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June, 2007

Odd Birds

by Valerie

There is a butterfly farm just south of where we live in Austin. It is called Wild Connections and is open to the public several days a week. I visit every week and hike around the property, taking photos of whatever strikes my fancy. Subjects include the scenery, buildings, plants and animals. While I usually find mainly insects and spiders, I also see plenty of vertebrates too, with birds topping the list. Several weeks ago, I found a feather in one of the fields like none I'd ever seen before. It was a 5-inch long tail feather with mottled golden brown and black markings. I determined that it must belong to a bird in the nighthawk, or goatsucker, family. These birds are mainly seen flying at dusk and are cryptically colored so they can hide during the day. The most familiar is probably the nighthawk, which is often seen flying around lights in parking lots, but the whip-poor-will must be common too, as its vocalizations can be heard on warm summer nights. There are several other members of the same family, and all look similar, with wide mouths and short beaks for catching insects in flight.

I thought nothing more about the feather I'd seen until a couple of weeks later, when I startled a bird as I was walking in a wooded area. At first glance, it appeared to be a medium-sized hawk of a golden brown color. However, it flew in an awkward way and very low to the ground. It landed not far off and I got a look at it. I'd never seen one before except in pictures, but it was obviously a Chuck-will's widow, the largest member of the nighthawk family, and the same kind of bird that lost a tail feather not long ago. I next realized that it must have been a female sitting on her eggs, so I began a search of the area from which she had flown. A rabbit burst forth from under a pile of branches, startling me. I looked carefully all around the dead leaf covered ground, but saw nothing unusual. After about 5 or 6 minutes, I found what I was looking for: a pair of eggs lying on the leaves. There was no nest or even an indentation. I snapped a couple of quick pictures of the eggs and left the area. The mother continued to fly about, but always too far away for me to get a photo of her.

The next week, I returned to see if the eggs had hatched. As I stood looking at the empty place where they had been, the mother bird flew off from about 15 feet away. I headed in that direction and quickly found the pair of downy chicks, frozen perfectly still, with eyes closed, relying on their camouflage to keep them from being discovered. Again, I took a couple of quick pictures and left them, heading in the direction that the mother bird had flown. I caught glimpses of her as she perched in various places rather high in the nearby branches. Her general silhouette was reminiscent of a cross between an owl and a hawk. The blue jays in the area obviously noted this similarity as well, for they attacked the Chuck-will's widow, trying to drive her away from their nesting site, much as they would a predator. She really was no threat to their eggs or babies, as her entire diet consists of insects.

I couldn't resist checking on the young birds the following week. As I approached the general area where they had been, the mother flew off once more, this time disappearing into the tangle of juniper branches. She made strange clucking noises but still stayed rather distant. I walked close to where the birds had been last time, stepping carefully as I knew their camouflage would probably be very good by this age. As I stood and scanned the leaf-littered ground, I was still surprised to see them rather close to my feet, perhaps only 20 inches or so away. By now, the young birds were starting to grow their flight feathers, but they were still unable to leave their "nest." They remained perfectly still once more, eyes almost closed, as I took a few quick pictures. Their new plumage was surprisingly gray in color compared to the adult bird, but it matched the leaves far better. When I looked away from them and then back, they had practically disappeared against leaves on the forest floor. With camouflage that good, it was little wonder that the raccoons and foxes in the area had overlooked them.

Although I checked the area the following week, I really didn't expect to find the birds again, as they would have gained enough mobility to move farther away. Sure enough, I found no sign of them that time. I had never managed to get a clear photo of the adult bird due to obscuring branches and her movements. However, the privilege of glimpsing the progress of the babies over that short period was something I won't soon forget.

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