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Wednesday August 7, 2019   |
One of the four fledgling Ferruginous Hawks in soaring flight.
An extremely rare mid-summer sighting of an adult male Snowy Owl, perched atop a shopping mall roof (‘owl on a hot tin roof’).
A medium-sized downy Western Grebe with an adult on a nearby wetland.
A documentary photo of one of the fledgling Red-headed Woodpeckers with an adult. Paul is actively trying to get better, closer photos of the gray and white fledglings.

Many exciting sightings and photo opportunities punctuated the early part of the week – where do I start? I hadn’t seen any Ferruginous Hawk action for a couple weeks – no adults and no nestlings at or near the nest site – although I expected that if the birds were successful the young hawks should have fledged the week before last. Then Tuesday, a breakthrough: A well-fed hawk was perched atop a sand hill west of the hilltop ground nest. As the hawk took flight, I could see it was a fledgling, and I was glad to see it fly in a smooth aerial display that showed its flying prowess.

Seemingly in response, another fledgling took flight from near the nest and the two circled a few moments. A third fledgling appeared out of nowhere, enlivening the sky all the more. An indication of how well the young hawks could fly was how high they soared – about 300 feet in somewhat windy conditions – they were certainly able fliers. I had seen four young hawks while they were still in the nest, so I was interested to see if I could find four at a time, or possibly more.

When I returned Friday, no hawks were evident at first, but when I checked the sand hill – there were three fledgling Ferrugs standing next to one another, and a moment later a fourth fledgling landed a few yards away! Each of the past two summers, the Ferruginous pair that claims this nesting territory has raised four nestlings, but only three survived leaving the nest those prior years, so it’s exciting to see four faring well as they concentrate on learning to hunt.

In hindsight, I’m surprised I hadn’t seen the adults over the past two weeks, and the fledglings for even longer. But, if you remember, the Ferrug pair built a ground nest, so it was easy for the nestlings to remain hidden among the tall plants that grew up around the hilltop. Also, the hawks were frequenting a low area out of sight from my usual roadside observation points. By driving into their lair along a little-used two-wheel track, I was able to find the fledglings. The hawk breakthrough was just the start of a couple very exciting birding episodes I enjoyed last week.

The Rarest Sighting of Summer!

Last Tuesday, July 30th, an extremely rare mid-summer sighting of an adult male Snowy Owl was reported just an hour north of my office – a huge surprise! An ornithologist friend of mine emailed me, so I couldn’t resist driving to Jamestown, North Dakota, to photograph the Arctic bird that obviously did not belong in this area during mid-summer! I usually don’t have good luck trying to find other people’s rare bird sightings, and I rarely even try, but I couldn’t resist such an unusual Snowy Owl sighting. It’s interesting to note that as I was photographing the nearly pure white male Snowy, a rainbow formed behind it so the owl was positioned at the end of the colorful arch. When I described the scene to my friend Kristine, she wrote: “Magical.”

Woodpecker Fledglings

After seeing the first fledgling Red-headed Woodpecker last week adjacent to the Bald Eagle nest, I was excited to see two fledglings with two adult woodpeckers at that site Monday, and observed an adult feed one of the fledglings. A dozen minutes later, as I drove up to my primary woodpecker photo site, located about three miles away, I observed at least one fledgling woodpecker following an adult east of that nest site.

At the photo site the following evening I watched an adult foraging from an exposed perch, then noted a fledgling join it in the trees, where it followed the adult through the tall cottonwoods. And back at the eagle nest a fledgling was begging an adult for food, then followed the adult to an adjoining field. It was wonderful to see the fledglings and monitor their behavior and interactions with the adults, but as always, I hoped to get a chance to photograph at least one of the gray-headed fledglings.

Well, Friday I did get a chance to take a couple long-range photos of a fledgling Red-headed Woodpecker, one photo of the fledgling with an adult on a pole, and one of the fledgling perched on a tree branch. I appreciated a couple more opportunities to photograph a fledgling Sunday, but it was just a little too far away. Even so, the fledgling seems to be getting more used to my presence, and I’m hoping better photos are forthcoming.

Even so, my Sunday observations revealed the fledgling had begun foraging on its own about a week after leaving the nest. I watched the fledgling searching for insects and spiders along branches that it climbed, even pecking repeatedly at a dead branch in a couple places. Twice it even tried to catch a flying insect in flight, and another time it followed an insect to the ground, where it appeared to catch it. This fledgling still follows the adult, undoubtedly part of the learning process, and is fed periodically by the adult – but it made a big behavioral jump last weekend to begin hunting and foraging on its own.

Dynamic Diving Ducks

Tuesday I found and photographed the first two Ring-necked Duck broods I’ve ever seen in the area; they were also the youngest Ring-neck ducklings I’ve seen. The ducklings were unlike other species in that they were colored in very contrasting gold and dark brown down. It’s interesting to note that the small wetland where I observed these broods of five and three ducklings was the only one in the area where pairs of Ring-necks persisted after migration. Usually Ring-necked Ducks nest east of the Great Plains in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and beyond.

But the best was yet to come: The following afternoon I found a diving duck oasis where I was surprised to see two beautiful downy Redhead broods, about a week apart in age, and a newly hatched brood of Ruddy Ducks, all close to a roadway in a single pond – plus two new Gadwall broods, and a much older Mallard brood. I have never been able to get photos of a Redhead brood, but all that changed then and there; and the Ruddy Duck brood provided equally special observations and photos. That Wednesday episode provided such fulfilling photo opportunities, that I used the experience to expand on my initial idea to provide readers with a Bird Photography feature article about taking photos of duck broods (included in this issue).

Varied Sightings

Adjacent to the snoozing Redheads, I photographed a newly hatched American Coot being fed by an adult. Newly hatched coots look so other-worldly, but it was fun to see this one raise its tiny, almost non-existent wings in response to the adult offering food. This was such a hotspot that on the edge of the wetland I was surprised to find a newly fledged Red-tailed Hawk, my first of the year; a pretty, dark-brown colored male.

Earlier in the day I enjoyed finding a congregation of Western Grebes with several pairs attending fluffy medium-sized young that were different looking than any I can remember seeing before. One adult still carried a smaller hatchling on its back while two others followed behind it. On the edge of that wetland, I observed a couple Snowy Egrets, a Great Egret, and a trio of White-faced Ibis – birds that arrive in the area during post-nesting flights.

Early Migrants

With water levels so high, shorebirds have been rare, but I enjoyed seeing and photographing my first returning Arctic-nesting shorebird – a still-colorful Long-billed Dowitcher, and Tuesday I found a Lesser Yellowlegs, far less common in the area than Greater Yellowlegs. Sunday, the first Pectoral Sandpiper and two Least Sandpipers appeared. On the songbird front, I observed three Eastern Bluebirds, two males and a female, hawking insects; and the day before I witnessed a female or immature Yellow Warbler perch on a branch above my feeding station.

Backyard Update

Little has changed among the orioles during the past week, but it’s worth sharing that the fledgling robins have followed the adults to the feeding station, where they initially begged to be fed grape jelly. After a couple days, though, they began feeding on their own, stopping by a few times a day, first snatching any ants attracted to the jelly, then grabbing a few bites of the sugary grape jam.

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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