Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: hawks

CSI: Sky

The hawk is an acrobat and an impostor—
he flies with vultures and when he banks
his lighter plumage blazes in the sun,
betraying him to anyone down below with
eyes to see and secrets to conceal. The butcher
hides in plain sight among the forensics birds;
it’s a good procedural crime drama. I search
the woods for evidence, but these guys
are too good, too thorough, and I wonder
how I stumbled into this perfect scheme.

What I Learned about My Backyard from Project FeederWatch

A Common Grackle looks around the yard

A Common Grackle looks around the yard

Project FeederWatch ended last weekend. For those just tuning in, PFW is a citizen science project run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The idea is that you commit to keeping a record of all the birds that visit your feeders, birdbaths, birdhouses, and landscape features from November to April. In addition to being a part of something that helps scientists learn about and help birds, participants have the opportunity to learn a surprising amount about what goes on right outside their doors.

This is a summary of some interesting things I learned.

Observations about Specific Birds:


A Bewick's Wren stops by for a snack

A Bewick's Wren stops by for a snack

We get both Carolina and Bewick’s Wrens at our house. They both like suet and mealworms, but the Carolina Wrens will also take seeds from the cake feeders. Carolina Wrens also seem to be more willing to poke around the ground in the flowerbed, while Bewick’s Wrens prefer scouring the trees and plants for bugs. Carolinas also seems to be much more vocal; every morning, I can expect one singing (surprisingly loud) from the fence.


Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

On several occasions, on count days and non-count days, I saw unidentifiable accipiter hawks swooping through the yard. On one occasion, I got some pictures of one sitting by the neighbor’s feeder and on another day, I saw one sitting by my feeder. I never got a good enough look to ID any of the ones I saw on count days, but readers of this blog thought the one I photographed was a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

I assume he’s been eating sparrows since those are the only birds whose counts have been lower than I expected them to be. The wrens, titmice, chickadees, and finches all seem to show up in basically the same numbers each week so I suspect they’re avoiding the hawks.


Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch

I was thrilled to see goldfinches show up in my yard at long last. I have my sister to thank. She got me some nyjer bags for Christmas, and the goldfinches arrived withing days of putting them out.

Lesser Goldfinches will only take nyjer seed from the bags, while American Goldfinches who seem to prefer the nyjer bags, will use the tube feeder when the bags are crowded.

American Goldfinch in winter non-gold plumage

American Goldfinch in winter non-gold plumage

I had hoped to see the American Goldfinches in breeding plumage, but they seem to have mostly left, although I did see one this weekend in transitional plumage. I hope he sticks around so I can see him in his full golden glory.

Blue Jays:

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

Through most of the winter, the Blue jays came around only for the peanuts. As things warmed up, and nesting season began, they started taking suet again, which they didn’t touch during winter, ceding it instead to the wrens, titmice, kinglets, warblers, and mockingbirds. They also come around more and more for the regular seeds, but the peanuts are still the favorite.


(no pictures. try back next year)

During the fall and winter, the cardinals only come around in the very early hours before dawn and the dusky hour between sunset and dark. During spring and summer they come around the feeders at all times of the day.


One Mourning Dove and two White-winged Doves

One Mourning Dove and two White-winged Doves

White-winged Doves are the most prevalent and obvious birds at our platform feeder during spring and summer, but through fall and winter, there are substantially fewer and the Mourning Doves come around a bit more frequently.


A Northern Mockingbird eyes the suet feeder

A Northern Mockingbird eyes the suet feeder

The mockingbirds come regularly for suet in the winter, but lose all interest in it when it gets warmer out. There is a pair nesting in the neighbor’s cedar tree, but their only interest in my yard now is the birdbath.


Black-crested Titmouse on the pinecone feeder

Black-crested Titmouse on the pinecone feeder

The Black-crested Titmice are almost always the first ones to check out a new feeder, and often the first ones to the worms in the morning, thus earning them the nickname Pigmice. They’re still my favorites, though.

Every morning in winter, one or two would burst from the wren box and start scolding me from a nearby tree until I had the worms out. Now that it’s warmer, they’ve left the box for the wrens and are nesting elsewhere, but they’re still first in line at the worm feeder most mornings.

And, now, some lists…

The Visitors:

The numbers are the highest numbers of individuals seen at one time.

  1. White-winged Dove (25)
  2. Chipping Sparrow (24)
  3. House Sparrow (20)
  4. American Goldfinch (8)
  5. Common Grackle (8)
  6. House Finch (5)
  7. Northern Mockingbird (4)
  8. Brown-headed Cowbird (4)
  9. Black-crested Titmouse (3)
  10. Mourning Dove (3)
  11. Carolina Chickadee (3)
  12. European Starling (3)
  13. Blue Jay (3)
  14. Lesser Goldfinch (3)
  15. Bewick’s Wren (2)
  16. Carolina Wren (2)
  17. Northern Cardinal (2)
  18. Ruby-crowned Kinglet (2)
  19. Red-bellied Woodpecker (2)
  20. Black-chinned Hummingbird (2)
  21. Orange-crowned Warbler (1)
  22. Ladder-backed Woodpecker (1)
  23. Accipiter sp. (1)
  24. American Robin (1)
  25. Red-winged Blackbird (1)
  26. Song Sparrow (1)

The Permanent Collection:

These are the birds that appeared in all 20 counts.

  • White-winged Dove
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Carolina Wren
  • Bewick’s Wren
  • Chipping Sparrow

All of these are permanent residents except the Chipping Sparrows. They will depart for points north in the next week or so, and return in October. If past years are any guide, we will see flocks of 60-70 in the yard for a day or 2 and then they will be gone.

House Sparrow only missed one week (Dec 27), which was incidentally, the first time I saw an accipiter hawk. Smart sparrows.

Passing Through:

Birds that came for a distinct span of time and then left.

  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (1.3.09 – 2.7.09)
  • American Robin (2.28.09 – 3.14.09)
  • Orange-crowned Warbler (1.3.09 – 3.14.09)
  • Red-winged Blackbird (3.7.09 – 3.14.09)

I’ll be curious to see if these species come around these times next year.

Sometimes Birds:

Birds that are here year-round. They don’t come by the yard very often, but were kind enough to stop by on at least one count day.

  • Accipiter sp (Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawk)
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Ladder-backed Woodpecker
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • European Starling

Spring/Summer Birds:

These are the birds that hang around the yard only during spring and summer along with their arrival dates.

  • American Robin (2.21)
  • Common Grackle (3.07)
  • Black-chinned Hummingbird (3.21)

Biggest Flocks:

These are the largest groups of individuals seen at one time.

  • White-winged Dove (25 on 3.14.09)
  • Chipping Sparrow (24 on 1.17.09)
  • House Sparrow (20 on 12.06.08)
  • American Goldfinch (8 on 02.21.09)
  • Common Grackle (8 on 03.07.09 & 03.21.09)

Life Birds:

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet considers the suet feeder

A Ruby-crowned Kinglet considers the suet feeder

These are the birds I had never seen and saw for the first time as a result of paying closer attention to the feeders.

  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Accipter sp. (probably Sharp-shinned Hawk)

Non-avian Feeder Visitors:

A possum visits the bird feeder

A possum visits the bird feeder

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

  • Fox Squirrel
  • Virginia Opossum

Project FeederWatch was a fun and eye-opening experience. I intend to continue counting birds and uploading my counts to ebird for the rest of 2009, and I will definitely be participating again next year.

Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk?

Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

Accipiter hawk relaxing on the neighbor's fence

This morning, I noticed this crafty devil sitting on the neighbor’s fence.  He seemed pretty relaxed what with his feathers all fluffed out against the cold, and standing on just one foot. I watched for a few moments and then ran for my camera and binoculars. Even though I was in the house, I’d swear he heard the camera because he put his foot down and looked right at me when I started shooting.

Not wanting to risk being late for work, I didn’t study him for long through the binoculars, trying instead to get pictures, which turned out a bit fuzzy, as the light was low and my lens isn’t fast, but I thought they might be passable enough to figure out an ID.

Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk on the neighbor's fence

Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk on the neighbor's fence

I’m pretty certain he is one of the 2 accipiter species of hawks that can be found around here this time of year, but the question is: which one?

The Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk look nearly identical, though the Cooper’s is slightly larger. The Sharp-shinned are roughly jay-sized while the Cooper’s are closer to crow-sized. The hitch there is that the females are larger than the males so a large female Sharp-shinned and a small male Cooper’s could be the same size.

Fortunately, I had the neighbor’s squirrel feeder to compare him to. I’ve never seen a crow near it, but I do see lots of Blue Jays hanging around there, and this hawk looked a bit larger compared to it than the jays.

Project FeederWatch has a good page about distinguishing between these two as does the Great Backyard Bird Count.

The Project FeederWatch site had this useful bit of info:

If you can see the back of the hawk, and it is an adult, then the color of the nape is a reliable field mark. Cooper’s Hawks have a pale nape with a clear contrast to a dark cap. Juveniles of both species can show a pale nape, however.

The bird in question had the decency to turn his head and in these 2 shots. It does appear that the nape is paler than the cap, which suggests Cooper’s Hawk.

Acciptiter 2

Accipiter 4

And, so, the question of the day: Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned? I’m leaning towards Cooper’s. Any of my birding friends out there want to weigh in? I’d love to know for sure.

If I’m way off, you can tell me that too.

Birdz in the Hood

Last week’s Great Backyard Bird Count project got me thinking about long-term counts around the neighborhood. What species come and go over the course of a year? Which are the year-round residents in our neighborhood?

I know that the ducks like this lesser scaup only come to the pond in the winter.

But what of the others? On Saturday, while walking along the trail down to the pond and onward to the creek, I decided to try to take a weekly count of birds and other wildlife I happen to see. If I can maintain this for a year, perhaps I’ll really know my local wildlife. Who knows, maybe they’ll start inviting me to their nests for insects and seed.

Red-shouldered Hawk

The two red-shouldered hawks that circled and swooped over the pond were by far the highlight of Saturday’s walk. One of them even came close enough to let me take this fairly decent picture.

Farther down the trail, I heard a faint tapping up in a tree. I saw two ladder-backed woodpeckers, male and female. The male is the one with the red cap. The female’s is black.

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Along the way, I heard great symphonies of bird song, but only saw these:

  • 1 Lesser scaup
  • 2 Red-shouldered hawks
  • 4 Blue Jays
  • 1 Turkey vulture
  • 4 Black vultures
  • 2 Ladder-backed woodpeckers
  • 1 American crow
  • 1 Killdeer
  • 2 Bewick’s wrens
  • 2 Chipping sparrows
  • 4 House sparrows

Other than birds, the only animals I saw were dozens of turtles on the pond including a few that decided to pile up and sun themselves.

Red-tailed Hawk in Flight

Finally, I get a decent shot of a red-tailed hawk in flight. I got that one sitting on a pole back in December, and this might even be that very bird as he was patrolling the same area. Either way, I was glad to have the camera in the car and not much traffic on the road.

They’re pretty common around here; one of the more common birds of prey in North America, actually, but I still love to watch to them. They’re definitely slow-down-and-stare birds.

Though he wasn’t making any noise, the red-tail’s raspy call is the one usually used for all hawks and eagles in movies according to All About Birds.

Red-tailed Hawk

Yesterday we had one of those bracing cold mornings. The sky was a crisp blue, and frost covered many of the fields along the highway. It’s the kind of morning that seems to bring out the birds of prey.

I see this red-tailed hawk on many of the cold mornings on my way to work. Except when I have my camera. Yesterday, though, I had the camera, and there was the bird, chillin’ on the pole.

I pulled over and shot a few frames from the car before he flew off. I should have driven past him and shot back so the sun would be behind me. I wouldn’t have had to dodge him as much to bring out the detail on his wings. Next time I’ll try not to be so excited about the bird so I can give just a bit more thought to the photography.

They are magnificant creatures, though. It’s easy to just watch the bird and forget the machine in my hands.

I drove on to work, part of me wishing I had his job…

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