Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller
Swainson’s Hawk – Luke Tiller
The birding world is a small one in the US. In fact it’s almost impossible to go to an event like the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival without running into multiple people that you know both personally and from their online presence. Coolest of the random run ins over the weekend for me was when I bumped into a regular from some of the local tours that I ran in Connecticut. It was funny because we’d called over one of the official tour groups from the festival to see a couple of Altamira Orioles that we had discovered whilst on an early morning stop at Estero Llano and I recognized her voice as one of my previous participants quicker than she recognized mine. I guess to be fair there does tend to be a few British accents at these birding events.
Talking of worlds colliding a couple of months ago my dad sent me some awesome photographs from a mural that had recently been put up to cover some rather boring concrete at a local spot along the River Lee in London where I often go for a walk and look for birds. It’s perhaps not the capitals’ birdiest spot, but it’s close and accessible by bicycle. Of course my dad started my interest in birds and my brother was once a renowned street artist – before he became a photographer and music impresario. I recall my brother once getting paid to teach inner city kids how to become graffiti artists. I’m not sure who decided that was a great idea, but you never know, perhaps he helped spawn the next Banksy or Jean-Michel Basquiat
My favorite piece from the event are the Great Crested Grebes created by a Brazilian artist Mateus Bailon (website here). My girlfriend Catherine had just been in Brazil a few months before for the Brazilian Bird Fair (website here). Not only had she fallen in love with the country and its birds, but she had been really impressed by the breadth and depth of an event that included as well as birders and ornithologists, musicians and contemporary artists too amongst others. It’s hard to imagine something quite the same happening in the US or the UK at a birding festival? You can see some of the other murals from the London mural project on the Inspiring City Blog (here). Cool to see the sketches that Mateus worked from and street artists that use nature as a theme of their work. I’m looking forward to getting back to London this Christmas and seeing some of this stuff in person – weird how everything comes together sometimes.
October the 19th I was lucky enough to be able to get involved as a volunteer with the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation run and Habitat Conservation Fund funded SMORES Program. To quote their own publicity material: ‘Smores is an overnight camping program designed to provide youth of Los Angeles County the opportunity to make personal connections to nature.’ The staff and volunteers at Eaton Canyon Nature Center were heavily involved on the day and Pasadena Audubon Society (the local bird club) helped to provide the birding experts for the event.
Birding was just one of the elements of the two day event which also included Day and Night Hiking, Learning to fish, Entomology, Astronomy, Outdoor Cooking, Kayaking and Overnight Camping so we had some tough competition in the fun stakes! The kids (who were aged between 4 and 18) had come in from across the county from out the other side of the mountains in the Antelope Valley to just up the road in Duarte. Only a few of the kids had ever used a pair of binoculars before and even fewer had ever done any birdwatching.
First up we needed to get the kids to get to grips with the bins by getting them to focus on something inanimate. Half of the problem with getting beginner birders hooked is trying to actually get them on some birds. Anyway, everyone seemed to get the grasp of it fairly quickly and at least a few birds were cooperative enough that we barely needed to use the bins.
We had quickly added a few lifers to the participants list in the shape of a some White-crowned Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers before a Northern Mockingbird stole the show – both because it was accommodating and vocal but also because it resonated with many of the older kids who recognized the name from Harper Lee’s book. Of course the real scene stealers arrived in the shape of a perched Red-tailed Hawk, some soaring Ravens and a couple of Ospreys that were working the nearby lake. To my mind (and own biases) it just goes to show the importance of cool birds like raptors in getting kids excited about birds – though I must admit the California Quail were a big hit too.
Though I have led tours and spoken to adults about birding a number of times, it’s always more frightening to talk to kids about it. It just strikes me that they are less likely to nod politely if they are bored out of their minds Anyway, the kids were great and I really enjoyed taking out the three groups I had scheduled, while they rotated through the activities. The highlight of my day was definitely the little kid who said: ’I thought birdwatching was going to be boring, but wow that was really fun!’ Job done as far as I’m concerned!!!!!
All in all they were a great groups of kids, and I hope that they enjoyed their weekend activities. Obviously I’m biased and I hope that they all have some interest in the birds around them for the rest of their lives, but if they get hooked on fishing or hiking or just being outside and enjoying nature in some way that’s good too. To me, making sure that as many people from as many backgrounds get to share the enjoyment that I get from being outdoors is the key.
Next week the Focus on Diversity conference is happening down in McAllen TX (link here). I’m sure it’ll be a great event. It feels like there is still much to do with regard to diversifying the base of North American birding scene. Hopefully both of these events will have a positive effect in that direction.
Yesterday (October 22 2013) I spent some time out in the Antelope Valley near Los Angeles doing some birding with friends. Whilst out there we stumbled on this incredibly dark Red-tailed Hawk. So the big question in my mind was is this a Harlan’s or not. I’ve done some background reading on Harlan’s Hawk but it often seems somewhat amorphous as to what you are looking for to clinch the ID. That said tail and barring through the primaries looks promising?
The bird was at least initially pegged as a dark western bird, and at least a couple of observers thought they saw a hint of rufous in the tail – but it is certainly not evident in the pictures. I think we all agreed it was about the darkest individual we had ever seen if it was just a western type bird; being almost completely black. The above photo of the upper tail shows how dark it looked perched.
The above shot gives you a better view of the undertail and underwing markings. Obviously these shots were taken in extremely low light conditions pretty much right at dawn. Not really done much with them in processing – just a little cropping really.
Whatever it is as far as subspecies is concerned I think it’s an incredibly cool looking bird. Just wondering what others thought, so any thoughts certainly appreciated.
Probably the best resources online with regard to this discussion are all published by the American Birding Association: William S. Clark’s article on Harlan’s Tail Variation (here), Liguori and Sullivan’s article on Western and Eastern Red-tailed Hawk vs Harlan’s (here) and the Liguori article from the same publication on Dark Red-tails (here).
EDIT: All of the authors of the above articles have seen pictures of this bird and are happy that it is a Harlan’s Hawk.
Pleased to find this Black-throated Sparrow down in the wash at Eaton Canyon yesterday evening. Popped back today with Catherine Hamilton and ran into Darren Dowell who was looking to add it to his Big Year list. I have to admit this isn’t a plumage I am used to seeing after connecting with them solely in breeding plumage in Colorado etc.
Black-throated Sparrow is uncommon to rare in the LA Basin. It just seems to rarely get down on this side of the mountain even though it is relatively common once you get out into appropriate habitat just the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains. You can see this nicely on eBird (here). Of any places this side of the San Gabriel Mountains it would seem the Eaton Canyon flood basin is the best place to find one. This individual seems relatively early: the second earliest record I can find among eBird records.
The thing that is funny about this bird is that although it is a great bird for this side of the mountains because Los Angeles County stretches over the mountains into the sparrows breeding habitat (around Lancaster) it’s not that special for the county. I’m starting to learn some interesting stuff about both migration and distribution out here, it certainly seems much more complicated than back in Connecticut and New York. With Black-throated Sparrow itself it seems that movements (as with many desert species) are not completely understood and the eBird occurrence maps (here) show an early season range expansion but a fairly complicated picture after that until a pronounced retreat late fall or early winter.
So with my time running out at Braddock Bay I finally got around to doing some real fishing out on Lake Ontario. I had been promising our neighbor Ron that I would try to make it out with him a number of times and yet we’d only once really found time to hang out on his deck and put a couple of lines in. When I woke up I actually wasn’t feeling 100% but I had had to bail a couple of times on doing some fishing before and didn’t want to be flaky again. When Ron said we were going to head out on a friends boat and try for some Salmon instead of messing around on his dock I was excited but also a little nervous that I might not be holding onto my breakfast.
When we got out on the lake however I was relieved to see that it was pretty much flat as a pancake and shrouded in clouds, with just a little breaking sun it made for some great photography. It was something of a surprise to me that we were heading out on the lake but thanks to Ron, local charter captain Terry Dingee had let us come join him whilst he marked a few Salmon for some forthcoming charters (I hope any terms I am using are correct here – birding not fishing is my area of expertise). To be honest I wasn’t expecting us to run into any fish as it was early in the season and the generally cool water wasn’t concentrating our quarry.
Still it was fun to be sat out early morning on a boat enjoying the scenery as well as getting to talk to Captain Terry Dingee about Salmon fishing on the lake. As a birder I love to talk to people who have a similarly passionate interest in something, especially if it involves nature. It soon became obvious that Terry both knew and loved his fish but also had a intimate knowledge of the lake itself.
Now you’ll have to excuse any technical errors here (as I said, I’m not a fishing expert) but we essentially were trolling using downriggers, dipsy divers and spoons. As well as Ron’s local expertise, his expertise on how exactly to present the bait, which baits to use and where to try there were an incredible number of fantastic and expensive electronic bells and whistles on the boat to help us locate fish and measure water temperature amongst a myriad of other things.
The King or Chinook Salmon that we were looking for are native to the Pacific and are stocked in the lake. For me fishing is really all about relaxation, even more so than birding, it’s a way to just be somewhere pretty and relaxing and turn your mind off for a while. Plus you can bird while you do it – note my Swaros in the pics. I wasn’t really expecting for us to hit any fish so was really just enjoying being out on the boat and taking in the atmosphere and good company, so when the first fish hit the bait it was pretty exhilarating. Fishing with a downrigger a bite is detected when the taught rod and line suddenly springs back as line breaks free from the rig and starts to roll off of the reel. As I was just the guest on the boat I didn’t realize that I was going to be first up on the rod once we had a bite, but I didn’t take much convincing to give it a try. With Terry and Ron providing expert guidance on the technique required to fight the salmon I was soon well into the fight. My only experience like this thus far was movies or TV. Anyway nothing had quite prepared me for how tiring hauling in a few hundred feet of line might be with a strong fish on the end of the line. The general technique is to pull up the rod into a vertical position and then lower it to the horizontal, all the while trying to reel as quickly as possible in order to gain line. The first fish was very nice, hardly a monster, but I think I was exercising muscles that I hadn’t given a workout in a good number of years.
After what felt like ages, the fish broke the surface and I could see the tail out back behind the boat. Now I at least had an idea of how far I had to reel the fish in. I guess it was probably just another few minutes and the fish was right out the back of the boat, though the fight was grueling enough that it felt much longer. Having fished before I knew that the old saying: ‘there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip’ held true and that the netting is often one of the parts most fraught with danger. With some clear directions from Terry though we soon had the fish in the net and swiftly it was on board.
Personally this was the biggest fish I have ever caught and in fact at about 14lbs was about 6 times bigger than anything I have ever landed before. Before I have always caught and released fish, but this guy was destined for the fridge freezer. I have to say that there was a little tinge of sadness as he met his maker, I kind of perhaps momentarily had a wish to send him back of into the wild blue yonder with a pat on the back as a reward for a noble fight, however the fact that Ron was going to put him to good use felt equally gratifying. Unless you are a vegetarian you can’t really get moralistic about taking your meat straight from the wild.
We only had a couple of hours on the lake thanks to my busy schedule that day and I imagined that the first fish was probably going to be it for the day. However much to my surprise as we took another run, the rod pinged again and we were into another fish. Now the description of screaming reels feels like something of a cliche but that is literally what happened as the second fish of the day bit. As the fish hit it started to run and the line was disappearing off the reel at a very rapid rate and Terry’s expert experience already had him pegging this one as a good one. Thanks to all the gizmos on the downrigger and reel we could tell that the salmons first run had eaten up about the length of a football field – pretty stunning.
This fish wasn’t going to be brow beaten quite the same way that the first was and it seemed to be much more reluctant to let us gain line, let alone be brought to the surface. Gaining line initially seemed pretty tough and with my muscles still aching from the first fight Ron and I took turns to tag team this fish to the boat. It was clear when it broke to the surface that this was a much more impressive fish overall. After a bicep and extensor busting battle and another nervy approach to the net the fish was again on board. It was immediately obvious that this was a much better fish, in fact it was double the size of our first. I was so exhausted by the time we got it on board I could barely hold it up for pictures. It was an incredible feeling. Again I could’t help but feel a little sorry for the fish, just because it had provided such a challenge. Still at this rate Ron was going to have a pretty stocked freezer and probably had his allotment of Salmon for the year. I guess the one good sign is that the NY DEC now consider that one meal a month of these lake caught fish is OK – it used to be that the lake was so polluted that it was advised that these fish shouldn’t be eaten at all.
It was a great way to finish off my time along Lake Ontario and one I would heartily recommend. Terry was a great captain and his enthusiasm and knowledge really added to the fun of it all. Just another reason to go to Braddock Bay – great birding, great people and great fishing – the good life! If you want to contact Terry about charters you can contact On-Terry-Oh! Charters at email@example.com He’s old school and busy enough that he relies solely on word of mouth – so I’m happy to be part of that. Thanks to Terry and Ron Logory for a great start to my last day at Braddock Bay.
Dark Buteos. Whats not to love about them – unless you are trying to identify one a few hundred yards away from you at a hawkwatch. With that in mind, a combination of factors lead to the ‘mystery bird’ below heading out to the local Western New York textserve initially identified as a Swainson’s Hawk on May 16th 2013 – oops! In my defense there were a couple of mitigating circumstances at least: a Swainson’s Hawk had been called in from out west of the watch a little before, I only had brief views of the bird before turning over the scope over for others to have a look at the thing, and the bird basically spent the whole time soaring low out a half mile or more away to our left with a very distinct dihedral and never ‘actively’ flying – which might have helped with some keys to the birds identity (these pictures were taken much later when the bird was almost right overhead). Still as much as I like pie, a good serving of humble isn’t my favorite..
That said the hawkwatching rule has always been that if you correct yourself before anyone else does then it’s not really a mistake, and as soon as the bird disappeared back over the tree line I was questioning my initial conclusion, as there was just something not quite right about the plumage. As the bird reappeared over the horizon a few minutes later I realized the flight feathers and tail both at distance seemed to be almost completely pale – which doesn’t totally tally with Swainson’s Hawk. That said, I do remember noting as we watched the discussed the bird that dark Swainson’s Hawks can often appear to show pale flight feathers and tail in certain lighting circumstances: a feature the flight shots of the only banded (and photographed?) Swainson’s Hawk from Braddock Bay seems to exhibit. The photo below is a shot of a bird that was first banded then photographed as it passed over the hawkwatch on May 4th 2009.
With the dark Swainson’s, the typical ‘black in the back’ doesn’t stand out the same way, but there was still something that even with my relatively inexperienced eyes I noted on our mystery bird that didn’t seem quite right for Swainson’s. I think the conversation went something like this – from: ‘is it bothering anyone how pale the flight feathers are on that bird?’ to ‘is it bothering anyone that this ‘Swainson’s’ is kiting like a Red-tailed Hawk!!!!!’. Thankfully the bird had put in two appearances on the day to ensure that we finally got the identification right and luckily the two earlier in the season had afforded somewhat better views (especially the one on May the 1st which gave killer views low over the platform).
The above shot is of the same dark Swainson’s Hawk from Braddock Bay in hand whilst it was in the process of being banded (on International Migratory Bird Day aptly enough). As with many of the more prosaic raptors at the watch our ‘mystery bird’ was eventually successfully identified as much by flight style as much as plumage or structure. Eventually the bird put in a few more appearances over the day allowing some much better shots to be obtained by Dominic Sherony. These shots were then passed on to a few people for confirmation and a couple of noted experts on raptor ID were good enough to even get the identification down as far as subspecies, with this bird being pegged as a first spring rufous-morphed Calarus. Apparently the fairly light banding in the flight feathers and the unbarred outer primaries apparently help rule out a Harlan’s.
Of course there are no dark ‘Eastern’ Red-tailed Hawks, but being out on the western fringes of New York its not unknown for some “Western’ birds to put in an appearance at the watch. That said, in my time at Braddock I have had seen exactly one dark Red-tailed Hawk, which compares unfavorably to the two Mississippi Kites and three Swainson’s Hawks. I know that a few people had a dark Red-tail once when I was getting some lunch during the first big day of my first season, but even then you get some idea of the relative rarity. To give you some other perspective, out of the 9,549 Red-tailed Hawks that were tallied over my three seasons at Braddock only two were definitively identified as dark birds.
Though dark Red-tailed Hawks are certainly rare at Braddock they have (like the Swainson’s) been banded by BBRR and on more than one occasion. The above snap of the rufous bird was taken on April 22nd 2008 and the images of both the back and front of the same bird below were taken at BBRR on May 1st 2003. To me all of these birds look like Calarus subspecies from what I can see but I’d certainly be intrigued to hear any dissenting views on that – though I would assume Harlan’s could almost be ruled out on date? The above bird looks like a distinctly adult rufous morph bird based on plumage and eye coloration?
The pale eyes and various plumage aspects identify the other two as juvenile birds. The shot below has to be one of my favorite pictures ever of a banded bird from Braddock Bay, as not not only is it a cool looking bird in and of itself but it is also in a pretty incredible pose. Anyway I’m not totally sure what the idea of this post was apart from to maybe highlight how tough identifications can be even for relatively seasoned observers, to caution taking care to identify unusual birds from a couple of field marks and to have the opportunity to stick up some super cool looking raptors that have graced the skies (and banding stations) of Braddock Bay over the years.
I’ve always had a reluctance to try and identify subspecies of Red-tailed Hawks from the watch simply because it seems so fraught with potential to make errors unless you can obtain definitive shots. Seeing as I got the mystery bird wrong initially it seems safer to just stick to trying to get the species and where possible the age right. Finally, here is my favorite of all the dark Red-tailed Hawk shots and really just because it is of my boss and head of BBRR, Daena Ford. Here she is in a slightly younger incarnation nicely modelling a dark Red-tailed Hawk which had showed up during one of her hawk banding tour demonstrations I believe – Awesome timing.
Thanks to Dominic Sherony and to Braddock Bay Raptor Research for the loan of the pictures for the blog post, much appreciated.