Friday, January 28, 2011


One of the reasons I love getting outdoors is that nature always has a surprise in store. On a day like today, I thought that temperatures approaching seventy degrees were good enough on their own accord. Nature had more goodness in store though! After a super fast oil change I had time for a walk. I stopped off at the Coal Creek corridor east of Louisville and savored the beautiful afternoon on a birdless walk. Just after passing under Hwy 287 I found a likely reason, the juvenile Cooper's Hawk (below) was silhouetted in the fork of a tree, and remained there while I swung around it following the path in a wide arc. As I moved back towards the hawk at a better angle on the opposite side from where I had originally approached I got what I was hoping for, a gap in the heavy branches and better lighting. I took a few shots, (not posted), and was looking to move closer to the creek for a better angle at the bird. I am not sure what made me look up, but I found myself just a few feet from momma Cooper's Hawk, (above). I had to take a few shots, and then turned and withdrew slowly to a less threatening position.

Fortunately it seemed that mom had just eaten, and was also enjoying the warm afternoon, stretching and preening for 20 minutes while I watched and shot. I had withdrawn to a busy trail, and was completely accepted by the adult hawk at a still close range. I couldn't believe it. As I watched from the open the mother was joined in the same tree by the juvenile (pictured above). They vocalized a bit, and eventually a dog walker approached and the juvenile decided to withdraw to the far side of the creek. The adult hawk had no issues remaining though. While passing dogs still earned her full attention, the constant human traffic seemed to have her completely at her ease with me.

Sometimes birds are just entertaining. I could have sworn she was looking for a lost set of car keys.

The Coop's may have just been well fed. They were uncharacteristically accepting of my presence, and I saw only a lone Blue Jay in their area. Even the jay gave them a wide berth and scolded as it made its way through the area. I had to travel well back past my starting point before I saw smaller birds enjoying the nice day. Eurasian Collared Doves, Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches and Song Sparrows had all grouped at what must have been a safe distance and appeared to be trying to make the most of their break from the normal winter temps.

I enjoyed my surprise of a Cooper's Hawk sitting over my shoulder. I'm just glad that my first look at that beautiful bird didn't mean that I had been listed on its lunch menu!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Know what this bird is? (hint: it is not a Jayhawk)

First, a bit of follow-up on yesterday's post to wrap things up, and then I'll dive head-long into this bird and the related title. Last evening the dreaded Jayhawks did come to town, and as expected they left with a victory. "My" Buffaloes did put up a good fight though, and are at least offering the University of Colorado faithful hope that better times are on the horizon. The Buffs managed to keep the one-loss Kansas squad close, and while a four point loss is still a loss - the fans of both teams left having watched a good competitive game.

As yesterday's post implied, the past couple of weeks haven't had much in the way of bird related activity, or more specifically, 'postworthy' sightings to report. My photographs when I have gotten out haven't been impressive, even to me - and generally I haven't felt the urge to share repeated Red-tail Hawk and Kestrel sightings here again.

So, this morning when I woke before my alarm I decided to put in a bit of effort and get out there before work. It did keep me from running or getting to the gym, but I was willing to make the sacrifice...for the birds! Anyway, I headed back over to the Greenlee Preserve, Waneka Lake complex. It is a frequent lunch walk spot, and one that has been a winter home to a Swamp Sparrow for a while now. I arrived at the spot just as the light was increasing, and started counting various bird species that were feeding at the edge of a swale that borders the park.
A good list of fairly common species grew as I waited and hoped for the Swamp Sparrow to appear. One species, a Gray Catbird, is uncommon in winter, and was one of five adds for 2011. Although I may have heard a call note from the Swamp Sparrow, I never saw it, and am still waiting for a better confirmation to claim it as identified or countable. While I was standing there listening I heard a different and interesting song. Luckily for me, as I was standing there a well known area birder jogged up and said "hello". He heard the song as well, and identified it as an American Tree Sparrow. He also said that it was one of only a handful of times he had heard it in Colorado, which is off the American Tree Sparrow's breeding grounds.

How cool is that? Had I not been in the right place at the right time I wouldn't have heard the call, found out what it was, or known just how unusual it is to hear around these parts. I might add that I am utterly amazed at the skill that some birders possess to ID birds by sound. To hear a song, much less a song that shouldn't be in that area, and to know it on the spot is amazing. For someone who is just working on recognizing the most common birds in the area year-round, the recall of others is just baffling. For my part, I have been listening to the call notes of the Swamp Sparrow off and on for several weeks, before and after trips to this location, and I am still uncertain if what I am hearing in the field is the same as the recordings. Just another reminder of how much there is out there to learn, eh?

Anyhow, after my failed - but rewarding - morning trip to search for the Swamp Sparrow I checked my email and learned that a cooperative Rough-legged Hawk was hanging out near the offices for the Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. This had become my most frustrating missed species. They are fairly common in the area, and despite long drives on the prairie, days spent at the hawkwatch in the spring, and raptor field trips this was a species that I just couldn't pin down. So my lunch plan was set, and conveniently I could also get my 2011 parking pass on the same trip! There is nothing like a conveniently located bird.

The picture above is one I snapped as I was just arriving at the site. Some other birder in a vehicle was already quite close to the bird, and not wanting to flush it I drove by slowly and snapped a couple of quick pics before pulling ahead to the parking lot. I went in to renew my parking pass, and came out to see that bird and birder were both still there. As I contemplated getting back in my truck for another drive by, a Red-tailed hawk flew over, and both birds took off together.

I am not sure if the Red-tail was getting territorial, and trying to run the Rough-legged Hawk off, or if the two were just interacting. Either way, they circled with one another lazily and both caught the same thermal. Neither one vocalized, and their behavior was much the same as when several Red-tails are soaring in a group.

Identification points for these birds are their light heads, large and 'heavy' wrist patches on the under-wing, broad tail-bands, and of course legs which are feathered right down to their toes, lending to their name. The two birds circled conveniently close as they rose higher and higher, allowing me to capture them both in frame for a comparison shot. Even at long-range the patagial bars and wrist commas of the Red-tail are distinct from the square dark patches of the Rough-legged Hawk.

The last shot is a fairly tight crop on a shot where the bird had turned back to catch the light after it had risen to an incredible height. I had pulled my eye away from my eyepiece just before, and had struggled to relocate the bird at that point. When I was looking at the shot later I was amazed that it appears to be looking right back at me. A good reminder of just how excellent their eyesight is!

That brings me to one tip I have discovered over time and wanted to share. If you find yourself watching a soaring bird from the ground as it rises, try to keep your eye on it. Inevitably, at some point it will escape your vision as it gets up very high. For myself this seems to happen when I am following a bird through my lens and then take my eye off it to adjust a camera setting, check on another bird, or even blink!@! It can seem like some bizarre magic trick. A bird was just there, and then poof it is gone. My advice, keep watching! Soaring birds are visible when their under-wing or back catches the light and they are at a broad angle to the viewer. Because they can ride the thermal without beating their wings, they may have entered a part of their circular flight where a small percentage of their mass is visible from the viewing angle. Just remain patient and watch the patch of blue, (or gray, or white depending on the weather), where the bird was last seen. The bird may amaze the patient watcher by reappearing - seemingly out of thin air! One of my favorite kinds of magic, although using NASA to predict a space station flyover on unsuspecting fellow campers is a good trick too!

Lots of writing in this post, hope no one has fallen asleep due to boredom. I put a bit of pleasant effort into birding today, and was handsomely rewarded for doing so. Now I just need the gym to do the same tonight!

2011 Count: 38
Lifetime: 252

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Uh - Huh

Just a Red-tailed Hawk shot to let any and all who check in around here know that I am still alive and well. Lunchtime birding trips have been unexceptional, even though a couple have been on beautiful days and have provided welcome breaks in the day. Last night was the first DFO meeting of the year, held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The presentation last night was an introduction to Colorado's Gull species, and hopefully I will take away at least a few good tips.

Generally life has been busy, weekend days mid-winter get spent on the slopes, and the day to day activities of life still need to be accomplished. Next weekend may have one day of dedicated birding though, and those days are just getting longer - which will hopefully lead to more pre- and post-work walks.

Tonight's featured 'bird' activity will involve seeing a locally despised species, the occasional visitor to Colorado - a Jayhawk. Hopefully the mammals are well represented by the Buffaloes - and it will be a competitive battle between the classes waged on the hardwood tonight.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Golden Again

This afternoon my lunchtime walk was at the South Boulder Creek Trail. 50 degree temps made the dirt trail through the trees a bit boggy, so I stuck to the concrete trail. As I headed out two women greeted me with a "We saw a bird for you! We weren't sure what it was, but it was on the right and you can't miss it." I passed an American Kestrel, but it was high in a tree, and unlikely to have gotten that reaction. Then, as I reached my turning back point near the East Boulder Rec Center I saw it...this juvenile Red-tailed Hawk, sitting just above the trail.

Apparently it had grown used to all the walkers, joggers and bikers out enjoying the warm weather, and didn't mind as I approached to take a few pictures. It remained after I had headed on my way, one of three Red-tails seen on my walk.

Walking back I had my eyes on the skies, hoping to add to my growing hawk total, then a large dark bird flew by. Too dark for a Red-tail, it was a Golden Eagle. This sighting was 3 3/4 miles from the bird I saw on the power pole the other day, so it could well have been the same bird, or maybe one of a pair. Mild weather and Golden Eagles, a good way to wrap up the work week.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Howl at the.....Sun?

Despite more mild temps this morning I had to dedicate a bit of my lunch to getting errands done. After refilling the gas tank I did take a few minutes to head out and back on Coal Creek Drive. The way out and much of the return were fairly similar to yesterday's walk - very quiet.

As I drove I had my driver side window open. The remaining snow on the road was squeaking a lot as I drove over it, but then I though I hear a howl. A howl? I stopped and listened again, and sure enough I was hearing a coyote howl.

There on the ridge line, she was talking, and others were talking back. I am not sure if the construction crew at the beginning of the road had disturbed her, or if she was just touching base with others before settling down for a snooze in the sun.

Whatever her reasons she seemed content. I have seen coyotes during daytime hours before, but I haven't heard them, or seen them relaxing out in the open like that before. I guess humans aren't the only creatures who appreciate a few extra degrees Fahrenheit to go along with their bright sunny days. Perhaps the reason why the coyotes were talking wasn't so unfathomable after all.

Then, as I pulled away I spotted a Golden Eagle on a high tension power tower. Not an incredibly rare site in the area, but a first for the year for me.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Wondering at Winter

After a Sunday filled with falling snow I headed out yesterday afternoon to see if I could find anything to photograph during the bright cold day. At lunch I found House Finches showing brilliant color in the reflected sunlight, but they remained hidden well back in thick bushes and brush. This squirrel had no reservations about staring me down from just above eye level. I did get one very distant shot of a Slate-colored Dark-eyed Junco stretching its wings in the sun. I guess being slate colored has its advantages on sunny days when it is cold. I wondered why more birds weren't out in open perches soaking up some radiation. Perhaps the Red-tailed Hawk that I saw pass overhead was part of the reason.

Hawks were everywhere, but a pair of Song Sparrows that I found at McKay Lake Woods later in the afternoon were more photogenic. The shot above was just after I had spotted it feeding on seed heads. It was back-lit, and just on the edge of the trees.

As I had found myself and my subject just inside the trees I dialed up the ISO, and then pulled back the exposure compensation to try to pull more detail out of the subject. It works, but I like the back-lit seed heads in the first shot to.

Finally the birds crossed to the other side if the path, and I was able to watch them as they moved through the half-buried grass. Sneaky sparrows, you have to be quick and shoot a lot of frames to catch them when they are scavenging.... Its a wonder to me that small birds make it through the long cold nights mid-winter. Sure in the sun they can puff their feathers and soak up some rays, but those nights must be brutal. Hope they find lots of seeds.

Even later in the afternoon as the sun was setting and the temps were plummeting I caught a few passing looks at a nice Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk. They don't look much like a typical Red-tail, but when you hear them give the Red-tail scream you know they have to be the same species. I'll spare the bad pictures I did get here, and direct anyone interested to the Harlan's keyword in the menu at right - I was surprised when I looked back at how many better shots I already had of that cool variation.

Sunny and still cold today, with less time for birding and less exciting results. Hopefully my lunchtime walk tomorrow will yield some more good photo ops.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ski Trip Birding

My first trip of 2011 was primarily a ski trip. Waking up early to catch the gondola, trying to cover as much territory of the destination resort, and spending time with friends were the real goals. Then again, California is a state I hadn't visited since I began birding, and spending a few days in a hotel located on Stateline Rd didn't hurt. I managed to keep my eyes on the treetops while riding the chairlifts, and took the camera along for afternoon walks to the lake shore, and was able to build some respectable winter lists as a result. The Pygmy Nuthatches, (above), moved about in flocks, much like they had when I watched them a few weeks ago in Boulder. In California, like Colorado they show a preference for the Ponderosa Pines.

The Lakeshore Park was popular with many of the tourists, not just photographers and birders. The children feeding bread to the birds pulled in a nice mixed flock of gulls. This Herring Gull remained aloof from the frenzy on a closed diving pier.

While the lake was the bird magnet, time spent on the slopes wasn't birdless. In the Sierras just like the Rockies it pays to keep your eyes open while enjoying some sun and lunch. A pair of Clark's Nutcrackers (above) and numerous Mountain Chickadees kept a close eye on the happenings at the new Tamarack Lodge near the summit base of the gondola, just on the California side of the border.

What trip to California would be complete without California Gulls, on the south shore of Lake Tahoe they even outnumber Ring-billed gulls - a welcome change for this Colorado birder. I think the bird above was disappointed that my camera did not generate scraps of bread.

Finally, who couldn't fall in love with a view like this out their hotel window? I've been to Tahoe before, and will plan to get back just as soon as I can, perhaps in a different season next time.

2011 Count: 23
Lifetime: 252

Friday, January 7, 2011

Greetings from Lake Tahoe

2011 has started off right, on vacation! I have been swooshing through some spring-like snow at Heavenly Resort in South Lake Tahoe. After hitting the slopes hard early in the day recovery walks to the lake shore yielded a handful of nice birds, mostly seen in California. Oddly, I am writing this from my hotel room, maybe thirty yards into the State of Nevada.

More to come on the trip and the birds, once I have gotten back to Colorado and had a chance to flip through pics and report my sightings.