Two Red-tailed Hawks in a single tree. Modified photo by David Sibley.
By the end of February, even in cold and snowy Massachusetts, Red-tailed Hawks are courting and forming pairs in preparation for nesting. It’s common to see the male and female of a pair sitting close to each other in a tree, and this provides a very powerful clue to identification.
Hawks are generally solitary and territorial, and will not tolerate another hawk nearby. The only exception is mated pairs. You won’t see two Rough-legged Hawks, or a Red-tailed and a Red-shouldered Hawk, sharing a tree like this on the wintering grounds. Therefore, whenever you see two hawks sitting this close to each other, it’s safe to assume that they are the same species and that they are nesting nearby, which greatly reduces the number of candidate species.
Habitat also helps, and since Red-tailed Hawk is the only large open-country raptor nesting in Massachusetts it’s easy to identify these two birds as Red-tails based on nothing more than their size and their choice of perches.
Some of you had noticed that the Sibley eGuide was not in the Kindle store any more. Apparently the new Kindle Fire HD tablet required changes in the app, but those are now completed, the app has been resubmitted to the Kindle store for approval, and it should be available within days.
The answer is at the end of the video, and in the text below.
It has been a relatively mild winter in Massachusetts, but the blizzard of Feb 2013 put over two feet of snow on the ground, effectively eliminating most of the grassy and weedy habitat sparrows need. In such conditions the plowed edges of roads become an oasis of open ground and exposed seeds, and sparrows gravitate to those edges. Thus a Le Conte’s Sparrow, a very rare visitor to Massachusetts, was found in Concord on 12 Feb. I suspect it had been at this location, somewhere in the acres of weedy and marshy habitat, since at least December, and was only found because of the snow that forced it into the open.
Given its behavior, it’s no surprise that it wasn’t found sooner. Le Conte’s Sparrow is known for being secretive, just like Grasshopper Sparrow and other species in the genus Ammodramus. They rely on camouflage for protection and usually crouch when alarmed rather than flying. The behavior shown in this video – burrowing under matted grass – is something most sparrows simply never do.
The Sibley eGuide to Birds app for iPhone has been updated.
This update adds thumbnail images of every species in the scrolling list and in search results, the option to display common names in French, Spanish, or Latin instead of English, the latest AOU taxonomy including splits of Scripps’s and Guadalupe Murrelet, new audio for Bendire’s Thrasher and Cackling Goose, and some minor corrections.
Similar features for Android and other platforms coming soon.
While watching a small flock of juncos at my bird feeder on December 17, 2012, I noticed one particularly brownish female. Considering subspecies and watching it a little further I noticed that it seemed more active and alert, darting around quickly and holding its body more upright than the other juncos. Could this be a regional difference? Maybe some western Juncos have a previously unnoticed tendency to stand more upright? Unlikely, but worth watching more to figure out what was going on.
Pencil sketches of Dark-eyed Juncos showing female (upper) and male (lower). Differences in posture and shape are described in the text below. Original pencil sketch copyright David Sibley.
One of the biggest challenges of identifying a Cackling Goose is just finding one, especially in the east where the species is rare and occurs mostly as single birds (of the relatively large and pale Richardson’s subspecies) among big flocks of Canadas. The photos below show one Richardson’s Cackling Goose among Canadas. See if you can pick it out in each photo, then read below for tips on what to look for.
Canada and Cackling Geese, Acton, MA. 14 November 2012. Photo by David Sibley.
Almost every Rusty Blackbird that I see in the eastern United States is in flight, so the simple trick is to look up. In order to do that you need to know what to look for: I use sound to know when to look, then look for flying blackbirds that are solitary or in small groups, with long wings and long, club-shaped tails.
Rusty Blackbird (left) and Red-winged Blackbird, showing subtle differences in shape. Original pencil sketch by David Sibley.
Use your ears
First, listen for a slightly different call. All of the blackbirds and grackles give a low harsh check or tuk call in flight. In Red-winged Blackbird this is a relatively simple and unmusical chek, like hitting two twigs together. Rusty Blackbird’s call is more like chook, it has more complexity and depth. Rusty’s call is slightly longer, slightly descending, and with a bit of musical tone. It reminds me vaguely of the harsh chig call of Red-bellied Woodpecker. ….Continue reading My trick to finding Rusty Blackbirds →
Gray Hawk, drawn for the revised edition of Hawks in Flight. The pale color of this species requires a lighter touch, with sparse fine lines, and in pen-and-ink there is little room for error. If you put on too much ink there is no way to take it back.
African Elephant, my first paid job as an artist, drawn for a travel brochure in about 1978.
I’ve always enjoyed black-and-white drawing. I remember being in third grade and spending hours looking at Earl Poole’s ink drawings in James Bond’s “Birds of the West Indies”. A few years later I was enthralled by the simplicity and grace of George Sutton’s drawings in “Fundamentals of Ornithology”.
Ink was my favorite “formal” medium from my childhood through my late-20s when I started doing a lot more painting. My first paid job as an artist was doing drawings for travel brochures, like the elephant shown above (drawn from photographs when I was about 17) and all of my early published art was pen-and-ink drawings.