drove by, stopped and backed up, and asked what I was doing.  I told the couple, then they started asking a bunch of questions about birds in the area.  They asked how many bird species there were in South Dakota, and I told them there have been about 420 different species seen here.  They were shocked that there was such a variety of birds.

I was probably the same 15 years ago, right before I started birding.  People are often aware of the most commonly visible birds in their yards, such as Robins or Blue Jays.  However, for the most part people are very unaware of just how many kinds of birds might pass through their yard.  When you think about how extensively an urban landscape is altered from whatever former natural vegetation used to be there, it really is amazing how birds adapt, and how you can find a wide variety of species, even in an suburban setting sometimes.

For raptors in urban areas, I typically would think of Cooper’s Hawks or Sharp-shinned Hawks, two species that have learned to use cities to their advantage.  Both species will often take advantage of bird feeders and the concentration of prey that they attract.  Peregrine Falcons have become adapted to a human presence, learning to hunt and breed in even the densest of cities to take advantage of Pigeons, European Starlings, and other prey that live in an urban environment.  Around here, you do see Red-tailed Hawks on the urban fringe, but I guess I don’t normally think of them as “urban” raptors, even with the fame of those that inhabit the Central Park area in New York City.

The Outdoor Campus isn’t exactly Central Park (and Sioux Falls isn’t exactly New York City), but it is a nice oasis of habitat in an urban setting. I do bird there on occasion, but typically only on an early Sunday morning or other time when people aren’t around, as it can be very busy.  I recently went to the Outdoor Campus, looking for spring warblers, but found more screaming kids and joggers than I did warblers.  Despite all the activity, there are definitely many birds that have adapted to the loud-but-semi-natural habitat at the Outdoor Campus.  As I walked around the park on that day, I saw the Red-tailed Hawk pictured above sitting on a tree branch, RIGHT above the path where the children, joggers, and others were passing through.  It was definitely in active hunting mode, looking downward and scanning the area for prey.  It didn’t seem to mind the noise or activity.  It happily obliged while I took photographs at quite close range, something that I typically find VERY hard to do for raptors around here in a more “wild” setting.

From a bird photographer’s standpoint, the noise and activity at a place like the Outdoor Campus CAN be a blessing in disguise, as the birds that use the area get used to a human presence and are often much more “camera friendly” than birds found elsewhere.

15 Years in the making…that’s bird photography

Broad-winged Hawk - Buteo platypterus

Broad-winged Hawk
Buteo platypterus
Click for a larger view

15 years.  A few posts back I started a thread with “5 years”, referring to the last time I’d seen a Virginia Rail.  The 15 years?  That’s about how long I’ve been birding and taking photos.  In those 15 years, I’d never gotten a photo of a Broad-winged Hawk until yesterday.

That’s how bird photography seems to work.  Just like in birding itself, people tend to have “nemesis birds”, birds that may not even be that rare, but simply due to luck-of-the-draw, they’re a bird you haven’t seen.  It’s the same with photography.  Broad-winged Hawks definitely aren’t rare, although South Dakota is at the fringe of their range.  But until yesterday, I hadn’t seen them all that often around here, and when I had, they had always been at quite a distance.

Given the actions of this bird yesterday, I don’t even think it’s because they’re shy.  This bird was extremely cooperative, continuing to scan around and hunt while I took photos of him from pretty close range.

One (relatively common!) nemesis bird down!!

%d bloggers like this: