Thursday, September 18, 2014

First Encounter: Red-shouldered Hawk at Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge

I typically try to capture and then share high-quality images from my encounters with wildlife. I do this with a hope to provide a new view (NeoVista) of nature to people so they develop a greater interest in and connection to nature. For this post I'm sharing images that are not the quality I typically prefer, but they do represent what was a high-quality experience for me--my first real encounter with a Red-shouldered Hawk.

I am a raptor fan. I wanted to fly like an eagle when I was a kid and to this day one of my simple pleasures and a real thrill is to watch a raptor fly and soar. I don't know how to describe it, but I am in awe of these birds doing what is so natural to them and impossible for me.

In January of this year I got my first glimpse of a Red-shouldered Hawk as I was driving down a southern California freeway. I knew what it was immediately because I had studied them in my books. However, the bird was gone by the time I managed to turn around on the freeway and get back to where it had just been perched.

This past weekend I was birding Nevada for my first time with Eric Peterson. We were driving through Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge when I caught a glimpse of a raptor rising from from some tall grass and into a tree about a quarter mile or more from the road on which we were driving. I don't like letting a raptor go without positively identifying it to a species. Eric and I parked and walked the distance to the tree to investigate the bird. The bird moved down the tree line and farther from us before we could locate it. Just as we were about to unknowingly approach its second perch it dove down from the tree and away from us. All I had was a split second view of its topside before it was out of my view and blocked by the trees between us. I saw in that instant a very speckled topside and immediately exclaimed, "Red-shouldered Hawk!" I ran to get a better view, but the bird had already begun to climb in altitude as it flew in some large circles. I knew getting good images was going to be a challenge because of distance and lighting, but I managed to get a decent view of the underside and a distant view of the top side. Both images revealed enough to capture the classic field marks of a soaring juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. The first image shows the wings pushed slightly forward. Back lighting accentuated the white commas at the base of the primary feathers and the evenly spaced dark and light tail bands.

I played a little with the exposure on the image below highlight the top side field marks. The classic reddish shoulders and evenly banded tail can be seen. The wings are also pushed forward as it glides.

As I watched the hawk soar I noticed it move toward a small group of trees another quarter of a mile away. I was on a Red-shouldered Hawk high and decided to try for a closer view. I was able to capture one poor image of the bird perched in the shadow of and aspen before it decided to fly to a more distant location. The brown streaking on the head and neck, the speckled back and wings, as well as the banded tail can be seen.

I can't wait to get another, and hopefully, closer look at one of these hawks. I'm eager to go looking for them next time I'm in their known range.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Long, Winding Road to Short, Winding Rattlesnake

I learned several years ago that every hobby has its risks. Birding is no exception and my first encounter with a Mojave Rattlesnake last week in Nevada's Kane Springs Valley drove that reality home again. It turned out to be a safe and fascinating experience, but wearing short pants, not being familiar with the sound of a rattler vs an insect, taking one more step or any combination of the above circumstances could have drastically altered the experience and entire weekend. Mojave Rattlesnakes are reported to be one of the most dangerous pit vipers in North America. Their venom is not just hemotoxic, but is neurotoxic as well, attacking the central nervous system.

My friend, Eric Peterson, and I had planned a trip from northern Utah to Las Vegas last weekend so we could find and photograph some fun desert birds. Massive amounts of rain and subsequent flooding days prior to our scheduled departure wiped out parts of I-15 near Moapa, Nevada. The interstate was shut down so traffic was being diverted between Las Vegas and southern Utah. Eric and I are adventurous so we welcomed a good reason to create our own detour that took us west toward Great Basin National Park in Nevada from Delta, Utah. We saw Wheeler Peak, the highest peak in Nevada as we passed north of Great Basin National Park. We wandered through the eastern part of central Nevada on what is known as The Loneliest Road in America, US 50. We headed south from US 50 on US 93.

After passing through the small town of Caliente we spent some time looking for birds at Kershaw-Ryan State Park. From there we decided to detour from US 93 to State Road 317. A "Road Closed" sign caused me some hesitation at first, but a local whom we happened upon told us the road would take us back to a more southern point of US 93. We were told it would save time over following 93 all the way down to I-15 north of Vegas, but we also knew the road would turn to dirt and gravel and did have "some rough spots". It was a road less traveled so we also realized we'd likely stop and explore for wildlife along the way so "short cut" was not really our purpose for taking the road. 

We saw a small wash that was bordered by trees as we were passing through Kane Springs Valley so we stopped to explore. Eric and I often separate slightly as we traverse desert terrain in order to increase our odds of finding something interesting. Eric flushed an accipiter (Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk) at one point. I decided to move quickly toward him to get a glimpse of the hawk as it was flying away. That's when the real fun began for me. I was just about to approach and round a sagebrush when I heard a sound I had locked into my memory when I had a previous rattlesnake encounter while birding. I stopped immediately and looked toward the ground to find a young Mojave Rattlesnake positioned just under and at the edge of the sagebrush. It was facing me and poised for a strike if necessary. Boy was I grateful for the timely warning the snake gave me. Another step in that direction might have ruined my whole weekend and then some. I called Eric over and we began a short photo session. I studied it's pattern since I had never seen one before. The snake was about 18-20" long.

Mojave Rattlesnake, Kane Springs Valley, Nevada
Mojave Rattlesnake, Kane Springs Valley, Nevada 
Mojave Rattlesnake, Kane Springs Valley, Nevada
The snake eventually became accustomed to our presence as we captured some images. The thought occurred to me that for a snake in this location we may be the only humans it will ever encounter. We didn't have an actual snake hook or tongs so we located a makeshift hook in a dried-out juniper branch. I asked Eric to capture the image below as the snake was resting on the curve of the branch. It looks crazy, but I was being careful in handling this situation. I still want to say, "Don't try this at home, kids!"
Mojave Rattlesnake on Makeshift Snake Hook, Kane Springs Valley, Nevada
The full pattern of the snake's scales can be seen from head to tip of tail in the image below. We captured this image as we were releasing the snake from our brief encounter.

The Patterns From Head to Tail of a Mojave Rattlesnake, Kane Springs Valley, Nevada
The sun was setting quickly so we made our way back to the truck to continue our journey. I stopped momentarily to capture this image from where we studied and photographed the rattlesnake. The landscapes, sunrises, and sunsets we encounter during our birding adventures amplify the beauty of the world we love to discover.
A View of the Southern Sky as the Sun Set Over Kane Springs Valley in Nevada
And just before we reached the truck I was impressed by the scene before me. My truck was parked on the side of an open road that I was travelling for my first time. I was in the middle of nowhere, so to speak, and I felt gratitude for the freedom to explore a beautiful world in a nice truck with a good friend. The southern sky was painted beautifully by the setting sun, the road was open ahead of us, and mountains and valleys were yet to be discovered. Scenes like this make me wish every weekend could be an extended weekend dedicated to exploring new places on our amazing planet.

The View Ahead After Stopping and Discovering a Mojave Rattlesnake in Kane Springs Valley in Nevada

Friday, September 5, 2014

A Short Stroll in the Park

I was loading the last few dirty dishes into the washer this evening when I glanced out the kitchen window to check the position of the sun. I could see that daylight was short, but I figured I might be able to fit in a few minutes of checking for migrating warblers at Highland Glen Park.

The park is just five minutes from my home and right behind the local high school. It just so happened that there was a home football game getting ready to start so the road to the park was quite congested. The slow-moving swarm of cars near the school caused me to lose more light than I hoped. Fortunately, the first movement I saw in the trees when I arrived at the park turned out to be an unexpected species--White-breasted Nuthatch. That's a great bird for that park and it took less than ten seconds to spot.

I watched tonight's nuthatch forage along the trunk and major branches of the trees near the parking lot. I heard another one calling and realized there were at least two making a pit stop in the park as they were heading to their final destinations. The image I captured tonight (right) caught the bird moving up the tree. The more typical view of a White-breasted Nuthatch can be seen in the image below. I captured this image during a previous encounter with the species.

As I was watching the nuthatches and hearing other birds call from their various positions around the parking lot a Western Scrub-Jay flew into my view.  I immediately noticed that the Jay was missing all of its tail feathers.

I and other people who spend time birding occasionally run across birds missing their tail feathers. Sometimes the lack of tail feathers is a result of molting. Sometimes it is a result of predation, losing the tail feathers as a result of being attacked by a predator. It could be some sort of disease or other cause as well. I've never really noticed much of a struggle to fly for any of the tail-less birds I've encountered. The image to the right shows the typical tail for a Western Scrub-Jay. I captured this image when a Jay perched above one of my backyard feeders.

I strolled up to the pond just as the sun dropped below the horizon tonight. Along the way I heard the celebration that erupted from the home team crowd as a touch down was scored. I saw small groups of teenagers flirting with one another. It was obvious they were on their way to the football game with their school shirts and painted faces, but they had become distracted by their fascination with one another. Flirting was prioritized over football. And who can blame them? Families and individuals were fishing and walking around the park. I stopped my stroll, looked toward the sunset, and realized it was a beautiful backdrop to happy people enjoying the local park.