While most of us are feeling the effects of a polar deep freeze with fingers of cold that reach almost to Mexico, America’s sunbelt birders can still appreciate the sunny sights of hummingbirds, primarily in select areas from southern California to Louisiana. Sugar-water feeders continue to attract a variety of hummingbird species in the Tucson, Arizona, area where one birder shared that Broad-billed, Broad-tailed, Anna’s, and Costa’s Hummingbirds are visiting his backyard feeding station. And Louisiana birders can cumulatively boast 8 species!
A new cooperative research project conducted by representatives of several organizations helped to attach new miniature GPS-satellite tags on 52 Common Nighthawks at 13 locations across the species’ expansive nesting range to better understand where these birds spend their time throughout the year. The study provided insights about their ecology, especially during winter and migration periods. Common Nighthawks are one of the Western Hemisphere’s most widespread migratory species, yet we know little about them after they leave their nesting sites.
All About Owls is a two-day virtual workshop available via Zoom this Friday and Saturday, February 19 & 20. Offered by a leading owl banding and research center, the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory in Duluth, Minnesota, participants will explore the 19 species of owls found in the United States as masters of camouflage with amazing physical adaptations and lifestyles that make them top of the line predators from the smallest to the largest species. Learn how some owls are migrants, some are residents, and explore general identification keys, including calls.
Registration is now open for the 25th Great Texas Birding Classic, although this popular event may look a little different from past spring Classics due to pandemic concerns. There may be more virtual gatherings than in-person meetings, but there should be something for everyone who participates. Gather friends, family, fellow birding club members, even colleagues to join your team for the Great Texas Birding Classic by the April 1st deadline, and enjoy the planning and preparation phases of participating between now and then.
The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network recently upgraded Humboldt Bay in coastal northern California to a site of Hemispheric Importance. Recent research shows more than 850,000 shorebirds including 32 species utilize this exceptional wetland annually. A majority of the Pacific American Flyway populations of Western Sandpipers and Marbled Godwits use the Bay, and expansive nutrient-rich mudflats of Humboldt Bay have special importance to other species including Dunlins.
After the coldest day and night of this winter, when temperatures at the northern tip of Alaska were warmer, Sunday it warmed to near zero, but I still had such low expectations for any kind of avian interactions that I finally forced myself out the door and up the road, northbound for an afternoon drive. I perked up after seeing a colorful Ring-necked Pheasant glowing in the frigid sunshine, followed by another one a mile down the trail. Then to see a huge flock of Common Redpolls that easily exceeded 100, probably closer to 120, I took a few minutes to watch them.
Spring hummingbird migration is only 60 days away for some birders, while in many Sunbelt states birders are already hosting a variety of hummingbirds. All birders will be interested to check out the expansive collection of Perky-Pet hummingbird feeders online to shop among its decorative hummingbird feeders. Favorites include the series of Top-Fill Glass Hummingbird Feeders in a rainbow of colors and a variety of designs ranging from simple to ornate, antique to modern.
Wild Birds Unlimited offers several hummingbird feeders that feature the “high perch” style in a variety of sizes and shapes, including the stylish Pagoda High Perch Hummingbird Feeder. This line of feeders has a high linear perch that provides birders with better clear views of hummingbirds that comfortably feed from topside feeding ports. WBU also offers a nectar brush for cleaning hummingbird feeders and packaged hummingbird nectar – all you do is add water, and it contains no dyes or additives.
Duncraft offers a wide variety of modern, unique, and traditional styles of hummingbird feeders for birders to peruse – there’s something for everyone it would appear. When birders take a look at their current hummingbird feeder, they will probably have some feeder envy when they shop the Duncraft selections and are duly impressed at the overall variety, and the attractiveness of certain models. Start with the Hummerfest Feeder & Weather Guard, and continue through the dozens of other options.
Redwings continued to dominate the rare bird sightings last week: Three more were sighted in Canada, including a Fourth Provincial Record Redwing in Saanich, British Columbia, plus Nova Scotia birders found two Redwings. For the second week, Maine birders appreciated their continuing Second State Record Redwing in a city park in Portland. There are a few other rare bird sightings too, including a Painted Bunting in Ohio, Broad-billed Hummingbird in California, Harris’s Sparrow in Pennsylvania, California Gull in Kentucky, and more.

There is almost no end to the different kinds of photography options that people use their cameras for, and even within the realm of bird photography there are many options you can appreciate. The goal of most birders is to try to take the best possible photos of birds they encounter. But there is another important level of bird photography to keep in mind and to emphasize when options arise – using your camera to document what you see.

An obvious example of how people use their camera as a documentary tool is when rare birds are photographed. In extreme cases it may be to document a first state record, or ninth provincial record, or even a county record. It’s almost imperative to have a photo of a legitimate rare bird to document the “almost unbelievable” sighting of a far-out-of-range migrant from Asia or a wintering bird from Europe.

A light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk sighting was a highlight last week, but only by studying the details in the documentary photos was the hawk’s true identity revealed. The position of the hawk in flight was pleasing, but the image is not sharp; nonetheless, it shows the dark brown, almost black color of the plumage markings against the white base.

At the same time, many birders like to document personal sightings – certain birds of interest to you, or even a personal first for your life list. Many people include a few photos of birds they encounter as important additions to their e-bird reports, and most of these photos can be counted as documentary quality. Documentary photos are also widely used to document species or numbers of birds using your feeders and water features; and just as some birders keep lists of all the birds they see in their yards, some try to document all the species they see in their yards to keep in a file of photos.

Taking documentary photos can be helpful, important, fun, and they can add to our enjoyment of birds in many ways. They also can provide something of historical context to document highlights of your periodic birding activities. This is especially true for birding trips you take, whether they are day trips, overnighters a couple hundred miles away, or a more significant trip to another state or even another nation.

When you have your camera with you, it’s worthwhile to get in the habit of taking “documentary photographs” of birds you see, and especially birds you don’t get good looks at; birds you have trouble getting a definite I.D. on in the field. You will be surprised time and time again at what such documentary photos can reveal – especially when you get home and have the opportunity to view a digital photo or photos on the big screen of your home computer, or your laptop or large tablet in your vehicle.

Case in Point

Last Wednesday, was a classic case in point: While photographing a common bird – a Red-tailed Hawk – there were some circumstances that made documenting this bird as important as trying to get an impressive flight photo of the raptor. After initially seeing the raptor in flight, it began to hover. Of course, Rough-legged Hawk would be the initial I.D. call, but a closer look after it perched revealed it was actually a Red-tailed Hawk. It could have been helpful to take a photo of the hovering hawk to document the species, in case I didn’t get a better look at it – and I did take two photos of it as it hovered quite a distance away.

But I was lucky that the hawk flew in my direction and perched high overhead on a metal powerline tower. I had to reposition to get a better look at the bird with the aid of the afternoon sunshine, and through the binoculars I realized it was a Red-tail. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Red-tail in North Dakota during winter, but since I was along the Apple Creek treeline, not far from the woodlands along the Missouri River, this would be a likely place to see a Red-tail – even in February.

This Red-tail was different though; darker in color than the usual, almost black, with a dark belly band. I thought it was likely a bird from the Pacific Northwest, where Red-tails tend to be darker colored with more breast and belly color – maybe even British Columbia or Alaska – and that may also be a reflection of its choice of a northern winter locale. I looked away a moment, and the hawk was gone before I could take a documentary photo – darn.

I quickly looked around and caught sight of the Red-tail fluttering down behind me as though it was approaching prey on the ground. By the time I repositioned to face the raptor with the setting sun at my back, it had perched on an adjacent post where I could see its brown tail – at least it looked brown through my 8x binoculars – indicating it was a first-year Red-tail. That’s when I took a couple documentary photos of the bird, hoping for a photo worthy of using in my Editor Afield article this week.

As the Harlan’s Red-tail banked in flight, it spread its tail feathers broadly, providing a good look at the true color of its tail.

The hawk proved to be very active, flying from perch to perch, but continuing to patrol the area in front of me where it had apparently spied potential prey. As it flew this way and that, banking at times, I had nice opportunities to photograph it in flight, hoping for a quality photo or 2, but getting some documentary photos at the same time. When I returned home and anxiously reviewed the photos I took of the hawk it was apparent that this “dark northern” Red-tail was actually a light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk. That would, in effect make it a bird from the northwest, as Harlan’s summer range is primarily in the forested areas of Alaska and the Yukon, so I was on the right track.

I arrived at the Harlan’s I.D. by taking a closer, better look at the tail. Initially, the tail confused me; in the field, even with the aid of binoculars and my camera’s telephoto lens, the tail looked brown, typical of a first-year Red-tail (they get their orange-red tail feathers after the first year). But a closer look at the digital photos I took of this hawk as it flared its tail during banking flight – enlarged on my computer screen – showed the tail was actually colored dappled gray with brown and black terminal bands. Simply described, Harlan’s tails tend to have that dappled design, colored gray, brown, or black, sometimes with orange, white, or red highlights – unlike more typically colored Red-tails. It all made sense at that point, because Harlan’s tend to be darker in color, and that’s why this hawk’s body and wing plumage was almost black and white in color.

Harlan’s are special hawks, and many raptor authorities believe they should still be considered a separate species – William Clark foremost, among others – and I agree considering Bill’s excellent scientific case for returning Harlan’s to full species status. I’m most used to seeing dark morph Harlan’s during spring and fall migrations through North Dakota, and have really only seen a few light morph Harlan’s that I’ve observed wintering in south-central South Dakota. Documenting this Harlan’s Red-tail turned out to be significant, not only for getting the best possible I.D., but to add a piece of information about Harlan’s wintering in the northern Great Plains.

Practice & Tech Ops

By having your camera within reach as a valuable part of your birding equipment, you have the tool to document the birds you see, as you see fit. Taking documentary photos of birds also provides valuable practice that you can use when opportunities to take higher quality photos of birds arise. Technically, you should always be ready to take top-notch photos, and that way there is no question of whether you need to make any changes to take a couple initial photos.

By enlarging the tail feathers in the above photo, it was interesting to study the dappled gray coloring that revealed the true identity of this hawk.

You may remember that on a sunny day, I have my camera preset to an ISO at 400 with the aperture at f8 or f7. I keep the Mode Dial on my camera turned to the Av preference, which uses the aperture setting to automatically provide the corresponding shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 to 1/2000 – fast enough to stop most motion. When I’m in position to photograph a bird, I take a documentary photo or two, then consider if I can improve my settings under the conditions at hand – perhaps to change the f-stop to f5 to reduce the focus of the background.

I usually refrain from photographing when it’s cloudy, but documentation photos are always fair game. If it’s overcast or at the end of the day, for documentation purposes you can adjust your ISO to 800 or higher to increase the camera’s sensitivity to the available light, and thereby get a faster shutter speed and/or broader area of focus by changing the f-stop, depending on what you intend to do under given circumstances.

Ultimately, documenting your birding activities with your camera will help you become a better birder. It can help improve your identification skills, practice and expand your photo skills, and allow you to keep something of a running history of your birding activities, which can also help you see your improvements as a bird photographer over the years. What fun!

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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