Fieldtrip Re-run


I’ve gone on this same field trip every year for the past five years. It’s always the first weekend in March. A dozen or so of us follow a series of barely-used back roads out onto the plains, searching for hawks, falcons, and other birds. Some years the snow falls, the wind howls, and the birds hunker on the ground. We see very little. Other years the weather is delightful, and the sky is full of soaring raptors.

The lead car gets the best view. Red-tails and Rough-legged Hawks perch on utility poles, kestrels balance on the wires, and Northern Harriers skim the short-grass prairie. The rest of us eat dust and catch glimpses of the back-ends of startled birds.

golden-eagle_ne-elpasoco-co_lah_3691_filtered-1Most of us already know one another, and newcomers are quickly welcomed into the group. Beginning birders see their first Golden Eagle (left). Seasoned “beak geeks” fix their scopes on the shrikes, trying to determine whether they’re Loggerheads or Northerns. (Hint: look for the tiny white “eyebrow” above the narrower black eye band on the Northerns.)

This is a good opportunity to practice our hawk identification skills too. The mnemonic for seated Buteos cycles through my brain. Look at the pattern of head, chest, belly: Dark-light-dark for a Red-tail. Light-light-dark for a Roughie. Light-light-light is probably a Ferruginous Hawk. (The fourth Colorado Buteo, a light-dark-light Swainson’s Hawk, is still munching grasshoppers in Argentina this time of year.) Think you’ve named your hawk? Confirm with head-body proportions and other, harder to see clues.

Seeing the same birds year after year can get somewhat repetitious. That’s when we get creative. In January I wrote about keeping a year list as a way to sustain our sense of discovery and excitement. The first weekend of March is still early enough that some sightings will be new “year birds.”

red-tailed-hawk_e-elpasococo_20100116_lah_6865_filteredI don’t keep a year list, but I have started check off a “Photo List”—birds that I’ve taken pictures of. I have one list of “any photo” no matter how small, obscured and blurry the bird is, and another list of “good photos” that I’m pretty happy with. (The Red-tailed Hawk picture to the right falls in between those two categories.) Of course, there’s always room for improvement.

northern-harrier_ne-elpasoco-co_lah_3658_filtered_filteredI’m finding raptors to be particularly challenging photographic subjects. It’s a long shot from ground level to the cross-bars of a telephone pole (where this Northern Harrier was perched), and the birds sensibly face away from the sun, leaving their faces in shadow. Worse, they usually fly away before I can get close enough to fill much of my frame. For this reason, many of my shots are of receding tails… not any bird’s best angle!

I figure I need much more practice—hours and hours in the field, photographing birds. (Gee, darn.) For inspiration I look at the blogs of talented and hard-working bird photographers like Martin Kopecky, Glenn Bartley, Paul Bannick, and fellow-Coloradan Bill Schmoker, to name a few. (For a treat, try Googling “bird photographer” and click on some of the links!)

Next year, I also plan to get into that lead car!

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