On the Road is a weekday feature spotlighting reader photo submissions.
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.
Albatrossity starts off the week, no surprise there! Then we have the final post in the series from UncleEb, more hiking in some amazing canyons with TKH, and then we close the week out with Maine #10 from JanieM and the start of a series from Steve in Mendocino!
Birding in winter in Flyover Country can seem fairly uncolorful, dominated by dun-colored sparrows, hawks, and flocks of blackbirds, larks, and longspurs. The color palette is slim, but the subtle patterns of those colors, frozen in time by the camera, are revealed to be complex and gorgeous. Let’s take a look at some of those.
But first, good news. My local dark Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis Harlani), aka Harley, returned to his regular winter territory on or before October 25 this year. I got his picture the day after I first sighted him. This is at least his 10th (tenth!) winter here. As you might (or might not) know, avian influenza has been hammering North American birds this summer, and hawks are among the most susceptible, since they often feed on dead or dying waterfowl. So I admit I was trying to prepare myself for a winter without this dark companion. It was incredibly uplifting to see him on station again this season. Here’s a composite shot of two images, dorsal and ventral sides of this gorgeous and resilient raptor. Click here for larger image.
Other winter Red-tailed Hawks are a bit more colorful, but most of them, like this one, prefer to hightail it away from photographers. Click here for larger image.
It seems to have been a good summer for our local coyote (Canis latrans) population. This healthy-looking specimen is a good example. Click here for larger image.
One of the most vilified birds in North America is the Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater). They have a bad reputation because 1) Humans have expanded their habitat into woodlands and other places where nesting birds are unfamiliar with cowbird habits, and 2) Humans have a strong tendency to project their own value systems onto other species. Thus, laying your eggs in another tiny innocent colorful bird’s nest and hoping that the other bird raises your babies is considered to be awful, immoral, vile, and contemptible by many birders and others. It ain’t so. Cowbirds are doing what they have evolved to do, they are very good at it, and their negative effects on warblers and other colorful birds are entirely due to human alterations of the landscape of this continent. Other reasons to appreciate them: their burbling song has just about the largest frequency range of any avian vocalization, and young male cowbirds have to learn that song after they leave the nest, and thus after the peak song learning window for most birds. Amazing! Click here for larger image.
One common cowbird host here in Flyover Country is the Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna). Because they co-evolved with cowbirds, they know how to deal with them and their populations are doing fine. This early winter bird is not very colorful at first glance, but notice that the dark bib and yellow chest are actually visible, just muted. The gray feather tips on those feathers will gradually wear off as time goes by, and by March they will be very colorful, even though they have not undergone a molt. Click here for larger image.
Another common cowbird host is this bird, one of the most abundant species on the continent (if not the planet). You may not recognize it from this picture, and indeed, this species is probably the most misidentified bird on every college ornithology field practical exam. It is a female Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Lots of ornithology students frantically page back and forth in the sparrow section of their field guide (or look at many screens in the sparrow section in their field guide app these days) looking for an ID for this bird and finding nothing close. Click here for larger image.
Here is a real sparrow, and another common bird across North America. Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) is aptly named, and their cheerful songs are a summertime staple for many North American birders. They do have different dialects, just like those birders; the first time I heard a California Song Sparrow sing, I did not recognize it at all! Click here for larger image.
Another subtly handsome sparrow, the Field Sparrow (Spizella pusilla) has an incredibly cheerful “bouncing ball” song, although we won’t hear it often during the winter. Like other birds, these were formerly rare here in the winter, spending their winters further south. But in recent years have come to be an expected species on our Christmas Bird Counts. Click here for larger image.
This sparrow, the American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea) can be super-abundant here in the winter. Birders counted over 31,000 individuals of this species in our CBC circle in 1982, and any outdoor excursion in the winter is guaranteed to scare up dozens of these cuties. Click here for larger image.
Our final critter is a very grumpy and cold-looking young Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), on the morning after our first hard frost. Click here for larger image.