Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gambel's Quail

Quail are endlessly enjoyable.

Quiet, with almost cat-like stealth, they sneak out of the bush one by one, as cautious as can be.  Once in the open and the whole covey is assembled again the cooing and cackling commences. They’re social birds with big families.  They peck and gobble up seeds at a frantic pace…a pace to make a chicken dizzy.

Cooing a mellow, nasal sound while feeding provides reassurance to the whole group. It’s a soft, warm, pleasant sound.  Imagine the sound of a squeeze-toy’s squeaker muffled in a pillow. It’s repeated constantly while they forage.

Squabbles over food aren’t serious, but there is a pecking order that must be learned for peace and harmony.  Constantly bobbing…down for seeds…up for danger, the group watches for airborne predators. The male stands guard, visible on a branch, while the female keeps a lower profile.  If the alarm goes out, they explode in a flash and flying dust.

Secretive, but common, Gambel’s Quail are relatively easy to attract.  You just need seeds and enough cover to make them feel comfortable.  

Once you provide those, they show up regularly to entertain you.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

American Kestrel, Tucson

This American Kestrel was either hunting or trying not to be hunted.  Either situation made him very focused on his surroundings.  He nervously scanned the sky, while at the same time contending with another problem…wind.

My presence didn’t seem to bother him, as he was quite comfortable being photographed if I kept a respectable distance, but the wind was tiring him.  He struggled to remain balanced on a branch as a strong, 25 MPH wind blew in his face.

It took all his strength to hold on, while being bounced and buffeted.  When he felt it wasn’t worth it any longer, he left for a more sheltered hunting spot, one even closer to me.

The American Kestrel can be seen perched on a wire in rural America or hovering on a gentle wind over a grassy field.  That’s where they live and hunt.  They prey upon mice, voles, grasshoppers, beetles and bats.  He's a hunter, when he is not the prey.  He has enemies too and he’s not very big. 

The American Kestrel is our smallest falcon, Although a fierce fighter for his size, he's delicate too.  He’s no match for hawks, owls or even a snake, if he picks-on the wrong snake. Choosing wisely and being aware of his surroundings kept this American Kestrel safe today.  There were kestrel-hunters out there in the desert, so he wasn’t letting his guard down.

While holding on tightly as the wind tried to blow him off his branch, he took on a more windswept look. 

They normally have a more rounded, plump look.  They’re similar in size and shape to a Mourning Dove or Rock Dove (pigeon). True to form or not, the wind provided a nice opportunity to see this colorful bird more clearly.  As he leaned into the wind and fanned his tail for balance and stability, he provided me with a nice picture opportunity.   

He brought balance to his life and made my day, too!


Sunday, December 16, 2012

Vermilion Flycatcher, Tucson

A Vermillion Flycatcher is a joy to find.  You'll love this little, bright red bird.  He has it all…looks, 'birdsonality' and a good-looking girlfriend. 

He’s not shy or skulking like some other birds.  He proudly sits in the open with his red breast glowing in the sunshine, inviting you to come closer.  Close, yes, but not into his comfort zone.

Flycatchers catch flies.  It’s what they eat.  His modus operandi is called ‘hawking’ and he’s good at it. 

His eyesight is much better than mine because it’s difficult to see what he’s catching.  He doesn’t give-up easily when pursuing a darting, dodging insect and he doesn’t often come back empty-beaked either. Within seconds he's back on the same branch waiting for another tasty fly-by. 

Studies show Vermilion Flycatchers spend 90% of their day just waiting for flies to fly past.  That's a long time waiting, but actually, they're very active birds.  It only takes a few seconds to snag a snack in the air, so then he waits again. He expends a lot of energy just chasing his food.  How many calories are there in one tiny fly?  
I don’t know.

        The female Vermilion Flycatcher is equally good-looking.

She's zero point four ounces, smartly feathered, white throated and peachy breasted…they make a great pair.

If you have an opportunity to see a Vermilion Flycatcher up close, take it…they’re fun to watch…cheap entertainment and better than TV! 

Sadly, they barely cross the US, Mexico border in their northern range and spend the winters in South America.  You’ll have to make an effort to find one, but this little red bird is worth it.


Friday, December 14, 2012

Red-tailed Hawk (collection)

The hawk you see on the telephone pole during your trip to Grandma’s house is most likely a Red-tailed Hawk. The chance of it being a Red-tailed Hawk is even greater in winter when many more Red-tailed Hawks move down from the far north to swell the population.  It’s a good thing.

America didn’t always look like it looks today.  Millions of telephone poles sprang up last century and Red-tailed Hawks took advantage of them to increase their range and numbers. 

The utility poles are a fact, but this is my observation.  Where are you most likely to see hawks…utility poles?  
Why? It works for them. 

Many man-made structures are tall and clear of trees and a taller perch makes for better views, which makes for better hunting…makes sense.

This Red-tailed Hawk had a desert full of ten-foot trees from which to choose. Instead he chose the 50-foot cell tower on a busy intersection connecting two four-lane highways.  Seems to be an odd choice for a perch, but that is where his view was best…advantage hawk.


A Red-tailed Hawk will soar in circles over a large area in search of food.  

They eat mostly mammals like this desert dwelling Harris’s Antelope Squirrel.  Mice, voles and rabbits also make up a sizeable portion of the Red-tailed Hawk’s diet, but contrary to the urban myth about Red-tailed Hawks and according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:
“It’s very rare for a Red-tailed Hawk to go after dogs or cats.”

Adapt or die is the fate for species living in a changing environment and there is little doubt we are in a changing environment.  The Red-tailed Hawk may be ahead in the game of change, as he seems to be doing quite well. His numbers are increasing and there’s little concern for his long-term survival.

That’s a good thing, especially if you enjoy seeing Red-tailed Hawks on your way to Grandma’s house.


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Cooper's Hawk, Tucson

Kids were shouting, running and hitting baseballs into the air 100 yards away, but this Cooper’s Hawk granted them little attention.  She surely could see the game from her lower limb perch, but she wasn’t interested in any of it. 

Constantly rotating her head she didn’t miss much in her field of view as to food choices though.  Vole holes dotted the ball field where the kids played, so I’m guessing she knew about the voles. 

Making good use of the morning, she puffed-up, fluffed-up and shook out her coat of feathers, while never loosing her perspective or sense of place.  If there was a meal scurrying around nearby, she had it pinned.

Her mate sat 50 feet to her left, partly obscured from my angle of view. The male Cooper’s Hawk is noticeably smaller and sleeker, but they’re similar in color and pattern. Both have vivid red eyes, mottled breasts and sculpted bodies.  Weighing a pound to a pound and a half respectively, they define the word predator as in eagle, falcon or owl.

Not missing much with 180-degree vision, the female hawk knew I was there, but didn’t seem to mind me either.  She looked right at me or possibly right through me, as she gazed calmly in all directions from her shady spot in a mesquite tree.  I had ample opportunities to photograph her from the front, back and both sides and felt I was finished shooting when the attack came.

Suddenly and loudly an alarm call went up from her mate. She twisted her neck to face it…saw it…recognized it…crouched down for a quick retreat…going…gone…WOW! 

I never actually saw the attack, only the escape. I was watching her through the lens as it happened.  No contact was made.  Satisfied I had enough in the camera and she was gone anyway, I picked up my gear and slowly walked to the tree where she had been sitting, just out of curiosity.  

Coming around the tree trunk I looked up…saw a Merlin looking down at me and froze.  He was sitting on the same spot where the Cooper’s Hawk had just been. I wasn’t expecting the Merlin and he wasn’t expecting me.  We were equally surprised to discover each other.  We were 10-feet apart!  I couldn’t do anything picture-wise and the Merlin wasn’t sticking around to pose like the Cooper’s Hawk.

Stunned, I didn’t know what to do, but the Merlin did.

The Merlin was off in a flurry of blue-grey feathers.  His barred-tail-leaving was the only ID he gave me to remember him by. I stood there slack-jawed for a second. Might I see an attack/escape event like this in my life ever again, I think not?  That was a double-WOW!

Some days observing wildlife are just okay, some are satisfactory and some are downright GREAT!


This is a Merlin photographed in Lake Park, Milwaukee as an example.  The Merlin is smaller than the female Cooper’s Hawk, but more aggressive.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Marsh Wren


                                           I could hear him singing in the reeds before I saw him. Marsh Wrens sing a lot.

Actually, I had to wait a long time for him to come out of the reeds.  He was singing to be heard and not necessarily hiding in the reeds of the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico.  Cattail reeds can be very dense…doesn’t take a lot of them the hide a small bird.

Marsh Wrens seem to enjoy singing…males sing day and night…females sing, too.  It’s a pleasant chatter…repetitive, bright, but I’m no music critic.  They sing mostly to claim territory and hold onto it. 

A male will build several domed nests in his territory. The nests have two side openings.  A female will choose a nest and close one opening. Males may have another female at the same time nesting in his territory.  Very territorial, he may puncture eggs of other birds nesting too close.

Breeding up north in summer and wintering down south, they need open water with cattails and insects to keep singing.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Loggerhead Shrike

This Loggerhead Shrike dropped down next to me, then quickly departed.  I figured he was frightened by me as he came in for a landing and reversed in a nanosecond…not so.

After his two-point bounce landing, he was off again…too bad for me…but no.  
Quickly returning to my side with this prize catch, an unfortunate wasp, he showed it to me. 

After beating the life out of the wasp on the stone pillar, he dispatched the head and the remainder was dinner.

His slightly larger relative, the Northern Shrike, is more likely found in Wisconsin.  You can read about him in a previous Feather Tailed Story.  
(I reposted that story to December.) That Northern Shrike was in the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve, near Port Washington.

Sources refer to the two shrikes as ‘butcher birds’.  That was the name used when I was a child and first heard of the bird.  It's their popular name, not a scientific name, but the description fits these two shrikes.
I found this Loggerhead Shrike at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico.


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Ferruginous Hawk

Standing like sentries on guard duty, hawks stared down on us from utility poles as we passed through Kansas.

Most were Ferruginous Hawks, with Red-tailed Hawks making up the rest. While not expecting an honor guard of hawks to greet us as we passed through the Great Plains, I was pleased to see each and every one of them standing at attention…really quite impressive.  I reviewed them as carefully as I could at 60MPH.   
I rode from Wisconsin with my brother, Kenn and his wife Linda M. in their 5th wheel camper. They were on their return trip to Arizona.  I was behind the wheel on this section of straight arrow, US 81, which divides Kansas into two equal parts…east and west. 

Kansas is flat…trees are rare.  With few trees, the utility poles made good perches for America’s largest hawk. Hawks scanned the countryside at regular intervals every few miles.  With little hope of not being seen by one, my only chance for a picture of one was to be accepted by one…they were having no part of it.

This is a Red-tailed Hawk

I stopped the truck whenever I thought a hawk would allow me a picture…I was wrong more often than right.  Seeing me outside the truck would immediately scared him off his high voltage perch. 

He’d accept hundreds of cars passing below him daily, but would get very suspicious when a vehicle stopped.  To date, I only have these few pictures of Ferruginous Hawks, out of the dozens I saw.  These pictures are not all from Kansas either.

This Ferruginous Hawk just outside of Dodge City, Kansas was the most accommodating.  He still flew away when he saw me, but he didn’t go far. He screamed and stretched and rearranged his feathers, then circled above me until he too had enough and flew away.  

Weariness of people has served the Ferruginous Hawk well. Neither ‘endangered’ nor ‘threatened’ the Ferruginous Hawk is common in Kansas…common and cautious.  I have many mental images of them standing at attention on utility poles, but few pictures. 

He’s such a beautiful bird; I just wish he wasn’t so shy.


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Northern Shrike

The Northern Shrike, nicknamed the ‘butcher bird’, deserves his reputation.

Living on birds, insects and small mammals, he impaling his prey on a thorn or barbed wire before ‘butchering’ it. The leftovers remain on the thorn for all to see, which enhances his butcher reputation.  The leftover food doesn’t go to waste though.  He comes back to claim it, when he is hungry again. 

Unlike his smaller southern relative, the Loggerhead Shrike, the Northern Shrike only drops down into the northern tier of the United States for winter. His summers are spent in far northern Canada and Alaska…his breeding range.

This Northern Shrike appeared to be hunting the Forest Beach Migratory Preserve on this day. Bracing against strong northeast winds off Lake Michigan, I watched him struggle to balance on a forty-foot high snag.  After ten minutes of fighting the wind, he gave up and flew away. 

This could be his migration destination though. Northern Shrikes prefer the cooler States like Wisconsin.