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!

 

 

 

An avian buffet appears!

In the town where I live, there is a private lake in a neighborhood of single-family homes. The little body of water was created by developers who dammed a local creek; now a neighborhood association levies annual fees for use of the lake for swimming, fishing and boating. In the past month, the neighborhood residents were surprised by an influx of birds that they do not usually see and some photos of the new avian visitors began circulating.

Given my interest in wildlife and birds, some colleagues passed on a couple of photos to me and one couple kindly invited me to come visit so that I could see the new arrivals in person. They were especially curious about the identity of a few ducks. When I arrived, no ducks were in sight, but at least 80 double-crested cormorants (Phalacrocorax auratus) were hanging out in crowds on two floating docks.

Their tightly-packed presence had displaced the Canada geese (Branta canadensis), who are more common lake residents. A group of 11 geese were off in the distance on shore leaving the open water to the visiting avian groups.

Some of the cormorants couldn’t fit onto the platforms, so they swam around in the company of the many dozens of ring-billed gulls (Larus delawarensis) of all ages who were swarming the waters as well.

From time to time, the gulls would begin edging their way onto the platforms, eventually taking up space vacated by the cormorants. There are both adult and immature gulls in the crowd.

From time to time, the gulls launch themselves into the air for aerial forays which end in dives down to pick up a fish, of which there still seem to be plenty. This is because the shad population with which the lake was apparently stocked is dying off as a whole.

Why is this happening? I don’t know the species of shad with which the lake was stocked, but it appears that threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense) are common in the Southeastern USA and often introduced as forage fish for the bass and catfish that fisher-people seek. The shad are very sensitive to changes in water temperature; when it goes below about 42° F (5.5° C), they expire. In the past 6 weeks, we had an unusual early winter storm with about 8-11 inches of snow, followed by days and days of cold rains. Sometimes, it is cold 24 hours long; other days have nights and dawns below freezing and then afternoon temperatures of 50-60° F (10-17° C). The shad die-off is a result.

  

The newly arrived birds are obviously enjoying the easy pickings. When the gulls drop down to snatch a fish, they are almost always pursued by other gulls who try to make them drop the prize.

 

Even when they alight with a fish firmly held in their beaks, other gulls harass them in an attempt to make them give up the meal.

 

  

The shad often appear to be too large for the gulls to swallow. I saw several gulls try to position them to get them down their gullets but the fish just wouldn’t go down. So they drop the fish in the water and then try to pick off pieces for easier eating, while fending off neighboring gulls.

  

It is unclear to me how the birds who don’t usually populate the lake in winter knew that a spontaneous buffet had appeared. In addition to the cormorants and gulls, a group of seven bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) was also fishing when I visited. There were some almost full adult eagles (with mostly white heads and tails) and several immature birds of varying ages (eagles reach maturity at 5 years of age). I guess that they came over from Jordan Lake, which is quite a fair distance away. Searching the Internet has not yet given me an answer to this question.

I didn’t see the eagles harass gulls who had gotten a fish but they were very carefully watching one another. When the eagle below managed to get a snack, other immature eagles closely followed him/her. A sub-adult who got a fish was harassed by an immature bird as well.

 

The eagles soared overhead and were joined at one point by a beautiful red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis). The larger raptors let the hawk fly alongside them with no problem.

It was quite a chilly morning when I got to see the visiting aquatic birds, so I only stayed a short time. But my friends invited me to return for another visit, which I hope to do soon as there is no telling how long it will take the visiting birds to eat the easily available shad. And the ducks? I was able to get one rather indistinct photo of a threesome across the lake and helpful folks in a Facebook group confirmed my guess – they are ruddy ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis). Maybe I can get a decent photo of them next time. 🙂

Growing up barred – Part 2: personal care

The young barred owls that I observed this past summer at the Mason Farm Biological Reserve could be found rather predictably in two places at the reserve, both of which were near water. They were quite beautiful to see.

Barred owls (Strix varia) are the only owls in the Eastern USA who have brown rather than yellow eyes. When adult, barred owls have short feathers on their heads but no ear tufts. Their eyelids are also feathered. The juveniles still have fuzzy down feathers on their heads and pink, barely feathered, eyelids as you can see here.

     

Adult barred owl                                                                Young barred owlet

Their feathers extend down their legs and feet right up to their talons. The owls’ claws are less curved than other raptors’ talons which makes it possible for them to squeeze their prey to death.

  

  

As they grow, the young ones will groom often, pulling out downy feathers.

    

They frequently stretch out their wings and tails when grooming.

                    

  

Baths were also a welcome form of personal care.

  

This was especially so during our very hot summer days. The fact that I was standing about 5 feet away did not deter the owlets from enjoying vigorous dunkings in the water ditch.

 

I did not see them bathe at the same time; they appeared to take turns. Perhaps each one was keeping watch for the other one when they were vulnerable.

The siblings did indeed seem to be very aware of each other’s activities and when I observed them, they didn’t stray far from one another. The next blog will show a little of their interactions.

 

My pond and the cycle of life

Undergoing cardiology exams can bring up thoughts of mortality and a life lived; perhaps they also made me more attentive to the cycle of life in my yard, particularly in the vicinity of my backyard pond.

Several years ago, a local garden center went out of business and they had a 175-gallon black plastic pond for sale. It was a good deal, so I invested in it and then had to dig a large hole in the rocky Piedmont clay ground of my backyard (with a bit of help from a neighbor teen). At a certain point, the ground was so hard we couldn’t penetrate it with shovels so the pond now sits a bit above ground level; the rocks I piled up around it have offered a home to Eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus).

 

I transferred some of my beautiful koi and goldfish from a smaller pond, only to have a great blue heron (Ardea herodias) come by to clean them all out.

On the recommendation of the garden center staff, I had positioned a heron statue by the pond – they said herons don’t like competition, so the intruder would keep flying when s/he saw the one by the pond. It didn’t take long for the bird to figure out the stationary bird was not real, however.

After the heron had eaten all the koi and goldfish, I still had some tiny baby fish. At first, I thought they were from my now deceased koi but apparently the intruder heron had had fish eggs on its feet from a nearby natural pond and left them behind. So for a time, I had unidentified native fish in the pond. They were extremely shy, however, and I only got a brief look at them when they surfaced early in the morning; as soon as I came near, they dove down under the water plants (no good photos).

Then some green frogs (Lithobates clamitus) moved in this past summer and ended up being extremely prolific reproducers. Before I realized it, there were at least 500 tadpoles in the pond!! They were eating the fish food and at the same time I noticed that I wasn’t seeing the fish at all anymore. Going online, I found out that tadpoles will eat fish – their sheer numbers had to have spelled doom for the fish.

 

 

I collected lots of the tadpoles, gave some to a friend for her water feature and released hundreds into the local creek (they are native animals after all). A few of the tadpoles grew into frogs and the pond became a residence for some very loud croakers.

 

  

The next chapter in the story came a couple days ago. I had seen a pair of red-shouldered hawks (Buteo lineatus) visiting my yard recently. I thought they were after the chipmunks, numerous squirrels and songbirds populating the area. The other day, however, one hawk took up a position in the crepe myrtle tree next to the pond and just sat there calmly not bothering with any of those creatures. Numerous Northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis) perched in the tree above her and many other species of birds were at the nearby feeders;  none of them were concerned at all with the hawk’s presence. The squirrels didn’t seem perturbed either.

She sat fairly still and I took some photos through my kitchen window. Then I ventured out into the backyard, sure she would take off as I left the porch steps. But Ms. Hawk just sat there, sometimes stretching a leg or engaging in a little grooming.

     

   

Occasionally, she looked up but often her gaze was fixed on the area around the pond.

She would stare intently down at the ground – I thought she might have spotted one of the pond chipmunks.

Then after a while, I noticed her shifting her stance – suddenly she plopped down into the pond with spread wings. It happened too fast for me to get out from behind dried plants to get a good photo, so I watched as she climbed out of the pond. Then it became apparent what she had been hunting – she had caught one of the green frogs.

  

It looked like she bit its head to kill it as soon as she got on dry land; the frog wasn’t moving.

Then she spent time ruffling and shaking out her feathers which had gotten a good soaking.

She spent a little time looking around and then abruptly took off with her prize, closely followed by another red-shouldered hawk who suddenly swooped in.

He chased her but she got away with her meal and he ended up sitting in a neighbor’s tree, somewhat disgruntled with his failed thievery attempt.

  

Ms. Hawk returned yesterday and spent quite a bit of time in a high tree surveying the yard and gazing down at the ground. Red-shouldered hawks sometimes eat birds, such as sparrows, doves and starlings (which are all numerous around my feeders) but more often they go after snakes, mice, toads, frogs, lizards and small mammals such as voles and chipmunks. They will also eat insects and earthworms. Since I’m leaving the leaf litter, there are undoubtedly more insects hiding there than in neighboring yards. I’m not sure what Ms. Hawk is seeking in my yard, but I hope she doesn’t get all the pond frogs. In any event, I’m sure new ones will find the water in the spring and in the meantime, I have a beautiful bird of prey to watch this winter.

Braeburn Farm is for the birds!

I don’t often get the chance to visit a farm (other than organized farm tours, which are a bit pricey and then might be crowded). Last year, I was invited to one during an annual llama shearing, which was educational. This year, however, I’ve had the chance to visit Braeburn Farm four times so far because the owner and manager have decided to make it a nature reserve as well as a cattle farm. Nick, the land manager, is a birder who is more than willing to share his knowledge with the visitors.

pond I77A6227© Maria de Bruyn res

My first visit to this farmland/nature reserve was in the early spring to see Wilson’s snipes at one of the five ponds. By late June, these birds had moved on but the ponds were now harboring mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), belted kingfishers (Megaceryle alcyon) and killdeer (Charadrius vociferous).

mallard duck I77A7320© Maria de Bruyn res     red-winged blackbird I77A6920© Maria de Bruyn res

belted kingfisher I77A6936© Maria de Bruyn (2)   killdeer I77A6934© Maria de Bruyn res

My quest to see green herons at one pond was unsuccessful, but my 20-minute walk there was accompanied by the non-stop screaming of a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), who called both from tree tops and the air as she circled overhead.

red-tailed hawk I77A6030© Maria de Bruyn res   red-tailed hawk I77A6044© Maria de Bruyn res

A non-native bird who might greet you as you come down the road near the farm manager’s home is a helmeted guineafowl (Numida meleagris), the sole survivor of a neighbor’s flock. This bird now comes to visit the domestic chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus) at Braeburn, perhaps seeking some companionship in addition to the easily available chicken feed.

helmeted guineafowl I77A5648© Maria de Bruyn res    chicken I77A6958© Maria de Bruyn (2)

chicken I77A6949© Maria de Bruyn resThe farm chickens are in a large pen while other chickens run free, including one with a wild hairdo.

A trio of wild turkeys left the woods and entered a field during one of my visits but they were at a considerable distance; still, I could say I had seen them that day! The Eastern meadowlarks (Sturnella magna) have often been visible at a distance in the fields, but on my last visit I saw one a bit closer on a fence post, giving me the chance to enjoy its beautiful plumage.

 

Eastern meadowlark I77A8597© Maria de Bruyn    Eastern meadowlark I77A5898© Maria de Bruyn

Eastern kingbird I77A5683© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Eastern kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) can be seen in many of the fields and on wires. They take advantage of the ponds to snag dragonfly meals and the dry grasses provide materials for nests.

 

Eastern kingbird I77A7653© Maria de Bruyn        Eastern kingbird I77A7099© Maria de Bruyn res

They also pose very prettily on the shrubbery!

Eastern kingbird I77A7007© Maria de Bruyn   Eastern kingbird I77A6380© Maria de Bruyn res

grasshopper sparrow I77A7118© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) are numerous, which was lovely for me as this species was a lifer for me. If you approach on foot, they fly off, but Nick said they are so used to his motorized cart, they stay put as he chugs on by!

 

grasshopper sparrow I77A6976© Maria de Bruyn res      grasshopper sparrow I77A5738© Maria de Bruyn res

Savannah sparrow I77A8690© Maria de Bruyn res

 

In the spring, when we had gone to see the snipes, we were lucky to see savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis) running about in the grass (I had at first thought we were seeing field mice scurrying about).

 

 

 

orchard oriole I77A7271© Maria de Bruyn resIn June, a pair of orchard orioles (Icterus scpurius) had built a nest in a tree bordering one pond and I was excited to see two babies just days before they fledged. The father was feeding them and brought one baby a large cricket, which seemed to be too large for it swallow easily. Dad tried to help by pushing it down but when I left, the insect was still sticking out of baby’s mouth and its sibling was still hungry, too.

orchard oriole I77A7475© Maria de Bruyn res

orchard oriole I77A7510© Maria de Bruyn    orchard oriole I77A7500© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7161© Maria de Bruyn resThe barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) adopted an abandoned barn as their hotel of choice. When I visited in June, the young had just been fledging; they and their parents were circling the barn and resting on fences nearby, showing off their beautiful colors.

In July, a few stragglers remained in nests. Some that had taken the great leap were hanging around outside, even clutching the barn wall.

barn swallow I77A7062© Maria de Bruyn res        barn swallow IMG_4527© Maria de Bruyn

barn swallow I77A7145© Maria de Bruyn res

barn swallow I77A7139© Maria de Bruyn res

Others were enjoying the view on a wire line, together with some purple martins.

barn swallow I77A6990© Maria de Bruyn res

The fence posts and other farm structures offer resting places for various birds, like the Eastern wood peewee (Contopus virens), chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), house finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) and Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis).

Eastern wood-peewee I77A6694© Maria de Bruyn res    Eastern wood peewee I77A6675© Maria de Bruyn res

chipping sparrow I77A6665© Maria de Bruyn res   house finch I77A6529© Maria de Bruyn res

Eastern bluebird I77A5859© Maria de Bruyn res  Eastern bluebird I77A5847© Maria de Bruyn res

turkey vulture I77A7105© Maria de Bruyn res

 

The turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) take advantage of the cattle’s well-water stations to get a drink, but then may retire to a tree branch for a bit of sunning. Nick likes them better than the black vultures, who had killed a newborn calf when its mother wasn’t taking care of it.

 

 

turkey vulture I77A7107© Maria de Bruyn res    turkey vulture IMG_4469© Maria de Bruyn res

Northern mockingbird I77A7669© Maria de Bruyn res

 

Other birds, like the Northern mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) and great-crested flycatchers (Myiarchus crinitus) enjoy the view from the vantage of high branches in trees.

 

great-crested flycatcher I77A7199© Maria de Bruyn res     great-crested flycatcher I77A7193© Maria de Bruyn res

While the 500-acre farm is mostly advertised in relation to its beef and opportunities to hold events such as receptions there, the farm management is now increasingly promoting it as a place for wildlife observation as well. The biodiversity in birds, mammals, insects, reptiles and plants is wonderful and my next blog will focus on examples of the non-avian wildlife to be seen there. If you’d like to visit the farm, do contact them!