Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Two Cool

I spent a few hours at the Detroit River Hawk Watch yesterday. There was very fortunate timing on my part as I had the opportunity to view and photograph two cool birds. It was too cool.

In mid-afternoon, Calvin Brennan, the counter for the Detroit River Hawk Watch said some words that hawkwatchers in these parts tend to take very seriously: "See that bird right there?" The simple five-word sentence was accompanied by a simple pointing of the finger off into space. A quick flip of my binoculars and there it was:

The Black Vulture is, for all intents and purposes, an unmistakable bird. First, its black (wow, I'll bet you're stunned at this point, huh?) . There are white panels at the tips of very blocky wings and the tail is very short (almost too short, it seems). All these marks were instantly noted through binoculars despite the estimated altitude of 1,000 feet. As I clicked away with my camera, I realized the combination of angle, sun, and distance were working against me. So, I put down the camera and watched the bird fly off behind us.

Before it disappeared into the great blue yonder, I had a chance to see what I think is the best characteristic of the Black Vulture. You see, most birds of prey seem to understand that they can fly. Be it soaring or diving, many are very accomplished aerialists. Well, Black Vultures act like they don't have a handle on this flight thing. Gliding? Sure. But flapping? No way. Its quick, snappy and frantic. It is almost comical. You can imagine the bird saying to itself: "Ohhhh! Ohh, crap, oh! Ooooh, woah, aaaah, Doh! Oh, whew, okay, I'm back to gliding now..."

Four of us got a chance to see the bird. It was for me, believe it or not, my second Lake Erie Metropark record. I had one on March 10, 2000. Calvin recorded one just a few days ago (October 6th) and he also had one October 2nd, 2003. So, that means four records for Wayne County and 18 overall for the state.

In case you are wondering what the big deal is, it's this: Black Vultures are found in the south. It has been said that their range is an almost perfect match for the Confederacy. So, you can find them with ease in places like Florida, Virginia, Kentucky and Mississippi. They barely creep into southern Ohio but their range along the Atlantic seaboard is pushing further and further north. They now breed in Connecticut.

The other bonus bird of the day was an adult rufous-morph Red-tailed Hawk. A what Red-tailed Hawk? A rufous morph. Red-tailed Hawks can be subdivided into races, some of which, in turn, have a wide variety of appearances. The end result is a huge array of Red-tailed Hawks across the continent.

The bird shown above on the right is the Redtail (the other is a Turkey Vulture). Yes, my photo is poor, but you can certainly see that is is not a "normal" Red-tailed Hawk. While the tail was red (trust me), you can certainly see the belly is totally dark while the upper chest is somewhat lighter. The flight feathers are whitish while the underwing coverts are dark. Now, if you had the bird in your hand, sure, you could see bands on the tail and barring on the flight feathers. Also, what appears to be dark or black in the photo is really a deep brown while the breast is rufous (hence the name).

This is a classic example of what hawkwatching can be like: it is what you see, not what is. That sounds very Jedi, doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

Paul-- Thanks for the tutorial about Black Vultures. Your description of their flying antics made me laugh!
--Susan Cybulski (fellow umich bird lister)

Paul said...

You will likely laugh harder when you watch a Black Vulture flap!

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad I have another satisfied reader. I might be in double digits by now......