Monday, September 28, 2009

A Bad Case of Falcon Fever!

Monday, September 28, 2009
The mystery falcon soon after it was first sighted.

Three weeks ago, I was up in the Indigo Hill birding tower with our friend Nina who was visiting from the southwest corner of Ohio. We were chatting as we watched birds zip through the trees, and across the sky. It was not yet peak fall migration, but there was still enough to look at that our conversation kept getting interrupted by birds that required a glance or two before an identification could be placed on them.

As birds appeared and I called them out, Nina would politely ask me about certain details of the birds' field marks. Lucky for me, she was asking questions for which I had accurate, easy answers. This served to make me feel like I was helping a fellow birder along the path to bird identification enlightenment. It was satisfying.

Oh but pride doth come before a fall. And it being fall, I was about to take a serious fall in terms of my bird ID skills and reputation.

A falcon hove into view, pumping hard from over the old Morganstern place, headed south-by-southwest toward us. It was a half-mile away when I spotted it and it looked big and strong. But what caught my eye first was how hard it was pumping its wings. "This could be a merlin" I said to Nina.

The bird tacked a bit east of its path to avoid a clump of tulip trees. This put it against a stark milky-white background of high clouds. "Might be a peregrine!" I said with more excitement, because to my eyes (which were suddenly on fire with Falcon Fever) the bird now looked worthy of consideration as a larger, more powerful falcon. I had shifted my ID hypothesis from merlin to peregrine.

The falcon slowed its pace, flared its wings and tail and began to glide in a circle. As it turned, it showed (or at least I thought I saw) dark wingpits. "NO WAY!!!!" I shouted to Nina. "There's NO WAY this could be a prairie!" Perhaps the most reliable field mark for a prairie falcon is its dark wingpits. This species is seen irregularly at The Wilds, about an hour's drive from our farm. So this species could be possible, but far less likely in southeastern Ohio than a merlin or a peregrine.

At this point I was insane with Falcon Fever. I SO wanted this to be a good bird. Somehow, I remembered to grab my camera and take some photos of the falcon, which by now was much nearer. It was using the heat rising from our ridge top to gain some soaring altitude. snap-snap-snap-snap. I got image after image.

Up and up the falcon went, into the milky overcast. As it rose, it drifted farther south and was soon out of sight, headed toward the West Virginia hills.

At no time did I reach a final conclusion to the bird's identification. It had flown rapidly with strong wingbeats like a merlin. It had looked large when it first started soaring, like a peregrine. It had shown dark wingpits, like a prairie falcon. What the heck WAS this? I knew I'd gotten some images, so we watched it disappear over the ridge to the south of us, and we headed down from the tower to look at the images and sort out this bird's identity.

As soon as I saw one of my later images, with the bird's wings and tail flared for soaring, I had a hunch that I'd been fooled. Fooled? Yes, fooled.

It was a large, immature, female American kestrel.

The strong wing beats? They could have been those of an inexperienced flyer. But it had flown like a merlin, and looked like one when I saw it head on, coming at us.

The dark wingpits? Perhaps a trick of the light, or a symptom of Falcon Fever?

The large apparent size? That came from its age and gender—young raptors are often larger than their parents after leaving the nest. But it also came from the White Sky Effect. This unofficial phenomenon is well known among birders: Any bird seen against a background of bright overcast or white sky can appear much larger than it actually is. I don't know any of the science behind this phenomenon—it could be all bunk for all I know.

But I also know that it's easy to blow a bird identification, even under ideal viewing conditions. It's one of the things that keeps us humble as bird watchers. And it's also one of the things that keeps me coming back for more. Because every so often you actually get a hard bird identification right, and that feels really good.

I am now under doctor's orders to watch first, remember the obvious, and speak only after a moment or two of quiet reflection. It is hoped that this will cure me of Falcon Fever.

Soaring and looking big.

This CAN'T be a kestrel.

Hey! Dark wingpits! DUDE!

DOH! It's a kestrel. Check out the thin wings and red tail!

I know some of you are saying to yourselves, "Bill, there's nothing in these photos that says ANYthing else, but kestrel." And you'd be right. But you had to be there to catch the fever like I did! It's not the first time I totally blew a call and it surely won't be the last.

Special thanks to Nina of Nature Remains, for not going "Haa-haa!" like Bart on "The Simpsons" when we discovered how utterly wrong I was about this bird. And to Zick, who DID say "Haa-haa!" But only after first trying to convince me that this was just a big, young kestrel. I should have listened.


On September 28, 2009 at 6:25 PM Anonymous said...

Bad calls happen! Thanks for sharing this piece of humble pie with us BOTB! It's good to know that a birder of your experience can sometimes get it wrong, just like the rest of us.;-)

Love the blog!


On September 28, 2009 at 6:47 PM Dave Lewis said...

At least it wasn't a '62 Ford Falcon!

On September 28, 2009 at 8:09 PM nina at Nature Remains. said...

Believe it or not, I probably got more out of the entire discussion that followed the confusing ID, than if you had simply named it without any hesitation--and nailed it with one blow.
Hearing the thought process was soooo helpful--as each little tidbit (oops, sorry--"field mark")was analyzed and added to create the whole.
And there's no greater way to urge another to be brave with a guess, than to openly show how even the best of the birders wrestle with their IDs.
I saw a falcon at MBS (Back to the Wild) anyway.
I saw great birders bird on Indigo Hill.

On September 28, 2009 at 9:09 PM Susan Gets Native said...

*snort* (just a teeny one)

I'm ready to call any falcon a PEFA, but that's because I'm so enamored of them.

Look at the size of that....KESTREL.

Love it.

On September 29, 2009 at 7:46 AM corey said...

Sounds like a regular day in the field for me...sigh.

And, while not meaning to belabor the point about blown calls, it is Nelson from The Simpsons who says "Ha-ha!"


On September 29, 2009 at 8:05 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

And, to belabor a point just a little bit more, I do not recall ever giving voice to the Nelson HaHa. Nina, back me up here. What I recall saying, upon looking at the photos, was, "Why isn't it a female kestrel?"

On September 29, 2009 at 8:27 AM corey said...

Uh-oh, your link does have Bart saying Haha which is too weird for me. I guess my Haha boomeranged?

And, Julie, perhaps Bill was referring to a metaphoric Haha?

On September 29, 2009 at 10:00 AM Bill of the Birds said...

Corey; I thought it was Milton. You say it's Nelson. A cursory search on the tubes of the Interwebs yielded only Bart saying "Haa-haa!"

On September 29, 2009 at 11:11 AM birdchick said...

Dude, I can so relate! I took dozens of photos of a smaller falcon perched in a tree in my neighborhood convinced it was a merlin. When I downloaded them and looked at them on a computer screen rather than a camera screen, it was a male peregrine.

Wasn't prepared for a peregrine in a tree. Thanks for sharing the id discussion, it makes us feel better that all of us have those moments.

On September 29, 2009 at 12:08 PM OpposableChums said...

No WAY would I have guessed Kestrel from any but that final photo.

And though I can easily be flummoxed at bird identification, I believe myself to be unassailable in my knowledge of Simpsoniana. It is Nelson Muntz who says "Ha ha," using the same two notes, in fact, as chickadees.

On September 29, 2009 at 12:20 PM Bill of the Birds said...

OC: Doh! Who ELSE among us knows Nelson's last name, but you?
BC: Thanks for the words and retweet!
DL: You are simply disappointed that there is no image of the falcon's behind in these photos.
Nina: You are too kind.
SGN: Happy I could make you snort a little.

On September 29, 2009 at 3:48 PM John D. said...

Hate to throw a wrench in things, but it COULD be the european Turmfalke that escaped from a nature center on Long Island a few years ago. They look nearly identical to a female Kestrel, but BIGGER. Check out a 'Birds of Europe & Britain' book. What would be the odds?

On September 29, 2009 at 11:05 PM Dave Lewis said...

Yeah, if there was a butt shot, i could have id'd it right away. Birds like to fly away from me...must be the way I pssshhhh...

On September 30, 2009 at 1:02 AM Anonymous said...

A valuable post on enlightenment.

Karim - Mind Power

On October 2, 2009 at 1:56 AM Radd Icenoggle said...

I've always thought that it was better to be wrong with a difficult and discover our mistake with humility. Then again, if you preface everything with "I think" or "There's 90% chance", you're never wrong.