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Pale Rider

Dayna and I were passing Willow Springs on our way to Springfield, when I spotted a Red-tailed Hawk on the roadside. This happens a lot when we’re traveling and most of the time we continue without stopping. However, if a bird is close to the road, in a good spot to try for a photo or is an unusual color phase, we’ll turn back and “work” it.

This bird was in a tree, high above the road on an embankment. Facing east into the morning sun, her breast shone like a beacon. As we passed, I could see that her underside appeared unmarked and I was sure I saw a white head. Hoping she was a Krider’s, a pale morph of the eastern subspecies of Red-tail, I had Dayna take the Hwy 76 exit and go back.

Dayna pulled the car to the shoulder, distant enough that I didn’t think she would skedaddle. I usually try to get a few shots from a “safe” distance, then work my way closer if the bird will permit it. This way I at least have an image or two to document the bird.

She was wary though, even by Red-tail standards, and bailed as we came to a stop.

She zipped across the road (divided, 4-lanes) and landed in a tree. I managed a few shots as she passed, all blurry and out of focus. Still, they were good enough to confirm that her head was white and that her tail appeared to be white or maybe pink. This was looking good if I could find a way to get a decent shot.

A second bird joined her, this one more typically colored and noticeably smaller. This is why I’ve been calling the first bird “she,” since female Red-tails are larger than males. They played a short game of chase, then against all odds, the first bird flew back to our side of the road and began circling.

As she soared round, slowly gaining altitude, I shot over a hundred photos. To say that I’m very disappointed in the photo quality would be an understatement. I had excellent light and was shooting at a high shutter speed (1/2500th of a second.) This combination usually produces good results. But the bird wasn’t quite close enough and someone— who shall remain nameless to protect the stupid—forgot to turn off the lens’ Vibration Control. This feature is fabulous if you’re trying to hand-hold your camera and photograph non-moving objects. But if you’re trying to track a flying bird, it tries to compensate for your movement as you so. This is not a good thing.

Therefore, we have crappy photos to look at. But they’re good enough to serve my purposes here. Field marks and plumage coloring are all visible and that’s the important thing.

So was she was a Kriders? I compared her field marks with those listed in Wheeler’s book:

  • White face and throat ✓
  • Partial dark collar ✓
  • Belly and legs clean, almost unmarked ✓
  • Brown patagial marks (the stretch of skin on the leading edge of the wing) ✓
  • Barred wing feathers ✓
  • Dark fingers ✓
  • Dark band on the rear of the wings ✓
  • Pale, near-white tail with a thin, dark sub-terminal band ✓

Those are all close matches, so I believe she was a Krider’s Hawk. The thing that confuses me though, is that she and the second hawk seemed to be together, a mated paired. This, in itself, isn’t odd. It’s March and Red-tails should be paired and preparing to nest. But according to Wheeler, Krider’s Hawks only breed in the Dakotas, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and adjacent Canadian provinces. I don’t know about you, but I can’t find southern Missouri in that description.

So maybe she isn’t a Krider’s. Goodness knows there’s enough variation in Red-tail plumage that she could simply be a lighter morph without being an actual Krider’s. Maybe she is a Krider’s, breeding outside of the expected range. Or maybe she and the other bird weren’t together after all.

I don’t have any clear-cut answers, but when you’re dealing with nature, there often aren’t any. I finally accepted that some time ago, but I still don’t have to like it.

If the weather is decent this coming weekend, I plan to go back to see if I can relocate her. I want another chance to see if I can’t get better photos and redeem myself. I know I’d feel a lot better if I could.

 

References:

  • Hawkwatch International. “Red-tailed Hawk.” Accessed March 6, 2018.
  • Tallman, Dan. “Red-tailed Hawk Identification.” South Dakota Ornithologists’ Union. Accessed March 6, 2018.
  • Wheeler, B. K. 2003. Raptors of Western North America.Princeton Univ. Press. Princeton, NJ U.S.A.

The Serendipitous Pipit

When Dayna and I go to Otter Slough, we enter and leave through Dudley. But on our last trip, we searched the fallow crop fields to the west, looking for the Short-eared Owl reported there in January.
 
We didn’t find the owl, though there were plenty of Horned Larks and Savannah Sparrows. While trying to photograph a small flock of larks, this guy popped out of the roadside ditch and posed for us.

I was hoping to find a Lapland Longspur mixed with the larks, but I hadn’t even considered finding a Pipit. I hadn’t seen one in the area before though I know they are regular visitors (there are eBird reports for most years). I didn’t have a photo of one before, so the unexpected opportunity tickled the crap out of me.

They’re not colorful, but they are photogenic if only subtly so. I watched this one for less than a minute before he took flight and disappeared, headed for the far side of the field.
 
I’m sure I’ve run into them before and overlooked them. I tend to ignore the little brown and gray birds on the ground and focus my attention on the raptors. But now that they’re on my radar, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for them.
 

Upon Reflection

A Song Sparrow tries to keep his toes dry, Pool 29, Otter Slough Conservation Area. I didn’t notice the reflection while taking the photo, only once I saw it on the computer screen. I love happy accidents.

Orconectes No More

few months agoallowed the USGS to use some of my crayfish photos on their invasive species site. I recently went to see the page where one of those photos was used and was shocked, shocked I tell you.

Instead of Orconectes luteus, the page was titled Faxonius luteus. WTF? How could USGS use the wrong name for a crayfish? I was about to send them a nasty-gram with that very question when I noticed the following, lower on the page:

Faxonius luteus underwent a reclassification in August 2017, changing the genus of non-cave dwelling Orconectes to Faxonius.

My heart stopped and dizziness overtook me. Lying on the floor, I screamed “NOOOO!! You can’t take my Orconectes! You CAN’T! I LOVE Orconectes. Why would you do that?” followed by a bout of pitiful sobbing.

The crayfish formerly known as Orconectes marchandi, 9 June 2012, Martin Access, Warm Fork of the Spring River, Oregon County, Missouri.

Once I regained my composure, I found the citation for the study responsible for the reclassification:

  • Crandall, K.A. and S. De Grave. 2017. An updated classification of the freshwater crayfishes (Decapoda: Astacidea) of the world, with a complete species list. Journal of Crustacean Biology 37(5):615-653. https://doi.org/10.1093/jcbiol/rux070.

and downloaded a copy. Reading through it, I located the section relevant to my despondency:

Similarly, the representatives of Orconectes form at least two distinct groups. The nominal group (the “cave Orconectes”) form a monophyletic group that is more closely related to members of Cambarus, while the remaining “Orconectes” are more closely related to Barbicambarus, Creaserinus, and other species of Cambarus (Crandall & Fitzpatrick, 1996; Fetzner, 1996). As the type species of Orconectes, Orconectes inermis (Cope, 1872), belongs to the cave-dwelling group, the genus is herein restricted to just those taxa. The surface-dwelling taxa now excluded from Orconectes sensu stricto are herein placed in the resurrected genus Faxonius Ortmann, 1905a, the oldest available name previously considered to be a synonym of Orconectes Cope, 1872.

Doctors Crandall and De Grave did what scientists tend to do; they re-examined the relationship between crayfish species and then revised the taxonomy. Determining that the cave- and stream-dwelling Orconectes are not that closely related, they split them into separate genera.

Because cave-obligate Orconectes inermis was the first species placed in the genus—separated from the genus Cambarus due to the absence of visual organs (also called “eyes” by the less sophisticated among us)—the cave-dwellers get to keep the name. Faxonius was the oldest name synonymous with Orconectes—I think it was first used in Ortmann, 1905—so the stream-dwellers were reassigned to a genus of that name. 

There is no shame in being a member of the genus Faxonius. It’s named for William Faxon, a prominent astacologist in the 19th and early 20th centuries, who contributed a number of crayfish-related papers to the literature.

A man after my own heart, he was also an ornithologist of some note, the one who demonstrated that Brewster’s Warbler was a hybrid between Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers instead of a separate species. So I can’t argue that he is unworthy of a genus named after him.

But Orconectes does have a certain je ne sais quoi that Faxonius lacks. Maybe it just rolls off the tongue more smoothly. Hell, I don’t know. My real problem, I suspect, is that I just don’t like change, period, and will resist it instinctively. Plus I have all of those damned files that will have to be renamed.

Faxonius punctimanus, 21 July 2011, Current River @ Big Spring, Carter County, Missouri.

Resistance, I hear, is futile, so I bow to the wisdom of the experts and accept Faxonius in lieu of Orconectes. But I don’t have to like it. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

References:

  • Cope, E.D. 1872. On the Wyandotte Cave and its fauna. American Naturalist, 6: 406–422.
  • Crandall, K.A. & Fitzpatrick, J.F. Jr. 1996. Crayfish molecular systematics: Using a combination of procedures to estimate phylogeny. Systematic Biology, 45: 1–26.
  • Fetzner, J.W. Jr. 1996. Biochemical systematics and evolution of the crayfish genus Orconectes (Decapoda: Cambaridae). Journal of Crustacean Biology, 16: 111–141.
  • Ortmann, A.E. 1905. The mutual affinities of the species of the genus Cambarus, and their dispersal over the United States. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 44: 91–136, pl. 3.

A Day Adorned in Monochrome

A light rain fell, not enough to help with the ongoing drought, but enough to get you wet if you didn’t have enough sense to stay out of it. A stiff wind made the forty-degree temperature feel like thirty and swells roiled the surface of Fellows Lake, an 850-acre impoundment on the Little Sac River, five miles north of Springfield, Missouri.

Parked at the marina boat launch, we scanned the lake with binoculars, trying to find the Red-throated Loon reported by the eBird Rare Bird Alert the day before. We had seen Pied-billed Grebes, American Coots and a raft of Buffleheads, but no loons (other than the three in the car.)

As we were about to give up, I spotted 8-10 loons to the west, a flotilla of dreadnoughts cruising parallel to the bank, moving away from us. According to the eBird Alert, the Red-Throated Loon was associating with a group of Common Loons, so this was a good sign. 

With no spotting scope, I needed to get closer. The shoreline curved north into a cove and the birds were moving out of sight. I left the car and headed along the shore, but angling north on an intercept course.  

Thanks to the drought, the water level was at least 10 feet lower than normal. This left the thicket of buttonbush that lined the shore high and dry. The buttonbush provided cover for me as I approached, but presented a formidable barrier once I got close. 

Peering through the brush, I could see the birds though they were further out than I had hoped.

Oh so carefully, I inched my way through the buttonbush. Not an easy task for a man my size and I collected several bloody scratches on my arms for my efforts.

Staying inside the brush and using it for cover, I scanned the birds to see if the Red-throated was present. At least eight Common Loons bobbed with the swells, but none would morph into the Red-throated.

I watched for a few minutes, getting wetter and wetter. I managed to catch one bird stretch and flap his wings. Makes me wish I had been closer and the light hadn’t been so shitty.

Soaking wet and with water dripping from my camera, I no longer cared if I spooked the birds. Leaving the cover of the buttonbush, I walked directly to the water’s edge, moving as close to the loons as I could get. 

This was the best shot I got all day. I’m not delusional, I know it’s crap along with the rest. But considering the conditions I was shooting under—the rain, the wind, and the dark leaden sky—they could have been worse.