Wednesday, July 21, 2021

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A tall pre-fledging Upland Sandpiper still shows some downy plumage with beautiful cryptically colored feathers growing in.
Although it looks like a full-sized adult, this is a large female fledgling Red-tailed Hawk. Notice the large feet of this bird, which are indicative of a female, as well as her comparatively larger size.
The surprising and rare reddish-colored tail on this new fledgling might suggest an adult when viewed from a distance. Young Red-tails usually have tan or brown tail feathers for their first year, which are replaced by new orange-red tail feathers during their second summer.

As we reached the mid-point of July, flocks of Arctic-nesting shorebirds began returning to the shallow wetlands of the northern Great Plains, including Pectoral Sandpipers and Semipalmated Sandpipers, Long-billed Dowitchers, and a few Stilt Sandpipers; plus Greater Yellowlegs and a few Lesser Yellowlegs that have returned from the muskeg country of central Canada. Here they joined small flocks of local Wilson’s Phalaropes that have already molted into their duller basic plumage in very shallow wetlands and shorelines as summer’s heat draws water levels ever-lower.

These active flocks will be joined by others almost daily during coming weeks as adults complete their nesting activities in the north, and young sandpipers make the initial leg of their first migration south. Welcome to Dakota! These birds are adding to an ever-growing number of fledglings and broods raised in this region, and soon they will be joined by the first advance of songbirds, flycatchers, and swallows that nested in more northern latitudes. The excitement of this birding season certainly continues week after week!

During a Saturday evening birding drive across my favorite prairie region on the way to check the Bald Eagle nest some 25 miles south-southeast of my office, most of the songbirds seemed to have vacated the area, or at least they were no longer singing on territory. Bobolinks and Dickcissels were noticeably missing, but Upland Sandpipers were still very active and perched on prominent posts. Eastern and Western Kingbirds were scattered along the way, and a Common Nighthawk was another welcome sight, although none were obvious along the Lost Road. It was surprising to see how green the vast grassland looked considering the lack of rain over the past couple weeks.

Actually, the first bird that caught my attention was a fledgling Red-tailed Hawk, a big female standing on the ground, possibly hunting on foot along a strip of recently cut grass. The plumage of the hawk was pristine and quite beautiful, but the thing that really caught my attention later when I viewed the photos I took of her was her tail. The new tail feathers were not the usual dull-brown coloration. Instead, they were a bright red-brown hue, rivaling the color of an adult Red-tail.

Usually fledgling Red-tails have tan or light-brown tail feathers that show a varied number of dark bars. That brownish tail color persists for their first year until Red-tails molt their tail feathers (retrices) and attain new orange- to red-colored adult tail feathers. The hawk eventually flew to a tree adjacent to the nest where it hatched and fledged from, flying very well. Surely there must be more fledglings in the area, but they could be out of sight in the tangle of trees that made up the rural grove. One other point of interest is that the adult male of the pair that nested there has a very light-colored, partly white tail that distinguishes it quite well in flight. I’ll definitely be keeping a closer eye on this family of Red-tails.

Back to the Bald Eagle nest: Earlier in the week I saw the 2 large nestlings standing in the new nest, but Saturday I wanted to see if one or both of them might have moved onto adjoining branches, or even taken a first flight. About a mile before I reached the nest I sighted an adult Bald Eagle flying toward the nest. It landed among the leaves in the nest tree, pretty much vanishing from sight among the foliage. That was an indicator that I probably was going to have trouble monitoring the movements of the eagles when they fledge, and when I looked with binoculars the nestlings were not obvious at first as they were laying low in the nest platform.

Earlier in the week, I was a bit disappointed that no Red-headed Woodpeckers showed themselves in the area of the eagle nest, or at my primary Red-head nesting grove. But Saturday an adult Red-head was present near the eagle nest, so that was a nice sign that a pair was still active in the nesting territory – another reason to return to the area more often.

On the way back, I took a different turn to pass along an often productive little-used backroad. It turned out to be pretty mundane – until a young Upland Sandpiper ran across the road in front of me. That action certainly gave me a jolt of excitement, and I was able to photograph lanky sandpiper at close quarters as a vocal adult appeared and tried to lure my vehicle away from the tall pre-fledgling. I left immediately, but not before I admonished the adult that she must teach her young ones not to cross the road when there is traffic approaching (ha-ha).

About a mile away I sighted a Red-tailed Hawk that I thought might be another fledgling, but when it took flight I could see it was a molting yearling that was growing new red-orange tail feathers. Photos I took at the time revealed a central adult “red” tail feather with more to follow. I always like to document these molting yearling Red-tails, and annually hope I can get a pleasing image of one that clearly shows the red and brown combination of tail feathers.

Moments later, I drove through a Black Tern stronghold, and noted the first new fledglings of the season of that active species. And speaking of fledglings, over the past week there have been an abundance of new broods and fledglings, including more Ring-necked Pheasants and Sharp-tailed Grouse.

The Ultimate Feeder Observations

Earlier Saturday, the ultimate feeder observation for the summer took place when one of the female Baltimore Oriole arrived at the grape jelly feeder and its fledgling landed on the adjacent rim of birdbath. As the female collected jelly, the fledgling began begging from the birdbath, which paid off with a mouthful of jelly from the female. That’s when the fledgling took the short flight to the jelly bowl and fed directly from the feeder – excellent! The fledgling even fought off a House Finch that tried to muscle in on the purple jelly. The female oriole drank a bit at the birdbath, then hopped up next to the fledgling, seemingly watching over the fledgling as it fed on its own. When the fledgling flew to the west, the female fed again, then hightailed it westward too.

Later that day a fledgling visited the feeder on its own, and about an hour later I saw the adult and a fledgling feeding on jelly at the same time – what a treat – for them and me. From that point, I was treated to a variety of oriole visits as I worked on this week’s issue of The Birding Wire. These observations were especially pleasing because it’s the ultimate summer event for me when nesting birds bring their new fledglings to my yard and my feeding station. It’s especially exciting because I’m convinced that orioles, both Baltimore and Orchard Orioles, nest in my neighborhood because I attract them and short-stop them with my feeding station as they migrate through the area in May. Certainly, orioles that stay and nest are looking for a nesting site and the reliable jelly source appears to be the deal-maker for a few, while others continue north to find their nesting territories.

Before I added an oriole feeder with grape jelly, I never saw a Baltimore Oriole in the area except an occasional sighting before and after the nesting season. That’s a good tip for anyone wishing to attract orioles that isn’t already providing grape jelly; and for the record, my orioles rarely (almost never) feed on orange halves or sugar-water nectar that I also provide.

But I have one more question about this year’s orioles – where is the male during the nestling, fledging, and post-fledging period? I haven’t seen a male Baltimore Oriole for a couple weeks, and my impression is that the nesting female has done most or all of the feeding of nestlings and fledglings. This may be a reason for a seemingly small brood that may number only 1 or 2 fledglings. Hmm. Anyway, I’m glad they are here and continuing to teach me about orioles beyond my library and the Birds of the World website.

Unlike other years, Orchard Orioles don’t appear to have nested in my neighborhood, which is a slight disappointment considering they were present until mid-June, and individual adult males and especially first-year males have made short appearances during late June and to date in July. In fact, Monday an adult male orchard Oriole stopped by a few times for grape jelly.

Sunday Sightings

As the day’s heat broke a bit, I returned to the post-fledging range of the 4 young Ferruginous Hawks I described and illustrated in last week’s issue. At first, it seemed little had changed, with 2 fledglings perched atop their favorite big round bale. I photographed them from a distance, and hoped for a flight in time. After about 10 minutes, without warning, the larger female fledgling took flight and while I expected her to veer east, instead she turned directly toward my vehicle. I photographed her flight until she passed overhead and west to a heavily grazed prairie dotted with Richardson Ground Squirrel burrows.

The fledgling Ferrug had obviously mastered learning to fly, and now she landed on a hilltop, which signaled a high alert among the rodent population, obvious by the surprising number of ground squirrels standing at attention downhill from the young hawk. In short order, the fledgling glided south 20 feet, then did a little hip-hop flight skipping at 10-foot lengths – seemingly all part of a hunting strategy, perhaps hoping to flush a rodent from an ungrazed clump of grass. It was interesting to see the hawk’s behavior and insightful to see some of its hunting intent and methods.

The extended drive offered few other interesting sightings beyond those I’ve become accustomed to along that route, and when I checked back on the Red-tailed Hawk fledgling, it was a blank canvass in that direction too. Perhaps it was too hot, or maybe it was just a different sort of a day – not every day provides prime birding events – but the Ferruginous Hawk fledglings’ behavior was both interesting and productive in the form of a nice series of flight photos.

During a break in the action at my office Monday, I checked back on the fledgling Red-tail. At first it looked like another bust, but then I realized the young hawk had been cryptically perched on a roadside fence post the whole time I scanned the area. I was glad to see it again and rolled a little closer for photos, hoping to get some better images of the beautiful fledgling that showed the colors of its tail. After photographing it perched, the hawk eventually took a short glide to the ground as if after potential prey, but if there was prey, it missed. But as the hawk left its perch, I snapped a photo that provides a nice record of the colors and markings of its spread tail feathers, which I share with you adjacent to this article. After a few moments on the ground, the hawk took a few steps, paused, then took flight, returning to the tree grove where it soared above the treetops for a while, showing great agility in using the updrafts of the stout south wind to propel above the edges of the grove.

This young hawk and the pretty regular visits by the Baltimore Orioles – females and fledglings at my feeding station – along with a view of a couple male goldfinches bathing during a brief rainshower really spiced up my birding week. I also caught a momentary sighting of a hummingbird Monday evening as it did a fly-by near my nectar feeder that I hope is a precursor to an active post-nesting hummingbird stopover period. Take a moment to recall the birds that enhanced your week, and take advantage of the potential of seeing new birds of the season as you enjoy daily bird sightings and sounds around you, at home and during outdoor activities, including a birding drive or two. Enjoy!

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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