Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Making Local History with a Hoodie in 'da Hood

We have a small "neighborhood" pond near my home. It's called Manila Creek Pond and it is used as one of many urban fisheries managed by the Division of Wildlife Resources. Fish-eating birds such as diving ducks, loons, herons, cormorants, and osprey are drawn to the pond because it is stocked with trout...and gold fish that residents decide they don't want to keep around the house. Right now the ducks are moving into and through Utah so I've stopped by the little pond every couple of days to see if it has attracted a migrating duck or other water bird.

I was happy to see a Hooded Merganser on the neighborhood pond on November 13th. Birders affectionately refer to these ducks as "hoodies".  They are a "diving" duck. They go down and swim under water to catch their prey, usually small fish. "Dabbling" ducks, like the mallards you see on nearly every pond, simply stick their head under water, or dabble, to gather plants and seeds from shallow water. I reported my hoodie sighting online with Cornell University's eBird program. I checked the eBird history of species reported on this pond and discovered that this was the first one to be reported. I guess we made a little birding history since it was the first record of a "Hoodie in 'da hood". Hoodies generally prefer sheltered ponds and bays, water that is surrounded by wooded hiding places. Our local pond is void of such hiding places. However, birds show up in unexpected places during migration when they are simply looking for a temporary place to rest and some food for refueling.

The adult male hoodies are very easily identified when seen in their breeding plumage and you'll see why with some images at the end of this post. Telling the difference between adult and juvenile females, however, is a bit of a challenge. Below is an image of the duck when I first located it last week. I've seen it several days since, including this evening on my way home from work. Based on some expert opinion I believe it is a juvenile female, but I'm not completely confident since I rarely see juveniles for this species.

Hooded Merganser on Manila Creek Pond in Pleasant Grove, UT
Adult Male and Female Hooded Merganser
South Jordan, UT
The image to the right shows the unique breeding plumage for an adult male or drake Hooded Merganser. Even when the male returns to a mostly brown, non-breeding plumage during summer months it still shows a nice yellow iris. Young males also show the yellow iris. An adult female is in the background of the image to the right. By comparing this known female with the image above I think you can see the adult female has a longer hood, try to imagine the length if its hood was up, and some white lines in the tucked flight feathers near the rear. The bird pictured above has a smaller hood and is lacking the wing markings of the adult female. The eye color doesn't really provide much of a clue between adult and juvenile females. Both have an iris color that appears dark brown/red.

The unique hood on the male, by the way, can be raised and flared just as you see in the image to the left. Males display their full hood during courtship and sometimes when alarmed.

Keep your eyes open as you pass by your local watering holes. Water foul are on the move and could be coming to a neighborhood near you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Foraging Lesser Goldfinches

I've spent the past couple of weeks trying to get in as many raptor observations as possible as I've gone about my daily routines and as I've had a few hours on the past two Saturday mornings. The winter weather not only brings raptors such as Bald Eagles, Merlins, and Rough-legged Hawks from Canada and Alaska to Utah it also influences some of our less common Utah raptors to spread out from their remote breeding locations to agricultural and suburban areas closer to our homes. This is thought to be a result of the local species increasing the ranges of their hunting grounds when food is less abundant during the cold months.  Ferruginous Hawk and Prairie Falcon are two such raptors that are in Utah year round but more easily observed in open spaces during the winter months.

I've seen some good raptors during the past couple of weeks and I'll share some images in future posts, but the other day I took some time to stop along the road at the mouth of American Fork Canyon to quietly observe a much more passive, and smaller, species of bird--Lesser Goldfinch. I noticed a small flock of these birds moving back and forth from perches in a barren tree to a batch of thistles. Goldfinches love to eat thistle. These plants, often considered obnoxious by people, sustain goldfinches through difficult winter months. It was fun to watch the tiny birds, about 4 1/2 inches long, assume various positions and angles to obtain the thistle seeds. The adult male birds still show some traces of their black crowns from their breeding plumage.

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT

Lesser Goldfinch in American Fork, UT





Saturday, November 8, 2014

Common Black-Hawk in Utah's Davis County

A northern Utah photographer and birder, Dennis Coleman, was out on a walk this past Wednesday at Farmington Bay WMA in Davis County, Utah. He noticed a hawk and captured some images. Click here to see his images. Dennis was unsure of the identity of the hawk so he shared the images on UBIRD, one of Utah's birding listservs. It turned out that he had found and photographed a juvenile Common Black-Hawk.

We have a few nesting pairs of Black-Hawks in extreme southwest Utah during the spring and summer breeding season, but that is several hundred miles south of Farmington Bay WMA. Breeding season has passed and the Black-Hawks should be on their way to or already hunting in Mexico. That is a very long way from northern Utah. We had a hawk that had gone way astray and I'm a nut for raptors. I went to bed questioning whether I should try to relocate the hawk in the morning.

I usually commute to work from Utah County to Salt Lake City, but I decided to drive myself Thursday so I could attempt to relocate the Black-Hawk. I didn't have much time and soon realized the odds were against me as I tried to figure out how to get to the location where Dennis had seen the hawk. I had taken a frontage road running along the west side of Legacy Highway thinking it would take me far enough north to get to where Dennis reported the hawk. Unfortunately, the road forward ended and I was quite shy of the desired location. I didn't want to have to double back, get on the highway and head farther north again. I was giving up and heading to work when I was fortunate enough to relocate the hawk several miles south of where Dennis had seen it. I had made what I thought was a dumb mistake, but it was by dumb luck, as often happens, that I relocated the hawk. I quickly sent out a rare bird alert to the local birding listservs so others would have a chance to see the hawk. I also texted and left a message for Jerry Liguori, Jerry is the author of multiple books and countless publications about raptor identification. In fact, if you've read this far, you should visit his website by clicking here. He also contributes regularly to the blog for Hawkwatch International. We are fortunate to have him living in the Salt Lake area.

I waited for a few other birders to arrive on the scene so I could hand off the bird's location. I wanted to make it easy for others to locate and observe it. Jerry Liguori was on the scene and observing the bird when I left for work. Shortly after I left the hawk flew east across Legacy Highway and then in a southward direction. It disappeared from the view of a group of birders and it hasn't been seen again since. I have a feeling we may hear about it again.

If it wasn't the cloud cover it was the distance that worked against getting crisp images with my 400mm lens. However, I captured images that provide adequate documentation. The striking facial pattern, bulky secondary feathers, dark malar marks, streaked belly, long legs, finely barred underwings, and white tail with wavy banding are visible in the images below. There were no bands on the bird's legs. It is not one of the banded juvenile hybrids resulting from the breeding of a Red-shouldered Hawk with a Common Black-Hawk in Sonoma County, California.

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT
The lines in the images below are actually guy wires from towering antennas in the open fields behind where the bird was hanging hanging out and making short flights.

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT

Way-out-of-range Juvenile Common Black-Hawk in Woods Cross, UT

Pirates, Scorpions, and a Group of Harris's Hawks

My wife and I spent last weekend in the Phoenix area with our daughter and her family. We were there to celebrate my wife's birthday and do some trick or treating with our two young grandchildren. I also took some time to enjoy Arizona's Mojave Desert and attempt to accomplish one birding objective for the trip--locate and photograph a Harris's Hawk or two.

Pirates
Six weeks ago my mobile phone rang while I was having a late dinner with a birding and photography friend in St George, Utah. We had just finished a long day chasing wildlife and capturing images in the Mojave Desert of Nevada and extreme southwest Utah. I answered the phone and immediately recognized the voice of my three-year-old grandson. "Papa Jeff, do you want to be a pirate for Halloween?" How can you resist such a child-like request? He's my little buddy so we were mateys for Halloween. This little guy has accompanied me on several bird outings during my visits to the Phoenix area. He was with me when I found Black-and-white Warblers at the Riparian Preserve at Gilbert Water Ranch and when I photographed my first Costa's Hummingbird at Veteran's Oasis Park in Chandler. He really enjoys carrying my "bee-noculars" around and occasionally does his best to hold my Nikon D7100 with the 80-400mm lens on his own while capturing random, and sometimes, focused images.

Scorpions
One of my interests when I visit family in Arizona is hunting for scorpions at night. I enjoy searching for them at night because they glow a vibrant blue-green under UV light. I captured the image to the left using the camera of my Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. It didn't provide the detail I like for images, but it does illustrate the effects of UV on scorpions. I'm including the image below so you get a better look at a Bark Scorpion.

Harris's Hawks
I have been beta testing the BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide app for Android recently. I decided to test some of its functionality this past Monday before I was to head out to the airport for my flight home. I had very limited time so I needed to be very efficient if I wanted to find a hawk species in less than two hours that I hadn't encountered during numerous hours of previous Arizona bird outings. Using the app I was able to see all recent sightings and strategically select the location where I thought I'd have my best chance of success. Birds have wings and Harris's Hawks are known to be nomadic so there are no guarantees they will stay in the same place for long, especially when they are not tied down to a nesting location. I decided to head out to Lost Dutchman State Park outside of Apache Junction. That was relatively close and would give me about an hour to search after considering an hour of round trip driving time.

The State Park didn't pan out for me. Bird do have wings, remember? I had about twenty minutes to spare so I decided to drive a little farther out on Highway 88 to search the tops of every saguaro cactus and power pole I could spot while keeping an eye on the road. Luck was on my side and I soon spotted a group of five Harris's Hawks. I suspect they were a family, but this species is known to form groups that include juveniles from other adults. There were two adults and three juveniles in the group I encountered.

Harris's Hawks are very social. They are often seen in pairs or small groups, rarely as an isolated individual. They are the only raptors to hunt live prey cooperatively. They hunt like a pack of wolves, so to speak. Sometimes extended families will hunt in a coordinated effort to feed young. Some birds may attempt to flush prey from hiding while others soar above to watch for the fleeing prey. Their social nature and willingness to hunt as a team make them great falconer birds. They reside in desert areas of southern and central Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southern Texas and Mexico.

The image below shows a decent comparison of adult to juvenile when seen from below. The adult (left) has the all-dark chest with a tail that has a thick white base and tip. The juvenile is streaked on the belly and shows a barred tail on the underside. A much narrower white tip can be seen on the tail.

Harris's Hawks (adult on left, juvenile on right) Maricopa County, AZ

Adult Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
The chestnut colored upper wing coverts and matching leggings are classic for an adult.

Adult Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
The next image shows a juvenile in the foreground. The tail of this bird was barred on the under side (as seen in the first image above), but the top side of the tail had a white base (hidden by the wing from this angle) and a very narrow white tip. The white tip is hard to see because of the angle and this particular bird's tail tip was very worn. While we can't see the belly of the bird in the background the broad white tail tip indicates it is an adult.

Harris's Hawks Maricopa County, AZ
Not all juveniles show barring on the underside of the tail. The bird below shows no barring, but it is clearly a juvenile with the streaked chest and barred leggings. Compare this with the adult two images above.

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
Juveniles in flight show barred wings and a white base or panel to the primary feathers. Compare to the dark underwings of the adult that follows.

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ

Adult Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
This image illustrates how juveniles have a broad white base to the tail while the white at the tip is very limited compared to an adult.

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
This juvenile has no real barring on the underside of the tail. However the limited white on the tip of the tail, the streaking on the chest, barring in the wings and leggings, and  the pale base to the primary feathers all indicate juvenile.

Juvenile Harris's Hawk Maricopa County, AZ
My first encounter with Harris's Hawks turned out to be one I'll never forget. A group of five that allowed me to study both adults and juveniles was a real treat. I think I have another favorite raptor species. Each species I encounter is unique and impressive. I can't wait to study them further during future trips to Arizona. I'd love to see their hunting behaviors, including how they are known to perch one on top of another at the top of a saguaro for a better vantage point while hunting from a perch.