We all enjoy watching the activity at our feeding stations, chronicling the birds that visit and the seasonal changes that transpire. But every once in a while, don’t you wish you could check out the action at another feeding station with different birds? And certainly we all have a question come to mind about bird feeding, bird foods, feeders, and more. Now, there are some excellent resources that allow us to view distant bird feeders via live cameras, and we can also get answers to basic questions about feeding birds from professionals who study FeederWatch information.
As we near the holiday season, birding festivals close the year with a bang, featuring one of the top-rated birding events of the year – The Festival of Cranes – that attracts birders to Bosque National Wildlife Refuge near Socorro, New Mexico. In Florida, the North Shore Birding Festival takes place in the most popular inland birding area – the Lake Apopka North Shore – along with Wekiwa Springs State Park and other locations near Orlando. And as the newest Bird City in Texas, Galveston, is hosting its own Sandhill Crane festival: Holiday with the Cranes!
Winter is the peak season to enjoy viewing and photographing Bald Eagles in Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes, and now through early February you can sign up to join a 3-hour van tour to explore the Bald Eagles’ favorite bays, shorelines, and roosting sites. Both resident and wintering Bald Eagles search for fish, soar overhead, and perch in trees. US Forest Service naturalists will help you spot eagles and other wildlife, and they will provide magnified views with spotting scopes for better looks.
As I signed off last week, I was poised to do the first survey of birds at my SoDak Winter Raptor Hotspot centered in Pierre, South Dakota. Tuesday proved to be especially exciting during a beautiful day, and I counted a nice diversity of 8 raptor species, and a surprising total of 51 birds of prey considering it was early in the season. My raptor hotspot is really a series of connected transects that I drive to identify and count all the birds along the way, while taking advantage of photo opportunities – it’s always exciting and rewarding ‘cuz ya never know what’s around the next turn!
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The Bird Academy has announced a special holiday sale that includes All Birding Courses! Pick out a birding course as a holiday gift, or even for yourself as a special holiday treat. These self-paced online courses are engaging for birders of any level. Ranging from courses to help you discover the world of birds, to bird identification courses on tricky species like warblers, raptors, or ducks, to skill-building courses like bird photography or nature journaling, there is truly something for everyone at the Bird Academy!
The ultimate reference for birders who feed birds, The Joy of Bird Feeding offers practical information, tips, and solutions for attracting birds to a feeding station, and for identifying the birds you attract. Find out the best foods to provide for the birds you want to see, and learn how to deter unwanted guests. Each chapter focuses on an important aspect of birding and guides readers to the essential steps of bird feeding. The Joy of Bird Feeding was written by a true birding pro, Jim Carpenter, the founder and retired president of Wild Birds Unlimited.
New Brunswick birders were excited to re-find the Steller’s Sea Eagle, which appears to be working its way south along the Atlantic Coast again. There were 2 First State Records documented by birders last week, a Great Kiskadee in Mississippi and a Hermit Warbler in Pennsylvania. A Second State Record Bar-tailed Godwit was photographed in Texas, as was a Third State Record Lucy’s Warbler in Oregon. Exciting rare bird finds from the Eastern Hemisphere included a Little Bunting in Alaska, a Fieldfare in Quebec, and a White Wagtail in California.

My regular winter pilgrimages to my SoDak Winter Raptor Hotspot centered in the Pierre, South Dakota area take me about 250 miles southwest of home, where the winter weather is warmer and the prey base abundant enough to attract an interesting diversity and abundance of birds of prey. After years of observations and exploring I found that this “winter raptor hotspot” hosts the northern-most concentration of wintering raptors in the Great Plains, and periodically I identify and count all the birds along a series of transects that provide occasional excellent photo opportunities.

As individual hawks took flight from their perches, they flew closer and passed by with full sunlight illuminating them, providing natural colors and fast shutter speeds that stopped the motion of their wings and provided sharp details of the birds, including their eyes and hooked beaks (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/4000, ISO 400).

What makes photos “excellent” is the positioning, closeness, and photo quality, but the species of the bird is likewise important. For me, I most appreciate photographing Prairie Falcons, Golden Eagles, Ferruginous Hawks, and Merlins, along with dark-morph Rough-legged Hawks; and very very rarely, I get a chance to take a documentary photo of a wintering Gyrfalcon in the area. That said, although most of these species were present, none of the individuals of these kinds of raptors availed themselves for quality photographs last week. However, I did have some good luck photographing a few more common North American hawks.

I must admit that during my SoDak raptor trips I often pass by Red-tailed Hawks in favor of concentrating my time on photographing other birds of prey. But last week, photo ops were hard to come by and I began trying to photograph all the birds along the way, and that turned out to be almost exclusively Red-tailed Hawks. Partly for the purposes of this article, because I’ve been thinking about this topic recently, I thought that even though I have many many photos of Red-tails, why not take advantage of an opportunity to “practice” photographing them – practice my timing, practice framing the birds in flight, while providing a little piece of mind that my camera and lens settings were just right and ready for the season’s photo activities.

By focusing on the head of the hawks, the eyes were always in focus, as were all parts of their body and plumage using an aperture of f-7 with a corresponding extra-fast shutter speed of 1/4000 of a second in the bright afternoon sunlight.

In the end, it was definitely worthwhile and it provided a level of excitement that was missing before the Red-tails were present along southern transect locations. One Red-tail in particular even attracted my attention a second time. This was a hawk that is especially rare in the Dakotas – a light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk. Harlan’s are always rare in my world, and most of the Harlan’s that make it as far east as the Great Plains tend to be dark-morph individuals. This is one of the only light morph Harlan’s I encounter, and it’s especially interesting because I see it regularly – winter after winter – along the same stretch of a gravel road south of Pierre.

This light morph Harlan’s has also been exceptionally hard to photograph in the past; I have a few documentary photos, but I really wanted to get some good photos of it flying that show its plumage clearly. As I drove down the road where I usually encounter the light morph Harlan’s, I could see it perched on the edge of a roadside cottonwood tree, and before I was very close, the bird took flight – as usual. But this time, after years of it flying straight away at a distance, the hawk banked into a circle, showing its backside, then flaring dramatically into the sunlight to show its underside in stunning spread-feather detail.

The dramatically different plumage coloration of this light morph Harlan’s Redtail is evident when compared with the previous photo of a Red-tailed Hawk with more typical plumage coloration (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/3200, ISO 400).

I must admit I was taken aback a bit, and the brief episode left me excited for more, so as I continued on my way, I could see the hawk settle onto another perch near the road, and I imagined my interest to get other images of this bird would bring me back this way again before the afternoon was over. In the meantime, along this southern area of my drive, more Red-tails appeared, and I photographed them too – partly with the idea of “practicing.” During prime afternoon light, I found that when I stopped my car, most of the Red-tails took flight, but circled back past my position, often perching a short distance behind me. That meant that as the hawks passed me, they were flying closer with full sunlight illuminating them – providing natural colors and fast shutter speeds that stopped the motion of their wings and provided sharp details of the birds, including their eyes and hooked beaks.

Banking into a circular flight, the light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk showed its backside, then flared dramatically into the sunlight to show its underside in stunning spread-feather detail (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/1600, ISO 400).

By practicing, I found I became more relaxed each time I photographed one of the hawks, which is rarely the case for me. I tend to get quite tensed up under exciting photo conditions, especially during quick flight photo opportunities. And let’s face it, it’s not easy to keep a flying bird in relatively close position within the photo frame of your camera viewfinder. The closer the bird is, the harder it is to follow its progress within your photo frame as you swing your camera and lens as smoothly as possible to follow the bird’s movements while trying to hold your breath as you press the shutter button and your heart pounds with excitement – Whoo!

Practicing on more commonly encountered birds, like I did with these Red-tailed Hawks, settled me down to appreciate the experience more, and I experienced better results. It also gave me an impression of what to expect with each of the hawks, as they each acted similarly, so practice definitely improved my actions and reactions, along with many of the resulting photos.

After completing my raptor transects, I worked my way back to the light morph Harlan’s Red-tail. While the tail feathers of Red-tailed Hawks are usually orange, there is some variation including varied orange or red-orange shades, a lighter or whiter base color to the tail feathers, occasionally a dark band near the terminal end of the tail feathers, along with other variations. But Harlan’s tail feathers have especially interesting color qualities that are very attractive, if not unusual. My impression is that each Harlan’s tail is quite unique in its color combinations and patterns, and often there is only a hint of orange coloration.

A closer look at the dorsal side of the spread tail feathers of the light morph Harlan’s Redtail show some individual variation among its unique light-colored feathers, with only a few showing hints of orange (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/2000, ISO 400).

So, as I hoped to get more photos of the light morph Harlan’s Redtail Hawk, I also wanted to try to get good images of the bird’s light-colored tail feathers to better view their details. My second meeting with the unusual hawk was brief and less successful, but I did get a couple more photos that included the dorsal side of the spread tail. Later I enlarged an image of the feathers on my computer screen only to realize that each tail feather was quite uniquely marked and colored, which I hope you can see in the attached photograph.

With my initial interest in using the commoner species as practice subjects, I was actually able to get a few of my best photos of a light morph Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk. But I also managed some quality flight photos of more typical adults and a first-year Red-tail to add to my files of favorite photographs. Realistically, it’s always worth taking advantage of all photo ops considering that we become better photographers through experience, and in some cases through repetition.

Any time I have a bird in my viewfinder’s frame, I’m having fun; plus practicing the art of photographing birds in flight continues to make me a better photographer – you too, I’m sure. Normally, I don’t have the luxury of finding 51 birds of prey in a single day, but in this case it was worth emphasizing the opportunity to practice photographing the commoner birds, which provided with some fine photos as well as valuable experience. As always, good luck as you photograph the birds of December!

A typically colored first-year Red-tailed Hawk shows lighter brown shades of color, including the light-brown tail feathers, which will be replaced by orange tail feathers during its second summer (aperture f-7, shutter speed 1/3200, ISO 400).

Article and photographs by Paul Konrad

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