Wednesday, September 8, 2021

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Baltimore Orioles were emblematic of the exciting songbirds making a migration stopover and utilizing Paul’s landscaping, feeders, and fresh water.
The biggest Red-tailed Hawk ever – ha-ha. Golden Eagles are so rare in southeast North Dakota that there is always a level of disbelief when you do find one along the eastern edge of the Missouri Coteau.
Sightings of 4 Merlins, 2 each day during 2 consecutive days, was also a highlight among the peaking raptor migration across the Northern Plains.

From the time I awoke until dusk, Friday was filled with a surprising concentration and variety of migrating songbirds, and more – out my bay windows, in my frontyard, in my backyard – migrants were active and on the move from branch to branch along the south and west sides of my property, where the trees are – chokecherries, ash trees, a blue spruce, and sumacs primarily – what fun! First it was a colorful adult male Baltimore Oriole that I spied 70 feet away, then watched him make a beeline to my feeding station. And before he took his first taste of grape jelly, a beautiful female joined him! She waited her turn, and when the male exited, the female followed his lead at the jelly feeder.

In my backyard, I was surprised to see a male Wilson’s Warbler alight at eye level about a dozen feet away and begin foraging from leaf to leaf on the edge of the chokecherries. He came in and out of sight for about 10 minutes, as close as 8 to 15 feet at times. In the meantime, another movement caught my attention, but the bird was elusive the first half-minute, before showing it was a small male Downy Woodpecker – a rare bird through the summer, and probably a new arrival with the other migrants. Then a Swainson’s Thrush caught my eye on the other side of the thicket – can there be just one? And that was followed by a female Baltimore Oriole and another look at the Wilson’s Warbler.

Back in the house, even before sitting down at my desk, the first thing I saw was a small warbler zip by the bay windows toward the front yard. I grabbed my camera and stood at the front door to see a female Wilson’s Warbler, a male Baltimore Oriole, a couple immature Red-eyed Vireos, a Tennessee Warbler, and a young Yellow Warbler, followed by an immature female Cape May Warbler! Super! And then a double surprise; an early Red-breasted Nuthatch was joined by a second one as they worked the bark of an ash tree. Up front, the songbirds foraged the leaves and branches of the 3 mature ash trees, often within 10 feet of my doorway stand away. More of the Wilson’s, Yellow, Red-eyed, and one or more male Baltimores worked the area during the next 15 minutes – and that’s when 2 young Rose-breasted Grosbeaks perched low up front – all very exciting! This was no small migration wave, for clearly the migrants were not limited to my yard, but were moving through the trees throughout the area.

The Baltimore Orioles continued to feed on grape jelly periodically throughout the day, and the male was there a couple times in the waning light of dusk. At times, the male oriole was feeding in tandem with a Ruby-throated Hummingbird on the nearby nectar feeder. This was all more than I could have imagined, even considering there was a mini-wave here last Wednesday. That bay window wave included 2 young Red-eyed Vireos, 3 Yellow Warblers, and a super sighting – the inaugural first-fall female Cape May Warbler I’ve ever seen, and the first Cape May in my yard! The male Wilson’s Warbler was also the first Wilson’s in my yard during fall migration.

Raptor Safaris

The day before, on my way to Bismarck a string of Swainson’s Hawks punctuated the rainy drive the first 25 miles west of home. Thereafter, Red-tailed Hawks were most common, but a Prairie Falcon was the prize of the drive about 45 miles west. At first I thought it might be a young Peregrine in the dim light and soaking rain; but in retrospect, the timing wasn’t right, as most Peregrines pass through the region late Septemberish. There were surprisingly few raptors along what I usually consider the more promising segment of the Bismarck drive that begins where my northbound route parallels the east side of the Missouri River Valley, often with the Mighty ‘Mo in sight or within reach. Even though the rain ended and the sun broke through the clouds a couple times, it was surprising not to see any eagles along the river road; only a few Red-tails and an American Kestrel.

Saturday the neotropical migrants appeared to have cleared out, except an unidentified warbler/vireo I saw a distance away, but the pair of Baltimore Orioles were active at my jelly feeder and in the trees in my yard. But the raptors kicked back into focus during my early start on an afternoon birding drive south of my office. A beautiful fledgling Swainson’s Hawk caught my eye, showing yellow-tan ventral plumage lightly broken by brown accent feathers. The young hawk was chasing a big flying grasshopper in a hayfield about 7 miles south, hopping up and down in pursuit. I managed some nice portrait photos when it perched on a big round hay bale, then realized it had a twin perched on another bale a hundred yards behind it. That fledgling turned out to be kind of cheeky, taking flight and calling as it flew almost directly in my direction. I drove a hundred yards down the road to try to get a better position on the young Swainson’s when 2 more Swainson’s took flight – 2 adults. Aah, a family hunting trip to the hayfield; so now I had a couple different birds gliding before me for flight fotos – gracias!

I was actually on my way to the kingfisher pond to see if that spicy young bird was fishing in the area, but along the way I enjoyed the scattered Red-tailed Hawks, a couple more Swainson’s, and a Northern Harrier gliding low on the hunt. About a mile from my kingfisher destination I spied a white spot atop a hilltop far in the distance. I checked it with binoculars, thinking it could be a Ferruginous Hawk, although that was even more unlikely than a rare Krider’s Red-tail, my second thought, considering that a very wary Krider’s nests annually a mile west in the opposite direction. The gate was open to the field, although the rough track used by the rancher (Keith) wasn’t all that inviting. Even so, I decided to keep on track with the light still bright and check on the kingfisher before any cross-country endeavors.

Well, the kingfisher comes and goes, and Saturday eve it was not to be found, so I doubled back to try to verify the identity of the big hawk on the distant hilltop. I eased down the improvised track and from a neighboring hill I took another look at the big white-fronted raptor. It was still not clear which species of Buteo hawk it was, but with its broader shoulders and by the shape and faint colors on its head, the “white hawk” still suggested Ferruginous to me. It was perched on the peak of the elevated ridge that delineates the eastern edge of the Missouri Coteau; from there the landscape drops down into the almost level lowlands of the Drift Plain – a good flight path, but not a particularly well-used one. I didn’t need to venture too much farther before the big hawk took flight, showing its back and wings that verified it was indeed a Ferruginous Hawk – quite an exciting find, and worth the cross-country off-road effort.

I retraced my route to double-check on the kingfisher, without luck, but a couple more Red-tailed Hawks kept my attention focused along the Lost Road, a hotspot for fall migrating raptors. As I approached that peak of the Coteau, I slowed as the hill began to curve downward, and there was the biggest Red-tail I could imagine. I hesitated to call it an eagle until I got a magnified look at it, and with the optics of the Tamron zoom lens, it was clearly a Golden Eagle, perched on a large post at eye level. I took a few quick photos, it turned its head, and took off, showing through its molting plumage that it was a yearling with areas of white on its mostly brown wing and tail feathers. The eagle’s flight took it below the crest of the escarpment, and I waited for it to rise back above the horizon. A few moments later I eased forward watching for it in a low flight, or re-perched on another post or rock – but nothing. How could a bird with a 6 foot wingspan and a 6 pound body disappear so quickly in a vast treeless grassland with a clear sky overhead?

Obviously, the crest of the Coteau is an excellent flight line that produces an updraft for southbound birds. I’ve seen falcons – Prairies and Peregrines, Bald Eagles and Goldens, and even an Osprey in flight along the ridge, along with a host of Red-tailed and Swainson’s Hawks, but there is never a concentration of birds – just a single bird occasionally that uses the updraft. The Golden Eagle and Ferruginous Hawk sighted within 2 miles of each other provide testament to the attraction of this north-south landform created by ancient continental glaciers.

Now that I had a rare Golden Eagle sighting and photos, it would be nice to add a Bald Eagle to the evening’s raptor mix. I only see 1 Golden Eagle to every 50 Bald Eagles in these parts, but Bald Eagles certainly aren’t a sure thing – even at the Bald Eagle nest in the Drift Plain this late in the season. I already struck out on the Bald Eagle I have been seeing perched atop the high hill 8 miles south of home regularly the past couple weeks. Maybe a fledgling or adult would be present near the nest, about 4 miles southeast.

On the way, I saw the 3 young American Kestrels again, and even managed a nice photo of a young male in flight. I watched one during a few hunting episodes, each beginning from a hover, then diving in fine falcon fashion to the ground where it leveled off and pounced on would-be prey. As I approached the eagle nest, a Red-headed Woodpecker took flight before me, but this was a very special woodpecker with a gray head – a new fledgling Red-headed Woodpecker, the first of the season for me. I searched the area for eagles, but struck out again at my best prospect. Well, maybe one would be back on the hilltop on my way home.

Although there are plenty of Killdeer around, I found the first big flock of more than 50 a mile to the west, and as I approached my primary Red-headed Woodpecker nesting area, I spied the elongated wings of an eagle flying away from me, into the sun. Was this the Golden relocated 3 miles south-southeast? As I caught up to the eagle, the sunlight revealed it was a Bald Eagle, a 4th–year sub-adult – hey, that’s the bird I was looking for to complete my collection of both North American eagle species, to go with the 3 plains Buteo hawks – Ferruginous, Swainson’s, and Red-tails. The raptor extravaganza continued with more hawks and another harrier along the route back to the office – what a great prairie raptor safari that was!

Appreciating the wealth of birds of prey the night before, I took a rare Sunday morning drive north of my office – 17 miles north – that showed me many more Red-tails and Swainson’s Hawks, including a fledgling with an adult. But the prize of the morning was a Merlin, and whereas the Buteo hawks still seemed to be waking up, the little falcon dynamo had already caught feathered prey and was feeding when I spotted it. I managed a few photos from behind it, and I’d call the bird a molting yearling male. Before I returned to my office, a male Cooper’s Hawk presented itself to me, flying from pole to pole along a quarter-mile before me.

Speaking of Cooper’s Hawks, I continue to see a big Coop in my neighborhood, including one perched in a tree just 150 feet south of my bay windows, and as I began my trip to Bismarck last Thursday, with a light rain falling a raptor suddenly flared upward before me, just 120 yards down the road from home. It was a wet female Cooper’s Hawk, in almost the same location where I photographed it bathing in a roadside puddle a month before (assuming this was the same bird). It alighted at the top of a tree where this time it opted for a shower in the rain, over a bath – a better option I’m sure.

Merlins are really interesting falcons, and if their attitude was housed in a larger body, they would be formidable raptors indeed. I always enjoy the variety of Merlins I see here, including the pale Prairie race, as well as the darker and more common Taiga Merlins. I photographed one very dark Merlin a few Septembers ago that I thought might be of the Black race from northern British Columbia and southern Alaska, but it was apparently just a dark Taiga Merlin – interesting nonetheless, and unique for me here.

Raptor Census

Sunday had been the kind of day you would order if you could – clear blue sky, remarkably fresh air, 75 degrees with the slightest hint of a breeze – all during a peak period for migrating raptors that overlaps with the post-fledging period of some local nesting hawks. After seeing excellent numbers and variety of species during previous days, I decided to do an afternoon big-circle drive to the west and northwest of my office and count the birds of prey along way. Of course, I was hoping for a few photo opportunities too – as always.

The count went well, with totals of 41 Red-tailed Hawks, 13 Swainson’s Hawks, 7 Northern Harriers, and a mile before I reached home, a young Merlin! That’s 62 raptors in all – not bad considering there are no concentrating areas; the raptors are scattered across the wide-open prairies, hayfields, and croplands in this region of Dakota. The total even rivals my winter raptor hotspot in South Dakota – pretty impressive for an area known more for its waterfowl populations.

The Merlin was quite a surprise, so small and obviously a recent fledgling, but boy could it fly well. From its haybale perch, I watched it initiate a fast flight about a foot off the ground, flushing a small bird and following it in an upright vertical chase, then breaking away. To my surprise, the mini-falcon turned to fly in my direction and landed on another bale just 25 feet out my window. I quickly took 2 photos before it took flight again, leaving me with a shot of adrenaline for the rest of the ride home. Now that was a dramatic ending to a successful outing on a beautiful summer afternoon and evening.

Memorial Memories

The holiday started with a bang when the first birds I saw were 2 Baltimore Orioles balancing on my jelly feeder – aah, the male and female together! But moments later, another female – a young bird with a white belly, appeared in the ash tree adjacent to the feeding station just as a young male downy Woodpecker applied himself to the trunk of the tree – Wow, that really woke me up quickly. Everyone took a turn at the feeders, the orioles at the jelly feeder and the Downy eventually flew down to the suet feeder – the first to feed on the no-melt suet with the chili flavor that repels mammals like squirrels but attracts birds. I grabbed my camera and took photos of all the birds, and appreciated the wake-up jolt – better than coffee.

Mid-afternoon, I was surprised by 2 adult male Baltimore Orioles at the feeding station, who were joined by a white-bellied Baltimore – there was definitely something good in the neighborhood happening with orioles! In response, I added a second jelly feeder with the hope they would begin feeding at that one too. Also, a male Downy Woodpecker was working some smaller dead branches in one of my ash trees just outside my front door, and about 20 minutes later a Downy approached the suet feeder, but it was a female – excellent.

Then a threesome of warblers flew in – a first-fall Blackpoll, a Yellow Warbler, and another that exited before offering a good look. The warblers mixed with the new orioles, and even the new Downy Woodpecker, suggest a migration stopover after an overnight migration flight – now that’s exciting! Plus, the first-fall Blackpoll Warbler was the first for my yard.

When I went upstairs, my big spruce tree in back had a flock of about 20 Chipping Sparrows foraging through its boughs, and when I returned to my desk, there were 3, yes 3, beautiful adult male Baltimore Orioles at my feeding station. There was 1 at each of the 2 jelly feeders, and 1 at the hummingbird feeder, although he was just waiting his turn for jelly; and 1 of them visited the bird bath too. The orioles are truly magic when they are in sight!

During my Monday evening drive, there were plenty of raptors again, but the thrills were all about Merlins. I found a male about 7 miles northwest of my office that gave me a chance to document it photographically. Then I was surprised to find a female Merlin perched on the same post I found a male Merlin a couple years ago (September 15, 2019) just a mile west of home. The lady Merlin provided many more photo ops, all on the wing as she flew half circles around me. What luck to find 2 Merlins within the span of 15 minutes; and actually, counting the 2 I saw Sunday, I found 2 Merlins on 2 consecutive days; a personal record I’m sure. I hope you set a personal record and more this fall, and hope you enjoy a couple great birding opportunities in the days ahead.

Article and photos by Paul Konrad

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