Meanwhile, at sea…

Brother- in- law George Graham has been getting more and more involved in observing, counting, and studying marine birds and fish off the coast of Massachusetts, so far as a volunteer. He sent this report and these excellent photos, as migration stretces its  lines down the coasts. My only caveat is that George will have to tell you what his acronyms mean.Take it, George!

“I finally made it on one of the last excursions of the year on the R/V Auk 25 miles out to the SBNMS with the crew from NOAA. We had a fantastic day this past Monday, calm seas, low wind and temps about 60. Pretty good score for an October day off Massachusetts Bay. The primary objective was gathering data on seabirds following a predetermined course of over 100 miles, secondary were mammal and debris observations. We counted over 1800 birds in about 17 species. A great experience. Now that I’m a trained recorder, I’m looking forward to riding the whale watches next spring as a Stellwagen Sanctuary Seabird Steward (S4 project).

“I was the test dummy for the safety brief, see gumby suit. Group shot of the S4 volunteers. The gent on the left is Wayne Petersen,  Mass Audubon’s Director of the Massachusetts Important Bird Areas (IBA) program. He was a great source of knowledge and a pleasure to work with.”

Steve again. Scoters and eiders; more than a bit of nostalgia there. The two opposing poles, the yin and the yang  of Yankee bird hunting, are the slow- moving, rather comfortable ramble with a pretty setter through the transformed glory of a New England autumn, with grouse and woodcock as quarry, and eating such noble quarry cooked by traditional, classical recipes… I mean, the French cook such birds right.

And then there are sea ducks– shot from small boats,  often on dark days off dangerous coasts,  with an east wind blowing sleet and freezing rain at you midst turbulence and discomfort and the smell of salt air and wet dog. A Chessie might beat a Lab, and a ten bore might be the best choice in a gun. To cook them well you had best know some old swamp Yankee secrets or you’d do better to eat the legendary board you were supposed to nail them to.

You might be surprised which I remember best.


John Wilson photographed this osprey near Magdalena. It is not the first I know of– I think I have seen three over 30 years– but it is the first photographed.

But what is this semi- obligate piscivore doing 30 miles from any fish that is not in a freezer? “Lake Magdalena” (the sewage pond) has no fish, and it is a long way to any other body of water until you get down to the Rio.

Cat up in the Wyoming sage also has desert ospreys, but hers are all near rivers that run down in slots below the surface of the desert, rich ones, full of trout and other species. Nothing like that down here.

Moroccan Hawk ID

Terence Clark has been in Morocco for the Festival of Traditional Hunting, where he photographed some hawks. Most were Peregrines of the migrant race that they call Shahin Bari, “Bari” meaning “of the sea”– probably the far- northern Falco peregrinus calidus, which may have flown from as far as Siberia.

But the young man on the right in the second pic has what Paul Domski rightly calls “an immature, a somewhat odd Accipiter”. At a quick drive by it looks like a Gos, but its skinny bottle shoulders and longish head and legs and even neck don’t look quite right even for a small male– and in relation to the Peregrine, it doesn’t look that small, nor are calidus small Peregrines. I thought to check the not- quite – Accipiters Melierax, the “Chanting goshawks”, one species of which does live in Morocco, but all add barred rather than pale bellies,

Surely this is something Q’s readership can solve. I know, it is probably just a Gos sitting funny. But Paul and I have seen and flown a lot of Gosses– he has at least two these days.

Right or double click to enlarge for detail– these are big.

Wilson Photos

Relative newcomers John and Carolyn Wilson are becoming serious documenters of the phenology of local wildlife and photographers of same (with real lenses). They supply constant water on their forest- edge holding 12 miles from town, which has already paid off in photos of bandtail pigeon and goshawk. Now John has gotten a good portrait of a Lewis’s woodpecker. They are odd birds, not very common and living an un- woodpecker- like “lifestyle” between that of a flicker and a flycatcher; I have mostly seen them in pasture country, sitting on wires and hawking flying insects.

The other interesting recent one needs explanation. Our favorite town birding spot or at least the most productive is what we call “Lake Magdalena”, the sewage pond just to our north. Every water- loving migrant that passes seems to find it; I have seen white pelicans among other things. It is especially attractive to ducks; the late Floyd Mansell once drove me out to see something but would not tell me what until I had seen for myself. On the pond were about ten black scoters, salt- water ducks I had last seen in the winter surf off Duxbury Beach in Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to tell you because if they had left you might not have believed it”.

On this photo the old Magdalena Cemetery, where Floyd and other friends rest, is at the top, the “lake” below, graced with a flock of white- faced glassy ibises. Double or right- click to enlarge.

A Few Birds

Coming back this weekend after work, sick days, and generally too much, and that dull. (Why is it so hard to pay writers dammit???) We will have links, pix, dog news, poetry. I will finally review David Quammen. I will announce others. There will be…. MORE. Tonight though, good photos… as always, right or double click and embiggen.

This extremely early bandtail showed up at Carolyn and John Wilson’s in the Magdalenas two days past. Photo by Carolyn W:

Goshawks. This adept pigeon- killing young male was in Larry Day’s backyard outside of Bozeman MT. I wonder if his meal descended from Spanish pouters I gave Larry 20 years past…

A relative but Melierax not Accipiter— dark chanting goshawk photographed by Texas writer Dennis Sumrak while hunting in Namibia. Dennis is working on a piece on our water crisis and has been seen at the Spur…

Can anyone remember a Roy Campbell poem– “Singing Hawk” perhaps– about this bird? I seem to but can’t find it…

Exciting Bird!

Today John Wilson and I took off at dawn and drove up past 10,000 feet on South Baldy in the Magdalena Range, surveying a rather unlikely habitat for the annual “Backyard” Bird Count. I doubted that we would see much more than ravens and a few boreal forest- type hardy songbirds of the general type such places share with Montana, Maine, and even Siberia. But I figured most birders would be down below on the Rio Grande Bosque, 4000 or so feet below, and we would have the privilege of making our own discoveries.

For the most part I was right– the most exciting bird we saw (because entirely local, with no representatives in John’s native Ohio) was the not very rare Townsend’s solitaire. But just after we turned around at the observatory gate near the highest ridge, I saw a little orange blob on a twig’s tip just ahead. I am a bit shortsighted and I wasn’t wearing my glasses, and we had just been talking about the wishful pseudo- birds your eyes make out of inanimate objects, but I trained my binocs on it and said “stop, it’s a real bird.” As he brought up his glasses I thought “WTF, ORANGE?” Not in my winter search programs. By insane Jungian synchronicity we had been talking with Libby over our pre- dawn coffee about a flock of white winged crossbills that had hung around our backyard feeder ten years ago, and as I started to say in awed puzzlement “Crossbill…??” John said firmly, as though reading my mind, “RED”. Meaning the other species or, esoterically (look it up) species flock. There were about thirty, feeding and basking and in no hurry at all.

I hadn’t seen any red crossbills in over ten years, and never in NM, so it was a “State Life” bird. I took a lousy photo with my pointandshoot, and John took some good ones with his “real” camera, the first to be attached now and the others to come soon. When he regretted the bar being closed to raise a glass to the little wanderers, I remembered that my pack contained a silver half- pint antique flask of vodka. We took our shots and toasted: “Confusion to our enemies!” (me); and “God bless the Czar, and keep him far away from us!” (John). Photos below and to come…

UPDATE: Here is my favorite of John’s– I like the lichen and rock as well as the bird– and a flock pic. What on earth are they eating?

Credit Due

Early last July, Stacia Novy, a young military career woman, biologist, and falconer, e-mailed me an excited message that she had just been instrumental in finding the nest of a very little known Neotropical raptor, the Solitary Eagle (Buteogallus solitarius), in Belize. She attached this picture.

Unfortunately, since then, most published accounts have omitted her role, though if you do any Internet searching you will find, to quote, that she was the one who “… modified and applied traditional bird-tracking techniques… to follow the breeding/prey-carrying male eagle to the nest. This was a deciding factor, as the wild eagle was NOT radio-tagged and could not be followed any other way.” She was more experienced with raptors than many of her colleagues.

Somewhere between discovery and official reporting, a competing group apparently took over the publicity; appropriation of data is regrettably common, but allegedly some of those now claiming credit were not even in the country. A short account of the discovery is available here— scroll down– in three parts, with her role mentioned. And apparently the North American Falconers Association will publish something next season. But it would be nice to get some “official” scientific recognition for her too.

Stacia with Aplomado– no beginner in game hawking!

Bird ID

Bruce Douglas of Arizona, traveling, sent me this photo from the vicinity of Grand Coulee Dam. I am pretty sure what it is and sent him my thoughts, which I will blog in a little. But what do YOU think?

Bruce said it was “huge”.

Click to embiggen:

UPDATE: Our take, FWIW: We (Lib came to the same conclusion without coaching) THINK it is a juvenile bald eagle. The second photo is most diagnostic. The head and heavy bill protrude way forward. Swift slope- soaring makes all wings swept- back and similar, but when we are coaching inexperienced birders to tell balds from goldens before they get the white heads we say: “Wings like boards, flat when they soar, like barn doors when they flap; goldens have no straight lines. And see that big nose sticking out? Goldens have little heads, but balds are all smoking cigars.”

Avian Drama, Home Version

In remote, dirt- road Magdalena, wildlife comes into town. Deer track through the central arroyo, followed by mountain lions. An adolescent lion got himself cornered and darted in the High school yard a couple of years ago; a bear went up an electric pole and was electrocuted the same year. Coyotes challenge the hounds from inside town limits before dawn and reduce them to a fury of howling.

But birds, even ones you don’t think of as human commensals, can be even bolder, going about their lives in the artificial canyons and woodlands with little attention to humans. The following sequence yesterday begins with my shooting from my own front porch facing south and pointing just slightly west and to the right. Apologies for quality– I was using a point- and- shoot that lags when you push the button, while trying to time myself to catch the falcon’s rushes. All but the last will enlarge twice if clicked on– it will go only once.

I was dozing over my book about 4 PM when I was roused by a mad chorus of raven croaks and kestrel “kleekleeklee!” alarm notes. I went out to see a raven standing in the street 100 feet away. Ravens don’t do that.

He had evidently been poking his sinister beak into that little hole in the upper right corner of the storage shed across the street, where the falcon’s eggs had hatched, and the female had caught him. She stooped at him again and again until she drove him to the ground, though he must easily have weighed three times as much, until he was squawking and ducking and trying to get under the hedge.

She hit him again and again, turning over at the end of each swing or hanging in the wind between strikes (click to enlarge– she is at upper right).

Only my coming forward to try to take a closer photo finally gave the raven an opportunity to break away, while mother kestrel cursed impartially at me. The raven was not visiting today…