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.

 

Fabulous flickers – my faves!

Several birders of my acquaintance have a particular love for warblers. These birds often have stunning plumage, and it changes in many species between breeding and non-breeding seasons. I enjoy seeing the warblers, too, but it’s the woodpeckers that tend to keep me watching for longer periods when they appear. And I’m lucky that all the local species visit my yard at least occasionally, like the Northern flicker that startled a brown thrasher one year.

Unlike warblers, the woodpeckers’ plumage doesn’t often evoke words of wonder and appreciation. They don’t change from breeding to non-breeding plumage and some species even look almost identical. But I find them fascinating; my favorite (although I really like them all) is that stunning and fabulous flicker.

There are two major kinds of flickers in the USA. In the West, the main subspecies has reddish feathers in flight and is called red-shafted. In the East, we have yellow-shafted flickers (Colaptes auratus auratus). When these birds are simply perched, you mostly just see their muted tan coloring with dark spots on the breast.

4 Northern flicker PC061413 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

From the back, you can see a red heart-shaped spot on their neck.

5 Northern flicker PC099651 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When they fly away, you may also see a white patch on their back near the base of the tail.

The males have a thick black “mustache” extending from the beak.

12 Northern flicker P1300399© Maria de Bruyn res

The females lack this feature.

9 Northern flicker P9209500 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

11 Northern flicker PB296255 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

10 Northern flicker P1050369 © Maria de Bruyn-ed

In reviewing the photos I’ve taken of them, it appears that I see the males more frequently than the females. The males also seem less reluctant to come out into the open when I’m observing them. This is anecdotal, of course, but I do wonder if the females are generally shyer.

It’s when they take off in flight with wings spread or when they flutter their wings while balancing on branches that you get to see their marvelous yellow feathers.

13 Northern flicker P9209948 © Maria de Bruyn res

14 Northern flicker PB041778 © Maria de Bruyn-sgd res

15 Northern flicker PC099864 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

16 Northern flicker P2032611© Maria de Bruyn res-sgd

The flickers distinguish themselves as the woodpecker species that very often seeks its food on the ground. Their preferred meals comprise insects, although in winter they also forage for fruit and seeds.

17 Northern flicker P3030826© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They stick their long bills deep into the ground when looking for a favored food — ants. Many articles online say that one flicker’s stomach was found to contain more than 5,000 ants but I couldn’t find the original study reporting that finding anywhere.

18 Northern flicker P1279550© Maria de Bruyn sgd

Barbs on the flickers’ lengthy tongues help them catch the ants and other insects, such as flies, butterflies, and moths.

19 Northern flicker PC152102 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds have an elongated hyoid bone that helps support their tongue, which can extend up to 2 inches (5 cm) beyond their bill. This also comes in handy when they are probing snags and fallen logs for meals.

20 Northern flicker PC151992 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Northern flickers also have large salivary glands that re-coat their tongues with a sticky substance each time they stick them out — an extra aide in catching those ants!

21 Northern flicker PC099801 © Maria de Bruyn sgd

When you see flickers in trees around springtime, they are often looking for nesting spots. They may choose trees with softer wood in which to excavate holes or they may use nesting cavities created by other birds.

24 Northern flicker P9198553 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

22 Northern flicker P9198517 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

23 Northern flicker PC099751 © Maria de Bruyn

A couple years ago, I discovered flickers following around pileated woodpeckers as they moved from tree to tree to peck holes.

25 Northern flicker P9209692 © Maria de Bruyn

26 Northern flicker P9209697 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I wasn’t quite sure why the flickers were pursuing their larger cousins, but now I think they were checking out holes that the larger woodpeckers had made for nests. This seems to be a recurring behavior as this year I saw flickers (in the same natural area) starting the same behavior. The pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to mind too much.

27 Northern flicker P9198613 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

28 Northern flicker P9198614 © Maria de Bruyn. res sgd

In another natural area, the flickers have used cavities made by red-headed woodpeckers for their nests. The two species seem fine with brooding their young in the same snag at the same time.

29 Northern flicker P4217370© Maria de Bruyn res

30 Northern flicker P4291831 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

The flickers can live up to 8-9 years at least and likely migrate back to the same areas each nesting season.

31 Northern flicker PB158825 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

While the overall numbers of Northern flickers are decreasing, they are not considered a threatened species.

32 Northern flicker PB158826 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

34 Northern flicker PC152197 © Maria de Bruyn resThey adapt well to living around human settlements but can be threatened by fewer available nest sites due to urban development, snag removals, and competition for nest holes, as well as heat waves that affect nestlings and wildfires that destroy their habitats.

I hope these beauties stay around my living space for a long time to come!

33 Northern flicker P1300407 © Maria de Bruyn-res sgd

The happy hermit thrush – a photo tour

hermit thrush P1311108 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

While working on a woodpecker series, I decided to post a few mostly photo-oriented features, so there aren’t such long gaps between blogs on my site. First up is a photo exploration of hermit thrushes (Catharus guttatus), whom I’ve been seeing fairly often since last fall and through this winter.

hermit thrush PB191885 © Maria de Bruyn res

They are really lovely birds. They prefer to eat insects most of the year (e.g., flies, bees and wasps, beetles, caterpillars, and ants). Apparently, they also will eat small amphibians and reptiles, but I’ve never seen them eating a frog. My spottings of them have shown, however, that in the autumn and winter, they certainly enjoy berries.

hermit thrush P2032491 © Maria de Bruyn res

In my observations, they seem to eat quite a variety, which I believe include those of greenbriers (Smilax), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and hollies.

hermit thrush P2032496© Maria de Bruyn res

hermit thrush P1311058© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1311071 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush PC240748 Maria de Bruyn-ed sgd

The hermit thrush is not considered to be frequent visitors to people’s gardens, but I’ve been lucky to have them visit in winter to take baths and eat juniper berries (from Eastern red cedars, (Juniperus virginiana).

hermit thrush PB158866© Maria de Bruyn

I do see them more often out in nature reserves, however.

hermit thrush P1311125 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

These birds don’t mind sitting out on a tree branch during a gusty day when their feathers are blown around a bit.

hermit thrush PB191749© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

They have muted colors but a nice rusty-colored tail to help identify them. They also tend to flick their tail frequently.

hermit thrush P1311120 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

I tend to think of these thrushes as good-natured birds. I haven’t seen them arguing with birds of other species, but I was surprised recently when I encountered two hermits disputing foraging space in a nice sunny area.

hermit thrush P1278796© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278797© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278798© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

hermit thrush P1278799© Maria de Bruyn res sgd

Ultimately, one bird flew away and then the other took off as well.

hermit thrush P1278800 © Maria de Bruyn res sgd

In the past, I didn’t see hermit thrushes very often, but perhaps I’ve just gotten more observant or better at predicting where they might be. It’s always a pleasure to stop and watch them for a while.

hermit thrush PB191962 Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191950© Maria de Bruyn sgd

hermit thrush PB191952 Maria de Bruyn sgd

Finally, one more photo but not of a hermit – this is a lovely wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) that I had the good fortune to encounter in the woods near Jordan Lake. You can see the much bolder and better defined breast spots on this bird, as well as its more reddish coloring. Many people think the wood thrush has the prettiest thrush song. That’s not my opinion, but I certainly do think they are visual stunners!

wood thrush PA017517 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

Late-morning hawk watching – Part 2

Cooper's hawk PA063998 © Maria de Bruyn res

A few weeks after watching a red-shouldered hawk hunting at a pond’s edge (previous blog), I had the good fortune to spot another raptor busy at a water source.

Our area had had a dry spell and the creek in a nearby city park was fairly low. Various birds were calling loudly on both sides of the creek, and I hoped to photograph some of them. The birds kept out of sight in the foliage, however.

When I finally peered down at the creek, the reason for the avian chorus became obvious. A beautiful Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) was wading in the shallow water.

S/he kept looking up and around as the other birds vocalized non-stop; they were warning one another of the predator’s presence, with the blue jays being especially raucous.

At first, I thought the hawk wanted to bathe but was hesitating because of the warning racket being broadcast by the other birds.

At one point, the raptor sat down, but it didn’t splash in the water.

S/he then stood up and ruffled the feathers that had been in the water.

All the while, the Cooper’s hawk peered up and around.

Then the bird began peering down at the water. I didn’t see any creatures there, but the raptor did.

Finally, the predator stopped watching the other birds, dipping its beak into the water while protecting its eyes with its nictitating membranes.

A few times, the hawk came up with a small fish or other water creature but I couldn’t really tell what the prey was since it was swallowed rather rapidly.

After about 20 minutes, the raptor seemed satisfied – or it was tired of the cacophony accompanying its hunting foray – and s/he flew up into a nearby tree. Later, I spotted the bird standing in the creek further downstream; perhaps a bath was going to take place after all. I didn’t stay any longer, however, as chores were calling to me. So I left grateful for the chance to spend time with this gorgeous creature on a late sunny morning. 😊

A surprise at the pond

1 Bynum IMG_0631© Maria de Bruyn res

A combination of abundant vegetation and some type of water — a creek, river, wetland, pond or lake — is one of my favorite types of natural area to visit for wildlife watching and photography. Water attracts wildlife and increases the chance of seeing something unexpected. 

This was the case recently at a local nature reserve. A few days earlier, I’d seen many goldfinches and warblers at one of the ponds, but this day it was very quiet. I descended a small slope to stand on a mudflat and was suddenly surprised by a large splash to my left.

2 Brumley pond IMG_0643 © Maria de Bruyn res

When I looked, I saw a largish head forging across the water in front of me. My first thought was that it was a muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) as there is no beaver lodge in this enclosed pond.

3 American beaver P8132481© Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats and beavers look very similar, but beavers (Castor canadensis) tend to be much larger. This was a hefty individual who seemed fairly relaxed as s/he swam along.

4 American beaver P8132423© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched the mammal swim back and forth for a while, I tentatively concluded that it was a beaver, based on my previous sightings of this rodent species. Still, I wasn’t quite sure and kept hoping that the animal would raise its tail so that I would have a decisive clue to its identity.

Beavers have large flat tails, while muskrats have long, thin tails. Finally, as s/he swam by again, I got a glimpse of the tail for a couple seconds and it was large and flat! Unfortunately, I didn’t get a photo of that (see a previous blog for some photos showing the beaver’s tail).

 

5 American beaver P8132456© Maria de Bruyn res

As I watched and took photos, a couple walked by with their dog and stopped to watch as well. I moved down the path and heard the gentleman exclaim, “Oh, it’s a beaver!” I turned and he explained that he had thought the swimmer was a muskrat, but he had just seen the tail, too.

6 American beaver IMG_0256© Maria de Bruyn res

The aquatic mammal climbed up onto a log for a bit to groom and relax and, as the couple remarked, almost seemed to be posing for me. The beaver kept its back to me most of the time though. 

 

14 American beaver P8132476 © Maria de Bruyn res

I began to walk back down the path in hopes of getting a head-on view if the beaver decided to swim again. S/he did indeed slip back into the water to resume swimming back and forth. And then to my delight, a small head popped up going the other direction!

7 American beaver and muskrat P8132482 © Maria de Bruyn res

For some reason, I just assumed that it was a baby beaver, swimming around under the watchful eye of a parent. The newly arrived rodent seemed to be very intent on eating and dove down into the pond to bring up some tasty vegetation.8 Muskrat P8132671 © Maria de Bruyn res

It then swam over to the mudflat where I had been, and I ventured back there.

9 Muskrat P8132493© Maria de Bruyn res

Moving slowly and maintaining a good distance from the dining animal, I was able to get some good views as it enjoyed its meal.

10 Muskrat P8132618© Maria de Bruyn res

11 Muskrat P8132497 © Maria de Bruyn res

12 Muskrat P8132506 © Maria de Bruyn resWhile the beaver’s fur remained sleek on its head and back after being submerged a while, the little one’s fur stuck together in clumps all over its head and body. To me it looked a bit like a punk teenager — an analogy that undoubtedly came to mind because I was thinking of it as a baby or adolescent beaver.

This was one of the cutest wildlife spottings I had had in recent weeks, and I was thoroughly enjoying it. But I began doubting if this animal was indeed a beaver. I never saw its tail but at one point, I could see some orange teeth that reminded me of beaver incisors.

13 Muskrat teeth P8132647© Maria de Bruyn res

Of course, the diner didn’t care and just kept diving for more veggies to eat. The large beaver appeared to have left in the meantime.

15 Muskrat P8132510© Maria de Bruyn res

It was when I was reviewing identity characteristics of beavers vs muskrats while writing this blog that I ultimately came to a final conclusion about whom I had been watching. This was based on several websites that provided some good ID clues:

Beavers tend to weigh about 35-70 or even up to 100 lbs (15-30 or even 45 kg), Muskrats generally weigh only about 2-5 lbs (0.9-2.3 kg).

Beavers’ ears protrude from their heads as they swim around (first photo below), while muskrats’ ears lie flat (second photo below). Beavers also have larger noses.

16 American beaver P8132453© Maria de Bruyn res

17 Muskrat P8132673 © Maria de Bruyn res

Muskrats dive down to get vegetation from pond bottoms to eat, which my second visitor was very busy doing indeed. Beavers strip bark and leaves from trees and in my experience (having watched beavers eat close by a couple years ago), they can be quite noisy chewers.

18 Muskrat P8132574© Maria de Bruyn res

I’d enjoyed the idea of having seen a parent-and-child beaver duo but, in hindsight, I concluded that I’d been watching a beaver and a muskrat sharing pond space.

19 American beaver P8132475 © Maria de Bruyn res

This was also a very cool event since neither one had been shy. A lack of other human passersby (only the one couple strolled by in the space of almost an hour) may have made them feel comfortable. It was certainly a treat for me!

20 Muskrat P8132665© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up: fateful days for frogs….