Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Effort...Reward

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

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