Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Join the Editor for Weekly Birding Highlights

After missing a Mourning Dove during a hunting flight, an intense male Cooper’s Hawk landed nearby, providing a variety of photo views.
Specializing in hunting small birds, Cooper’s Hawks are migrating south across North America, as are many birds of prey during September and October.
What luck to photograph front and back profiles of the same Cooper’s Hawk, not an easy bird to find or approach. Luckily, this raptor landed near the “mobile blind.”
The biggest surprise of the week was a flock of 10 young American Golden Plovers – in the same spot as 3 adult Goldens were observed 2 weeks earlier.
Thinking the Black-necked Stilts had vacated the area, an elegant young stilt appeared at the only location where they’ve been seen in the region – Charo Marsh.

Hoping to get a few more photographs of the fledgling and adult Red-headed Woodpeckers as they hunt and interact, I parked near the dead tree where the birds perch in between flights to catch flying insects. From a distance I saw a woodpecker fly deeper into the grove of trees, so I figured if I spent a little time I’d be rewarded with another sighting. Suddenly, a male Cooper’s Hawk dived into view from the south – close, and now chasing a Mourning Dove that kept ahead of the hawk before diving for cover. The Coop made a wide sweeping turn that I tried to focus on, but realized it might perch in the dead tree – and it did!

Now it was perched upright facing me, looking mean and intense in the late afternoon sunlight. The tip of a branch blocked a clear view of the bird, and I considered moving my car a few feet; but would starting the engine scare the hawk? Just then the hawk took 2 steps to the right into the open, providing a nice image of the hawk inside my photo frame. After taking a few photos, the hawk began preening, then flew to the next dead tree, where it perched with its back to me – another nice photo angle; gracias. Three robins were keeping close tabs on the hawk, and I was concerned for the fledgling woodpeckers, but this was likely a quick stop for the Cooper’s Hawk as it migrated in a southerly direction, stopping to hunt occasionally. In a couple minutes it took flight southward.

A few evenings before I had an excellent opportunity to study the activities of the Red-headed Woodpecker family, including at least 2 fledglings. The new fledglings revealed themselves one at a time, then appeared together as the adults became more active in their aerial flights to catch flying insects, mostly including small flying ants, moths and a grasshopper. To my delight, the adult occasionally fed a fledgling, providing an interesting interaction to photograph; and a couple times the fledglings had a momentary flapping battle over food.

Perhaps the most interesting observations were when the fledglings made short hunting flights from a perch – just 5 days after the second nestling fledged. I felt pretty lucky to have the chance to observe and photograph the woodpeckers in relatively close proximity, and I share more information and a series of photographs of the Red-headed Woodpecker family in the Bird Photography feature at the end of this issue.

After not seeing a hummingbird for about 10 days, and expecting all were in coastal Texas by now, a late Ruby-throated Hummingbird checked for small insects among flowers outside my windows Friday, but it wasn’t attracted to my feeder that I noticed. According to BirdCast, there was a big migration Friday night, a medium migration overnight Saturday, and low level migration Sunday to Monday. With that in mind, I had high expectations for Saturday sightings on the ground, but there was little evidence of any migrants stopping over in my yard or beyond.

During a Saturday afternoon drive to Bismarck I counted 22 Red-tailed Hawks, 2 Swainson’s Hawks, an American Kestrel, and a second-year Bald Eagle as I drove due west, then north along the east side of the Missouri River. Aside from the increase in Red-tails and the kestrel and eagle sightings across the open plains leading to the river valley, the other obvious migrants were large concentrated flocks of American Coots ranging from 15 to 45 in number, but they were all within 30 miles of home. To underline the slowly changing seasons the farther west I drove, the more ash trees showed the first bright yellow leaves of fall.

Lightning Strikes Twice

On my way to check on the woodpeckers Sunday afternoon, I made my usual stop at Charo Marsh, which has seemed to be on hold for the past 10 days. There was a Greater Yellowlegs and a Pectoral Sandpiper among a few Killdeer – kind of the usual fare, which made me take a deep breath and let it out as a giant sigh, hoping for more action during the rest of my drive. But as I eased forward to the south where a flock of Giant Canada Geese had just vacated, I could see a couple interesting shorebirds among the many Killdeer.

I grabbed my binoculars and focused in on 3 American Golden Plovers – deja vu! This is where I observed 3 Goldens 14 days earlier, but as I scanned more of the shoreline, more and more Golden Plovers were evident, and I counted 10 this time, scattered among 20 Killdeer. As I viewed the Goldens in the field I thought they were in full basic plumage, showing no more black or glittering gold in their plumage. But fast-forward to when I took a look at my photos enlarged on my laptop, and it was clear that these Goldens were all first fall migrants that fledged earlier on the Arctic tundra. They were in juvenile plumage, which is mostly distinguished by showing more patterned coloration on their breast feathers than adults in basic plumage that show a lighter unpatterned underside.

Considering these plovers were all recent fledglings, it’s fair to say the young were following 2 weeks behind the molting adults that I encountered in this very same location – although the birds were most likely not related – just different age groups migrating at different times. I checked the references provided in Birds of the World, which underlined that assumption, indicating adult American Golden Plovers migrate during August and juveniles follow during the period from late August to early October.

This flock of young American Golden Plovers was obviously resting, some lying down and some standing with their head resting on their back – all except one that was wading in the sky blue water, then drinking and bathing, followed by a shoreline search for food. Soon thereafter, other Goldens began activating, and followed the first plover’s lead. I enjoyed the rare observations for about a half-hour, managing much better photographs than I took of the adults weeks earlier. And just like the adults, with no real indication or apparent reason, the 10 suddenly lifted off en masse, seemingly to begin another leg of their migration – or they flew to the next marsh, can’t say for certain.

I continued to the Red-headed Woodpecker territory, and although there were no less than 5 Northern Flickers in the area, no Red-heads were evident. While I watched and listened, I was much surprised by the appearance of 5 tiny birds on the dead tree frequented by the woodpeckers – they were Pine Siskins! By far the earliest Pine Siskins I’ve ever seen on the Great Plains, although they are passing through the Duluth, Minnesota area in big numbers already. After a half-hour I returned to Charo Marsh, just in case, and darned if there wasn’t a young Black-necked Stilt there, along with a Greater Yellowlegs and a Lesser Yellowlegs.

I imagined the stilts were far south by now, after not seeing any at Charo for 2 weeks, but here was a young Black-neck wading along the edge of beautiful reflected blue water. Even though I have taken a plethora of photos of these birds recently, I couldn’t pass up the beautiful windless water background with the elegant stilt in its midst. In a few moments, the stilt picked a spot where it showed its full side to me and began preening.

Although preening photos aren’t at the top of my list, I knew if I waited a bit the stilt would flap its wings at the end of the maintenance session. Better yet, it stretched its wings straight over its back as it stretched it neck and long bill low and forward. But the thing that really made the resulting photos unique is that the young stilt was standing on just one leg, with the other leg tucked gently under its body when you take a second look. I thought it might be a bit late to get this beautiful lighting, but even at 6:45pm, less than an hour before sunset, the light was as good as it gets.

On my way home, I stopped at a marsh to check out a large flock of ducks, many of which were flapping their wings as if they were ready to resume migration. With the aid of binoculars, I counted about 220 ducks, primarily Redheads with maybe 15 percent American Wigeons mixed in. I also passed a wetland that showed a Great Blue Heron, a Great Egret, 3 White-faced Ibis, an American Bittern, a Black-crowned Night Heron, and a lone American Avocet.

After thinking I had seen my last hummingbird in Dakota 2 days earlier, as I parked my car in front of my house, a Ruby-throat’s action caught my attention as it checked some petunias for nectar or small insects. Maybe there will be more, after all, I figured I had seen the last of American Golden Plovers and Black-necked Stilts already too. Funny how all those expectations were dashed within a short afternoon birding drive. Well, enjoy all the avian surprises that come your way during this period of change, even as the first official day of fall arrives Saturday – Happy Birding!

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

Share your bird sightings and photographs at