Florida’s Raptors

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

 

 

I’m life untethered, soaring upward

on itself, sharp of talon and lethal of

beak, leaving nothing in my wake but

warm blood and gristle.

Taylor Rosewood

Maybe that first stanza in Rosewood’s poem is a little gruesome, but probably a fair description of the raptors or birds-of-prey who fill the niche at the peak of their food chain.  These predators include the hawks, falcons, harriers, osprey, owls, and kites, and also the scavenging vultures, eagles, and caracara.

Barred Owl, Strix varia

Raptors are characterized by keen eyesight for hunting, strong feet with talons for killing, and a sharp, curved beak for tearing flesh.  They are powerful in flight, some plunging from great altitude at high speed to take their unsuspecting prey.  A few, however, subsist on carrion, leaving the killing to others.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

The hearts of birders and non birders alike speed up when we spot a bird-of-prey, and in Florida this occurs almost daily.  Not so much with the vultures, which only a mother could love, but definitely with the rest.  The most common hawk here is the Red-shouldered, which tends to perch and call from seemingly every woodlot and residential neighborhood.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

I’ve been accused, rightly, of failing to read the fine print.  A recent birding example of the malady was my futile attempt to find a Florida specialty bird, the Short-tailed Hawk.  Everyone else was reporting it but me.  Finally I read the fine print in Dunne, Sibley, and Sutton’s classic, “Hawks In Flight”.  This bird hides itself well and is practically never seen on the ground, but hunts from great soaring heights.  To see it “look up, way up, and be grateful for the backdrop of white cumulus clouds that enrich the Florida skies.”  Sure enough, there it was just as advertised, thousands of feet above me, soaring with the vultures.

Short-tailed Hawk, Buteo brachyurus

My pictures of this hawk are not ideal given the distance, however hawk ID is not about subtle field marks, but rather about the grosser patterns of light and dark, wing and body shape, and the cadence of the flapping wings and their attitude while gliding.  The Short-tail Hawk comes in two varieties or morphs.  I saw the light morph, which reportedly is less common in Florida compared to the dark one.  These are tropical raptors of Central and South America that reach the northern limit of their range in Florida.  Unlike most buteos, they are hunters of other birds, taking them unawares from above.

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

Other birds-of-prey that might be considered a Florida specialty (not as widely seen in other states) are the Crested Caracara, Snail Kite, Swallow-tailed Kite, and Burrowing Owl.  The caracara vie with Bald Eagles for “king-of-the-road-kill” supremacy.  They displace the Black Vultures from the carrion, who have displaced the Turkey Vultures, who previously shooed away the crows.  It’s a real-life pecking order.

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

I lived here several winters before I saw my first Snail Kite, formerly called the Everglades Kite.  This picky raptor’s diet is exclusively the apple snail, which it searches for in freshwater wetlands.  Issues with water management seriously threatened this raptor in the 1950’s with the number of surviving birds reportedly as few as 50.  Better management since has seen a recovery to 1000 or more birds, but it’s still a great birding day when you see a Snail Kite.  Look for a white base of tail in flight, not to be confused with the Northern Harrier which has a white rump.

Snail Kite, Rostrhamus sociabilis

The Swallow-tailed Kite makes it spring debut in Florida on Valentine’s Day, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico from its wintering grounds in South America.  Dunne, et-al gush, “some may argue that this kite is the continent’s most beautiful bird.  Elegant, almost rakish in design, it dresses formerly in black and white attire, tails and all.”  I do not disagree.

Swallow-tailed Kite, Elanoides forficatus

The “cute award” for raptors must go to the Burrowing Owl.  This diminutive raptor seem to thrive here, often digging their burrows in sandy vacant building lots.  Driving through Marco Island’s residential neighborhoods you see these birds sitting at their burrows with nearby stakes marking their protected nests.  It must drive the homeowners crazy while they wait for the owls to move out so they can finally build their Florida dream house.

Burrowing Owl, Athene cunicularia

I was birding at Clam Pass last week when a kayaker landed, pulled out a large net on a long handle and tried to sneak up on a Black Skimmer which appeared to be disabled by a broken leg.  Tim Thompson, I later learned was a good Samaritan and volunteer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.  Along with many research and educational functions this venerable organization has an animal rescue hospital, http://www.conservancy.org.  I joined in Tim’s effort to net the bird, but to no avail.  It could still fly.

Peregrine Falcon, Falco peregrinus

But I learned that Tim did this type of rescue work on a regular basis and had recently worked with others rebuilding a wind-damaged Great Horned Owl’s nest. They successfully returned two flightless downy owlets to their home, high in a slash pine, all under the watchful eyes of concerned parents.  He offered to take Andy and I back to the site, inside an exclusive golf community, check on the nest, and give us an opportunity for some owl photos.

Great Horned Owlets, Bubo virginiaus                          photo by A. Sternick

We found the owlets still safely perched in the same tree, even after the thunderstorm of the previous night.  While dodging golf balls and golfers, (who were also seeking birdies) we also found one parent watching us warily from across the fairway.  Several hundred shots later, we finally called it a good day of birding.

Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus

So what is it about these birds-of-prey that makes them so compelling?  We’re in awe of their size and fierce countenance.  We’re shocked by their ruthless killings which keep their prey ever wary.  But there’s also a calm confident majesty they possess as the lords of their food chain.  They only kill to survive, and are superbly equipped to do just that, with an occasional leg up from Tim and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Urban Birding in London

St. James Park

 

A New World birder recently visited London and for a short while became an English twitcher.  It’s with some fear and trepidation that I submit this posting as I was birding on historic grounds in a country filled with sophisticated twitchers.  But I’ll “keep a stiff upper lip” and press on.  Early March may not be the ideal time for birding in the U.K. but it’s when I visited with dear friends and spouse, primarily to sample the theater and dining options in this great city.

Greylag Goose, Anser anser

We were queuing up to visit Churchill’s War Rooms at Westminster when I noticed beautiful St. James Park and pond with obvious bird activity just across the street.  Even with no binoculars, a mere cell phone camera, and a wife more interested in Churchill than birds, this was too inviting to pass up.  My excitement grew when several of the ducks and geese, and also the giant White Pelicans were new birds for me and listed as rarities here by eBird.  But “something was rotten in Denmark”.  I later learned that these “rarities” were in fact pinioned birds, non-tickable, and transported here for the public’s enjoyment.

Great Tit, Parus major

St. James Park was set aside as a hunting ground for Henry VIII in 1536.  The White Pelicans, or more correctly their ancestors, were a gift from the Russian ambassador in 1664.  In 1834 the Ornithological Society of London erected a bird keeper’s cottage next to the pond, still standing today.  Apart from the pinioned birds I did see some tickable species including Red-crested and Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Golden-eye, Eurasian Wigeons and Coots, and Barnacle, Greylag, and Canada Geese. Unfortunately the cell phone shots don’t meet my photographic standards for public viewing.

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca

Each morning in London started cool and damp, with a threat of rain.  “To bird or not to bird, that is the question.”  Blessed with a spouse that likes to sleep in, and a well-situated hotel in South Kensington, just a hop, skip, and jump from Kensington Gardens, that was an easy question to answer for this Hamlet.  This time I was ready with binoculars, a real camera and lens.

Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata

You’re treading on history in this Royal Park.  It sits on the west side of Hyde Park, at the site of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair.  Kensington Palace was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and a grand monument to her husband Albert stands just to the south.  Crisscrossing paths, ancient trees, and Serpentine Lake make for excellent urban twitching, even among these historic icons.

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

I learned that there were recent sightings of Tawny and Little Owls in the Gardens, apparently pairing off and preparing for nesting in the old tree cavities.  Owls always get my attention and were my primary goal that morning, however I was able to see and photograph numerous duck, geese, and passerines along the paths.  Day one produced no owl, but as a famous Brit once said about a time and situation much more serious than this, “never, never, never give up”, so I took his advice and returned to the Gardens several days later to renew the effort.

Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos

This morning I stumbled upon a fenced-off woodlot with the Gardens with several stocked feeders drawing in Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Wrens, Chaffinches, Robins, and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker.  This was a bird photographer’s Mecca.  The chore was to catch the birds away from the feeder in the morning’s low light.  While working on that a young Brit walked up and asked the usual question, “seen anything good?”  He obviously knew his birds and the Garden and graciously escorted me to the very tree where he had seen a Little Owl earlier that day.  Thanking him I aimed my lens at the hole, checked out all the exposure settings and waited for the bugger to peek out. And waited, and waited, and waited.

Little Owl, Athene noctua

Tired of waiting and again resigned to a no-owl day I was preparing to press on when I noticed the eyes peering down at me from another tree, off to the right.  What a hoot; exhilaration that only another birder understands; it was the Little Owl, probably watching me for the last half hour.  A hundred pictures later I returned to the hotel satisfied.  In addition to the owl I saw six other life birds in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens, including the Barnacle, Egyptian, and Greylag Geese, Red-crested and Common Pochards, and Tufted Duck.

He’s still watching

The urban birding I did alone, but hired an excellent bird guide to take me to sites and additional new birds outside the ring road.  I plan to describe that in a later post.  In the meantime, “stay calm and bird on.”

 

Great Horned Owls

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It was unseasonably cold for early May and had been raining all week when cabin fever set in.  I just had to get out and do some birding.  I chose a small woodlot on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay which is known locally as a Warbler trap, hoping some early migrators had arrived.  I decided to “go bare” with just the binos and leave the camera home and dry–always a bad move.

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San Domingo Creek with first hint of blue sky in a week

The birding was sparse and the warblers few.  But do you know the eerie feeling that you’re being watched?  I felt that just before I looked up into two pairs of yellow eyes 20 feet above my head.  Great Horned Owls are formidable birds.  I slowly backed off while snapping a few poor shots with my cell phone to prove to my skeptical birding friends that I had actually seen them.  That night, despite dreaming that I had been attacked by owls, I resolved to take a real camera back to the site and look for the birds again.

I believe these two birds are juveniles, likely hatched in February making them about 3 months old.  You can still see some of their fuzzy down but they are nearly full-sized.  The juveniles leave the nest and climb onto nearby branches at 5 weeks and can fly by 9-10 weeks.  They won’t acquire the full adult plumage until next October.

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Bubo virginianus

When I returned the next morning with a real camera and lens, the Canon 7D II and 100-400mm 4.5-5.6L IS II, the birds were gone or at least not where I had left them.  This was a big disappointment as I had never taken a good photo of a Great Horned Owl in daylight.  Making the best of it and birding the remainder of the woodlot I saw nothing more exciting than a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Common Yellowthroat, and a small flock of Cowbirds making that weird clunking sound.  That is until I saw the owls again about 75 yards away from their initial perch, hunched together and staring me down.  Their leery gaze followed me wherever I moved as I tried to get the best angle for a shot while still keeping a prudent distance away.

Getting a reasonable photo in the dark woods on an overcast day is a real challenge.  I cranked the ISO up to 6400 which explains the slight lack of sharpness of these shots.  I was still able to keep exposure speeds of 1/320 to 1/640 seconds.  Normally one wants exposures faster than that while shooting moving birds, but these were motionless.  I only saw one adjust his foot position once. These speeds along with the image stabilization gave a reasonable result.

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Click on any photo to zoom

The juveniles were obviously capable of some flight, having moved to another tree.  I haven’t mentioned that on the first day I found a third owl. This one was an adult about 100 yards away in the same woods.  Since this is Mother’s Day I will venture to say that it was the mother keeping a close eye on her adolescents.  She was still helping with the feeding and protecting them from any birder that got too close.  I can just hear my mother telling me and my brother to sit there and don’t move until I return with your lunch.  Mother owl likely did the same.  I’ll bet she’s also encouraging some independence for her owlets and looking forward to the day when her offspring are finally mature, on their own, and her maternal mission accomplished.

Book Review: The Owl Papers, by Jonathan Maslow

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Burrowing Owl

 

The Owl Papers by Jonathan Maslow, published by Vintage Books, copyright 1983, 177 pages.

“Twas the owl that shrieked the fatal bellman, which gives the stern’st goodnight,” said Lady Macbeth when her traitorous husband murdered his king.  Shakespeare was reflecting his age’s connection of the doleful call of the owl with imminent death or evil. Earlier medieval children were coerced into obedience by the couplet:

Oh–o–o–o–o!

I once was a king’s daughter and sat on my father’s knee

But now I’m a poor hoolet, and hide in the hollow tree!

Even today Hollywood invariably uses the Great Horn’s mournful call in its horror movie soundtracks.  What a reputation! Is it those penetrating eyes, the calls, the claws, or the nocturnal hunting? These are all examples used by Mr. Maslow in The Owl Papers as he discusses this bird-of-prey in our history and literature. He also includes interesting chapters on their evolution, physiology, and behavior as well as chapters which recount numerous anecdotes from his quests for owls in greater New York City.  The birding adventures are grouped by the four seasons, further adding to the appeal of this short book.

Great Horned Owl, xx Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

A memorable chapter discuss the hunting prowess of the Great Horned Owl, called Le Grand Duc by the French.  After the owlets have fledged in autumn they are callously driven off the breeding ground by their parents, who each resume their solitary life as hunters.  Evolution has produced the ultimate nocturnal hunter with the Great Horned, described in detail by the author.  Along with the keenly sensitive eyes, aligned anteriorly to track the prey with binocular vision, the entire head structure is sculpted to enhance hearing.  The facial disk collects and channels the sounds to large ears on each side of the face, one directed slightly upward, and one downward.  By tilting and turning the head the owl receives directional information about each sound’s source.  The ears are most sensitive to the high frequencies of the owl’s prey–usually the sounds of small rodents scurrying among the leaves.  The Great Horned, in fact can successfully hunt entirely by sound.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl, asleep along a boardwalk in Naples, FL.

The owl feathers are designed for stealthy flight, and the claws for a crushing and penetrating kill.  It makes me remember with some trepidation my encounter with a Great Horned years ago.  I had perfected the owl’s call and one dark night decided to try it out, answering the nocturnal hooting of an unseen Le Grand Duc in my backyard.  I kept “whooing” and slowly inched toward the owl’s answering call when I suddenly felt the swoosh of wind and passage of the huge bird, inches above my head.  My imitation must have been good, frankly too good, and I am thankful to still have my scalp.

Screech Owl, Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

The owl drawings in this post are courtesy of Lou Probst, a nonagenarian artist and friend of a friend.  I sincerely thank him for allowing me to use them.  I especially like the Great Horned drawing, which reminds me to stick to my imitation of songbird vocalizations and leave the dangerous raptors’ calls alone.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Owl photography in daylight is difficult. This is not because the birds are moving, but precisely the opposite.  They are usually, quiet, hidden, and often sleeping, recovering the previous night’s hunt.  You’re lucky when you find one with his eyes open and in a location amenable to photography.  My only experience with nighttime owling was during the Christmas Bird Count years ago when I volunteered to assist a dedicated local birder.  We found a remote wooded road, put the tape recorder on the roof of the car and played the various calls, recording the responses from each species.  We never actually saw anything, but it was fascinating, albeit cold work.

by Lou Probst

drawing by Lou Probst

Another chapter in The Owl Papers describes owling in the Meadowlands of northern New Jersey in pursuit of Short-earred Owls.  The pristine wetlands of the early twentieth century was sought out as a picnic site for New Yorkers escaping the city heat. By the 1970’s, however it had become a wasteland.  Maslow gives a great description of the habitat gone bad, with old leaking drums, rusting cars, dead end rutted roads, abandoned warehouses with broken windows, and rotting dog carcasses, which were likely the remains of a nefarious competition.  All were overgrown with Phragmites choking out the native grasses. There were Red-winged Blackbirds and Flickers spotted, along with a policeman sound asleep in his patrol car, but no owls.

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Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, from King’s Ranch is SE Texas

I’m not sure how I stumbled across The Owl Papers, but it is my kind of book.  The author’s descriptions of his quest for the birds in an urban environment, along with discussion of their anatomy, physiology, and behavior, sprinkled with reminders of the owl’s role in our history and literature, make for a good read and a lucky find.

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Short-Earred Owl, photo courtesy of A. Sternick