Harris’s Hawk in Colorado: Is it a Lifer or is it Unnatural?

This winter, we’ve had an unusual visitor to northeastern Colorado: a Harris’s hawk (Parabuteo unicinctus). Normally a resident of southernmost Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, this chocolate-brown and chestnut-red hawk is far from home. Back in December, a friend told me about this vagrant* after the hawk had been reliably sighted roosting in trees belonging to a recycling center adjacent to a local natural area. Having only seen Harris’s hawks in captivity, I was eager to see one in the wild so I could add it to my life list.

It took me four separate trips to the natural area in order to spot the hawk. When Guy Turenne, photographer, said the same thing (“four visits before I saw him”), I jokingly named the bird “Four Visit Harry.” That is how I think of him, even though I don’t know whether the bird is male or female.

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Four Visit Harry, the Harris’s hawk living in Fort Collins, CO (photo by Guy Turenne)

My weekend trips to see Harry were both several hours long, and I met lots of friendly birders who like me did not get to see him then. I made a mid-day stop at the natural area on a weekday and had the place to myself. Again, I failed to see Harry, but was encouraged by several false alarms. The first was a dark shape in one of the trees others identified as a favorite perch for the hawk. I saw it a few minutes after arriving and thought “gotcha!” only I was wrong. As I got closer, the “bird” climbed down the branch, morphing into a squirrel. As I walked the trail, I spotted red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) overhead, but they didn’t fool me for long.

On the way back, I again got a “That’s it!” shock when a hawk with white on the tail erupted out of the grass ahead of me. Fortunately, I got a really good look at it, even though there was a tree between us most of the time, and I realized at once it was missing the other key markings — the nearly dark brown back with red-brown wing patches. So I knew I was looking at a juvenile northern harrier (Circus cyaneus) and not a Harris’s hawk within a few minutes. Still, I found it exciting rather than disappointing. It was the closest I’ve ever been to a harrier. I had to go home for lunch and thought: This is a great day for hawks. So I ran some Christmas errands, then went back to the natural area for the fourth time.

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Diagram by Kit Dunsmore

After scanning the big patch of trees in the recycling area and seeing nothing, I took the trail that ran behind the center. There, I met two young men with binoculars and a spotting scope. For the first time, my question (“Have you seen the Harris’s?”) was met with a yes. They pointed back to the trees I had just scanned and then I saw it, a dark blob with red-brown wing patches, sitting lower in the trees than I had originally looked. It flew off only a few minutes later, so I had only just caught it. The birders asked me if it was a lifer (if I would count this as my first Harris’s hawk for the list of all the bird species I’ve seen in my life). I was excited to be able to say it was. What I didn’t realize is not everyone would agree with me about that.

A bird like this Harris’s hawk is often referred to as “vagrant” or “accidental.” Usually, birds far from home get lost during migration, blown off course by a storm, or losing their way because they are inexperienced or sick. But Harris’s hawks don’t migrate. They are considered permanent residents of their range, so any individual very far outside that range is hard to explain. In fact, National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America is rather adamant that a Harris’s hawk out of its territory escaped from or was released by a falconer. Period.

After I read that, I realized my “lifer” was in jeopardy. The American Birding Association (ABA) has rules for keeping a life list, and one of those rules is that the bird you count can’t have been transported by humans to the place where you saw it. Understandably, they consider this an unnatural situation, even though the bird is flying free at the time of sighting. If Four Visit Harry is a falconer’s bird, then I can’t count him. But there’s no way for me to tell if he is or isn’t. And I confess I find myself miffed at the thought that someone who trained, maybe even raised, a hawk for falconry would release it nearly 700 miles from its natural habitat. Surely falconers are more responsible and ethical than that.

Harris’s hawks do not migrate, but they must disperse after fledging, which is the one time they might move into new territory. eBird maps show these hawks are being spotted much farther north in New Mexico and Texas then their historical range allows for, and I doubt all of these are lost falconry birds. There are even rare individuals who have been seen as far north as Montana.

I would rather think these out-of-range hawks are pioneers moving out into new territory, that Four Visit Harry is a maverick with wanderlust, rather than some falconer’s escaped bird. But I have no proof either way. Maybe he did hitch a ride here, but Harry is making a living on the prairie despite being away from home and without other hawks to help him hunt. (Harris’s hawks hunt in groups.) And my sighting of him (though it required some help from other birders) felt natural to me. Fortunately, I am not actually submitting my life list to the ABA. I am keeping it for my own pleasure. Considering our long and colorful history, I’ve decided that Four Visit Harry is a lifer.

*Vagrant is one of the terms birders use to describe birds far out of their recognized range. I prefer the term “maverick.”

An Inspiring Whimsical Scrapmetal Menagerie

The Swetsville Zoo  in Timnath, CO is actually a sculpture garden showcasing the wild imagination of Bill Swets. Filled with creatures made from metal scraps including parts from cars, tractors, and motorcycles, this “zoo” includes dinosaurs, birds, insects, reptiles, dragons, even people and flowers. The two things all Swets’ creations have in common: they are all made from recycled materials and they all make you smile.

The first thing I saw when we arrived should have told me what was in store. I’m not sure if you have to keep your dinosaurs under 5 mph or you drive under 5 mph because of the dinosaurs. Either way, I was in.

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There were LOTS of dinosaurs. This was one of my favorites (complete with a bird’s nest in its mouth):

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There were quite a few dragons as well.

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While I liked his ants and other smaller insects, his giant praying mantis was my favorite.

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I found his birds charming, too.

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Last but not least, here’s something that reminded me of the goblins from the movie Labyrinth (note the little driver in the mechanized monster’s open mouth):

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All the articles I found online talk about the looming demise of this unusual garden. Big box stores have been built right next door and there are plans for more development in the near future. But the Swetsville Zoo is still open (no entry fee! Donations welcome) for your enjoyment and I am hoping it will last. Get there while you can.

 

Nature Journaling at Home: Barn Swallows on the Porch

There is a barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) nest right outside our front door, on top of the porch light. We had swallows last year, too. I would hear their chittering song through the open window, but I didn’t really watch them. This year, I was ready to try nature journaling. I made an effort to draw them daily. As a result, I learned a lot.

July 2: Barn swallows nesting on our front porch. The parents are flying around and chittering at me and sitting on the neighbor’s roof.

The babies are pretty big before I even notice them. I see their heads poking out over the edge of nest and point them out to Kurt. He takes pictures. I stand on the porch as far from the nest as I can to draw the nest. It’s surprising how fond I am of these grumpy looking birds. Their white frowns and slanting brows give them a permanent angry scowl. I love them anyway.

July 4: The nest is like a layer cake of straw with white fecal frosting. Feeding: Mom and Dad fly in one at a time. All the babies open their mouths, but the parent already knows who will be fed. They are in and out in an instant. One of the parents came in at least three times before realizing I was here. Now they are calling and the babies have hunkered down to hide. Mom and Dad were on top of the wind chimes. Flew off when I moved.

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The “nest” page in my nature journal. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

The parents do not like it when I’m on the porch and take off whenever they see me. I’m afraid I am keeping them from feeding their family, so I keep my sketching sessions under thirty minutes and draw as fast as I can. We stop going out the front door. Keeping the birds’ stress level low is one of our priorities.

July 5: The babies are flapping! Extended periods of beating their wings while sitting on the edge of the nest. Getting ready to fly. Note: sit inside with the door cracked. Better view of the nest and the parents don’t mind.

It’s a challenge to draw the birds because they move so much, but I do my best. Looking through the cracked door or the front window is makes it easier to draw the birds, but I still keep my sessions short, because I know that they can see me. These are wild birds. I don’t want them to get used to me. Some people will be kind to them, but some won’t, and how are they supposed to tell the difference?

July 6: They look like hoodlums. Waiting for food from Mom and Dad — and snapping on their own at any insects that come close.

I read about people knocking swallow nests off their cabin porch with the helpless nestlings inside. I am horrified. There is a downside to swallows on the porch: bird poop everywhere. But it’s not really everywhere. Mostly the mess is directly under the nest and their favorite perches. We usually live with it, but it’s bad enough that I scrape and wash the porch before company comes. While I think the work is worth the joy of sharing my porch with swallows, I start thinking about ways to make this job easier in the future.

July 7: This morning at 8 AM, one of the fledglings was on our porch bench. Haven’t seen any of them out of the nest since. More wing flapping today despite the crowded nest — they will stand on a sibling to do it!

I can’t get over the fact that there are five baby birds in such a little nest. Our field guide says barn swallows lay from three to seven eggs at a time. I try to imagine seven birds crammed in that little cup and can’t do it.

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The most detailed drawing I’ve done of the nest so far, with the little bandits peeking out. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 8: The fledglings are leaving the nest. I saw them fly as far as the neighbor’s roof and then back again, but their favorite destination is our wind chimes.

July 9: The fledglings have been flying all over today, spending more time out of the nest than in. Preening, stretching, and begging.

With the birds out of the nest, I do my best to capture their shape and colors. I experiment with my new watercolor paints. I’m still learning how things work, just like the birds I am watching.

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Trying to capture the look of the birds in watercolor. (Art work by Kit Dunsmore)

July 10: Woke to an empty nest. Are the barn swallows gone for good?

My heart breaks when I see the empty nest. The grumpy faces that have been making me smile every day are suddenly nowhere to be seen. There’s a quiet hole where feathered lives used to be. It reminds me of the hush in the house after a beloved pet dies. The empty air where I expect to see a dog wagging her tail — or a nest full of swallows — feels like a cold vacuum.

I share my dismay on Facebook. Friends assure me the swallows will be back next year, and I know they are right. Last year, the swallows managed to raise two clutches of eggs in a single summer. Secretly, I cross my fingers, hoping for more nestlings before this summer is over.

July 18: Lots of activity at the BARS* nest on the porch this morning which is unusual because the kids have been gone for a week or so. Wondering if the breeding pair have new eggs…

There are only two swallows, so I assume the parents are back to try again. Because of the height of the nest, I can’t see into it without help. I have to stand on a step stool and use a telescoping mirror to check for eggs. I take the time to find the tools I need. I must be hopeful because I also buy a plastic tarp to lay on the door step so it will be easier to clean up the mess.

July 22: There is one brown-speckled tan egg in the barn swallow nest on the porch!

When I look out, the mother swallow is usually sitting on the nest, watching me warily. On the rare occasions when she’s off foraging, I check the nest. The female lays one tiny egg a day, until she has a total of four. Now she is on the nest more often than not, so I know we will have hatchlings soon.

I can’t wait for the fun to start all over again. I wonder what else I will learn about them?

*The American Ornithological Union has a list of 4-letter codes for North American bird species, which can make keeping lists of birds in your journal quick and easy. BARS is the 4-letter code for barn swallow.

UPDATE: August 10: I finally got to peek in the nest this morning, and the eggs have hatched! I think the babies are a few days old at most — pink, gray, bald, and tiny. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them and drawing again as soon as I can see them without the mirror and stool.

Multi-Basking: Layering Interests Increases Drawing Pleasure

Last week, I went to a local natural area so I could draw the prairie dogs that live there. I’ve wanted to do this for years, but haven’t felt able to tackle the task until now. The online drawing class I took in May (Roz Stendahl’s Drawing Practice: Drawing Live Subjects in Public ) prepared me well. I knew what to take, I was comfortable drawing in public, and I didn’t let my moving subjects frustrate me. While the class is responsible for the success of my trip, it was multi-basking that made it such a wonderful experience.

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

When I arrived at Coyote Ridge Natural Area, it was almost ten in the morning. Afraid that I was too late to see any prairie dogs, I was relieved to find that they were busy feeding and watching for danger. To my delight, there was also a pair of burrowing owls. (I love their grumpy expressions.) Burrowing owls use abandoned prairie dog burrows as nests and I’ve seen them before in really large prairie dog towns. I hadn’t realized that the local colony was big enough to support them.

I set up my folding seat on the gravel path that runs along one edge of the prairie dog town and sat down to sketch. I watched both the prairie dogs and the owls. The owls sat fairly still, making them excellent subjects to draw, but the prairie dogs were often closer and easier to see. As I sketched, meadowlarks and horned larks sang nearby. Occasionally, hikers would pass behind me. A few even stopped to ask what I was looking at and I took a moment to talk with them.

The owls spent their time between two different mounds, which I assumed were the front and back doors of their burrow. At one point, a prairie dog came quite close to one mound. The owl standing watch dove at him, wings spread and beak open. The owl kept up the attack until the prairie dog had scurried away. The interaction left me wondering why the owl was so defensive. Do prairie dogs eat owl eggs? Or was the owl aggressive due to the higher hormones that go with breeding season?

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A few of the quick sketches I drew at Coyote Ridge. (Drawings by Kit Dunsmore)

When I left an hour later, I was feeling elated. Part of my joy came from the excitement of finally getting to draw prairie dogs at Coyote Ridge. Part of it was due to the pleasant surprise of getting to draw burrowing owls as well. But I soon realized there was much more to it than that.

The reason I felt so happy and fulfilled by a simple hour of drawing was because I’d managed to smoosh so many interests* into one activity. My main goal was to draw, but I made it richer by drawing live animals outdoors in a natural setting. I combined my love of the outdoors, my love of animals, my love of learning, and my love of teaching with my love of drawing. I learned some things I didn’t know and came away with questions I’d like to answer. I talked to strangers and helped educate them a little about the animals of the prairie. And of course, I got to draw and spend time watching the animals do their thing.

It seemed like a type of multi-tasking, only more effective and more fun. I was really multi-basking — letting myself enjoy many different things all at the same time. I recommend it highly.

Do you ever multi-bask? What activities or interests do you find go together well?

*”Smooshing interests” is a strategy discussed in How To Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don’t Know What They Want To Be When They Grow Up by Emilie Wapnick.

7 Frustrating Truths About Birding

Back in March, I spent a week in southern Arizona birding. While I have looked for birds while hiking in the past, this was my first trip dedicated to birding. I discovered that focused birding is both wonderful and frustrating. Here’s what I learned.

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Black-throated Sparrow (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

1) Birding can be intense. Knowing I might see something I’d never seen before made me vigilant. I concentrated and was alert whenever I was outside. Eventually, every little movement got my attention and I found myself gazing at a spiderweb glinting in the sunlight or a leaf shivering the in the breeze. Given how many leaves there are out there, it’s not surprising how tired I was by the end of the day.

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Acorn Woodpecker: Looks like a clown, acts like a king.  (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

2) You need to take your binoculars everywhere. I missed a good look at a raptor that might have been a new bird for me because I left my binoculars in the car while I went to the bathroom.

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Painted Redstart, one of the easier birds to identify (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

3) That bird you saw so clearly? It isn’t in the field guide. This happens to me all the time. My favorite on this trip was a big black bird I saw with rusty patches under the wings. I scoured the hawk pages, certain these “distinctive” marks would be easy to spot. Nothing. Then I saw Kurt’s photo of the same bird, and discovered it was a raven. Which brings us to

4) You will see more common than exotic birds. 99 times out of a 100, that hawk you saw was a red-tailed hawk, not one of the rarer hawks in the area. Unless it was black. Then it was probably a raven.

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Red-tailed Hawks. Just because they are everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a thrill to see them. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

5) Birds are tricky. Even though it was only March, most of the trees had already leafed out where we were, which meant the birds had plenty of places to hide. It was surprising to me how often I could hear a bird without laying eyes on it. You’d think the singing would give its location away.

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Mexican Jay: we thought we were hearing a flock of house sparrows until we finally saw these guys, which took an amazingly long time given their size. (photo by Kurt Fristrup)

6) Birds are really tricky. They have either figured out how to travel through wormholes or have cloaking devices. Whichever it is, I can’t count the number of times a bird was right there and then just as suddenly wasn’t.

7) Check every bird in the flock, just in case. Often, different birds will flock together. At a reservoir in New Mexico, I saw one Ross’s goose hiding amongst a bunch of snow geese. Another time, I was certain there were at least three species in the flock of sparrows I was watching, but they all turned out to be Lincoln’s sparrows.

While birding was more work than I expected, it was worth the effort. I picked up 37 new-to-me species and got to see some birds that are Mexican natives. The rarest bird we saw was the streak-backed oriole. We also saw birds that are common to that area but were new to us, like Mexican jays, bridled titmouse, painted redstart, and acorn woodpeckers. Common or rare, moulting or in full breeding plumage, every one of them was a beauty.