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.

 

Springtime spat?

Eastern meadowlark P4075310© Maria de Bruyn res

Well, maybe “spat” is too mild a word for what I witnessed a few days ago when out birding. It was a gloomy, heavily clouded day and my expectations of seeing something unusual were low.

Eastern meadowlark P4075316 © Maria de Bruyn res

A male meadowlark (Sturnella magna, above) greeted me and his sweet song and subsequent foraging with his partner was a definite bright spot in the field.

Eastern meadowlark P4074595© Maria de Bruyn

His little concert was delightful. But then I thought perhaps he was asking me to go away and leave him and his partner to forage without spectators, so I did get ready to leave.

Eastern meadowlark P4074980© Maria de Bruyn

Before I left the area, however, my eyes were drawn to a spectacle further away.

Northern mockingbird P4074757© Maria de Bruyn res

There were flashes of gray and white erupting up from the ground, into the air and back down again. Before putting up my long-lensed camera (which serves as substitute binoculars for me), I figured the wing patterns were showing Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos). My first photos confirmed it.

Northern mockingbird P40748280© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074786 © Maria de Bruyn res

But then I watched with fascination and growing consternation as the two birds tackled one another in what was an actual knock-down, drag-out fight. I’d seen mockingbirds having territorial disputes before, but those spats only lasted a couple minutes and were mostly threat displays. This was a real battle.

Northern mockingbird P4074818© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

I don’t know if they were arguing over a third (female) bird or if it was mostly a territorial dispute. Perhaps it was both.

Northern mockingbird P4074864© Maria de Bruyn res

They ascended, facing off angrily.

Northern mockingbird P4074825 © Maria de Bruyn

They attacked one another mid-air.

Northern mockingbird P4074819© Maria de Bruyn res

And while descending to the ground.

Northern mockingbird P4074841© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074834© Maria de Bruyn res

They pummeled one another.

Northern mockingbird P4074826 © Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird P4074833© Maria de Bruyn res

Flying to the ground, one would sit atop the other and seemed to be pecking at it once in a while. After getting off its opponent, the pair faced off again and started the fight anew.

Northern mockingbird P4074851© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074835© Maria de Bruyn res

They were at it for at least 5 minutes and perhaps longer as I’d spotted them once the dispute was underway.

Northern mockingbird P4074831 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074839© Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074840© Maria de Bruyn res

As they continued fighting, I wondered if one of them might be hurt or wounded.

Northern mockingbird P4074832 © Maria de Bruyn. res

Neither one of them appeared to show any wounds (but then I was not really close enough to tell for sure).

Northern mockingbird P4074842 © Maria de Bruyn

Northern mockingbird P4074821© Maria de Bruyn res

At last one of them decided he’d had enough. The other two birds were chasing him, but he got away and flew to a tree. The fight ended and no one seemed to have been irreparably harmed. But it was a real lesson for me in realizing how territorial the mockingbirds can get. I’d seen some short-lived spats before, but now I know more serious fights occur as well. I don’t know if they ever lead to one of the opponents being mortally wounded. Hopefully not!

Northern mockingbird P4074866© Maria de Bruyn res

Next up – a story of my own close call with a hawk!

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

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 2

0 beaver PA299293© Maria de Bruyn res

In 2019, I came across a few areas on walks where beavers were active and local residents were enjoying their presence. The animals weren’t shy and would come out in the mornings and evenings to eat and work on their lodges and dams, so I was able to observe them fairly often.

1 beaver PA299182 © Maria de Bruyn. res

In the intervening years, people have taken varied actions to deal with these mammals at the sites I visit, and my sightings have decreased. So, I was very pleased this past fall when I came across a beaver who had put aside his (or her) shyness and was coming out to swim often during daytime hours at one pond.

2 beaver PA299216 © Maria de Bruyn res

One day, this amiable animal decided to have a prolonged grooming session and gave me some good looks at its anatomy. S/he had what is considered a typical beaver tail: large and flat. Later I learned that beaver tails differ from animal to animal, with tail shapes (short, long, narrow, broad) being determined by individual and family traits.

4 beaver PA299318 © Maria de Bruyn res

Their large tails not only assist them in swimming and balancing on land — they also serve as a storage unit for fat that can be accessed during winter periods with less food available. Those tails can increase their body fat supply for cold weather by as much as 60%!

3 beaver PA299429© Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver has long digging claws on its front paws.

5 beaver PA299401© Maria de Bruyn res

6 beaver PA299228© Maria de Bruyn res

Their hind feet have two specialized toes which were described by Vernon Bailey in 1923 after he had studied young beavers in his home. He called these inner toes the combing claw and the louse-catching claw. The innermost toe he termed a coarse combing tool and the second toe a fine-toothed comb.

7 beaver PA299393© Maria de Bruyn res

The second toe, which has a double toenail, is now called a preening toe or grooming claw.

8 beaver PA299356 © Maria de Bruyn res

These toes are useful tools, as their comb-like action during grooming helps prevent the beavers’ soft fur from matting. (Unfortunately, the beaver only used his/her front paws while I watched; I’d like to see those back claws in action!)

9 beaver PA299390© Maria de Bruyn res

Beavers may spend almost 20% of their time on preening and grooming as this activity helps them remove burrs and parasites and aids in keeping their fur’s insulation and waterproof characteristics intact.

10 beaver PA299258© Maria de Bruyn res

An oil from abdominal glands is used to help waterproof their fur, too. Scents from these glands are further used to mark territory. And, oddly, castoreum (one of their castor gland secretions) smells and tastes like vanilla and has been used in human food preparation. Fortunately, it is difficult to obtain (the beaver must be anesthetized and “milked”) and scarcely used – about 292 lbs. (132 kg) yearly around the world.

14 beaver PA299403 © Maria de Bruyn res

The beaver’s well-developed whiskers are useful in dark water and narrow burrows because they help the animal detect objects.

12 beaver PA299407 © Maria de Bruyn res

Like birds and otters, beavers have a nictitating membrane to protect their eyes underwater. They can also keep water out of their ears and nostrils by closing anatomical valves.

15 beaver PA299232© Maria de Bruyn res

The beautiful beavers have been designated a keystone species because of their important role in creating environments suitable for other animals and plants. The habitats they create remove pollutants from ground and surface water. Their dams act as water filtration systems and help lessen compounds such as nitrogen and phosphorus so that we can obtain cleaner drinking water. In addition, some research has shown that the plants and algae in beaver ponds may help remove toxic metals from water, including lead, arsenic, copper, mercury, cadmium and selenium.

16 beaver PA299248© Maria de Bruyn res

There are ongoing efforts by some people in our area to get rid of beavers but fortunately an increasing number of advocates are looking for ways to coexist with beavers in urban and semi-urban areas. Researchers from local universities are aiding in the effort and hopefully this will lead to co-existence successes!

17 beaver PA299410 © Maria de Bruyn res

And some closing words…. When I was a child, I loved a small statue of three monkeys that sat on a shelf in our home: “speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil.” I liked the message and the fact that it was advised by an animal. Unfortunately, over the past decades, the statuette did not survive intact, but I’ve kept it nonetheless.

18 speak no see no hear no evil IMG_0373© Maria de Bruyn res

Here below we have a new version, brought to you courtesy of my friendly beaver. 😊

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Speak no evil!

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See no evil!

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Hear no evil!

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And have a wonderful upcoming day, week, month and year!

Next up – back to birds of the woodpecker family!

Aquatic mammals making my day! Part 1

1 river otter P1154270© Maria de Bruyn res

While I love all wildlife, many of my blogs feature birds because my chances of seeing them are greater than seeing other animals. Mammals are a favorite of mine, however, and aquatic mammals are always a pleasure to see since spotting them is not always easy. That is certainly the case for the cute river otters (Lontra canadensis) like the one above.

4 otter PC251157© Maria de Bruyn

These river and pond residents are among the most elusive mammalian water residents for me.  At one pond that I visit regularly, they appear to have adopted an abandoned beaver lodge as their home. There, it is usually movement caught out of the corner of my eye that alerts me to their presence.

2 otter PC251094 © Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes a view of the rump and tail is all I get as they barely lift their heads out of the water. It’s interesting to know, however, that their tail comprises up to 40% of their body length, helps speed them up to 8 mph (13 Km/h) in the water, and helps them dive up to 36 feet (11 m).

3 otter PA309843© Maria de Bruyn res

5 otter PA309953© Maria de Bruyn resThe otters don’t always appreciate spectators. Sometimes, they emerge from the water briefly and give me a view shrouded by vegetation before they dive back down. That’s frustrating when you’re trying to get a nice photo, but at least I’ve never scared them enough for them to sound their alarm scream, which apparently can be heard up to 1.5 m/2.4 km away!

8 beaver lodge IMG_0294© Maria de Bruyn resThe other day at another pond, I was lucky enough to see a pair close to shore. They were foraging and when they finally disappeared, they appeared to have entered a beaver lodge located next to a walking path (seen here). The beavers may have abandoned this lodge as they have at least two others in this park.

6 river otter P1154288 © Maria de Bruyn res

Researchers have not yet agreed on when otters enter their breeding season; it could be winter, late spring or summertime according to different studies. In any case, it seemed to me like this might be a mated pair.

7 river otter P1154340© Maria de Bruyn res

As they swam around, the couple would occasionally come together.

9 river otter P1154298 © Maria de Bruyn res

10 river otter P1154319 © Maria de Bruyn res

They didn’t stop to frolic, however, even though otters are known for their playfulness. They did blow some bubbles and I’ve learned that they can close their nostrils during dives to keep water out of their noses. Seeing them was a real treat! And their presence should indicate good fortune for the Sandy Creek Park since river otters are considered an indicator species that signal good water quality.

11 river otter P1154272 © Maria de Bruyn

In September, I wrote about seeing muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and North American beavers at a third reserve. Since then, I’ve had the good fortune to see both species there several times. The muskrats have especially graced me with their presence.

12 muskrat PC173212© Maria de Bruyn res

14 Brumley pond IMG_0308© Maria de Bruyn resThat’s lucky because last year our county had its 12th driest December month on record over the past 128 years. This was quite evident at the pond, which appeared to have shrunk by at least 30-40% during the autumn and early winter drought (my estimate). I’ve been surprised to see these animals still living there.

Because muskrats don’t tolerate dry heat well, they’ve been designated an indicator species for the effects of long-term climactic drying. Recent research has shown that their numbers and response to this phenomenon should be taken into account in scientific and environmental policy-making.

13 muskrat PC312704 © Maria de Bruyn res

To deal with dry heat, these mammals regulate blood flow to their feet and tail through a mechanism called regional heterothermia. This enables them to keep these appendages cooler than their body’s core. Another interesting anatomical feature is the muskrats’ specialized nostrils, which they can use to trap and recycle air after removing more oxygen before exhalation.

16 muskrat PC048728 © Maria de Bruyn res

At this particular pond, I’ve discovered that if I wait patiently for at least 20 minutes or so without other people walking by, it’s likely that one of the resident muskrats will surface to go for a swim and/or to forage for weedy food. (They can stay submerged for up to 15-17 minutes, so patience is warranted.) It’s often the appearance of small bubbles that alerts me to their presence and location.

18 muskrat PC048731© Maria de Bruyn res

Sometimes they emerge with their tails held high as if waving a signal flag – “I’m here!”

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The muskrats dive down and come up with a mouth full of vegetation which they chew while swimming or sitting near the shore. They can also eat underwater since they’re able to chew with their mouth closed because they can close their lips behind their incisors.

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Muskrats prefer to live in areas with at least 4-6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) of water where they build tunnels that lead from the pond or marsh bottom into burrows dug into banks. I now know approximately where their burrow is located as I’ve seen them emerge and submerge in a particular spot.

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Our area just had a snowfall of 2.3 inches (5.8 cm) which will be melting in the coming days. Hopefully, the next time I visit this pond it will be fuller, and the muskrat residents will have a more spacious swimming and eating area. And then they will have good reason to wave their tails in celebration!  (Apologies for the less than stellar photos as I’ve had to use a short lens lately. Hope to have my long lens back soon. The photos in part 2 of this aquatic mammal series are better!)

21 muskrat PC312678© Maria de Bruyn res (2)