The porch as a place of peril

It’s been quite a while since my last blog; other things keep getting in the way of my writing! In any case, I’d promised you a tale of a close encounter with a hawk; here it finally is!

1 Cooper's hawk P5034652© Maria de Bruyn res

Immature Cooper’s hawk

I really enjoy watching raptors and, fortunately, I see them regularly on my nature walks. While I can spend quite a while just watching them soar, build nests and care for their young, I admittedly don’t always enjoy seeing them eat.

2 barred owl P4137980© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

When songbirds eat insects, they dismantle and swallow them fairly quickly. When raptors dine, they rarely gulp down their food. Meals can last quite some time while they dismember their prey, as was the case for the barred owl above (Strix varia) who was eating a squirrel.

The hawks whom I see often include four species that frequent my neighborhood, including my yard — the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus), the red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), the Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and the sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus).

3 sharp-shinned hawk P2121916 © Maria de Bruyn res ed      4 sharp-shinned hawk P2121932 © Maria de Bruyn-res ed

The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are the most frequent visitors. To inexperienced birders, they look very similar. Size is one clue to identity with a sharp-shinned hawk averaging 10-14 inches in length (jay- or dove-sized, 25-35 cm), and a Cooper’s hawk being about crow-sized, averaging 15-20 inches long (38-51 cm). The sharp-shinned hawks (seen above and below) don’t seem to visit as often as the Cooper’s hawks.

5 sharp-shinned hawk P2121946© Maria de Bruyn-res ed

In 2019, a hawk caught a squirrel in my yard. Until recently, I was convinced that she was a red-shouldered hawk, but I decided to ask for confirmation from a raptor ID group on Facebook.

6 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3950© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The experts informed me that she was an exceptionally large Cooper’s hawk. One commented: “Largest female Cooper’s are around 21 ounces; obese Eastern Gray Squirrels are around that but most we see are little more than half that. And even cargo helicopters strain to lift much more than their own weight. So unless I see rocket assists on a Sharp-shinned (maxing out at around 7 ounces) they can’t lift the full carcass of an adult EG Squirrel.”

7 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3959© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The female Cooper’s hawks are up to one-third larger in size than the males and she was a hefty individual. Nevertheless, she had her work cut out in subduing the squirrel.

8 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3949© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While she was trying to hold onto and kill the rodent, a pair of crows began harassing her, but she held her ground.

9 Cooper's hawk 2G0A3963© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Ultimately, she was able to put the squirrel out of its misery and she finally flew off with it to consume her meal elsewhere.

10 Cooper's hawk 2G0A4002© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

This year, I’ve had a young Cooper’s hawk come by; she was born in 2021 and seemed to be searching for something to make her day.

11 Cooper's hawk P5034613© Maria de Bruyn ed res

12 Cooper's hawk P5034638 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 Cooper's hawk P5034654 res

Above you see her eye covered by the nictitating membrane

My most surprising — and definitely hair-raising — encounter with a hawk occurred this past April. I was sitting in a porch chair in front of my living room window. As I looked down to record bird species for an online birding site, I heard a hard collision into the window right next to my head. A male brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) fell into my lap.15 brown-headed cowbird PB137591© Maria de Bruyn res

He was completely stunned, and as I looked down, he slid off my lap. Then I looked up to see if he was being chased. That was indeed the case — a large Cooper’s hawk was coming right toward my face with his/her legs extended in front with widely-spread claws ready to grab prey. Of course, I had no time to take a photo, but the photo below of another Cooper’s hawk shows a bit what those claws are like. Their enlarged rear talons are about 0.67-0.85 in long (17-21.7 mm) in males and 0.78-1.05 in (19.8-26.7 mm) in female hawks. 

16 Cooper's hawk PA064226© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

My amazement at the proximity of the incoming raptor so stunned me that I waited a second or two before waving my arm and yelling to the bird to stop — s/he was only about 3 feet from me! The bird had been so focused on the prey, that my shout made the raptor try to “backpedal” in mid-air.

17 Cooper's hawk P3105244© Maria de Bruyn res ed

The hawk tumbled a bit, righted herself (I assume the size indicated a female) and then she shot up over the porch and house. The cowbird died and I laid him in the front yard, thinking she or another predator might take him. The next day, the cowbird was untouched, so I buried him.

18 Cooper's hawk P4138413 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The encounter occupied my thoughts for quite a long time afterwards. I felt incredibly lucky those claws had not reached my face or head with terrible results. It had not occurred to me that my front porch could be a place of potential avian-caused peril, but I learned a good lesson that day — always pay attention to your surroundings and stay alert when predators could be nearby!

Next blog: a few shots of some red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks that I’ve enjoyed taking over the past couple years.

 

Emerging again in 2022 – part 2

1 Red-shouldered hawk P1132421© Maria de Bruyn resWhen facing unpleasant challenges, it’s helpful to have an interest to help put them mentally aside while you find enjoyment doing something else. Observing and connecting with wildlife and plant life does that for me. For at least a while, I can think, “I don’t give a shit,” and instead focus on what’s going on immediately around me, like the red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) above actually giving a shit. 😊

Observing nature also has the added advantage of providing a way to keep learning and being able to appreciate wonders around me that I might otherwise never notice. A number of people have also told me that they enjoy my sharing some of those “discoveries.”

1A white-throated sparrow PC141120© Maria de Bruyn res

White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

One thing I discovered this year was that I shouldn’t expect pine siskins to come down here to Orange County, NC, every year in winter. I’ve had them visiting during this season many years but so far not one has appeared in my yard. So I’ll share a photo of one from last year; a lovely bird with a scientific name that appeals to me: Spinus pinus.

2 pine siskin P1162664 © Maria de Bruyn res

3 downy woodpecker P8207522© Maria de Bruyn resIt’s my good fortune to live in a home with sizeable front and backyards where I can entice birds to spend time. Nest boxes border the yards and nesting gourds hang on the front porch, so that attracts pairs who raise young ones here in the spring. They also use these nesting sites to spend the night during cold autumn and winter nights. Downy woodpeckers (Dryobates pubescens) seem especially fond of one nest box next to the driveway.

There are varied types of feeders hanging on poles, offering sunflower and other seeds, mixed fruit and nuts, dried mealworms and home-made suet. This arrangement also attracts my avian friends, like the common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) with its iridescent plumage.

4 common grackle P1175003 © Maria de Bruyn res

5 Carolina wren P1132867 © Maria de Bruyn resSince converting much of my front yard lawn into flower gardens (and I’m working on that in the back, although there I’ve planted more flowering and berry-bearing trees), the insect population has increased. That has helped the pollination of my flowers and provided the resident birds with meals, like one of the 6 or so Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) who occupy specific niches. One pair hangs out near a water-filled tub; another pair hangs out near a brush pile out back and the third pair hops in and out of a brush pile in the front yard.

The wrens change up their diet a bit in winter since being purely insectivorous is difficult then. For example, one of my yard-banded wrens enjoys a bit of suet from time to time. He also likes mealworms, as do the titmice (Baeolophus bicolor).

6 Carolina wren IMG_8993© Maria de Bruyn res

7 Tufted titmouse snow IMG_9006 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

8 Tufted titmouse P1132809© Maria de Bruyn res

9 American goldfinch P1143301 © Maria de Bruyn res

Occasionally, an American goldfinch pair (Spinus tristis) will visit but I’ve been seeing them more often on walks. They like seeds a lot and have eaten many of the grass seeds in my yard already. They search the mosses for tidbits, too.

10 cedar waxwing PC271628© Maria de Bruyn resThe cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are picky eaters. The American robins in my yard ate a lot of the juniper berries they prefer and there weren’t many other berries around (as was the case at the local arboretum). At my house, they’ve mostly been using the small ponds to drink and bathe.

The most numerous species at my yard is the Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). At times, I have up to 18-20 of them flying to the tray feeders for seeds. The pokeweed berries are long gone now.

11 Northern cardinal PA074424 © Maria de Bruyn res

There are two pairs of Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis) in the yard; at first, they didn’t like having to share space but now they all come to the mealworm feeder at the same time.

12 Eastern bluebird PB212516 © Maria de Bruyn res

13 yellow-rumped warbler PA017988© Maria de BruynIn past years, the visiting yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) have lived peacefully with one another. This year, however, I have two birds who seem to be quite incensed when they spy each other. If one is at a feeder, the other zooms in to chase it off and often they flutter upward in a tangle with wings spread. So far, I’ve always been a couple seconds too late to capture the mid-air tussle – it is one of my goals for yard birding this year.

15 yellow-rumped warbler P9093954© Maria de Bruyn

I do enjoy their visits as I find them quite beautiful birds. And they spend a lot of time at the feeders, even when it is raining. Some people here call them myrtle warblers, but I prefer the term yellow-rumped as it is quite accurately descriptive. I loathe the slang term “butter butt” that lots of people here use. Since these warblers are present in many of the nature reserves where I walk, I unfortunately end up hearing the term from time to time. Not sure why it irritates me so much.

16 yellow-rumped warbler PA017970 © Maria de Bruyn

17 yellow-rumped warbler PA018009© Maria de Bruyn

18 pine warbler IMG_9129© Maria de Bruyn resThe pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) in my yard are quite tolerant and polite.

They will share a feeder happily and sometimes also just wait their turn until the feeding area is less crowded.

Less colorful but also a pleasure to see are the female house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus). They seem to come to the feeders less often than their male counterparts.

20 house finch PC101023© Maria de Bruyn res

The Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) are a delight to see, even if they seem to be in almost constant motion.

21 Carolina chickadee PC230399© Maria de Bruyn res

23 Carolina chickadee PC088891© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

The other bird who also rarely sits still is the lovely little ruby-crowned kinglet (Corthylio calendula). A few years back, I had one that came several winters in a row and who had apparently come to trust me as he would fly over when I brought out fresh suet and even sit on the feeder while I was holding it. He may have attained his natural lifespan (4-6 years) and perhaps it is one of his offspring who now comes.

24 Ruby-crowned kinglet PA158187 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

27 golden-crowned kinglet PC090095 © Maria de BruynI hadn’t had golden-crowned kinglets (Regulus satrapa) in my yard much before this year; now I have at least one living here but s/he never comes to the feeders. Because this bird stays very high and I haven’t had access to my long camera lens for some time, it’s been difficult to get photos at home. I’ve had somewhat more success on walks.

25 golden-crowned kinglet PC090158 © Maria de Bruyn res

26 golden-crowned kinglet PC090099 © Maria de Bruyn res

28 golden-crowned kinglet PC061957© Maria de Bruyn res2 (2)

29 red-shouldered hawk P1071059 © Maria de Bruyn res

Some of my more spectacular yard birds have been the neighborhood red-shouldered hawks. When they fly in, the other birds don’t seem bothered.

These hawks have targeted the amphibians and reptiles (successfully) near the small ponds; they also look for small mammals. While I’ve seen them catch frogs, I haven’t seen them catch birds or mammals.

The young ones are not as reddish as the adults.

30 red-shouldered hawk PB180215© Maria de Bruyn res (2)

I also enjoy seeing these gorgeous raptors on my visits to nature reserves. Some have what seems to me like a sweet expression (like this one below).

31 red-shouldered hawk PC204514 © Maria de Bruyn res

Finally, there is one bird that does make the other birds flee the feeders to seek shelter in bushes, shrubs, woodpiles, etc. That is the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii). A sharp-shinned hawk visits occasionally, but it is the Cooper’s who comes by regularly. S/he is not shy; about a week ago, the bird flew onto the front porch where it had chased a female cardinal into the living room window. The cardinal flapped on a chair as the hawk peered at her. I banged on the window and ran outside to rescue her. I know the hawk has to eat as well, but I didn’t want to see the dismemberment of this poor bird. I put her in a box in a corner of the porch and she fortunately recovered.

32 Cooper's hawk P1081087 © Maria de Bruyn res

Feathers in the yard and under feeders have shown that the Cooper’s has had successful hunts, so it is doing well.

33 Cooper's hawk P1081094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – my water-loving mammalian friends. Have a nice weekend!

Oh, those ravishing raptors!

Numerous people who attract birds with feeders feel regret and sadness when one of their avian visitors is captured to serve as a meal for a raptor in the neighborhood. I, too, feel that pity and discomfort when I see one of the hawks or owls capture a bird or animal because my thoughts go to the pain and fear that the prey must feel. But of course all wildlife has to eat and I want members of the predator species to survive as well. And the beautiful predators can be really interesting to observe.

 

A Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii, left) sometimes frequents my yard looking for a bird to take. This particular day in November last year, the hawk flew to the front-yard feeders but came up empty-taloned. Raptors, also known as birds of prey, are not the only birds that eat something other than seed. Some smaller birds, like the shrike, do so and many songbirds eat insects. The raptors, however, often go after prey that is fairly large in comparison to their own body size. In January this year, I came across another Cooper’s hawk at a nature reserve. The bird flew soundlessly past me to land in a tree downslope and paused for a bit before flying on, providing time for me to get a gorgeous portrait.

I’ve been lucky lately in seeing barred owls (Strix varia) at the Brumley Nature Preserve North. This owl was sitting silently next to a walking path, looking out over the adjacent field.

A couple weeks ago, I was startled by this barred owl who suddenly flew in front of me from behind my right shoulder. I hadn’t noticed him/her in a tree behind me. I tried to follow its flight but lost it. I thanked the owl for letting me glimpse it and said it would be nice if s/he came back so I could get another look. Sure enough, after I had turned back to the vicinity where I originally was surprised by the silent predator, it flew in and perched on a branch. The bird had a snooze, keeping one eye partially open to keep me in view.

  

Lately, I’ve been seeing many red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). They have been flying overhead at the nature reserves. The other day, two flew by calling raucously and then they alighted at the top of a far distant tree. I couldn’t get a photo but did see them mating in silhouette against the late afternoon sky.

  

 

A few weeks ago, a pair of red-shouldered hawks began constructing a nest just down the street from where I live. One afternoon, I happened to see them and one was collecting twigs to build or refurbish a nest.

 

 

   

This pair roams our neighborhood looking for prey; sometimes, one or both will perch in my back-yard tree for a little rest.

    

When one of the red-shouldered or Cooper’s hawks pauses for some time in the tree over the small pond, I figure it is watching for frogs or one of the chipmunks that live in the rocks surrounding the pond. The chipmunks appear to be very good at eluding capture.

 

 

A couple weeks ago, our neighborhood family of American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) was making a racket in my yard and when I looked out the window, I could see them harassing a hawk. I couldn’t make out why they were so angry but grabbed my camera for some shots through the window.

 

  

It turned out that the Cooper’s hawk had caught one of the numerous Eastern gray squirrels that live here. The squirrels sometimes annoy me but on the whole, I enjoy watching their antics, so I felt badly for this squirrel, who obviously was not going down without some struggle.

What made it easier for me to watch was that I didn’t really see the squirrel’s head and it was not making a sound. I think the hawk had silenced it early on when it had its claws around its neck and chest.

The hawk was determined and kept hold of the rodent, eventually subduing it.

The hawk as not unscathed, however, as you can see from the wound on its leg.

When the raptor flew off suddenly with the squirrel hanging from its talons, the three crows chased it in hot pursuit. I don’t know if they were just upset that the hawk was present or if they wanted to steal the squirrel away. On walks through the neighborhood, I am now regularly seeing the hawks in trees and on power lines. They are not too shy and seem to be adapted to the human presence in their territory.

  

While I may be feeling a bit wary for the other animals and birds when the stunning raptors appear, it still is a thrill to see one up close. Only about half of the red-shouldered chicks make it through their first year of life, so I hope the hawks keep coming by. And who knows, maybe we will have some of the long-lived birds who can reach an age of 15-19 years!

 

 

 

Outwitting the starlings during Winter Storm Helena

white-tailed-deer-i77a4029-maria-de-bruyn-resSo this past weekend, our part of North Carolina dealt with Winter Storm Helena, which brought us 83 straight hours of below-freezing temperatures (e.g., -9C/15F but we had lower) and a need to bundle up really well if venturing outside. (It also brought me a realization that winter storms are being named like hurricanes.) The first morning, when I went out to fill the bird feeders, I didn’t put on gloves or a cap and dealt with hypothermia symptoms when I finally went inside. I had on triple layers after that! The deer had their fur puffed up and seemed to be coping well.

The frigid air made me feel very sorry for the wildlife, although living outdoors is, of course, what they do and what they have evolved to accommodate. (I did hear today, however, of some birds and small animals that were found frozen to death!) With the snow covering the ground, it turned out the birds were more than happy to visit the feeders and piles of food I had strewn on the snow for the ground feeders.

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Not only did I have many types of birds coming round, but also record numbers of them. Some birds, like the yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata, above), usually tend to visit on their own and are not happy with their species mates in the vicinity but during these days, I had four of them alighting near feeders at a time. The same was true for the colorful pine warblers (Setophaga pinus) although they didn’t come close to each other.

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pine-warbler-i77a2441-maria-de-bruyn-res

The Carolina wrens (Thryothorus ludovicianus) and Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis) don’t seem to have too many problems with sharing space and visited the feeders in the same way they always do – quick flights to and fro from nearby tree and shrub branches.

carolina-wren-i77a3873-maria-de-bruyn-res   carolina-chickadee-i77a2710-maria-de-bruyn-res

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Most of the birds were fairly content to be in close proximity to one another during the snow days. The brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) did get very cross with one another, however, when they came too close to one another and chased their rivals away.

Sometimes a bird would go off and rummage in the snow, like this blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata).

 

blue-jay-i77a2776-maria-de-bruyn-res blue-jay-i77a2770-maria-de-bruyn-res

european-starling-i77a2674-maria-de-bruyn-resThe biggest challenge for me was keeping the suet and meal worms in supply, mainly because the European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) show up in large groups and gulp down food at a speedy pace. The other birds nibble but the starlings seem to inhale food as if they have vacuum cleaners in their throats. They can get grumpy with one another and don’t mind landing atop each other to get a foothold on the feeder.

brown-thrasher-i77a3641-maria-de-bruyn-resI was pleased that the other species of birds are learning to cope with them, no longer being intimidated to fly away when these greedy avians arrive. However, they may get displaced from a feeder just because the bulky starlings take up so much room and never wait their turn to get a spot. The larger birds, like the thrashers and red-bellied woodpeckers, may express their displeasure to the starlings while trying to hold their ground. Other people report common grackles (Quiscalus quiscula) as feeder dominant birds but they are well behaved at my house.

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suet-i77a3541-maria-de-bruyn-res

So, what was I going to do? Some of my feeders are set in a flower garden and I had left the dried stalks of sage, butterfly bush and scarlet mallow standing. They don’t look pretty but the birds love sitting on them near the feeders as they digest a bite before getting another. So I began smearing suet on the stalks, which are not sturdy enough to hold the starlings.

The yellow-rumped warblers and chickadees were pleased, as was my faithful ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula) and the Carolina chickadee.

yellow-rumped-warbler-i77a3913-maria-de-bruyn-res  carolina-chickadee-i77a4283-maria-de-bruyn-res

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To my surprise, even the larger Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos) and brown thrashers discovered and sampled the suet-laden stalks.

northern-mockingbird-i77a3629-maria-de-bruyn-res   brown-thrasher-i77a3607-maria-de-bruyn-res

Following advice from the Bird Sleuth program, I had stuffed the bluebird and nuthatch boxes with pine needles and wool in case the birds wanted to shelter there overnight. I don’t know if any of them did, but the brown-headed nuthatches (Sitta pusilla) were again checking out their preferred nest box, so perhaps they did roost there overnight.

brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a3959-maria-de-bruyn-res    brown-headed-nuthatch-i77a4183-maria-de-bruyn-res

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I was filling the heated bird bath daily, too, as it became a popular drinking fountain.

The thrill of the wintery snow days for me was a new yard visitor, a gorgeous fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca). I have never had one here before so it was a wonderful surprise and discovery. (I’m still hoping that a red-breasted nuthatch will turn up, too.)

 

 

fox-sparrow-i77a4347-maria-de-bruyn  fox-sparrow-i77a4348-maria-de-bruyn-res

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The birds “missing” from the storm gathering were the hawks. I’ve had a Cooper’s hawk  (Accipiter cooperii) visiting for years, but recently discovered that a sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus) is also taking birds from my yard. As they look quite similar, the sharpie may have been coming around for some time and I just never realized it. They were both here in the last couple weeks, but neither one made an appearance during the storm.

coopers-hawk-i77a1341-maria-de-bruyn-res   sharp-shinned-hawk-i77a8520-maria-de-bruyn-res

Our two neighborhood white-tailed does (Odocoileus virginianus) and their three offspring came by, obviously finding my yard a peaceful and safe space to rest.

white-tailed-deer-i77a4432-maria-de-bruyn-res   white-tailed-deer-i77a4431-maria-de-bruyn-res

So I’ll end with some “beauty shots” from the snow days as the snow and ice are now melting. In two days’ time, we are supposed to be having temperatures of 68F/20C or higher! And then we can wait out the rest of January as well as February and March to see if we get any more winter storms.

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White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)

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     house-finch-i77a2852-maria-de-bruyn-res

Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)        House finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

dark-eyed-junco-i77a2590-maria-de-bruyn-res  downy-woodpecker-i77a2810-maria-de-bruyn-res

Dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)          Downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens)

eastern-towhee-i77a4111-maria-de-bruyn-res    northern-cardinal-i77a3099-maria-de-bruyn-res

Eastern towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)      Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

blue-jay-i77a2858-maria-de-bruyn-res     eastern-bluebird-i77a2285-maria-de-bruyn-res

Blue jay                                                       Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)

red-bellied-woodpecker-i77a4047-maria-de-bruyn-res       ruby-crowned-kinglet-i77a4263-maria-de-bruyn-res

Red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus)     Ruby-crowned kinglet

northern-mockingbird-i77a2714-maria-de-bruyn-res   pine-warbler-i77a2657-maria-de-bruyn-res

Northern mockingbird                                              Pine warbler