Rough-legged Hawk Leaving And Returning From A Hunting Trip

Some of my posts are heavy on words and light on photos. This one is just the opposite (despite all the introductory verbiage under the first image).

 

1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Yesterday morning I photographed this immature Rough-legged Hawk hunting from one of the kestrel nest boxes at Farmington Bay WMA. I don’t know its sex but for the sake of convenience I’ll refer to it as a male in this post.

During some of his hunting forays from the box he would hover in the north breeze but whenever he did so he was far away and had his back to me. But for this series he had spotted an apparent vole in the grasses about 50′ below and in front of the box and I was able to photograph his reaction to the opportunity for a meal.

Soon after this photo was taken I removed my teleconverter to give me a better chance to avoid clipping wings or other body parts when (and if) he took off. As is often the case for me with series of flight shots some of the following images aren’t quite as sharp as the others but I still like all of them.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

This was the moment he spotted the vole. His attention is riveted on the potential meal and his wings are just beginning to open in the process of…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

lifting off in pursuit.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Here the whites of the left wing are facing the sun directly so some of them are just a little bright but I really like the takeoff posture.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

You can imagine my reaction to barely clipping his right wing.

 

 

1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Four frames later he had descended far enough to begin having grasses in the background (I’m not happy with the out of focus wide vertical white line above the hawk).

 

 

1/2500, 6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

His legs are coming down in anticipation of…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

grasping the vole in the grasses.

 

 

1/2500, 6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

But then at the last second the vole apparently made its escape into its tunnel and/or disappeared in the vegetation so the hawk began to veer off and abandon its pursuit. In this shot the nictitating membrane is partly closed, covering the back half of his eye. I also notice that he has temporarily deployed both alulae.

At this point I figured the hawk would continue its wide curving flight away from me and either land somewhere else or hunt from the air far away but he made a serendipitous decision for me and…

 

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

returned to the nest box to hunt some more. As I saw him approaching I pre-focused on the box and caught him during the landing process.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Touch-down.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Despite being a young and relatively inexperienced bird he nailed the landing…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

with the help of his flared tail and arced wings.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

Here the wingtip almost blocked the eye but we can still see it so the photo works for me. In fact I think that peekaboo effect might actually enhance the image.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

As he began to fold his wings I thought it was interesting to see in freeze-frame how he does it.

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

The longer primaries are retracted and compacted first and then folded under the curved arc of the secondaries…

 

 

1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

before the bird begins to lower the entire curved and compact package onto his back.

 

 

1/4000, 6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

In this view we see the neat layering of primaries, secondaries and coverts ready for instant deployment in the next flight. In a later hunting trip from the box this bird successfully captured a vole and returned to the next box with it. I’ll likely post that series at another time.

Gawd, I think Roughies are beautiful raptors!

Ron

PS – Eighteen images in a single post is a new record for me. I hope so many images doesn’t bog down viewing devices but if it does I’d like to know about it for future consideration.

 

 

 

Juniper Titmouse – Feeding Behavior Of A Little-known Species

Plus some interesting and often tragic history of Utah’s west desert.

Yesterday the weather radar and forecast indicated we might finally have a minor break from our recent inversion so I spent most of the day in the west desert in search of blue sky and birds. I found some of both (more blue sky than birds though) and since I’m a history nut I thought I’d include a bit of a historic travelogue in today’s post.

 

We started out in Skull Valley where temps as low as 12° F. covered absolutely everything with a thick layer of hoar frost. We visited the old ghost town of Iosepa but that early in the morning everything there was backlit so I didn’t take any photos.

Many readers from other parts of the country likely are only aware of remote Skull Valley because of the notorious 1968 Skull Valley Sheep Incident where the army at Dugway conducted an open air VX nerve agent test, killing 8000 sheep in the process, and then lied about it. It was major national news back then and scared the hell out of all us along the Wasatch Front because a wind shift could easily have carried nerve agent our way.

 

 

Some history buffs will be well aware of the notorious Hastings Cutoff, an alternative route for California bound pioneers in the mid-1800’s. Because the ill-fated Donner Party took this route in 1846 all of them suffered and many died when they reached the High Sierras, famously eating their own stock animals and each other in their attempt to survive.

Here we see part of the Hastings Cutoff in front of my pickup as it approaches one of the many “island mountain ranges” in the west desert (photo taken in Skull Valley). This is truly desolate (but beautiful) country.

 

 

We ended up at Simpson Springs the site of an old Pony Express station. There’s lots of history here too including the more recent tragic story of Susan Cox Powell. From Wikipedia:

  • “Susan Cox Powell, an American woman from West Valley City, Utah was last seen alive on December 6, 2009. Her husband Joshua “Josh” Powell was named a person of interest in the investigation, but he was never charged. On February 5, 2012, Josh Powell killed himself and the couple’s two young sons in a murder–suicide after custody of the boys had been awarded to Susan Cox Powell’s parents.”

Josh Powell claimed to have been camping with his young sons at Simpson Springs on the night Susan disappeared and many suspect she is buried in the area of the springs but her body has never been found. That possibility always spooks me a little when I visit Simpson Springs.

But yesterday we were focused on a search for birds and eventually we found a few feeding on juniper “berries” in some of the trees.

 

 

They were Juniper Titmice. Until ten years ago the Juniper Titmouse and the Oak Titmouse were classified as a single species – the Plain Titmouse. Virtually all of the studies that have been done on North American titmice were done on the easier to study “Oak” variety but it turns out that many of the morphologic, colorimetric, genetic, vocal, and ecologic traits of the two species are dramatically different.

So the Juniper Titmouse of today is a surprisingly poorly known species and there is “little published information on their foraging ecology, territoriality, juvenile dispersal, breeding biology, and demography” and little is known of the diet of this species. About all I could find is that it includes both invertebrates and seeds. They’re known to be an important consumer of pinyon pine seeds but I found no mention of their namesake seed in their diet – the Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma).

But that’s exactly what I found this one feeding on. These hard and tough “berries” (they’re really female cones and the juniper species name osteosperma means “bony seed” ) contain only a single seed and they’re difficult to get at so the technique used by this bird was to secure the berry between its feet and hammer away at it with its bill. The hammering sound strongly resembled that of a woodpecker which helped us to locate the birds in the dense vegetation.

This bird had already been hammering a while before this shot was taken but now we can see a thin crack in that tough little berry.

 

 

The titmouse hammered some more and then used its bill to wedge the crack open wider…

 

 

and finally was able to retrieve that precious single seed.

 

 

I assumed it would gobble the seed down on the spot but it didn’t.

 

 

With the seed still in its bill it glanced backwards and then…

 

 

vacated the premises. This species is known to cache food so I suspect that was on its agenda.

As I mentioned previously very little is known about this species. In most areas of study Cornell’s Birds of North America Online simply listed what is known about the Oak Titmouse and sort of hoped that it would also apply to the Juniper Titmouse or they said they had “no information”.

So if you know of any budding ornithologists looking for a study project perhaps the Juniper Titmouse would be a worthy subject.

Ron