Thursday, August 29, 2013

This week's Crops & Clips: Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawks have raised families in several nests within a mile of our Illinois condo. They commonly brought their youngsters to hunt in the surrounding fields. Although the open space is now mostly gone, some still stop to roost on the light poles along our street, keeping a sharp eye out for voles and rabbits.

This is an adult with a bright red tail and light streaking on its mostly white breast. 

Red-tailed Hawk 2-20121104

In flight, Red-tailed Hawks show dark patagial markings on the underside leading edge of their wings. The patagium is the stretch of skin that extends from the body to the wrist.  This one, seen during migration in October, has some streaks and a reddish wash on its breast.

Red-tailed Hawk 20101029

There is considerable variation among individuals. This redtail has a pale breast and a heavily streaked belly band, as well as pale red tail. Its flight feathers lack the black trailing edge usually characteristic of adult birds, so it is probably immature.

Redtail 2008_10_31

An adult soaring high above.

Red-tailed Hawk DPP 20100510

Seen from behind, the white feathers on the hawk's mantle form a rough "V," which can be a useful identifying feature. This individual has a narrow black band at the end of its tail.

Red-tailed Hawk 2-20100605

Juveniles lack red in their tail and are more heavily streaked.

Red-tailed Hawk immature DPP 20110815

This young bird is sunning itself.

Red-tailed Hawk immature 2-20100820

This is one of my favorite shots, of an adult pair on a light pole.

Red-tailed Hawks 20110706

More images from our Illinois neighborhood.

Red-tailed Hawk 2-20130119

Red-tailed Hawk detail 20121120

Red-tailed Hawk in flight 20130110

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Waiting for fall migrants

We are now at our second home in NE Illinois, enjoying a respite from south Florida's heat and humidity. We wasted no time getting out on crisp and cool mornings, but found that this time of year is not ideal for birding. Local resident species are undergoing a post-breeding molt. With few exceptions, they are conserving energy and hiding out. 

Some may already be heading south. To our distress, we found no Bobolinks or Dickcissels in the prairies of local preserves. We looked for Henslow's and Grasshopper Sparrows but found none. We hope to catch the front end of fall songbird migration before returning to Florida.

A ragged Field Sparrow suddenly perched on a flower stalk.

Field Sparrow molting 20130812

American Goldfinches provided most of the action, singing and rollicking all around. They have waited for the thistles and milkweed to go to seed and furnish the down for nests and seeds for nestlings.

American Goldfinch 20130812

I came across a female goldfinch sitting tight on an unusually deep-looking nest not far off the path. You must look closely to even see her.

American Goldfinch on nest 20130812

This Song Sparrow was waiting for us to move away before flying down to feed a nestling.

Song Sparrow 20130812

Seven Caspian Terns rested on the shore of a small retention pond near our home. Note that the second from the right has a leg band, and that the next one to the left has a shorter and paler bill and mottled plumage that identifies it as an immature bird. 

Caspian Terns-- one is banded 20130812

Caspian Tern in flight 20130812

Lippold Park, along the east bank of the Fox River, was more productive. We hoped to see some early warblers, to no avail. Black-capped Chickadees foraged in the large oak trees.

Black-capped Chickadee 20130814

A male Northern Cardinal peered at us through the understory.

Northern Cardinal 3-20130814

Indigo Buntings sang and did their best to hide among the leaves.

Indigo Bunting 2-20130814

When one did come out into the open, the strong light made it difficult to capture its deep blue plumage against the sky.

Indigo Bunting 20130814

A Solitary Sandpiper probed the mud flats along the river.

Solitary Sandpiper 2-20130814

An Osprey coursed over the river...

Osprey 20130814

...followed by an adult Bald Eagle.

Bald Eagle 20130814

One morning a male American Kestrel roosted on a street light next to our condo. Despite my "pishing" and squeaking  I could not get it to look my way!

American Kestrel 20130812

Thursday, August 22, 2013

This week's Crops & Clips: Savannah Sparrow

It's easy to dismiss sparrows as nondescript little streaky brown birds that lurk in the bushes. Actually, the fourth bird I recorded on December 5, 1948, the day I started keeping a life list, was an "English Sparrow."  Now called the House Sparrow, it is not a member of the American sparrow family, but rather is classified as an Old World weaver finch or "true sparrow." 

Until I matched it with a picture in my first bird book I called it a "Chippie," because that was what my grandmother called them. Here is the page from a copy of that book, Chester A Reed's 1923 "Bird Guide - Land Birds East of the Rockies." Notice the properly dressed lady approaching on the sidewalk, and also the note of disgust in Reed's description. 


We see very few House Sparrows in our NE Illinois yard, although they are common around nearby shopping centers. Until new homes replaced the open fields around our condo, our most common sparrow was the Savannah Sparrow, illustrated two pages later in Reed's guide.


The actual sparrow does not resemble the rotund, broad-tailed and weary-looking one in Reed's painting. My first ever photo of a Savannah Sparrow captured its mischevious nature as it peeked out at me from a clump of grass. I took this photo in Florida, the first of my few sightings of this species there in the local wetlands

Savannah Sparrow 2008_10_31 

This bird occupies one of the utility markers upon which I focused my camera while parked near our Illinois condo. The photo shows off the bright yellow highlight over the Savannah Sparrow's eye. 

Savannah Sparrow 20100605

They often posed atop the rock piles they shared with other prairie bird species. I had the advantage of positioning the car in a spot where the early morning sun would provide perfect light. The only variable was what kind of bird would be the first to alight.

Savannah Sparrow 3-20120506 

Savannah Sparrows are usually found on or near the ground...

Savannah Sparrow-2 20081107

...but they will sing from the highest point available when claiming or protecting their nesting territory.

Savannah Sparrow 20100428

When agitated, the sparrow may raise its crown.

Savannah Sparrow 2-20110707

All Savannah Sparrrows have crisp breast streaks that often coasesce into a central spot resembling that of a Song Sparrow, but they are smaller than the latter species and their thin and proportionally shorter tails are usually notched rather than rounded. This individual was quite pale.

Savannah Sparrow 2-20130515

In another bird the breast streaking was rather sparse. Note the distinctive black malar streak, or "moustache."

Savannah Sparrow 3-20101101

One local bird had very narrow streaking.

Savannah Sparrow SOOC crop 20100516

This specimen, photographed at Forsythe National Refuge (Brigantine Unit) in New Jersey, was remarkably dark.

Savannah Sparrow at Brig 2-20091013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

South Florida birding hazard

The weather eased up a bit before we returned to Illinois. This may have been partly due to the haze produced by dust that traveled 6,000 miles across the Atlantic from Africa's Sahara Desert. The dust arrives annually to south Florida in early summer and persists until autumn, when the tropical waves from Africa begin to deliver hurricanes. The dust cloud is believed to suppress cloud formation and is also blamed for an adverse effect on the coral in the eastern Atlantic, but is not known to harm humans.  

According to NASA, Saharan dust is made up of a mix of minerals including clay and iron, as well as organic material such as pollen and micro-organisms. It travels across the Atlantic at about 5,000 feet above the ocean and sometimes crosses the Gulf of Mexico all the way to the Texas coast.  See NASA's 2013 Hurricane Mission to Delve into Saharan Dust 

The amount of dust varies from year to year and can produce very colorful sunrises and sunsets. Last year our early morning skies turned bright pink, and I also witnessed an unusual "mirrored sunrise" directly west of the actual sunrise. See my blog that has photos of these events: Egrets under pink skies.

On August 4, minutes after a golden sunrise, I took this photo of the sky, looking west over the wetlands preserve next to our home. This viewpoint is almost the exact spot from which I witnessed last year's "mirrored sunrise." 

Harbour Lake looking west at sunrise HDR  20130804

Falling water levels isolated a patch of water from the lake. The surface of the water rippled as small fish struggled to gape air. I frightened several herons that were feeding there. The soft morning light imparted a gentle glow that enhanced the stark white plumage of an adult Black-crowned Night-Heron as it alighted atop a shrub.

Black-crowned Night-Heron 20130807

The heron had piercing red eyes.

Black-crowned Night-Heron 2-20130807

Two Green Herons flew up from the area. An adult bird with solid rufous neck feathers is on the right, while a streaked immature is opposite it.

Green Herons 20130803 

A juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk occupied the top of a power pole.

Red-shouldered Hawk juvenile 3-20130803

On the gravel road, a pair of Common Ground-Doves looked for breakfast.

Common Ground-Doves 20130804

Ground-doves can be quite wary. I was lucky to get fairly close to this male who lingered on the path after his mate and one young bird flew into a nearby tree.

Common Ground-Dove 20130805

Although the birding was not particularly good that morning, on my way back home I stopped again to snap a photo of the clouds from a muddy trail on a berm that covers a stormwater culvert leading out into the lake. The sky had a pink cast but the color did not show up well. I would not have posted this photo except for what I did NOT see. If you click on the photo you will see a larger image with a box in the lower edge of the image that shows where a poisonous Cottonmouth moccasin was hiding.

Harbour Lakes dock looking west 20130804

I did not notice the snake until I took a couple of steps forward. That was when I caught the movement of its white gape in my peripheral vision. It was so well obscured by the sedge and grass stems that I would not have seen it at all. Note the triangular head, black mask and elliptical pupils. Like all poisonous pit vipers, it has a heat-sensing pit between its eye and nostril. 

Cottonmouth closeup 2-20130804

Not planning to walk in high grass, I did not wear my snake boots that morning. The Cottonmouth  was a good three feet away with most of its body in the water but it did coil and threaten when I maneuvered around to get a better photo. Then it bolted and swam away. 

Cottonmouth 20130804

It was a medium size, about 3-4 feet long. Characteristically, it swam with its head held above the water, unlike harmless water snakes. After this I started noticing every crooked branch or any curved shadow! 

Cottonmouth retreating 2-20130804

Later that afternoon, from the safety of my back patio, I enjoyed visits from a few long-legged waders, including a flock of White Ibises.

White Ibises 20130803

I could not get a full-body shot of this Little Blue Heron before it bolted.

Little Blue Heron thru window 20130802

This female Anhinga was an interesting visitor. She threatened me when I approached to take her picture, and engaged in a threat display before a grudging departure.

Anhinga 20130803

Here is a brief clip of the Anhinga's display. If it does not show up, try this link: