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Birds such as the red-tailed hawk pictured here are not an uncommon sight.  They come in great varieties; the ones we saw in New Mexico were very different in appearance from the Eastern variety, and this can be confusing for birders.  They do, however, have a fairly consistent field mark in all their morphs.  The dark lines visible on the birds "shoulders' (this is technically the patagium) are a definitive marker for the red-tailed hawk and can help birders differentiate them from other bird varieties.  In this post, I'm going to examine different species of predatory birds and talk a little bit about my experience with them.  I'm going to focus this diary on the birds you can find in the Northeast, though a few of the photos are from New Mexico.  

I'm going to start below the fold with the American Kestrel, the smallest falcon we have in the United States.  

Before I continue I will note a couple things: first, all these photographs are my own work.  I've worked to get better at this sort of photography over the years, with mixed results, but I love sharing the work with others.  

Second, if you're interested in seeing other work of mine, you can view it all via Julie's Magic Light Show, my photo site.  There's also a web form you can use to sign up for my weekly (or daily, if you prefer) posts of new photos on the site.

Also, all of the images on this site are clickable.  Some lead to larger versions of the specific image, and others lead to thumbnails of several images which, in turn, lead to larger versions of the images included.

In the previous birding diary I posted, I got a lot of questions about the gear I use, so I'll mention that these photos were all taken with Pentax Digital cameras; many were taken with an *ist or a k100d (6.1mp); the newer ones were all taken with a K10d.   If you look at the versions of the photos on my web site (by clicking the images) you'll see the camera model and in many cases, the focal length used in the photo.  All the images tagged with the "Sigma 50-500mm" reference used a Sigma zoom lens; the others all used a lower end 100-400mm lens (probably Cosina), except for the one of the Kestrel perched on a pine tree, which was taken when I used to attach my camera to a Celestron telescope to do the photos with mixed results.

The American Kestrel is not generally easy to photograph.  It's a small bird and it moves fast.  But sometimes I get lucky.  In the three Kestrel images I have here, it's perched, most likely scanning for something interesting (such as a mouse or a vole or some other sort of small furry thing).  Birder friends of mine have even watched Kestrels in migration, while still in flight, snatch a butterfly and eat it without missing a wingbeat.

For more about Kestrels, visit Cornell's Lab of Ornithology, which gives us this great (albeit disgusting) tidbit:

Nestling kestrels back up, raise their tails, and squirt feces onto the walls of the nest cavity. The feces dry on the cavity walls and stay off the nestlings. The nest gets to be a smelly place, with feces on the walls and uneaten parts of small animals on the floor.

I'm guessing, they're a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit.

The photo above is from a birding spot I like to check out from time to time in Walpole, NH.  It was a totally random sighting.  I was driving through to look for something else entirely (I don't even remember what) and I spotted the bird on a wire, so I grabbed a few photos.  These two other shots are from Bosque Del Apache Wildife Refuge in New Mexico:

And of these two...

...the left photo was taken at Parker River Wildlife Refuge and the other was taken at the great migration spot Connecticut's Lighthouse Point

Kestrels tend to be no more than a foot long (9-12" is their natural range), which makes them the smallest falcons in the Northeast.  Next up on the size scale is the Merlin, which is in the same size range, but tends to be on the larger end of that size and has a wider wingspan.  The three photos below are of the same bird:

What it's eating/holding in its claw, is a dragonfly.  These are almost impossible to photograph in flight.  They move extremely fast and I have yet to have success with them in motion.  Cornell's Merlin Page gives us the information that Merlins don't build their own nests, but take over old nests from other birds.  One of the reasons I feel so fascinated by them is that they are so difficult to photograph so when I do get pictures of them it's a real treat.

The first ever Merlin photo I got, by the way is of this one:

It was hanging out in a tree for several hours, so I had plenty of opportunity to set up the tripod and get the best shot I could.  This bird was very high up in the tree and so I'm happy I managed to get a decent photo of it at the time.

Funny side story: I'd been trying to get photos of all three Northeastern Falcons for some time, and I finally managed to get all three in one weekend.  The Merlin in the tree above was taken the same day as the Kestrel in flight earlier, and the next day brings us to our final Falcon in the group (pictured on the left)

The Peregrine Falcon, on the other hand, is considerably larger.  In raw dimensions it does not seem that much bigger (Cornell lists their size as 14-19"), they have a much greater presence than the other birds.

They are also very fast, which makes them, like the other falcons, very difficult to photograph while in flight, to the point where this is the one of the only photographs I've ever managed to get of one in flight.  They were, at one point endangered.  As Cornell reports:

Populations crashed in 1950-1970 because of DDT poisoning; eastern population extirpated. It was declared an Endangered Species, and extensive efforts were made to reestablish birds in East, beginning with the work of Tom Cade in 1970 at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which eventually developed into the Peregrine Fund. The species recovered enough to be removed from the Endangered Species List in 1999. You can help scientists learn more about this species by participating in the Celebrate Urban Birds! project.

One last thing I will note about the Peregrine is that its call is unlike anything else you will ever hear in your life.  The first time I ever spotted a Peregrine, I didn't know what it was.  I had stopped off on a rest spot and had my camera out when a bird came flying over a cliff side making a completely bone-chilling call.  It sounded like something primal and intense and ready to activate every part of my brain connected to fear on any level.  When I was trying to ID the bird later, the call was what clinched it for me.  I thought it was probably a falcon, but when I played through sounds of various raptors, just listening to the call of the Peregrine again made my hair stand on end.  That pretty much told me for sure that it was a Peregrine.  I discovered later from other birders that I was near a nest site at the time, which explains the aggressiveness of the bird in question.

If I had a way to embed its call easily here I would, but check out the "play a song from this species" link on the Cornell site linked above, and for the sake of yourself and anyone else in the vicinity, turn the volume down first.

I'm realizing at this point that this diary is getting quite a bit longer than I'd intended it to, so I think I'm going to split it up into a series.  For now, I'm just going to make a tease of a few photos that will be popping up in the future raptor diaries and let you decide for yourself whether or not you're interested:

Broad Winged Hawks:

Coopers Hawk:

Northern Harrier:

note: while I do have some bird photos that were photographed at nature centers and at rehab sites, but these are all birds that were photographed in the wild with no staging or baiting.  I photographed them where I found them.

As usual, feel free to use this as an open photo and/or birding thread.

Originally posted to juliewolf on Thu Aug 07, 2008 at 12:03 PM PDT.


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