Monday, August 25, 2014

Black-Hawk Breeding Success in Utah

I'm posting today as a follow-up to a post I shared three months ago (May) when I discovered an active Common Black-Hawk nest in southwestern Utah. You can view that original post by clicking here.

My wife and I were at the tail end of a road trip to three national parks this past weekend and stayed in a hotel in St George, Utah.  I decided to get up early Saturday morning to drive out and check on the nest site. It was my first time back to the area since discovering the nest and I had to make at least one attempt to satisfy my curiosity about whether or not the hawks were successful in breeding. I had shared the location with wildlife officials so they could monitor the nest site. I sent emails on occasion to get updates, but I never got a confirmation that the hawks were successful breeders.

I had often thought about the pair of hawks over the past few months and Saturday presented a short window of opportunity for me. I knew their habits for feeding from my previous observations so I checked those locations at a specific time of day. It took less than 20 minutes to get my first look at an adult bird. I heard what I thought was a Spotted Sandpiper calling from a secluded location north of the adult hawk and ignored it. However, two minutes after walking away from the scene I slowly recalled the sound to my mind and it dawned on me that I was hearing a second Black-Hawk, not a Spotted Sandpiper. I backtracked to the location and kept my cover while creeping through young aspen and willow trees toward the calling bird.

Moments later I was enjoying my first observation of a juvenile Common Black-Hawk. It was proof of successful Black-Hawk breeding in Washington County, Utah. I can't express how delighted I was to see that bird. It looked just like I expected, just like the images I had studied and dreamed of seeing someday. The location of the bird's perch was fully shaded since the early morning sun was still behind a large hill when I captured the image below. Lighting wasn't ideal for capturing details, but I'm pleased to have this image to remember that unique experience and moment in time.

Juvenile Common Black-Hawk #1 in Washington County, UT
Before I knew it I heard and then saw two juveniles at the same time. I'm fairly certain I heard a third one calling farther north of the two, but I can't rule out that it might have been an adult. The second bird was farther from me, but I did get a super-cropped image for documentation purposes.

Juvenile Common Black-Hawk #2 in Washington County, UT
I hope these young birds continue to thrive and return as adults to increase the population of nesting Common Black-Hawks in southwestern Utah. They may become and produce beautiful hawks like their parent below. That would be awesome to witness.

Adult Common Black-Hawk in Washington County, UT
Raised at Least Two Juveniles the Summer of 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Going to Extremes: Golden Eagle to Calliope Hummingbird

My wife and I used a long weekend and over 1200 miles from the life of our Honda to visit three amazing national parks this past weekend. We visited Bryce Canyon, Zion, and Grand Canyon National Parks. We started at Bryce Canyon Thursday night, but we literally visited Bryce Canyon, Zion, and the Grand Canyon between Friday morning and Saturday afternoon. That is extreme, but we had a great time. America is beautiful and we love the red-rock country of Utah and Arizona. I'll share some of the trip highlights in coming days, but what happened this evening when we returned home capped off an extreme weekend in a bird sort of way. I'll explain and share a couple of images.

I'll start on the large end of extreme, a close encounter with one of North America's largest birds, the Golden Eagle.

Rain was falling as we were approaching the small town of Panguitch, Utah last Thursday. We were about 30 minutes from Bryce Canyon NP. I was driving and keeping track of the various raptor species I was seeing on the power poles along the highway when a raptor on a distant pole set off my eagle alarm. The shape, posture on the pole, and relative size were perfect for a Golden Eagle. It shouldn't surprise my wife at this point, but she wondered what the heck I was doing when I told her I was going to do a u-turn on the small two-lane highway. After completing the maneuver (which included a second u-turn), using the car as a mobile blind to get close to the eagle, and waiting for traffic to pass, I exited the car and did my special approach to the bird. It's a way of getting close without sending threatening body language to the bird. Once I was in the right place I was able to turn toward the eagle and capture a few images. White coloring at the base of the tail feathers let me know I was observing an immature bird.

The overcast sky didn't allow me to use a high shutter speed so the flight shots didn't turn out the way I would have liked. That's a bummer because few things compare to an eagle in flight. The image below was the best of the bunch, but it didn't start out that way. I recently started shooting raw images and playing around with Adobe Lightroom. I still don't know what I'm doing with the software, but I was able to change the lighting and bring out some hidden details from the raw image. For me, a raptor nut, the trip was starting out just right.

Immature Golden Eagle Near Panguitch, UT

Now for the other extreme at the tail end of our trip, a very close-to-home encounter with North America's smallest bird, the Calliope Hummingbird.

Prior to leaving for our trip last Thursday I loaded the front and back yard hummingbird feeders with sugar water. I did that because I was hoping that migrating Calliope Hummingbirds would visit my feeders again this year. It was about this time last year when I began to see several Calliopes at my feeders. I was hopeful that they'd follow the same migration route this year and drop by my house for another visit. I figured that I'd increase my odds for drawing them in again this year if I kept the feeders busy with the typical Black-chinned and Rufous Hummingbirds while I was gone.

I read an email from another Utah birder while I was on my trip. He emailed the local community to find out if anyone was seeing Calliopes in Utah County. His question was raised because he researched eBird, an online tool I and countless other birders use to report bird species we observe. He saw that I had reported Calliopes at my yard feeders this time last year and was wondering why no one was reporting them this year. My fingers were crossed that my loaded feeders were doing their job in my absence.

Well, we returned from our trip this afternoon and the second bird I saw at my front porch feeder was a young male Calliope. Success! He doesn't have his long sword-like gorget feathers, but he'll have them soon.

Immature Male Calliope Hummingbird in Pleasant Grove, UT
Adult males generally migrate ahead of the females and juveniles, but I'm still hopeful that an adult male will pay a visit again this month. I'd like to get some video of an adult male at the feeder. For now I'll share a clip of tonight's young male as it fed from the feeder. The image quality will be better if viewed at 1080p HD.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Some Chocolate Goodness For an ID Challenge

Last Sunday I posted the following image to Birdtalk and UBIRD, Utah's two main listservs for birders. It was an invitation for subscribing birders to identify the species of the hawk since it is a type of hawk not often seen in Utah. I used the word "type" loosely. The species is actually very common from spring to early fall since these hawks breed in Utah. The color, however, is not so common. Dark morphs of this species make up less than 10% of their total population, but dark morphs of this species are a little more common in the US western states. I chose the image below because some tell-tale traits of the species are hidden behind the pole and beneath the tucked wings. The IDs that were presented to me in response to the invitation suggested dark morph Ferruginous Hawk, primarily because of how dark the bird was and what looked like a large yellow gape. Many birders know that the gape of a Ferruginous Hawk is larger than other hawks and usually a bright yellow. Was that the right answer?

Here's another view of the same bird. She successfully raised a single chick in a nest I located in Lehi, Utah. I studied and photographed her and her mate and then their chick several times after discovering their nest site. Two new clues are shared in the image below. While the gape is yellow and seems long as you'd expect for a Ferruginous Hawk, the legs (tarsi) are missing the feathers that grow all the way down to the feet on a Ferruginous Hawk. Also, the primary feathers of the wings can be seen extending beyond the tip of the tail. Juvenile Ferruginous Hawks have tails that are noticeably longer than the tips of their wings when they are perched. Adult Ferruginous Hawks have tails shorter than their juveniles, but they are still slightly longer than the tips of their wings when perched. That is not the case with our current hawk.

The next two images show the tail and under wings of the bird. It is easier to tell now that this is an adult Swainson's Hawk. She was the most beautiful Swainson's Hawk I'd seen until this past Saturday

Dark Female Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
Dark Female Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
A friend and I were on our way home from an early check for fall migrants on the south end of Utah lake Saturday when I spotted two Swainson's Hawks perched in a tree near the Spanish Fork River in Lakeshore. The larger of the two was facing away from us as we approached. The smaller one, a male, was facing toward us. He had a rather familiar looking plumage. As we passed the tree with the larger bird to our driver's side I could see that it had a very dark chest and belly. I told my friend I was going to stop because that was a beautiful dark hawk. I'm a sucker for raptors, especially the chocolate ones. We passed the hawk to a safe turning point and then stopped the truck so my friend could take over the driving. I took a position in the bed of the truck behind the cab so the truck would become a moving blind. The hawk allowed us to photograph it for a few minutes before it moved to another branch and then eventually flew off to perch on a power pole.

Dark Female Swainson's Hawk in Lakeshore, UT
Dark Female Swainson's Hawk in Lakeshore, UT
That was what I refer to as some real chocolate goodness. I really enjoy observing and photographing dark-morph Red-tailed, Swainson's, and Ferruginous Hawks, especially when they have a smooth chocolate color.

Below is an image of the smaller mate of yesterday's beautiful dark female. Adult males often show gray, rather than a brown/chestnut color in their cheeks. That trait is visible in the image below. Size is usually difficult to assess unless you see two birds perched in close proximity, but yesterday's dark female was noticeably larger than her mate.

Male Swainson's Hawk in Lakeshore, UT
I've enjoyed seeing two truly dark Swainson's Hawks in recent weeks. These hawks are on the move now toward South America. Most Swainson's Hawks will have left Utah by the middle of September so the next few weeks will be the last weeks for locating them in Utah until they return for the next breeding season around the middle of April.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Desert Delivers: Claws, Fangs, Flora, and Talons

A birding trip to the West Desert of Utah County this past Saturday was already a success before we found the bird we were seeking. My friend Eric P and I were attempting to locate some Short-eared Owls when we came upon an American Badger that was returning to its den after a night of wandering the desert. Birds and photography prompt our adventures, but we always have our eyes and ears alert for the discovery of the secretive and fascinating mammals and reptiles that also live in the habitats we explore. Saturday's adventure included the badger, a Great Basin Rattlesnake, a beautiful Blazing Star flower, some owls, and a variety of hawks that were learning to fly, hunting, and launching from the tops of power poles.

The sun was still below the horizon when we caught our first glimpse of the badger. It stopped in its path momentarily and stared at us before continuing its stroll toward one of the entrances to a den. We started our observation from within my Tacoma, but we eventually ended up sitting on the high ground above and across from the badger. We watched as it went in and out of the den several times. It went in with a clean muzzle and came out with a dirty one.
American Badger in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
American Badger in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
American Badger in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
American Badger in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
The Short-eared Owls eluded us for quite some time during the early morning hours, but we persisted in our efforts to locate them. Eric and I decided to spend some time on foot so we could venture from the dirt road and course the desert grass which was dotted with sagebrush and other low-profile vegetation. I mentioned to Eric that it was a bit surprising that we'd never accidentally stepped on a rattlesnake during the many forays we'd made into perfect rattlesnake territory . Eric agreed and we continued our search for the owls. I noticed and became briefly distracted from the owl hunt by the beautiful yellow blossoms of Smoothstem Blazing Stars. The yellow blossoms were a bright touch of color to the otherwise dull landscape. The Blazing Star is appropriately named with its five yellow petals and burst of numerous stamens. These blossoms open at dusk and remain open until the morning hours when they close for the day.  They are capable of self pollinating when pollinators are unavailable, but the plant I observed was being pollinated by a honey bee.

Smoothstem Blazing Star in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
The bee landed on and clung to several of the stamens as they slowly gave in to the weight of its body. The pollen grains building up on the sides of the bee's hind legs are visible in the image below. These clumps of pollen are sometimes referred to as pollen baskets. Some of the pollen grains will fall from the basket and be transferred to the stigma of flowers to enable the pollination process. I rejoined Eric in the owl search after wrapping up my brief fascination with the Blazing Star and the Honey Bee.

Honey Bee on Smoothstem Blazing Star in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
A decision to check one unlikely location ended up flushing our first Short-eared Owl. Soon we discovered a second owl. We knew that approaching them in the truck (essentially a mobile blind) was better than on foot, but the owls ended up moving farther from the road. We began another search on foot and put some space between us to better cover the ground. We hadn't gone far when Eric happened upon a Great Basin Rattlesnake that was sunning itself. The snake began to take cover in a sagebrush as I made my way toward Eric's location, but I was able to see the tail end of the snake as it slithered beneath a sagebrush. We didn't have a snake hook with us so we improvised by extending one leg of a tripod I retrieved from the truck. We pulled the snake from beneath the sagebrush to allow brief (and safe) examination and photography. The snake turned out to be about three feet long with a diameter of about two inches.

Great Basin Rattlesnake in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
Great Basin Rattlesnake in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
Great Basin Rattlesnake in the West Desert of Utah County, UT
We made another brief effort to track down some Short-eared Owls after spending time with the rattlesnake before deciding to turn our focus toward the hawks in the desert. We had seen a family of Swainson's Hawks where the dirt road connected to the highway so we made our way in that direction. The family of hawks was still there when we arrived at the location so we captured a few images of the parents and juveniles. One of the parents was a light-morph showing the typical dark bib on the chest and the white under wing coverts contrasting with darker flight feathers. 

Adult Light-morph Swainson's Hawk Above the West Desert of Utah County, UT
The juvenile captured in flight below appears to be an intermediate or dark-morph. The markings on the chest would be fewer for a light morph and possibly heavier for a dark morph.

Juvenile Intermediate-morph Swainson's Hawk Above the West Desert of Utah County, UT
After getting back on the highway and beginning our ride home we came across a Red-tailed Hawk perched on a power line. It reminded me of finding a Swainson's Hawk perched on a wire several months earlier. I'm not sure why, but I had never really noticed large hawks perching on wires before. Saturday we saw both a Red-tailed and a Swainson's Hawk perched on wires before getting home Saturday. The Red-tailed Hawk below chose the wire over the top of the pole.

Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
A second Red-tailed Hawk was perched in a more common position on the top of a pole. We pulled over to photograph the hawk and captured several images just as it launched from its perch.

Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
Yet another Red-tailed Hawk launched from it's perch as we pulled over to observe it momentarily.

Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
Red-tailed Hawk Near Fairfield, UT
Just as we arrived at the edge of town we discovered yet another family of Swainson's Hawks. Both parents and at least two juveniles were present. One of the juveniles flew from and returned to a perch on a power line.

Juvenile Intermediate-morph Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
We had just one more stop to make on our way home. I had tentatively planned to drop by and check on a Swainson's Hawk nest site I had been watching for the past couple of months. I knew that the single chick from the nest had recently fledged so I was curious to see how it was doing. The image below is from a previous visit to the nest site. It was windy that day so mom and dad were leaning into the wind to maintain their perches. Dad is an intermediate morph (on the left) and mom is a less common dark morph. Dad is showing the gray cheeks often displayed by adult males.

Adult Intermediate-morph Male (left) and Dark-morph Female Swainson's Hawks in Lehi, UT
The image below was captured when the single chick was covered primarily in white downy feathers. It was a very curious bird when I observed it for the first time.

Swainson's Hawk Chick in Nest in Lehi, UT
The nest appeared to have been used beyond its capacity when we arrived Saturday. I think the chick had tromped around it so much that it had no choice but to branch out and then fledge.

Remains of a Swainson's Hawk Nest in Lehi, UT
The young bird was perched on a power line about thirty feet from the vacated nest. Mom was still present, but dad was absent during our brief visit. I was impressed by the transition that had taken place between the time I saw the fluffy white chick and the juvenile hawk we observed Saturday morning. 

Recently Fledged Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
Mom did a few flyovers and gave some calls to alert her youngster to our presence. She was such a beautiful dark-morph. Very few that I've seen are as dark, nearly black, as this mother hawk.  

Dark-morph Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
Dark-morph Swainson's Hawk in Lehi, UT
It was approaching 11 AM and Eric and I both had other commitments to keep. We acknowledged we'd had a great morning and made our way home. I can't wait to see what we discover during our next tag team adventure in Utah's amazing outdoors.