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From the exotic to the familiar, whether you’re traveling or in your own backyard, we would love to see the world through your eyes.
Winter in Flyover Country can be tough birding in some years, or maybe it just seems tougher as I get older. Nevertheless there are always things to see, and birds to photograph and celebrate. So this is the next installment in an irregular series of On The Road posts, showcasing some of the sights that keep me sane here in year 2 of the pandemic, and year eleventy billion of the reign of 45. I write this at the end of the week of the attempted coup, and dog knows what it will be like when you read this in a few weeks. Stay well, and go see some birds if you can!
Ice can be treacherous and deadly, but when the sun comes out after an ice storm it can also be jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Barbed wire, ice, and refracted sky on a crisp clear day on the edge of the Great Plains.
Ice coatings don’t seem to stop birds from foraging, at least if the coating is minimal and melting. Here’s an American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) chowing down on some crispy sunflower seeds.
Another sparrow here for the winter in smaller numbers is the Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis). As our winters get slowly warmer, we seem to have more of these wintering here than we did in the past.
The flocks of sparrows have other fans besides me, including this Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). It has been a good winter for seeing Prairie Falcons here; this was the 6th one I have seen this season, and probably it won’t be the last one!
It may look like winter to you, but this pair of eastern Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis borealis) is thinking spring. Females are larger than males, so this is a good picture to illustrate that dimorphism. Soon they will be renovating their old nest and starting on a new generation. Baby steps.
I take lots of pictures of hawks, but I probably neglect the standard resident eastern Red-tailed Hawks, focusing too much on their migrant conspecifics. So here is a standard Eastern Red-tailed Hawk (B. jamaicensis borealis) that is pretty representative of our summer birds here. Brick-red tail with no banding other than that skinny black subterminal stripe, white uppertail coverts, and a glare that would not make a prairie vole feel very safe.
Migrant Red-tailed Hawks are abundant in my part of the plains, and the variety is infinite; every one is unique. The next two shots can illustrate that. These are Harlan’s Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis harlani); both first-year birds, most easily aged by that yellow iris. They are both in the category we call intermediate-morph, halfway between dark- and light-morphs, based on that nearly checkerboardy black-and-white patterning underneath. But they are also clearly unique and identifiable, at least in photographs, although the differences are subtle. I’ll let you ponder them and see if you can spot some of the differences. Best of all, if they come back next year, they will have many different feathers and a whole new look!
First-year intermediate-morph Harlan’s Hawk #2
Dark-morph Harlan’s Hawks (B. jamaicensis harlani) can be very dark, as illustrated by this one. And despite its yellow iris, this is a bird in its second year, with fully adult tail and wing plumage. We can see the wings in this image. Look at that heavy dark trailing edge on the wings and compare it to the two youngsters in the previous pictures. Even though those two are a different morph, the paler and thinner trailing edge says that they are in their first year. Every adult redtail might not have a red tail, and might not have a dark iris, but it will have that thick dark trailing edge on the primaries and secondaries.
Finally, here’s another winter resident raptor, a Rough-legged Hawk (Buteo lagopus). Long wings tell us that this is a long-distance migrant, and indeed this species nests on tundra in Arctic Canada and Alaska. Some years (probably when there are lots of edible rodents in the Dakotas and Nebraska) we have very few of these here. This year we have plenty, and some of them even pose for pictures!
The ice is a work of art. Beautiful!
Love the hawks in flight. You make Mondays better, Albatrossity.
@Mary G: Agree.
I adore your descriptions as much as your photos which are gorgeous! I went looking for and explanation of how Passerculus sandwichensis got named and could only find: “The Savannah Sparrow’s name sounds like a nod to its fondness for grassy areas, but this species was actually named by famed nineteenth century ornithologist Alexander Wilson for a specimen collected in Savannah, Georgia.” Nothing about how it came to have sandwich in there. I can just see this poor little bird between 2 slices of Wonder bread, feathers and all. Thanks for sharing your talent!
Magnificent creatures, these hawks.
Very idle question if a little bird is a birb, what is a big bird?
@Laura Too: Yeah, I don’t know where that specific epithet sandwichensis comes from. I did find this tidbit, but I have no idea if it is accurate or not: “The scientific binomial, Passerculus sandwichensis, comes from their presence in Sandwich Bay in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.”
The one resource that might have that information, the Birds of the World monograph on this species, is available through our university library, but the section on “taxonomic history” has been removed because it is under revision.
Thanks to you, Albatrossity, I got a bird guide and have been looking and spying on the (few) birds in my very urban area. What a gift your Monday pics are to my heart and soul!!!
Birdwatching is a pastime that quickly transforms into an obsession. Long walks usually will find me at some point sitting very quietly for a short time until slowly the birds start making their presence known, first by sound followed by sight. Last week I visited some flooded rice fields (Sacramento Valley) and was overwhelmed by the sight of thousands of Tundra Swans and Snow Geese as well as a wide assortment of ducks.
Once again, stunning. I so appreciate a master, and you, sir, are definitely a master of both birding and photography. It’s my pleasure to enjoy it.
Mike S (Now with a Democratic Congressperson!)
Wonderful pics! Sometimes, I wish we had that much variety in our red-tails here in PA, but then again it does make life simpler to have mainly the bog-standard ones,
Nice photos as always – especially the perfectly ordinary resident Redtail.
I wish I could tell my Hawks and Sparrows apart. We have tons of what I take to be house sparrows in the yard and I can occasionally see that one or another is some other kind of sparrow, but I don’t really know what to look for.
I love learning about the various hawk distinctions.
Nearly 2 weeks ago while walking my dog to a park in town, I interrupted a squirrel breakfast for two red tail hawks. The one carrying the squirrel dropped it and sat in a tree watching us, and the second, with the very red tail, circled and settled a few trees away watching. It was a standoff, so I gave up and left them to it.
Your pictures have really opened my eyes to the beauty of all birds!
@Albatrossity: Ah, thank you. More mundane and much less graphic than I expected. I was busy at ALU catching up on Covid and am off to (hopefully) earn my Balloon Juice Gun Bunny badge at Adam’s post. I love this place!
Gorgeous pictures. I am impressed as always not only by your amazing photography but also by your ability to tell raptors apart. I don’t get much practice in NYC of course — we have red-tails and Cooper’s hawks and probably others, but I don’t see them often enough to be able to identify them. Even with the sparrows, I can only tell most of them apart if I have a decent picture and time to spend with the field guide.
Such great photos!
The variability in red tail hawks is amazing! I had no idea.
Two days ago we came home to covy of 10 mountain quail in the backyard, their running speed, even just to rejoin the main group, is amazing.
@namekarB: Oh, I am in envy. How glorious that must have been!
@StringOnAStick: You must live in a pretty special place to have Mountain Quail in the yard!
J R in WV
Great work, as always, thanks so much.
You and all the other B-J jackals have made a huge contribution to my continued sanity — what there is of that, anyway — over the past 4.2 years.
The discussion and description is nearly as good as the photos. No, not really, the photos are sublime, the text is merely wonderful.
You make me want to visit your flyover-country as opposed to flying over or driving through as fast as possible. Thanks again.
Albatrossity, your posts are an education as well as a visual feast. I could easily call out something special for me about each one of these photos, but I’ll just say thank you for finding and sharing beauty in something (winter) that I find hard to deal with (the barbed wire photo), and that I love how you let the angle of the light show the delicate texture of the feathers on the Savannah Sparrow’s underside.