Monday, December 15, 2014

Hooked on Hawks: Blame it on Jerry

Rough-legged Hawk in Davis County, UT USA

Back in 2009 I was on a date with my wife. No it hasn't been that long since we dated. We were on the waiting list at a restaurant and decided to kill some time by checking out the Barnes & Noble Bookstore across the parking lot from the restaurant.  For some reason, a childhood interest in birds bubbled up and led me over to field guides for birds. I decided to purchase one of the guides that night because I found the diversity of the birds fascinating and I wanted to study them further. When my married daughter saw the field guide on my desk at home she asked about it and made a mental note that led her to purchase some inexpensive binoculars for my birthday. One thing led to another and I found myself becoming a "birder".

After about one year of delving into "birding" I wanted to learn more about hawks. I had become familiar with a local club called Utah County Birders and asked one of their members who might help me learn more about hawks. I was told to consider some guy named Jerry who was supposed to be a raptor expert. Jerry was posting occasional emails to a Utah birding listserv and I noticed he did seem to know a bit about raptors when I read his emails. Like countless other newbie birders I sent Jerry a photo of one of the most common hawks in North America and asked for his help. I look at that situation now and realize how little I knew at the time. Jerry responded with the ID for the hawk and shared the important field marks for identifying it as a juvenile light-morph Red-tailed Hawk.

The simple Red-tailed Hawk question I had led to other questions. When I found myself perplexed by trying to decide whether I'd seen and photographed a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk I sent off an email to Jerry. I got a response with some tips on distinguishing between the two look-alike species.  At one time I learned that Jerry had actually written books on identifying raptors so I did a Google search and realized that I was exchanging emails with North America's premier raptor expert. It wasn't too long before I found myself standing on the side of a mountain in Salt Lake City being dumbfounded by how quickly Jerry was able to identify hawks in flight and at great distances. He described how the harrier has a buoyant flight style, compared how eagles soar in large, lazy circles compared to the tighter circular soaring of a hawk, and distinguished between Cooper's Hawks and Sharp-shinned Hawks based on the slight nuances in shape and flight style. I learned later that I spurred one of Jerry's blog posts when I was asking him about subtle nuances that help him distinguish between similar looking species in flight. It made sense when I connected his comments with being able to easily distinguish between my identical twin sons at a distance based on the subtle nuances of posture and movement. Jerry helped me identify my first Harlan's Hawk. Imagine my surprise when I bought a book to which Jerry contributed and I saw an image of a Harlan's Hawk he and I both observed and photographed in Utah. Jerry fueled my fire for gaining more and more knowledge of North America's raptors. In short, I blame Jerry Liguori for getting me hooked on hawks.

Check out Jerry's website: Click Here
Buy his books:
Follow his blog posts on the Hawkwatch International website by clicking here.

Here are some images of hawk species I saw and/or photographed for my first time during 2014. I owe a lot to Jerry when it comes to my continued interest and increasing knowledge of North America's fascinating birds of prey.

Harris's Hawk Near Apache Junction, AZ USA
Common Black-Hawk in Washington County, UT USA
Red-shouldered Hawk in Long Beach, CA USA
This one is not a new species, but it was the first time I identified and photo a sub-adult Swainson's Hawk. I credit this ID to having studied Jerry Liguori's books and learning that the Swainson's Hawk is the only buteo that has subadult plumage. Other buteos go from juvenile to adult plumage as they go through their first molt.

Swainson's Hawk Sub-adult in Salt Lake City, UT USA
I'll sign off with a line Jerry wrote in my copy of one of his books, "...and I hope you see lots of hawks!"

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Reddish Egret Foraging Behavior

Reddish Egret Foraging at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Huntington Beach, CA

Reddish Egret is a bird species I enjoy seeing when I visit family in Orange County, California. I saw my very first one in March of 2011. I've been fortunate enough to see them at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve each time I've visited the area since. My recent visit over Thanksgiving weekend allowed me to see multiple Reddish Egrets. Not one of them seemed to have an "off" button. Each appeared to be in some sort of hyper drive as they ran through the shallow water, spun themselves around erratically, flashed their wings, and snatched up tiny fish.

I decided to capture their behavior on video this time. While they are fine birds to observe in a photo, the photo just doesn't do justice to their foraging behavior. The video below is just under two minutes long and captures their typical hunting behaviors including one I hadn't noticed before. The bird paused to study one area of the water and then used its foot beneath the water to rustle up some fish that may have been hiding or somewhat obscured from its sight. Be sure to change the settings to High Definition if your video player doesn't default to HD.

If all the fish are as small as the one caught below it makes sense that these egrets appear to be in a feeding frenzy nearly every time I've observed them. That is more like an appetizer, not even a snack.

Reddish Egret Foraging at Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve Huntington Beach, CA
Reddish Egrets are considered wading birds and are about about 30 inches long with a wing span of about 4 feet. They typically forage in shallow salt water and nest and roost with a variety of other wading birds. They breed along the coasts of Mexico and the southern coast line of the US, from Texas over to Florida. There is a white morph of the Reddish Egret, but they are not very common and are typically seen along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. From what I understand, the ones along the Pacific coast are all dark morphs, such as the one I've shared in this post.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

"Owl" be Jiggered!

I went out tonight to help my friend Eric P locate and photograph a Western Screech-Owl. We stopped to check on a local Barn Owl roost before making our way to a couple of Screech-owl spots. We were able to watch the ghostly white figure of a Barn Owl as it flew circles in the darkness above us for a few minutes before making our way to our first Screech-Owl location. We came up empty on that spot and headed to a wooded area in our local foothills where we hit a Screech-Owl jackpot with at least two Screech-Owls calling from the darkness. What a thrill to spot the small silhouette of an owl tooting from a barren branch. I put a light on the small, portly silhouette to reveal a handsome grey fur ball, about 8 1/2 inches tall, with bright yellow eyes. Eric was able to get his photos and then gave me a moment to capture a few. I wonder if the fine downy feathers projecting from the sides of the owl's head indicate that the bird hatched this year. Or was the owl just ecstatic about seeing Eric and me?

I did my best impression of a singing Western Screech-Owl and the owl responded in kind. Eric and I both enjoyed that short vocal interaction with the fascinating little owl. I thought to myself in my little Kentucky kid way, "Owl be jiggered! I just conversed with a Screech Owl."

Monday, December 8, 2014

Say "Ridgway's Rail" Three Time Quickly

I quickly learned that I was wrong when I said I found my first Clapper Rail over a week ago at the Bolsa Chica Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach, California. I had seen the familiar Virginia Rail (9 1/2 inches long) just moments before so when I noticed what looked like a Virginia Rail on steroids (14 1/2 inches long) I wondered if I'd found a Clapper Rail. I pulled out my phone and checked my Sibley Guide to Birds app for Clapper Rail and sure enough it looked like a perfect match. I was excited and shared the news with a bystander who corrected me by saying, "It's now a Ridgway's Rail." I was informed that the American Ornithological Union changed the official name over the summer. Well actually the AOU officially accepted the name that James Maley, collections manager at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, gave the California Clapper Rail after confirming that the California rails were not genetically the same as east coast Clapper Rails. Now to get my Sibley app to catch up with the times.

I wanted to "clap" when I thought I found a Clapper Rail. I wasn't sure how to "ridg" after finding a Ridgway's Rail, but when I made my first verbal attempt at the name it came out as "Ridgway's Wail". It suddenly sounded like a tongue twister. Try saying Ridgway's Rail quickly three times. Hopefully you do better than I did. Fortunately for me the bird was not hiding in the reeds like most rails when I came upon it so I enjoyed very clear observations of its foraging and preening behaviors.

Ridgway's Rail Fluffing Feathers in Orange County, CA
Ridgway's Rail is an endangered species and is split into three subspecies--California Ridgway's in the San Francisco Bay area, Light-footed Ridgway's between Los Angeles and San Diego, and Yuma Ridgway's in Arizona, Nevada, and eastern California.

The images below were captured while the rail was preening and stretching below a foot bridge in early morning light.

Ridgway's Rail in Morning Light in Orange County, CA
Ridgway's Rail Stretching in the Early Morning Sun of Orange County, CA
The two images below allow a comparison of the Ridgway's Rail from Orange County, California to a Virginia Rail I photographed on Antelope Island in Davis County, Utah. The much smaller Virginia Rail (right) shows a gray face and darker markings around the hind quarters. The bill lacks the bulk seen in the bill of the Ridgway's Rail (left).

It was nice to add a new species to my life list with such an obliging bird. These rails spend most of their lives out of human sight as they live, forage, and nest in dense grassy marshes.