Saturday, May 24, 2014

Mountain Landscape or Goshawk? You Decide

I was driving into the Timpooneke Campground area (Utah County, Utah) with one of my married twin sons this afternoon as part of our plan to scout out some camping areas. I related to my son that I had a close encounter with a Northern Goshawk in the area a couple of years ago, but I missed the photo op because I was taking pictures of a silly little Mountain Chickadee. I had just finished capturing a few images of the chickadee and then lowered the lens to preview the images on the screen. Right then an adult Goshawk passed just ten feet away from me. It disappeared within seconds. I couldn't believe I missed a Goshawk for a chickadee.

Anyway, just after my son and I pulled into the campground today he was marveling over the awesome mountain scenery. We pulled over to take a look and capture some images. I decided to leave my camera with the zoom lens in the truck and take my backup camera with the wide angle lens to capture a landscape scene. I captured one image and reviewed it for exposure. I didn't like it so I tried again with a few setting changes. The north peak of Mount Timpanogos, the icon of Utah County mountains, is almost disappearing in the heavy cloud cover in the background.

Timpooneke Campground with North Peak of Mount Timpanogos in Background--Utah County, UT
I heard a Raven calling from behind us and ignored it. My non-birding son noticed the raven when he saw it fly along the tree line to the left of the meadow shown above. He pointed up and asked, "What is that?" I looked up from the camera and said, "That's a raven." I was just about to look away and resume photographing the landscape when we both noticed something large and rather white looking land on a limb just outside the left edge of the scene you see above. I stopped what I was doing and honed in on what that thing was. I noticed a limb still bouncing a little and wasn't sure if the bird we saw had landed there or launched from there and disappeared into the trees. I noticed a large whitish belly showing between some branches. A second later my brain made the connection and I said, "Oh my gosh(hawk)! That's a goshawk!" I now had a choice to make. Take pictures of a mountain landscape or try to capture an image of a rare hawk. I didn't even have to think before I started running toward my truck to retrieve my better camera with the zoom lens. The truck happened to be in the same general area as the hawk. I hoped the hawk wouldn't fly before I could get my camera with the zoom lens. I also hoped my running in its general direction wouldn't spook it off. With one eye toward the bird and one toward the backseat of the truck (meaning I was really watching the bird and blindly grabbing inside the truck), I managed to get the camera and turn it on. The bird began to look like it was going to fly so I hoped the existing camera settings were ideal for the circumstances, pointed, and released the shutter a few times just before it flew. I lowered the lens and watched in awe as the hawk flew right in front of me and across the meadow. It did a quick turn and then flew down the gravel road and out of sight. My son and I shared a moment that impressed him as much as it did me.

Well, I was unprepared again when a Goshawk in the same general area (maybe even the same hawk) presented itself. I'll just tell people I was photographing a conifer when a rare Northern Goshawk happened to photo bomb that lovely image. That's why the bird was not in focus.

Northern Goshawk at Timpooneke Campground in Utah County, UT
(It took flight before I could get a tight focus on the bird rather than the branch)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Day and a Half in Southwestern Utah

I had some fun experiences during the day and a half I spent recently in the St George area of Utah. I was going to create a few posts from the trip, but I decided to simply share random images of birds, scenery, mammals, and plants from the trip. I saw over 100 species of birds so only a few are included in this post. While I am not including images, I did see two Roadrunners during my trip. I've learned to not look for them because they appear when you don't expect them. If you look for them you'll never see them. That's been my experience with them.

I spent about an hour at Tonaquint Park as soon as I arrived in St George. I needed to burn some time while waiting for other birders to get into town. The red on the face of this Western Tanager is naturally occurring, part of its plumage. The red on the bill, however, is staining from the mulberries he was enjoying in that tree.

Western Tanager at Tonaquint Park in St George, UT
Lesser Goldfinch at Tonaquint Park in St George, UT
Rock Squirrel at Tonaquint Park in St George, UT
Yellow Warbler at Tonaquint Park in St George, UT
I had dinner with a birding friend, Eric Peterson, and two of his friends who flew in from Wisconsin to experience southwest birding. We had some good Mexican Food and shared some good birding and nature stories before heading to bed for the night.

We started our full day together at Lytle Ranch, a must-visit birding oasis in the middle of the desert near the Utah-Nevada border. We saw a number of birds, many of which were life birds for our Wisconsin friends, birds that they were seeing for the first time in their lives.

This is the best view and photo I've gotten thus far of a Bell's Vireo that was singing excitedly as we came upon it.

Bell's Vireo at Lytle Ranch Washington County, UT
Eric Peterson's eagle eye caught the presence of a male Costa's Hummingbird. I love their long purple gorget feathers. All of the feathers on the head, face and throat will shine a bright purple in the right lighting. These images give a hint of the bright coloring.

Costa's Hummingbird at Lytle Ranch in St George, UT
Costa's Hummingbird at Lytle Ranch Washington County, UT
Phainopepla at Lytle Ranch Washington County, UT
Lucy's Warblers were everywhere, but they were always dodging the camera and this was the best I could come away with. At least you can see the touch of head they have on the tops of their heads. Otherwise they are plain looking little warblers.

Lucy's Warbler at Lytle Ranch Washington County, UT
Yellow-breasted Chat at Lytle Ranch Washington County, UT
We birded along the eleven-mile road out of the remote ranch to the main highway (Hwy 91), picking up more life birds for our Wisconsin friends. We then drove about twenty minutes up to Gunlock Reservoir State Park.

Western Kingbird Minus its Tail--Near Gunlock Reservoir Washington County, UT
I think the White-tailed Antelope Squirrels are my favorite of the ground squirrels. That little white tail seems to be constantly at attention. I think their pattern and coloring are really cool.

White-tailed Antelope Squirrel Gunlock Reservoir State Park Gunlock, UT
I really need to spend more time photographing the plants of Utah. I love seeing bright flowers coming from prickly and arid circumstances.

Spring Blossom on a Hedgehog Cactus Growing on Rock Near Gunlock Reservoir State Park
When the heat started picking up in the lowland desert habitats we drove into the mountains near Zion National Park. We took Kolob Terrace Road up to Lava Point Campground. The temperature was about 25 degrees cooler in the mountains. We enjoyed the scenery and birds of several habitats such as pinyon-juniper, Ponderosa Pine, and Aspen at the higher elevations.

Red Rock Cliffs Along Kolob Terrace Road Washington County, UT
Looking Back While Ascending Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Along Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
We saw Lewis's Woodpeckers, but I didn't get photographs since I'd seen them a number of times before. Now I wish I had captured some, but I did capture a few decent images of a pair of Acorn Woodpeckers. There aren't too many places to see these woodpeckers in Utah, but spots along Kolob Terrace Road are pretty reliable for these funny-faced woodpeckers.

One of Two Acorn Woodpeckers Along Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
One of Two Acorn Woodpeckers Along Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
Spring Blossom of Prickly Pear Cactus Along Kolob Terrace Road in Washington County, UT
Virginia's Warbler Kolob Terrace Road Washington County, UT
White-breasted Nuthatch at Lava Point Campground Washington County, UT
Grace's Warbler is not very common, but they are a little more common at Lava Point Campground this time of year. I wish this one would have come into the light and closer. It is a beautiful warbler and this picture doesn't do it justice.

Grace's Warbler at Lava Point Campground in Washington County, UT
And the highlight of the trip was observing a Common Black-Hawk that is nowhere near being Common in Utah.

Common Black-Hawk in Washington County, UT

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Two Warblers of Black and White

I was driving into a local park (Highland Glen Park) the other day when I heard the song of a Black-throated Gray Warbler. It's a buzzy warble that rises from beginning to end.  It's a unique sound for a warbler. I pulled over, pulled out my camera, and waited for the warbler to make its way to my side of the oak tree in which it was foraging. I heard a second Black-throated Gray singing as I was photographing the male below. Females actually have a white throat. I like the touch of yellow between the eye and the bill of Black-throated Gray Warblers. It "pops" from their black masks.

Black-throated Gray Warbler in Highland, UT
Black-throated Gray Warbler in Highland, UT
Black-throated Gray Warbler in Highland, UT
My encounter with this warbler reminded me of a Black-and-white Warbler I found in Gilbert, Arizona about two months ago. Black-throated Gray is to be expected during spring and summer in Utah and other western states. Black-and-white Warblers, on the other hand, are rare in the western states.

Below is the Black-and-white Warbler from Gilbert. This one also is a male. A female would show a white throat. The Black-and-white Warbler lacks the yellow spot between the eye and the bill and has white feathers mixed in with the black throat feathers. It's not as clean looking as the Black-throated Gray and it has a longer, lighter-colored bill. There are also black spots under the base of the tail (undertail coverts) for Black-and-white but not for Black-throated Gray.

Black-and-white Warbler in Gilbert, AZ
Black-and-white Warbler in Gilbert, AZ
Below are comparison images of the two male warblers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Black-Hawk Bonanza in Southwestern Utah

I spent a couple of days birding the extreme southwestern part of Utah this past week. I knew I'd see some good desert birds down there as well as some spring migrants and specialty birds in their usual places. However, I had one particular bird species at the top of my wish list for my two-day trip. I wanted to see a Common Black-Hawk. I love the raptors and the Black-Hawk is a rare one for Utah. I had barely seen one in a distant flight a couple of years ago and I've wanted better views and photos of one ever since. Several people had reported seeing Black-Hawks in two different locations down there recently so I knew my odds were a little better this time around.

One birding reference I have estimates that there are fewer than 300 nesting pairs of Common Black-Hawks in the United States. Most of those pairs are found in central and southeastern Arizona during the spring and summer months.  These hawks prefer to nest in remote cottonwood and sycamore trees along streams where they can hunt from a perch as they watch for frogs and others animals that exist around the streams.

My first two attempts to locate a Black-Hawk failed during my recent trip so I decided to try one of those locations again the morning of my second day. These hawks are known to soar most actively during mid-morning hours so that's when I arrived at the location. I didn't see a Black-Hawk when I arrived, but I did see a Peregrine Falcon pursuing a swallow. The Peregrine was unsuccessful in its attempt to catch the swallow so it took a perch on a rocky hillside high above me.

Peregrine Falcon Washington County, UT
I turned my attention to a stand of Cottonwood trees bordering a stream. No birds were soaring so I decided to view the stand of trees from different angles. That technique has been fruitful when looking for relatively large birds in trees on previous occasions.  A single perspective often leaves some exciting things hidden.

Several weeks ago I spotted a Swainson's Hawk perched on a power line. I had never really noticed large hawks perched on wires before and wondered how common that was. Boy was I surprised when I got my first unexpected look at the Black-Hawk I was seeking. I rounded a corner of the trees and there it was perched on a power line, right above an empty field.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
I couldn't believe I was getting my first close looks at a Common Black-Hawk. It was a beautiful bird. What I expected to be mostly black bird turned out to include some brown tones. I noticed it had relatively long legs for a hawk of its size. It flew into some trees and perched for a few minutes, gave some calls and then moved inside the trees.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
I was so focused on the hawk that I almost wrote off a calling roadrunner as a cooing dove. After the Roadrunner cooed a few more times I snapped out of my Black-Hawk trance and realized I needed to make sure I saw at least one Roadrunner for my trip to the desert of southern Utah. Based on the way the bird was cooing I decided to look for it on a perch rather than on the ground. I spotted it perched on top of a distant Juniper bush at the very top of the hillside near the Cottonwoods. That's one of the joys of birding--understanding bird habitats and behaviors and hunting them down by ear then sight. The great thing about hunting for wildlife with the Nikon is that they all live to see another day!

Greater Roadrunner Cooing From the Top of Juniper, High on a Hillside Washington County, UT
I remembered that I had to check out of my hotel by 11 so I headed back to St George to get that done. After checking out of the hotel I decided to drive back to the Black-Hawk location and spend the last couple of hours of my trip studying the behavior of the Black-Hawk. This time around I was able to meet a friendly man who owned property in the area. He allowed me to view the location from a different perspective so I drove to the opposite side of the trees and realized the hawk had flown to where a second Black-Hawk was standing on the side of the nest. I kept my distance once I realized there was a nest and remained in my truck to avoid disturbing the birds.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Seeing two Black-Hawks at the same time at a nest site was just part of the experience. The other part came when the property owner moved his donkeys, mules, and horses into the field from which I was viewing the hawks. The four-legged grazers were drawn like a magnet to my temporary post. They were not shy animals.

A Donkey Takes a Look at Me as I Have My Camera Recording a Common Black-Hawk
The image above provide a bit of the perspective I had on the nest. The nest was about forty feet above the ground and more than 100 feet from me. The little brown spot straight up from the camera and just above the door frame is the nest in the trees. 

One of the two birds perched in a tree across the field from me just before I left the area. The lighting was harsh and sort of washed out the colors. The bird was at rest for a while and eventually took flight. I took that as a cue for me to also take flight and begin the trip back home to northern Utah.

Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT
Common Black-Hawk Washington County, UT

Monday, May 5, 2014

How to Eat a Kangaroo Rat: If You are an Owl

One of the Great Horned Owl nests I've been monitoring in recent months is on a power pole in the sagebrush desert on the west side of Utah Lake. It is about 35 minutes from my home so I've been limited in how frequently I've been able to visit the site. A month had passed since my last visit so I was curious to know if the two owlets had "branched" out of their nest. I made the drive to the site a few nights ago and saw both owlets standing on the crossbars. They had grown significantly since my last visit and had clearly reached their branching stage. The crossbars of the power pole that cradled their nest were the only options for branching since there are no trees of which to speak in the area. Mom spends her day on the pole close to the owls. I'm not sure where dad roosts during the day, but he's prompt in delivering the first meal of the evening each night just after the sun sets.

I arrived at the nest site just as the sun was setting so I set up a ladder in the bed of my truck and put a bean bag on top of the ladder to provide support for my camera.  The tripod would not have been high enough to allow a straight-on look toward the owls. I was well over fifty feet from the power pole.  Dad was right on time and flew in from the east as he'd done during my previous visits.  I watched his silhouette fly in with some sort of mouse gripped in his talons. He gave that mouse to the owlet on the far side of the pole so I was unable to view it well from my vantage point. The second owlet waited patiently for its meal. And it was well worth the wait--for the owl and for me.

I captured some video of both owlets killing time and a long segment demonstrating how the second owlet consumed an Ord's Kangaroo Rat. The video is almost ten minutes long. I personally find all of their behaviors on the video interesting, but here are some behaviors with the timing of each within the video if you want to pick and choose what you view. BE SURE TO VIEW THE VIDEO IN 1080p HD for the best quality. You can make that selection in the bottom, right-hand corner of the YouTube screen when it loads. You can click on full screen for a better view as well. You may need to set to 1080p HD and then restart the video for a clear image.

During the first minute:
The owl that will eat the kangaroo rat will walk the plank, so to speak, turn it's backside away from the nest (toward the camera), flap its wings, and eject the digested part of a previous meal. These owls somehow know from an early age to turn and defecate away from the nest.

At the minute mark:
Dad arrives with the kangaroo rat and then flies away. The owlet turns toward the camera with the rat in its beak and begins a slow process of inspecting the rat with soft bites and nipping that makes me wonder if it is trying to figure out how to approach it. It nibbles the rat from a front foot and then head to tail without seriously trying to eat it. This is where we get some views of the field marks that help to identify the kangaroo rat as an Ord's Kangaroo Rat. The second owls seems curious buts keeps it distance.

About 3:30 in the video:
The owls begins serious attempts to eat the rat. Sometimes the owl tugs so hard at the rat with its beak that it nearly stumbles when part of the rat breaks loose in its beak. Both owls seem to look out into the darkness at times making me wonder if they hear or see a parent nearby.

About 6 minutes in:
The owl is beginning to make real progress with the meal.

About 7:30
The rat's head and insides are consumed. This is followed by the owl swallowing all but the tip of the rat's tail. The dark hairy tail tip dangles from the owls mouth for about thirty seconds before it finally gets swallowed. Mom shows up and all three turn toward the camera after the second owl stretches, flaps, and stretches its wings.

View the video in HD 1080p. You may need to set at 1080p and then restart the video for best quality.

So that nearly-ten-minute video took hours to upload to YouTube. I realized afterward that I somehow edited out a short section I thought was kind of interesting. The first owlet seems to grow bored by the other owlet's slow approach to eating. It blinks slowly and then gives a wide-mouthed yawn. Here's that short little clip.

I find birds of prey to be very fascinating. I've really enjoyed studying two separate Great Horned Owl families and look forward to watching some diurnal raptors raise their families in the next month or two.