Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Ten Birds" Part 2

You didn't think they wouldn't have a section to themselves?

The Barbary Falcon, Falco pelegrinoides. Also known in the eastern part of its immense range (North Africa to Mongolia, though only in deserts), where it is larger, as the Red- Naped Shahin-- or, a name fans of my dogs would know-- "Lashyn". This photo is from the "Shunkar" breeding aviary south of Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Once considered conspecific with the Peregrine, they now can be seen to breed sympatrically, separated by habitat preferences. They are birds of dry lands, adapted to harsh climate, predators of pigeons and doves, long- distance dispersers. Probably they diverged from the Peregrine during the Pleistocene glaciations, just as the Gyrfalcon did from the Saker.

See the breadth of her shoulders, the short tail? Barbaries are faster than true Peregrines but have heavier wing loading-- they flap more and soar less. They burn an amazing amount of food compared to a "typical" Peregrine of similar weight.

I have a particular fondness for this species that goes beyond having flown a couple (they are delightful birds, as sweet- natured as tazi dogs, though because of their tendency to disperse distressingly easy to lose in their first year). One of my favorite texts, and my gateway to understanding the birds of Central Asia, is the English translation of Dement'ev's Birds of the Soviet Union (1951). He mentions that they nest in the Mongolian Altai in the "basin of Hobdo- gol River, west of Lake Orog- Nur". Driving down that west shore under those cliffs in the winter of '98, I saw hawk chalk and falcon nests and remembered that passage. I hope I can see those nests in spring someday.

Eleanora's falcon, Falco eleanorae.

I have only seen one of this lovely bird, a falconer's "pet" rather than a true hunting bird-- I include it for more or less "Darren" reasons, because it has evolved remarkable nesting and feeding habits. Eleanora's lives on islands in the Mediterranean and winters in Madagascar. For most of the year it lives on insects, but between August and October, when it breeds, it feeds on migrant songbirds coming south over the ocean to winter in Africa. The reason that that perfectly tame bird I mentioned was a "pet" is that she couldn't be induced to hunt FOR anyone. Eleanoras often feed on the wing; she would go aloft, eat insects in the air, and return when she wanted. Look at the length of those wings compared to a Peregrine's-- a falcon's attempt to evolve toward a swallow or swift.

Ferruginous hawk, Buteo regalis. Can't beat this image by my friend Herb Wells, taken in California while out coursing...

Ferrugs are huge birds that some compare to eagles-- the females overlap in weight with male Golden eagles. Look at those long wings! They are a signature bird of arid prairies and steppes, including my own. Once they were thought to be clumsy (mostly by city- bound ornithologists who never watched them). Now they are known to be among the most agile of Buteos in the air. While they do live mostly on various ground squirrels when breeding (and can swallow small ones whole-- see that wide gape?) they are also can take the largest hares and such New- World bustard equivalents as Sage grouse.

Though some compare them to the smaller booted eagles (and others deride their relation to the also "booted" Rough- legged hawk, Buteo lagopus, which Carel Brest van Kempen compares to a kite!) both are likely Buteos. In Central Asia, such species as the Long- legged buzzard (Buteo rufinus) and the huge Upland buzzard, (Buteo hemilasius, which is alleged to kill lambs) provide a bewildering series of intermediate types. Trying to sort Buteos on the Kazakh steppes in September is like trying to do the same with fall warblers in North America. Although the raptors are easier to see, each warbler doesn't come in a half dozen intergrading morphs!

My friend Dave Dixon, who bred my falcon Tuuli,is now teaching a young male to accompany him while paragliding.

Last among the birds of prey: the Lammergeier, Gypaetus barbatus. Andrey whispered THAT name to me the same day we saw the Ibisbills, higher up in the Tian Shan, when one rose for a moment over a ridge still higher above us... the one to the right in this photo of Oleg Belyalov, Libby, and him in the Tian Shan:

We also saw Altai snowcocks (Tetraogallus altaicus) running up the same ridge, and a Cinereous vulture ( Aegypius monachus) soon followed the Lammergeier into the sky above it.

And the meadow was full of marmots.

My favorite Lammergeier image may be this one from a tapestry stitched by Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen himself.

Meinertzhagen had this to say about a personal encounter with the species.

"I had a most unpleasant experience with a lammergeier in Baluchistan near Quetta. I was crossing a moving scree when it commenced to crawl; I traveled down the slope, eventually fetching up against a juniper stump to which I clung with boulders tearing downhill all around me. In this position a Lammergeier came so close to me I could see his red eye; three times he passed me within a few feet, aware I was in difficulties, but after I threw rocks at him he made off".

If embroidery and adventure and conspiracy are not enough evidence for you to consider "M" unique, here is the cover of the book from which the image and the quote were taken.

And here is a bit of a poem by Pluvialis (as Helen Macdonald) about the bird.

"single beads and microhistories & the tracts all equally torn
above the lozenged tail of the pseudo-phoenix the lambslayer’s

water and golden eye, his breast feathers rusted from long contact
with oxides and bone & his long remiges conformable with pure air"....

Three more birds to come!

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