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.

 

Beautiful birds of prey – Costa Rica

During my two trips to Costa Rica in 2018 and 2019, it was a pleasure to see the varied birds of prey flying by and sitting near roads. Unfortunately, both years my photography was not at its best so a good number of the following shots aren’t that great, but they give you an idea of the beauties that can be seen there. My favorite was this gorgeous baby spectacled owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata) who was staring through the rain forest foliage at us from a distance last year. This photo was taken with my phone through a scope.

 

But first let me explain which types of birds constitute the birds of prey as there are some slightly differing definitions. One explanation focuses on birds that mostly hunt vertebrates that are large in relation to their own size. It doesn’t seem quite specific enough as sometimes a great blue heron will eat a relatively big mammal such as a gopher, while I’ve had red-shouldered hawks in my yard fishing the pond for frogs that are fairly small in relation to them. This photo of a double-toothed kite (Harpagus bidentatus) in Costa Rica carrying a small lizard shows that they will feed on smaller prey as well, however.

Another definition is more specific, focusing on physical traits of these birds: relatively large, hooked bills with which they can tear flesh, powerful feet with sharp talons for catching prey animals, keen binocular vision for detecting prey at a distance, and good hearing. This roadside hawk (Rupornis magnirostris), seen in 2018 in the first photo below and in 2019 in the other two photos, illustrates these features.

The raptors are further divided into two major groups: the diurnal species that hunt in the daytime (e.g., eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures) and the nocturnal species that are mainly active at night (the owls). We’ll start with the owls, of which I’ve seen four species now in Costa Rica. I already mentioned the lovely spectacled owl. The immature owl is fuzzy and white with huge eyes; the adults have dark heads and backs but retain their striking yellow eyes. I only saw the young owl, which we observed thanks to our local guide, Cope.

 

Cope is not only a guide but also an artist and I couldn’t resist buying a print of his lovely portrait of the young spectacled owl.

 

Our trip guide, Steve, had heard at one reserve that a pair of mottled owls (Ciccaba virgata) were perched in a tree near a trail. They were exactly where predicted and though the heavy, dark vegetation made for a difficult view, we could see the two resting comfortably. These medium-sized owls lack ear tufts.

Last August, Steve spotted a ferruginous pygmy owl (Glaucidium brasilianum) for us near a creek but it was fairly far off, partly obscured by leaves from where I stood. We had seen one closer up in 2018, perched in trees near the road. This owl is crepuscular (mostly active at dawn and dusk) but they also hunt during the day, which may help account for its willingness to be out in the afternoon so we could get a good look at it.

An owl that I did not see last August was the bare-shanked screech owl (Megascops clarkia). One had been spotted at the top of a hill, but it was raining that day, the path was very muddy and slippery and my arthritic knees and ankles were not cooperating in pathway navigation. The rest of my group ascended while I birded below. But my disappointment was not too great as I had had some good looks at one in 2018. Steve had played the owl’s call, not expecting the bird to appear but thinking it might flush another bird that would be investigating if the owl was near. In flew the lovely little screech owl, perching nicely in view amid the forest foliage!

                             

Some scientists now think that the owls may be more closely aligned with the birds of the nightjar group than with diurnal raptors. The nightjars have small feet and don’t walk much. These nocturnal birds, which have quite short bills, feed on insects found on the ground or caught while flying. We saw a member of this family, the common paraque (Nyctidromus albicollis), resting on a pathway one evening; this one was likely a female as the male has more white on its wings and tail. Their plumage is quite mottled so that they blend in well with their backgrounds; these two photos were taken with different amounts of light illuminating the bird.

Another type of nocturnal bird related to nightjars (but also not considered a raptor) is the potoo. In 2018, Steve found us a common potoo (Nyctibius griseus) perched atop a snag along a very dark, unlit country road. This past August, we saw one perched high above us in a tree during the daytime. When this insectivore perches on a snag during the day, it often blends in so well and remains so completely motionless, people often don’t see it because it looks like it is part of the stump or snag!

This past year we also got to see a great potoo (Nyctibius grandis) as well. They eat not only insects but also small vertebrates with their short-beaked but very broad mouths.

 

The diurnal birds of prey that I’ve seen in Costa Rica include a hawk that I’ve also seen in North Carolina – the broad-winged hawk (Buteo platypterus). Some of these have quite long migratory paths but there are also five sub-species that are endemic to the Caribbean region that don’t migrate.

 

There are both white hawks (Pseudastur albicollis, seen flying very high overhead) and common black hawks (Buteogallus anthracinus) in Costa Rica. The white hawks prey on insects, mammals and reptiles. The black hawks mainly eat crabs, supplemented with eggs and small vertebrates. The one we saw was quite vocal.

 

 

Two other species of beautiful hawks are the gray (Buteo plagiatus) and gray-lined hawks (Buteo nitidus). We saw the gray hawk in roadside trees last August; this is a common perch from which they swoop down on prey animals, including lizards, snakes, frogs, birds and small mammals.

   

In 2018, we were able to admire a beautiful gray-lined hawk (Buteo nitidus) sitting atop a snag. These raptors are seen mainly in southern Costa Rica; their hunting style and favored prey are similar to those of the gray hawks.

The swallow-tailed kite (Elanoides forficatus) seems to be a bird of prey that is seen throughout Costa Rica. Adults feed their young frogs, lizards, snakes and small birds, while they mostly eat insects while flying about themselves.

 

Our guide, Steve, spotted a bat falcon for us (Falco rufiularis) but it was so far away that we had to get a reasonable view mostly through a scope (left). Here is a much better view. We had much better luck watching a laughing falcon (Herpetotheres cachinnans), which was also one of my favorite raptors.

 

We had been driving down a mountain road when this gorgeous bird flew from a stand of trees to a snag in a field.

 

This handsome avian is a raptor with a specialized diet – they mainly eat snakes, giving rise to the erroneous common name of snake hawk. They supplement this dietary preference with lizards, rodents, bats and centipedes.

I didn’t hear this bird but they can vocalize for up to 5 minutes at a time.

 

The next two birds I saw only in flight and only in 2018. The caracaras are members of the falcon family but, interestingly, they are among the few raptors that hunt for food on foot. The crested caracara (Caracara cheriway) has a widely varied diet, including: rabbits, ground squirrels, skunks, birds, frogs, snakes, lizards, turtles, young alligators, fish and large insects. Also of interest is the fact that they not only hunt live prey but also eat carrion.

 

The yellow-headed caracara (Milvago chimachima) does not eat birds but also hunts reptiles, amphibians and small animals. In some places, it is called the tickbird as it will take ticks from cattle. It, too, will eat carrion.

 

 

And then the final bird in this line-up – a much better known carrion eater, the king vulture (Sarcoramphus papa). This mainly white-colored vulture tends to soar much higher than other vultures and often does so without flapping its wings. They are the second-largest vultures in the Western hemisphere (only the condors are larger).

 

A North Carolina-based blog is next and then back to Costa Rica for some more “exotic” animals.

Thanks to fellow travelers, Ylva Byars and Nan DeWire for photos that they provided!

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.