Black-billed Magpie Mobbing

While doing a “hawk watch” along the Colorado River on December’s trip I had the opportunity to watch another group of corvids harassing a larger bird. In this case it was a group of Black-billed Magpie mobbing a Red-tailed Hawk.

Before I relate the story it seems I keep running into this kind of action. Back in February I posted the story about a Great Horned Owl being mobbed by a flock of American Crows at Johnson County Park. And in early January I saw a group of Blue Jays harassing and chasing a Red-Shoulder Hawk in Geist Reservoir in Marion County.

Now I haven’t been out in the field much lately. So am I just stumbling upon corvids acting like this or does it happen more than I know? I really can’t answer the question but it appears to happen frequently.

Colorado Black-billed Magpie Mobbing

While scanning for raptors along the Colorado River north of Grand Junction I noticed one, then two, then several Black-billed Magpies flying to a distant tree line. Now this seemed odd since I had only seen and heard one or two in the previous hour. In fact I had noted earlier in the trip I heard many more magpies than I saw. Which struck me as acting like a Blue Jay. Not wanting to be seen unless the need arose.

It didn’t take long to figure out what was happening. The magpies were gathering in one tree. Which meant there was something present they could harass.

How many Black-billed Magpies can you spot in this photo? And the Red-tailed Hawk?

Circled in red are the ten magpies I counted though I know there are at least 5-10 more. The hawk is circled in green.

Black-billed Magpie Mobbing

The Red-tailed Hawk finally had enough and flew off.

But only a little further down the tree line before it stopped and the process started again.

Eventually the dark morph Red-tailed Hawk I had seen earlier appeared and the two flew off together. And the magpies must have lost interest since they did not pursue.

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Red-tailed Hawk Nest – Weekend Highlight

This will be a short post which probably won’t hold any interest to anyone else. But there are certain things I like to keep track of through the blog. Like the Red-tailed Hawk nest I’ve been watching.

Once again work and family obligations limited my time birding over the weekend. For once though it’s during the holding game waiting for migration instead of early May. So I didn’t feel as much disappointment only getting out for a few hours.

I previously mentioned the Red-tailed Hawk nest when I happened to see a couple of hawks in the local park. It appeared they were either building a new nest or occupying a previously used nest.  On subsequent trips I didn’t see any activity.

Until this weekend when a hawk was sitting on the nest.

Red-tailed Hawk Nest

The initial view from a distance. The nest is in the center of the photo.

A zoomed view of the nest showing one of the Red-tailed Hawk parents on the nest.

I’m glad to see it’s occupied so I can continue to monitor it though the spring.

Over the years I have seen several Red-tailed Hawk nests and I have to say this looks small. Or is it my memory?

Must be my memory. Hal Harrison in Eastern Bird Nests lists the outside diameter at 28-30″, and the inside diameter at 14″-15″ with a depth of 4-6″. Looking at the photo again I would definitely say this nest is within that range.

I often wonder with all the Red-tailed Hawks I see why I don’t come across more nests. The following photo answers that question.

Any idea where the Red-tailed Hawk nest is located? This points out why I don’t see more nests when I’m out in the field.

The other bird of note this weekend was my FOY Fox Sparrow seen hanging out with a group of White-throated Sparrows.

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Dark-eyed Junco Frustrating Subspecies

This started out like the post on winter Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Wood Ducks in Western Colorado. That post highlighted the fact I had overlooked the possibility of seeing either species on my trip. So, along those same lines I was going to discuss four subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco which are possible in Western Colorado. That will still be the theme. But I’ll also share some thoughts after researching the Dark-eyed Junco frustrating subspecies.

I knew Dark-eyed Juncos were possible in Western Colorado since they had a .06 possibility. I expected to see the usual Slate-colored subspecies until seeing a “different” junco at Connected Lakes State Park.

Once I realized it was a different subspecies I started taking as many photos of juncos as possible. I finally got around to reviewing them last week.

Using Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds of Western NA – pg. 424-426 I found there are 6 subspecies of Dark-eyed Juncos. The first four listed below are possible in the Grand Junction area in winter.

  1. Slate-colored – All NA – Indiana’s
  2. Oregon – Western NA
  3. Pink-Sided – Central NA
  4. Gray-headed – Great Basin
  5. Red-backed – AZ and NM
  6. White-winged – small strip of area from Montana to CO

Slate-colored – No

The nominate subspecies in most of the US is the Slate-colored. It is the one we know in the Midwest – dark gray above and white below. The female is a more gray-brown above. And looking through my photos I didn’t see one on the trip.

Dark-eyed Junco Frustrating Subspecies

Now here’s something I hate to admit. I can’t find a decent Slate-colored Junco in my photo collection. This means I haven’t spent enough time studying Dark-eyed Juncos. This is the only photo I could find in my collection, from 2009. I think I need to take some time with them.

Oregon – Yes

What finally made it dawn on me that I wasn’t seeing the usual Slated-Colored was the different colored juncos at Connected Lake State Park. The junco had hoods.

Once I noticed the gray in the junco didn’t continue in its “normal” pattern I knew I wasn’t seeing my usual juncos.

The dark hood with contrasting white underside is standard for an Oregon.

The Difference

The biggest difference between the Slate-colored and the other subspecies is the bottom of The Bib. On the Slate-colored the bib is slightly convex, on the others a larger concave bottom. (Now if I had a different Slate-colored photo I wouldn’t have to go to Wikipedia – Slate-colored – Ken Thomas – (personal website of photographer) A Dark-eyed Junco subspecies – the Slate-colored Junco (Junco hyemalis hyemalis)

Pink-sided – Probably Not 

I originally thought this was a Pink-sided but now think it is a female Oregon. The ID indicators for Pink-sided are dull brown back, mid-gray hood, and bright pinkish-cinnamon sides. But those are also ID marks of a female Oregon.

Gray-headed – No 

Since I don’t have a photo I took this off the internet.

By Peter Wallack (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Now for an Indiana Bonus

While searching for a photo of the nominate Slate-Colored Junco I came across the following photo.

Everything about this is saying female Oregon Dark-eyed Junco. What do you think? Johnson County Park, 11/26/16

This post exemplifies why I got into blogging and birding. It “forces” you to look closer and do more research on a topic you might otherwise blow over. And eventually the frustrating part turns into knowledge. This will make my future encounters with any subspecies of Dark-eyed Junco very rewarding.

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Windblown Eastern Phoebe – Weekend Highlight

So how windy was last Saturday? Check out this photo of a windblown Eastern Phoebe!

windblown eastern phoebe

Luckily this Eastern Phoebe could still see with its feathers almost over its eyes!

Or this Red-tailed Hawk kiting in a strong SE wind?

Or even a Tree Swallow hanging in the wind.

Along with Mike Saturday’s plan was to search for the expected early migrants. But before I met up with Mike I did a bit of owling.

The Eastern-screech Owls weren’t the usual spots but a Barred Owl was calling nearby at one. I finally found one screech-owl.

Can you see the Eastern Screech-Owl in the photo? This is my first attempt using the flash on my camera. Looks like one of those TV supernatural show videos.

And now a zoomed shot. OK, next time I’ll have a better photo.

I met up with Mike at the Great Horned Owl spot where we eventually heard one calling right before sunrise. We visited a couple of lakes and saw a good variety of waterfowl and the first of the migrants, three distant Tree Swallow flying over the Pisgah Lake.

The next stop was the known Eastern Phoebe Bridge and one was heard “chipping” immediately exiting the car.

The first Eastern Phoebe of the year, looking rather cold. Which it was for most of the day.

Now watch the tail. Wait for it. Classic Phoebe!

At Driftwood SFA we found both migrants. The before mentioned windblown Eastern Phoebe and a small group of Tree Swallows.

Probably feels good in the sun with a break in the wind.

Looks like I’ve been spotted. Time to move on.

Now you see why it’s called Driftwood. A different Eastern Phoebe warming in the sun.

A third one flew in from behind and almost landed on me.

I couldn’t get the angle of the Tree Swallows in a tree, so I’ll have to settle for a line shot.

This is my fifth spring in Indiana, so I can start to have realistic personal early/late dates.

Earliest Eastern Phoebe by 6 days. But not sure I was always looking for an early one.

Tree Swallow was the second earliest. Earliest was 3/2/13.

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I should have checked at lunch…

The following probably would have made a good Facebook post. But as followers know I disdain a bird photo or species report without a story behind it. Even a few details to liven up the story. So I’m still going to do this as a blog post versus a FB post.

Most of my posts take between 1.5-2 hours. But this one is going to be similar to what I see on other blogs. Short and to the point. I have set the timer on the iPhone to 30 minutes and off I go. We’ll see if I think it holds up to my usual standards.

Yesterday morning wasn’t anything special. I worked on a future post concerning juncos in Colorado and headed off to work. Upon arriving I did the usual scan of the plant’s retaining (or is it retention??) pond. I have seen most of the expected waterfowl on the pond including a Red-necked Grebe during the outburst a couple of years ago.

Yesterday Morning I Added a New Species to the Pond

The scan produced 7 Greater-white Fronted Geese on the edge of the pond.  They were hanging out on the spot usually taken by the Canada Geese.

That’s right, just like a FB you are getting photos of the Greater White-fronted Geese from my iPhone. Did you miss my Birding Backpack post where I state I don’t carry my camera?

I watched them for a few minutes, getting an accurate count, and headed in to work.

And in the Afternoon I Added One More

Jump several hours later and I’m heading home. I scanned for the Greater White-fronted Geese but they weren’t to be seen. But to my surprise there was a little white goose!

A Ross’s Goose took me by surprise. But considering that geese are turning up everywhere this winter I shouldn’t be.

That’s right, why take the time to enlarge the photo when I can just stick it on the webpage? I was hoping the photo would show the size difference between the species.

Not everyday I can add a couple of species to my work list. Of course I don’t actively pursue my work list so it isn’t very large.

Now what if I had gone out and checked at lunch???

There I did it under 30 minutes. Of course that isn’t counting the time to get the photos from the phone to the blog. And no photo editing, proofreading, verb usage check, SEO check, highlighting, etc. Sorry if there are a few errors. I’ll stick to the longer format unless I think I have something someone else would like to chase.

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Female Northern Harrier – Colorado Day 4 Afternoon

Luckily for once extra time at work coincides with the winter Birding Doldrums. I did get out for a few hours last weekend but not much was happening except there are now four Red-tailed Hawks in the neighborhood. So I’ll continue with my December Colorado trip discussing Day 4’s afternoon with the highlight being a female Northern Harrier.

After birding Connected Lakes State Park all morning, the goal was to drive the short distance to Walker State Wildlife Area and scan for Raptors. Probably not the ideal location to scan but I didn’t feel like driving. And there werer eBird reports of raptors flying along the nearby Colorado River.

From what I read it appears birders out west take Black-billed Magpies for granted like we take American Crows for granted in the Midwest. That’s a shame since the magpie is such a beautiful bird, especially in flight.

Sandhill Cranes winter in the Grand Valley so there were flocks overhead each day.

This group was a little lower flying south up the river.

I heard waterfowl to the north but had only seen a few groups of Canada Geese flying until something put all the waterfowl up. Then I realized the full extent of their numbers.

I never did see what made the waterfowl fly. But a few minutes later I got a glimpse of a distant bird flying up river. The bird was large and dark. Even at that distance it didn’t have the feel of a Bald Eagle. The wings weren’t “planky” enough. The elusive Golden Eagle?

Not one afraid to show a bad photo, this was my desperate attempt to capture a distant bird which might have been a Golden Eagle. Not the blob in the tree but way out there, somewhere.

Two bad photos back to back. This was my only photo of a Red-tailed Hawk Dark Morph circling the area during the afternoon.

Female Northern Harrier

The highlight of the afternoon was watching a female Northern Harrier who spent the afternoon slowly cruising the nearby corn field.

female Northern Harrier

She would go up one side of the corn field and down the other, occasionally dropping down hunting something.

Finally she caught her meal which I assume was a mouse.

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Birding Backpack – What I Carry to the Field

BushWhackingBirder’s third most popular post describes my Birding Paraphernalia, the gadgets I carry in the field. Along those same lines I’ll review what I carry in my Birding Backpack.

First, I should state my definition of a Birding Backpack. A Birding Backpack is not a backpack used in the field, though it could in a pinch. It’s a backpack that’s always packed and ready to go.  Just pick it up and head out the door.

Birding Backpack

My Birding Backpack is ready to go!

Now some will argue you only need binoculars and maybe a notebook. I try to minimize my life but I’ve found I need a few more items than just binoculars. Thus the Birding Backpack.

I have used a Birding Backpack for several years. The time saved is what I most like about it. Especially on mornings I go owling. And that it ensures I don’t forget anything I’ll need on the day.

So what’s in my Birding Backpack?

Just the basics. I don’t want it ending up like the lady’s purses you see on TV. You know the kind that weigh 50 pounds and has everything.

No, my backpack is light and simple.

The sixteen items in my backpack. Which caught me off guard since I thought I had 8-10 things.

  1. Notebook
  2. Camera
  3. Field Guide
  4. Basic First Aid Items
  5. Utility Knife
  6. Extra Camera Batteries
  7. Extra Camera Memory Card
  8. Sunscreen
  9. Insect Repellent
  10. Orange Safety Vest
  11. Flashlight
  12. Extra Gloves
  13. Pens and Pencils
  14. Super Glue
  15. Compass
  16. Vaseline

Total Weight = 10 pounds

The list has been stable over the years. The only “recent” addition was the super glue after the 2014 Costa Rica trip. Several of the “What to take to the Tropics” lists said take super glue, so I did. And it stays in the backpack still unused.

You’ll notice binoculars are not on the list. They, along with my spotting scope, are always in the car just in case I come across something during the day.

Of course I add food and drink as needed for the day. They aren’t listed since they aren’t permanent parts of the backpack.

What should I discard from the backpack?

What am I missing?

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Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution – A Surprise

Prior to heading to Grand Junction last December I checked the status and distribution of species. As I explained in my 6% rule post, eBird bar charts come in handy for getting a feel for likely species. The post points out I’ve found the odds drop quickly for species with a number under .06. Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution in Western Colorado came in at .04 and Wood Duck .03. Without actual chasing I probably wouldn’t see them. So I made a mental note they might be there and moved on to learn species with higher numbers.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Distribution - A Surprise

Ruby-crowned Kinglets were very active in several locations and habitats.

Boy was I surprised when I saw Ruby-crowned Kinglets at not one but four locations with seven seen at Connected Lake State Park. I didn’t think Ruby-crowned Kinglets are hardy enough to spend winter in Colorado. I based that fact on Midwesterners only having a slight chance of seeing one locally in winter. And since we basically see them only during migration I thought they migrated farther south.

The bright yellow color of the kinglets also came as a surprise. I’m guessing it’s because I usually see them in spring before they molt. But they still seemed bright…

The same can be said of the Wood Duck. In the Midwest they are usually gone by late November and start reappearing in early spring. I didn’t think they were on the same level as the Blue-winged Teal for early/late migration but earlier than most ducks. So when I encountered Wood Ducks at Connected Lakes that also caught me off guard.

A group of Wood Ducks with American Coots and Mallards. Early December seemed like a late date for their presence.

So what gives?

Range maps provided surprising answers for each species.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet on the left, Wood Duck on the right. From Audubon Guide to North American Birds –

Both winter just south of the Midwest and are year around residents in Western Colorado, something I hadn’t previously noticed. The Ruby-crowned Kinglet distribution shows it’s a year-round resident of the whole Great Basin. And the small circle in Western Colorado is where Wood Ducks are year-round residents.

These encounters once again prove I need to spend more time studying local birds beyond our area. What else I’m I missing about these species?

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Rusty Blackbird Call – Notes from the Field

Over the past few months I have thought about posting on tidbits I learn while “out in the field” birding. I sort of started this awhile back with “things I learned this week“. But I slowly drifted away from those posts. Lately though I’ve being either discovering or re-discovering things I think might help other birders. So periodically I’ll throw out “Notes from the Field”. The first installment will be the Rusty Blackbird call.

I had to go back a few years to get a photo of a perched Rusty Blackbird – April 2011. Starved Rock State Park, Illinois

I go with Sibley’s distinction between songs and calls. Songs are the most distinctive vocalization of most species, the ones they use for territory and mating. Calls are generally shorter and simpler. Most species have numerous calls for different communication purposes. (The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western America – page 14 – Learning Songs and Calls)

Rusty Blackbird Call

A flock of Rusty Blackbirds at Atterbury FWA from April 2014.

Last weekend I was at my favorite marsh area looking for Wilson’s Snipe. I found the snipe and continued walking the perimeter. Since the day felt like early spring, Red-winged Blackbirds were singing and making their calls.

Sibley describes the Red-winged Blackbird’s call a low chek. Patterson* a loud check. I described it in my notebook as a soft zchip.

How would you describe it?

I was by cattails when I heard a different call. A loud chup. My first thought was an odd Red-winged Blackbird but that didn’t seem right. I heard the call a few more times and finally spot the bird. A Rusty Blackbird on a nearby treetop. I had been looking mid-level so had missed it. If it had been doing its odd song I would have recognized it sooner.

Sibley doesn’t describe a Rusty Blackbird call. Patterson has it as a loud chack. Do you agree with Sibley, Patterson, or me? Or have your own thoughts on the call sound?

The Rusty called a few more times and headed out. I made a few notes to make sure I had details of the encounter and moved on.

I’m not sure if I ever knew the Rusty Blackbird call or had forgotten it since I rarely encounter one. Either way I’ll hopefully remember the call sooner on our next meeting.

* – Patterson Field Guides – Eastern Birds – Roger Tory Patterson

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Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist

Let me set the scene for the Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist act. I had been following a flock of songbirds – sparrows, chickadees, and cardinals – for about a half hour. The usual group of 4-5 crows had been hanging around along with 7-8 of their Blue Jay buddies.

They had been chasing and calling at each other. In other words normal corvid stuff. I was going to call it a day when the crows started calling louder and heading towards the woods. Had they found something to harass?

The calls tempo and volume increased, so I decide they must have something cornered and start heading that direction. Now these would be the same woods I was running out of two weeks ago.

While jogging I hear the repeated call of a Red-shouldered Hawk. So that’s what they’re harassing. But arriving on the scene and getting a clear line of sight, I see the Red-shouldered Hawk has ears!

Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist

This photo of the Great Horned Owl was lifted and lightened from the video I shot.

A check through the binoculars and I’m correct, a Great Horned Owl! But the Red-shouldered Hawk is still calling to the right?

I’m confused??

The scene continues a few more minutes, crows calling, the owl sitting, and the hawk calling to the right.

Following is spliced video I took of the owl, hawk, and crows. Remember to turn up your volume.


That’s when I figure out the Great Horned Owl Ventriloquist Act is the greatest ever. Not only is he doing a great Red-shouldered Hawk call but he is throwing his voice in hope the crows will go elsewhere.

But of course we know American Crows are the smartest animal alive and don’t easily fall for that sort of foolery. They continue to mob the owl which doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to leave.

Of course the crows’ squawking doesn’t bother the Great Horned Owl. But I make one move to get a clear line of sight and the owl flies. The owl flies out of sight with the crows in tow to a distant tree line. This is now going on 20 minutes and I wonder how long the crows will stay at it?

In the end I’m still confused.

While jogging to the scene I saw the local Red-shouldered Hawk flying to the other end the woods. So was there another Red-shouldered Hawk by the crows and owl? Or was there a Blue Jay doing a great imitation?

One of those birding things I’ll never know.

But it was exciting.

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