Posts tagged ‘raptor’

A Winter Drive through Carlton County

WHITE ON BLUE
On a sunny but very cold day in late February, I traveled out to western Carlton County in search of a Snowy Owl that had been reported there earlier in the month. I live in the NE corner of Carlton County just south of Duluth, Minnesota. I knew the odds of finding the owl were not in my favor but it was an excuse to see a part of the county I don’t usually traverse. The theme seemed to be “white on blue” with many white birds showing themselves (and a white church!), all on a backdrop of white snow, blue sky and deep blue shadows.

Rough-legged Hawk flying blue sky Finn Road Carlton Co MN IMG_5355A beautiful Rough-legged Hawk flew up from a field along Finn Road.
It was likely hunting voles, their favorite meal. Though they are nearly as large as a Red-tailed Hawk, they have much smaller talons and a relatively tiny beak for grabbing and eating small rodents. Red-tails on the other hand, can easily take large prey such as cottontail rabbits and so need the larger “equipment.”
This individual’s incomplete belly band tells me that this is an adult male…Females and immatures have a broad black belly band.
They nest in the arctic but move south in winter in search of daylight and small rodents. Minnesota is their “Arctic Riviera.”

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5442

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5430

Snow Bunting flock CR27 Carlton Co MN IMG_5460A DRIFT OF SNOW BUNTINGS
Another visitor from the arctic tundra that makes the northern states its winter home is the Snow Bunting. Flocks of these “snowbirds” feed on weed seeds along roads and railroad tracks and in farm fields. This flock was foraging actively but flew every time I tried to get close. This, unfortunately for the photographer, is the norm for this species.

Hoary Redpoll and Common Redpoll flock Carlton Co MN IMG_5410HOARY SURPRISE
Surprising was a lone Hoary Redpoll feeding with a flock of Common Redpolls along a country road. Hoaries and Commons are two more species that breed in the north of Canada and Alaska but winter in northern Minnesota. They are an irruptive species (like the Rough-leg above) which means that they move south in varying numbers from year to year depending on the supply of food in the north…Alder catkins and birch seeds for redpolls, and voles for Rough-legged Hawks. We are thrilled to have so many redpolls this year!
Hoaries are much rarer, averaging 1 for every 100 Commons. Note her (males would have a pinkish breast) very frosty white coloration and tiny cone-shaped bill (compared to the longer sharper bill on the Common behind her.)

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5330

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5335

Suomalainen Kirkko E.L.K. 1915 Autumba Carlton Co MN IMG_5352SUOMALAINEN KIRKKO
This old Finnish Lutheran church (Suomalainen Kirkko = Finnish Church) from 1915 was saved after its doors were closed. It was moved to this location near Hwy 73 and turned into a cultural center. I love the stark white and simple lines of this vernacular architectural gem.

I drove 95 miles and had a great time.
P.S. I did not find the Snowy Owl

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Attracting Hawks with a Feather Duster

American Kestrel male Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7609A forecast for strong NW winds in Duluth, blew me right up to Hawk Ridge earlier this week. Northwest winds pushes south bound migrating raptors towards the shoreline of Lake Superior. But the hawks don’t want to fly over the big lake…No thermals to ride, no food, no resting spots. So they funnel down the North Shore of Lake Superior right over Duluth and Hawk Ridge. Strong winds also keep the birds low, which is important for photography.
A photographer from Chicago had put his self-proclaimed “feather duster” owl on a tall pole on one of the overlooks at the Ridge. The thought is that some feathers waving in the wind will add an element of realism to a very rigid decoy. I had brought my plastic owl as well, but “Earl” stayed earthbound this time. The idea is that since hawks HATE Great Horned Owls, they’ll pause, fly over, and maybe dive bomb the faux owl, giving the photographer a fighting chance at capturing an in-flight hawk photo.

American Kestrel male Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7620

American Kestrel male Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7611Kestrels have always eluded me… Just try stopping alongside a perched kestrel and see what happens. Off they go, with their back to you. But today, finally, SUCCESS! Tracking these mini-jetlike falcons is extremely difficult, but the 400mm f5.6 locked on this time and I got nice sharp images. Key to this success were my camera settings: I knew I needed a shutter speed of about 1/2000 of a second to freeze the motion of a speeding raptor, and I knew I didn’t care so much about the aperture (even at f5.6 the entire bird would be sharp), and there was plenty of light. These 3 factors led me to set the camera to Tv (Shutter Priority) at 1/2000 of a second and auto ISO.

Sharp-shinned Hawk adult Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7634Sharp-shinned Hawks really find owls irresistible, and several made attacking passes at the owl. My goal is to get images showing the uppersides of the hawks, ideally with either a blue-sky background or a back drop of fall colors. Shots from underneath are a dime-a-dozen…Great for identification but pretty boring shots. Note that the dark bluish back and tail, and deep red eye, signify that this is an adult bird.

Sharp-shinned Hawk adult Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7660I love being able to shoot down on the hawks as well. The turning fall colors makes a nice backdrop for this migrating Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Golden Eagle juvenile Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7581My first Golden Eagle of the year! A few hundred migrate from eastern Canada south over the Ridge each fall. You can tell this is a juvenile by the pattern of white underneath…dark underwing coverts and white at the base of the primaries and secondaries. Adult Goldens would be all dark under and juvenile Bald Eagles would show some white on the underwing coverts.

Sailboat Lake Superior Duluth IMG_7698Recent heavy rains caused red clay sediment from the St. Louis or Nemadji Rivers to wash out into Lake Superior.

Sharp-shinned Hawk adult Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7638A white-cloud background gives this Sharp-shinned Hawk portrait a unique look. I purposely let the whites blow out so that the hawk looks as if it was clipped from its real background.

Owl decoy feather duster IMG_7590Here is the “feather duster” owl decoy. He earned his pay today! And nary lost a feather.

Broad-winged Hawk Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7516The last few stragglers. Broad-winged Hawks are specialists on frogs, snakes and insects…so October 7th is pretty late for them. This is one of 3 that soared over early in the day. Note the banded tail of this adult.

Sandhill Cranes Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7556You often hear Sandhill Cranes before you see them…and that was the case here. A small flock of 4 soared effortlessly over the Ridge…Probably on their way to wintering grounds in Texas.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Hawk Ridge Duluth MN IMG_7669A rare visitor! Red-bellied Woodpeckers breed mainly south of Duluth, but this one made a brief appearance at Summit Ledges. We first heard it calling.

We also had a Merlin and Northern Goshawk (juvenile) dive on the owl, but I missed all those shots. This is a low-percentage endeavor! Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk and Bald Eagle also flew by. Meadowhawk dragonflies were also very common.

[All images shot with Canon 7D and Canon 400mm f5.6 lens: Most at Tv (Shutter priority) 1/2000 second and Auto ISO (resulting in shooting at f5.6 for most]

Flight of the Goshawk and Earl the Owl

Earl the Owl did his job! I bring Earl out only on special occasions—Mainly when the winds at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge are strong and from the NW in late September through late October. So you see, Earl doesn’t get out much. But when I put him up on his dead snag in full view of migrating hawks, he draws their ire and they come in to drive him off, and I, hopefully, get a shot of these feathered rockets before they move on. Hawks really, really dislike Great Horned Owls. It may be because GHOs, on occasion, prey on roosting hawks at night or because they are competitors for the same foods (true with Redtails). Earl, you see, is a plastic decoy Great Horned Owl that I bought (i.e. “adopted”) at a hunting store. A super-glued downy feather on his side lends a touch of realism to him.

Only minutes after I put him up, and before I was even ready to shoot, a big shadow crossed over me…It was a young Red-tailed Hawk (photo above), only 30 feet overhead, making a beeline for Earl. She dropped her talons, flared her tail (not yet bright rusty-red as in adults) and made several passes at this mortal enemy before continuing her journey south—to Kansas, or Iowa, or southern Minnesota.
Raptors winging their way south from Canada and northern Minnesota are pushed by NW winds to the North Shore of Lake Superior. But hawks would rather not fly OVER the big lake—no thermals, no updraft winds, no prey. So instead they funnel down the shoreline and right over Hawk Ridge, which is located at the southwest corner of our inland sea.

My real goal for the day was to photograph the Hawk Ridge specialty…the bird that many birders from across the country come to see..the Northern Goshawk. The “Gos” is a large accipiter (raptors with relatively short, rounded wings and a long tail) that nests in mature mixed woods of large aspen, pine and spruce. The big females (in raptors females are almost always larger than the males) specialize on Snowshoe Hares and the smaller males pick off Ruffed Grouse and Red Squirrels. Of course, like most accipiters, they also will take smaller birds. Their short, rounded wings allow them to fly through dense woods in pursuit of prey, while the long tail acts as an aerial rudder, helping in changing direction quickly. The reason birders come to Hawk Ridge to see them is because during other times of the year they are rarely encountered and if seen, it is usually only a fleeting glimpse.

And then suddenly the Gos was there, harassing Earl. I didn’t even notice the big raptor coming in. I grabbed my camera and started shooting. Autofocus was set to AI Servo (focus setting that follows your subject as it gets closer or further from you) on the center focus point (the most accurate one) and I used shutter priority (1/2000 of a second to freeze motion), Auto-ISO (a feature on some cameras that allows the ISO to vary up and down automatically…works great on bright days when there is no chance of it cranking the ISO up into the noisy range above ISO 1600) and f5.6 so the background would blur nicely. In fact, I set up so that Earl would be between me and a line of Sugar Maples on the distant hillside that had turned brilliant red and yellow. You can see the color in the top photo.

This adult Sharp-shinned Hawk can be aged by its stunning blood-red eyes…a feature that only develops in adult “sharpys”—juveniles have yellowish eyes that turn orange and finally red as they mature into adulthood. They are at the opposite end of the size spectrum of accipiters from Goshawks. Sharpys are small and live almost exclusively on a diet of small birds. Earl caused this beauty conniptions, coming in and diving on him several times. My autofocus did its job and I got this very sharp Sharpy image at very close range.

Can’t wait for the next cold front and accompanying NW winds! Are you ready Earl?

From the top:
juvenile Goshawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1000 (auto-ISO) handheld
juvenile Red-tailed Hawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1250 (auto-ISO) handheld
juvenile Goshawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f5.6 at 1/2500 (shutter priority), ISO 1000 (auto-ISO) handheld
bottom Sharp-shinned Hawk: Canon 7D, Canon 400mm f5.6 lens, f6.3 at 1/2000 (shutter priority), ISO 320 (auto-ISO) handheld