Love me some hawks

3 red-tailed hawk PB074118© Maria de Bruyn res

After focusing mostly on the genus accipiter hawks in my last blog (especially the Cooper’s), I’d like to share a few more photos of buteo hawks that are common where I live. Taken over the past 4 years or so, the photos will vary and show them in various seasons.

The buteos are larger birds than the accipiters and somehow seem a bit more relaxed to me than the feisty accipiters.

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The red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis, above) are beauties as adults with dark red tail feathers. I tend to see them most often when I am away from home, visiting fields and natural areas. Frequently, I spot them when they are hunting. Their diets are rich and varied since they see almost any small animal as a potential meal. That includes rodents, rabbits, reptiles, fish, amphibians, invertebrates and other birds.

2 red-tailed hawk P9199889 © Maria de Bruyn res (2)

 

Those dietary choices mean that I regularly see them being chased by other birds, especially in the spring when the other birds want to protect their nestlings from the predatory beaks of the red-tails. Crows especially can get very raucous and angry when red-tailed hawks are near their nests.

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The red-tailed hawk below was being chased away as s/he flew away with a squirrel.

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There are 14 recognized sub-species of red-tailed hawks, which vary in color and range. In the area where I live, we have many Eastern red-tailed hawks, but last year I spotted another type flying over farmland. I asked experts from a raptor identification group for some assistance in describing it.

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One expert remarked: “This is a juvenile by the monochromatic brown tones, spotted bellyband and lack of dark terminal band on the wings….As a juvenile there is more overlap in phenotype than in adults, and often we cannot identify them to subspecies level.” She went on: “…this bird could be either a slightly heavier marked Eastern (borealis) or a Northern (abieticola). To me it is not heavily enough marked to be a slam dunk abieticola and I would probably not assign a subspecies to it.”

5 red-tailed hawk PB243137© Maria de Bruyn ed sgd

I asked if that meant that a Northern red-tailed hawk could be found in North Carolina and not just the Eastern sub-species, so I could start watching for those distinctions. She responded: “only in winter and probably not overly often that far south, but certainly worth keeping a look out for them.” I haven’t seen this hawk again to my knowledge.

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One of my favorite portrait photos (below) is of a red-tailed hawk. Taken in 2015, the bird flew across a field to perch in a tree right next to the path on which I and four other people were walking. S/he had seen a hispid cotton rat crawl into the vegetation underneath the tree. My birding companions walked on but I stayed and after 20 minutes or so, the hawk suddenly dropped down and snagged the rat, which must have had a terrifying wait at the end of its life. The hawk was very handsome though.

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While the red-tailed hawks are impressive, I have a softer spot for the red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus). Somehow they look less fierce and a bit sweeter to me.42 red-shouldered hawk P1280192© Maria de Bruyn res

I see them carrying out all kinds of behaviors. Sometimes, they are just flying overhead, showing off their red shoulders as they travel aloft.

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They often perch high in trees to survey their territory.

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Tree tops often serve as a place to cuddle up when it is cold.

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They seem to enjoy preening when high up on snags at all times of year.

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A snag can be a place to call out to mates.

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And a level branch is a good place to mate.

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Sitting very still, they scan the ground to spot prey, which they often capture by dropping straight down to kill it in a fast strike. Their diet is varied, including many types of rodents and mammals such as squirrels, mice, chipmunks, voles. They also attack birds up to the size of jays, grouse or pheasants.

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When I’ve seen them snag prey, it has usually been smaller prey such as frogs, lizards, snakes and other reptiles and amphibians. A pair of red-shouldered hawks living at an urban park in a nearby city must really enjoy the crayfish that are abundant in the wetlands.

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These hawks will perch on many handy lookout posts when surveying the ground for prey. This one sat on a feeder at the local public library, suddenly flew a short way to drop down into the leaves and brush under nearby trees and seemed to be wrestling with a rodent of some kind. S/he left without the prey, however.

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In my yard, a resident red-shouldered hawk not only sits on branches but occasionally on a nest box, to the dismay of nearby songbirds. One ate all the large green frogs in my pond.

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At a small public park in a neighboring town, I watched a red-shouldered scan the field below intently for quite some time. The raptor then surprised me by dropping swiftly down, snagging something small and flying up to another tree to eat.

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It wasn’t until I enlarged the photos I took that I saw the bird had gotten a large worm. (When I posted the photo on facebook, a witty commentator remarked that he was collecting bait to go fishing!)

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Occasionally, they may be injured. This young hawk was perched in an out-of-the-way spot in a park and when I posted these photos, a commentator remarked that the bird looked injured with a wing out of place. She suggested I contact a rehabilitator but the bird eventually flew away seeming to be ok.

 

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While I know these raptors can be just as fierce as the other hawks, I do tend to think of the red-shouldered hawks as having sweet faces. Having watched them tend to their young, I know they can be very devoted parents and I always enjoy seeing them!

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Final note: “I love me some hawks” is not a title I would have chosen some years ago, but I liked it for this blog as it indicates —to me —enjoyment of something. I decided to look up where the phrase came from and ended up with several explanations: 1) an ungrammatical expression that might be associated with African American vernacular or with the rural areas of the southern US states; 2) an annoying phrase usually used by the middle-class; 3) a slang way of saying ‘I really love’; 4) a novel grammatical structure indicating “I always like” something. Kinda like the middle voice in ancient Greek. Well….at least I learned something new today. 😊

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Next blog – no birds but interesting creatures nonetheless!

A star performance!

 

Who is this above? Read on below for a few looks at a usually highly elusive bird.

But first, let me say that in the Piedmont region of North Carolina (NC) spring is an especially nice season with abundant flowers and many birds filling the air with lovely courtship calls and songs. Sometimes, you get a little confused when walking in a reserve — thinking there are several species of birds in the vicinity to judge by all the different vocalizations, but then you discover you are hearing a concert by one of the avian mimics — Northern mockingbirds, brown thrashers and gray catbirds are both talented imitators of other birds’ calls.

While the mockingbirds repeat other birds’ notes three times each, brown thrashers (Toxostoma rufum) sing out two repetitions of other species’ songs, interspersed with a large variety of their own calls. A thrasher has been serenading lately near one of a local nature reserves’ ponds. On this occasion, s/he had an Eastern towhee audience (Pipilo erythrophthalmus).

       

A bird that does not have a lovely call, the American bittern (Botaurus lentiginosus), sometimes sounds a bit like a bull bellowing, which led to one of its nicknames — “thunder pumper.” Despite its lack of melodious calls and songs, however, birders get excited when one is spotted because this medium-sized heron (2-3 feet tall) usually is only visible hiding among dense grasses and reeds. In contrast to great blue herons or great egrets, American bitterns lead mainly solitary lives, so birders can’t count on seeing a group of them either.

One local nature reserve became a real hot spot recently when a local birder alerted other bird lovers to the presence of a bittern at one of the ponds. Unexpectedly, this bittern was not shy at all.

 

Even when s/he was being watched by half a dozen people, the bird emerged from the grasses and reeds to forage for food at the water’s edge or stopped for a grooming session in front of an audience. And this went on for over a week as the bird gave us a star performance.

 

 

When approached, the bittern’s usual “concealment” pose is to stand tall with its neck stretched upward and its bill pointing at the sky. They don’t move until they feel it is safe to resume stalking their food.

           

When they stand this way, some people say they look like they have “googly eyes”. The bitterns can focus downwards even when pointing their heads upward; it is surmised that this ability helps them spot and catch the creatures on which they feed.

   

I can see where the googly-eyes terminology was applied to them, but I recently saw a common grackle (Quiscalus quiscula) that had much more of that look in my opinion!

In one of their typical hunting modes, bitterns bend over and stand almost motionless, slowly lowering their long bills down so that they can plunge their heads quickly into water to grab their prey, which they bite or shake to death.

 

When they lift their heads, you may notice their third eyelid in position, indicating that they shielded their eyes while submerged. They also engage the nictitating membrane when they scratch their heads, getting close to their eyes – the bittern’s very large feet make that a very good decision on their part!

   

After catching their prey, the bittern subsequently repositions its prey — a tadpole, crayfish, frog, snake, rodent, fish — inside its bill so that it can be swallowed head first. Parts of the eaten animal that they can’t digest are later regurgitated as a pellet.

 

American bitterns are considered a species of high concern by Waterbird Conservation of the Americas. It is the loss of wetlands habitat that is contributing to their decline; in the last decades more than half of the original wetlands in North America have been destroyed or degraded. Let this past Earth Day be a reminder of the very urgent need to make haste in protecting the natural areas that remain and restoring areas that can be rescued.

 

All about Ollie – barred owls at Mason Farm Biological Reserve

The end of winter and start of spring is a good time to look for some of the birds that you don’t see so often. They are not hidden by foliage and may come out more to hunt for a meal as they prepare to cope with the rigors of upcoming parenthood. That has proved to be a boon for me during visits to Mason Farm Biological Reserve where there are several pairs of barred owls (Strix varia) in residence. While these birds usually hunt at night, they have recently been seen out and about much more often in the daytime, perhaps getting ready for nesting and brooding in March and April.

These beautiful raptors sit quite still and often make no sound at all as they turn their heads scanning the ground or a creek nearby for small rodents, crayfish, fish, insects, amphibians and reptiles.

 

Their brown and white mottled feathers are a perfect camouflage to help them blend in with the bare gray and brown tree trunks and branches of winter. To spot them, you learn to scan trees in the distance looking for a “lump” which your binoculars or long camera lens can then help distinguish as an owl.

These owls tend to stay in one area; a study of 158 banded birds showed that none of them had ventured further away than 6 miles from the spot where they were first seen. At Mason Farm, we tend to hear the owls in specific areas – along a creek, near a couple of open fields and near a bog. These are likely different pairs who can live there for decades – the oldest known barred owl was 24 years old.

After hearing that friend Mary had been seeing one particular owl daily, I began going there more often to catch a glimpse of him/her. I nicknamed the bird Ollie – short for Oliver or Olivia. It turned out that I was fortunate enough to see both Ollies; the pair has become fairly tolerant of people nearby, sometimes perching in trees right next to the walking path.

One mid-afternoon, I was searching the fields for Ollie, noting some of the other birds who were easier to spot because of their movement, like the red-bellied woodpeckers and song sparrows. I was looking into the mid- and long-distance and then glanced up at a small tree next to the path – there was Ollie staring back at me! I had never been within about 5 feet of a wild barred owl before and was able to see him/her really well – what a beautiful bird!

To get some photos, I actually had to back up as I had a long-distance lens on the camera. Some runners came by and saw that I was focused on something, but they never looked up to notice that they were passing couple feet underneath this large raptor. Ollie just watched silently as they ran by and then returned to scanning the ground for prey.

Another day, Mary and I were following an owl from one field to the next. The hunting pattern appears to be: perch in a tree and look intently at the ground around for 10-20 minutes or longer, fly some 20 or more feet away to scan another patch. It appeared that the owl and caught something and s/he flew to a tree branch at the other side of the field. I happened to glance away in time to see the second Ollie flying toward and past us in the field on the other side of the path.  The owls fly completely silently so you have to be lucky to spot them.

Although I’ve seen the pair fairly often now, I continue to find them really beautiful.

 

When they spot some prey, the owls drop quietly but swiftly down to pounce on the animal. Sometimes they sit there for a minute or two, presumably swallowing the entire animal if it is small. If it is larger, they will carry it off to have their meal in a tree.

On one of our walks, Mary’s sharp eyes spotted an owl pellet and friend Lucretia and I dissected it. The pellets can contain the remains of several meals and we thought that a couple small animals’ remains were contained in the fur-covered mass. A tiny skull and pair of jaw bones with minuscule teeth could be distinguished – perhaps a vole or baby mole.

On one of my most recent spottings of Ollie, s/he was spending time taking little power naps in between ground scans. On other days, the owls had brief snoozing periods, too. The feathers on their eyelids are very cool! When a pair calls to one another, you can distinguish the male and female. The male’s call ends abruptly while the female adds a little trill to the end of her call.

  

On my last foray to the reserve to see owls, I was following Ollie’s progress along the field when another birder spotted me taking photos. After a while, about six or seven walkers were watching and Ollie finally flew to the top of a pine tree not far from the path so they could all admire him/her.

The one predator that goes after the large barred owls is the even larger great horned owl (Bubo virginianus).

 

When people go too close to a barred owl’s nest, the owls will become agitated, so we should keep that in mind and not bother them there. Oliver and Olivia seem not to mind people too much right now, since they will fly to perch near a path where people are passing. I do try to limit how much time I spend following them, though, even though they can fly away. Just like us, the owls do want to be able to go about their business in peace!

 

Oh, the webs we weave!

spider webs IMG_0292©Maria de Bruyn res

Well, not we human beings but the spiders. Autumn is a great season to spider web IMG_9990©Maria de Bruyn resadmire the handiwork of spiders as they build temporary or semi-permanent abodes and hunting traps. During my walks in different areas this fall, I’ve seen various forms of webs, but none as large the 4-acre web found in a building in Baltimore, Maryland.

Many of the webs are really lovely as they shimmer in the sun, especially when covered with dewdrops.

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Not infrequently, you will see the web’s weaver hanging out, like this banded argiope (Argiope trifasciata).

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trashline orbweaver spider web IMG_7471©Maria de BruynresThe trashline orbweaver (Cyclosa turbinata) arranges bits of old prey in a line in its web, apparently helping to camouflage itself as it looks like another piece of trash in the web.

 

 

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The lined orbweaver spider (Mangora gibberosa) has a conspicuous web in that the center part comprises a dense circular decoration (called the stabilimentum) that shows up well against green vegetation. The rest of the web is barely visible, however.

Some spiders, such as sheetweb spiders, make webs that look like shallow bowls in the grass (the photo below right was taken looking down on it). The tiny sheetweb dwarf spider (Florinda coccinea) has a red body with black palps, eye region and caudal tubercle. There is only one species in this region of the United States,

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Arrowhead spider IMG_2662© Maria de BruynArrowhead spiders (Verrucosa arenata) suspend a few or more strands of silk along or across trails at about head height. Have you wondered how they manage to suspend a web across a trail that is quite wide? They first produce a fine adhesive thread that can drift over the gap with a breeze. When the thread sticks to something at the other side of the gap, the spider feels a change in the vibrations of the thread and then reels it in and tightens it. The spider then crosses the gap on this thread and strengthens it by placing a second thread and so the web begins.

If you are walking along looking up in the trees or down at the ground, it can mean you end up with sticky web in your face. The tensile strength of spider silk is greater than steel of an equivalent weight but much more elastic, so wiping that silk off your skin can take some doing!

marbled orbweaver IMG_9822©Maria de Bruyn resOrbweavers tend to make large vertical webs, like the ones being spun by the marbled orbweavers (Araneus marmoreus) in the next photos.

 

 

 

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The silk for a web comes from a spider’s spinneret gland, which is located at the tip of its abdomen. Some spiders have four pairs of spinnerets, some have one pair and most have three pairs of spinnerets.

 

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Each gland produces a different kind of thread, for example, for a safety line, for trapping prey or for wrapping up caught prey as shown by this writing spider (Argiope aurantia).

 

 

Here you can see how the spider is using one leg to help position the line of web being spun.

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Spiders expend a lotmarbled orbweaver IMG_9865©Maria de Bruyn of energy building webs and it is not uncommon for them to eat their own web in order to re-gain some energy used in spinning.

 

The spider is thus a great re-cycler in addition to helping keep the other insect populations in check! Nature is so cool.