Monday, July 27, 2015

A New Generation of Common Nighthawks

Common Nighthawks are quite common throughout the United States and Canada during the spring and summer months. I first became familiar with them when I noticed them flying circles around stadium lights during evening sporting events.  I learned that they were chasing and feeding on the flying insects that were drawn to the lights. They have very tiny bills as you'll see in some of the images below, but their mouths extend back to beneath the eyes. Their "gaping" mouths are great for snatching flying prey. Nighthawks are mostly active at night, but they are sometimes seen flying in daylight, especially during twilight hours. The distinct wing and throat markings of nighthawks are shown in the image below.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawks have a rather long migration from South America so they tend to arrive here in Utah a little later than other migrant birds. Once they arrive they seem to get right down to the business of breeding. I'm glad that we consistently have breeding populations along some of our local rivers and in pockets of our local deserts. Males and females can often be seen flying together during the breeding season. During courtship the males will make a steep dive and then curve their wings near the bottom of the dive to create a "whoosh" sound as the air rushes through their flight feathers.

Common Nighthawks in Utah County, UT USA

I was showing an out-of-state visitor to some of Utah County's diverse birding habitats several weeks ago when I happened upon a Common Nighthawk nesting site beneath a Juniper tree. We were walking through a desert area that had a mix of sagebrush and junipers.  As I walked toward a particular juniper a female nighthawk flushed from beneath the tree and landed about 15 yards away.

Female Common Nighthawk Distraction Display Near Nest Site in Utah County, UT USA

She began a distraction display which made me realize we were near a nest site. I captured a short video of this particular female to show her protective display. This clip shows the initial display and then ends when she feels she has successfully deterred us from the nest site.

Nighthawks don't actually build nests. They simply lay their eggs on bare ground or gravel rooftops. Consequently, we walked carefully with our eyes to the ground to avoid stepping onto eggs or chicks that might have been blending in with the ground below us. We actually discovered two eggs and then allowed mom to lure us away with her short flights and distraction displays. She was a good mama bird.

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Eggs in Utah County, UT

I am fascinated by the cycle of life so I returned to the nest site a week or so later and concealed my presence with a portable blind. I had hopes of watching the new generation of nighthawks develop from one stage to the next by making periodic visits.  Mama nighthawk was still incubating eggs and did not flush since I remained in my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk Incubating Eggs in Utah County, UT USA

I let another week pass and returned to the site again in the blind. I noticed empty egg shells where mom had been incubating them during my previous visit.

It didn't take more than a few minutes to realize that mom and two chicks were just a few feet away from where the chicks had hatched. Mom moved toward the chicks as I started to back away from the site within my blind.

Female Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

Female Common Nighthawk and Two Chicks in Utah County, UT USA

One chick moved under mom's chest while the other remained visible in the image below.

Female Common Nighthawk With One Chick Beneath and One Chick at Chest in Utah County, UT USA

I couldn't help but wonder how these birds raise their young on bare ground. They blend in rather effectively with their surroundings and mom is adept at distracting possible threats from the young ones, but they are still extremely vulnerable to the coyotes, badgers, rattlesnakes, and other predators that roam the desert floors. I hope these two young chicks progress to the point of making their first round trip flights to South America and back so they can continue the cycle of life by creating their next generation. I wonder if they'll return to the same desert for their own breeding seasons.

My most recent trip to the same general habitat resulted in a close encounter with what appears to be a male with all those bright white throat feathers. The female nighthawk did not show nearly as many white throat feathers.

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Common Nighthawk in Utah County, UT USA

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Michigan Owl for Mom

My mom raised me to be a night owl. She and I would often visit late at night as she would be doing laundry or when I returned home from a night out as a teenager. We were in the midst of continuing that tradition this past Thursday while I was visiting her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. We were talking about my interest in wildlife photography when she told me she wanted to see a "Michigan" owl in my online photos. Well, the night was still young at 11:30 so with her encouragement I drove a few blocks to a small cemetery which I had noticed earlier in the day and thought would be good habitat for a Screech-Owl. I was a little sheepish about playing a Screech-Owl call from my phone when I arrived at the cemetery and I realized how close I was to some neighboring homes. I didn't want to draw attention by shining my light into the trees if an owl did call back to me. I had a small window of opportunity so I pressed forward with my attempt to call in an owl. Within a few minutes I heard the distant call of a Screech-Owl. A couple minutes later I saw the silhouette of the owl move across the sky above my head. The owl perched deep inside a tree that was on the other side of the fence that separated the cemetery from private property. The owl called back to me. I moved along the fence line until I found a vantage point that allowed me to put a light on the owl and capture some images.

It's not a bad image, but the owl itself looks a bit worn. I noticed a bare spot revealing skin between the owl's left eye and the bill. The whiskers are missing on that side of the bill.

The only reason I'm sharing the image below is to show the shape of the bill. These owls are between 8 and 9 inches tall and seem harmless in many ways, but when it comes time to eat, and they do eat meat, instinct kicks in and that bill does serious damage to small birds and rodents.

I had a smile on my face when I walked back into mom's home late Thursday night...well, early Friday morning. It was a memorable moment to photograph an Eastern Screech-Owl for the first time with the encouragement of my sweet mother. Thanks for supporting my interest, mom. I hope you enjoy seeing your "Michigan" owl.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Video and Images of Great Basin Rattlesnake

I feel fortunate that, to date, all close encounters with rattlesnakes were preceded by an alert from the snake. Thank goodness their rattles worked as nature intended. The first time I heard one rattling I initially mistook it for some sort of grasshopper or noisy insect. Fortunately, on that occasion, a visual combined with the audible locked the sound of the rattle into my memory.

I recently captured some video of a Great Basin Rattlesnake my friend Eric happened upon while we were doing some photography in a desert area of northern Utah. I thought it might be educational and helpful to those who've never heard a rattlesnake give its warning. I was using my zoom lens to allow me to remain at a safe distance while providing a close observation.

This individual was about two and a half feet long and blended in well with its environment. The image below provides a decent view of four important parts of the snake's anatomy--the tongue, pits, eyes, and rattle.  The eyes, pits, and tongue help the snake detect prey while the tail is used to deter predators so it does not become the prey.  

Great Basin Rattlesnake in Utah County, Utah
The rattle of a rattlesnake starts as a button when the snake is born and a new segment is added to the length of the rattle each time the skin is shed. Shedding can occur multiple times a year. Some snakes lose segments of their rattle in the normal course of living so counting the segments is not a reliable method for determining age.  The sound of a rattle is the result of segments of the rattle rubbing together when the extremely quick-firing tail muscles cause the tail to shake up to 50 times per second. If all, or all but one, of the segments are lost the snake will shake its tail to no avail in terms of sending an effective alert to a perceived predator.

Tail of Great Basin Rattlesnake in Utah County, UT

Sunday, July 5, 2015

We Finally Saw-whet! I mean Saw It!

Last Friday evening I led a small group of bird and owl enthusiasts to some of the higher elevations of Utah's Wasatch Mountains.  One out-of-state birder had high hopes of seeing her first Flammulated Owl. That is a small mountain species of owl that many birders from around the United States and other parts of the world want to see when they visit Utah. Flammies, as some affectionately call them, are common for us locally during the spring and summer months because they come from Mexico to breed in our mountains so it is always fun to introduce others to them. One of the local birders who joined our small group had high hopes of seeing a Saw-whet Owl in the wild. I had one of my sons join us and he also had hopes of seeing his first Saw-whet.

Saw-whets are vocal during their breeding season, but they move about more silently in the dark after breeding season slows down. Consequently, this time of year is not ideal for locating Saw-whets. I was very confident we'd locate a Flammulated Owl so I spent most of my efforts locating a Saw-whet during the trip last Friday. We found our first of several Flammulated Owls rather quickly, but the Saw-whets were playing hard to get until our third and final stop and right up until just before we were about to call it a night. Our persistence paid off after we heard an adult give a call and then at least two juveniles calling back to the adult. One juvenile called long enough that I was able to locate it and put a light on it so everyone could enjoy its cute/awesomeness. The little owl was quite accommodating so I decided to capture a few images after others were able to enjoy excellent, close-range views.

Recently-fledged, Juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
Top/Back Side of Recently-fledged, Juvenile Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA
Here's an image of an adult I found on a solo trip several weeks ago to illustrate how much the plumage changes between the juvenile and adult ages of the species. The branch in the foreground is unfortunate from a photographic perspective, but it's also very natural.

Adult Northern Saw-whet Owl in Utah County, UT USA