The Crimes and Violence of Birds

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

It’s a fairy tale or fake news to believe all is sweet and peaceful in the world of birds. We are enchanted by their melodious tweets and beautiful plumage, and are often found among them in seemingly peaceful natural settings, but don’t be fooled. Their world is one without constables or arbiters of justice. There are no rules, other than “might makes right”, “survival of the fittest”, and “it’s okay if you can get away with it”.

Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata

Their crimes range from petty theft to rape and murder. We birders are onlookers into this world which is similar to our old Wild West, and are grateful for our, albeit fragile, institutions of justice. As we bird we are witnesses to many of these crimes and often wonder what it would be like living in their world. Occasionally I’m even tempted to intervene on behalf of a victimized bird, but usually hold back and let nature take its course and toll.

American Wigeon, Anas americana

Many of their crimes are mere misdemeanors. This would include the holes the Red-bellied Woodpecker is making in my sister-in-law’s cedar siding. The crows, jays, and gulls are perfecters of the art of petty theft. The former two are attracted to shiny objects, while the latter steals food, literally from the mouths of their careless victims. This usually results in a chase, sometimes resulting in a maimed fish dropped back into the ocean with no party getting any satisfaction.

Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus

A somewhat more onerous and significant crime is the practice of brood parasitism as I’ve discussed in prior posts. This disgusts our human sense of fairness and personal responsibility, but evolution has apparently blessed it as a successful tactic among many bird species. The initial crime is the stealthy planting of the itinerant egg in the nest of the unsuspecting parent-to-be, but the atrocity is magnified when the robust hatchling pushes the other weaker step-sibling out of the nest.

Brown-headed Cowbird, Molothrus ater

Many avian disputes are over territory and nesting rights, somewhat similar to those issues which crowd our human court dockets. The Red-winged Blackbird claims his territory with a beautiful song, but don’t let that fool you. He’ll attack any other bird, even a larger foe, that dares interlope into his nesting sphere of influence.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

My friends Andy and Sam were accidental witnesses to a spectacular avian air battle between an adult Bald Eagle and Osprey. Andy was even dexterous enough to grab a camera and snap off a shot or two to document the event. Unfortunately, in cases such as that one shoots the pictures first, and checks camera settings later. It seemed like the smaller Osprey got the better of that fight. It was probably a territorial spat with the eagle getting too close to the Osprey’s nest. As you know, Bald Eagles are opportunistic scavengers, often feasting on the killings of others.

Red-shouldered Hawk, Buteo lineatus

Hawks and owls, on the other hand, are merciless killers, always on the prowl to feed themselves and their offspring. Often their victims are other birds, but small mammals are also unsafe around a hungry bird-of-prey. In my yard Accipiters have become good at patrolling the bird feeders, flying in fast and low to take an innocent, unsuspecting passerine. We can take some comfort in that such killings are a necessity of life for the raptor.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

In my last post I reported the rape of a Muscovy Duck. I will hazard a completely uninformed guess and venture that most sex among birds is consensual. I may be completely wrong about this, but do point out that many birds do mate for life. That lasting bond would be hard to imagine if it began with a rape, but admittedly I’m anthropomorphizing. Those ducks, however, did seem to cross a line, with no avian justice in sight.

Reddish Egret, Egretta rufescens

I was recently chasing a rarity Iceland Gull on Fort Myers beach, unsuccessfully, when I snuck up on a Reddish Egret and was rewarded with my closest shots ever of the great bird. Suddenly a second egret swooped in and I witnessed a prolonged battle; or was it courtship and copulation? I find it hard to differentiate these with the birds.

So with all the violence, what is the mortality rate among birds? In this year of the pandemic our human death rates are plastered on the headlines daily. A few things are clear in the avian world. Larger birds live longer than smaller birds, but why is this so? Perhaps it’s because the larger birds are near the top of the food chain and less often preyed upon. Banding data has reported some longevity record life spans: Red-tailed Hawks and Brown Pelicans, 28 years; American Robin, 14 years; Eastern Bluebird, 10 years; and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, 9 years. Most birds, however have much shorter lives.

Ring-billed Gull, Larus delawarensis

It’s estimated that 80-90% of birds do not live to maturity. This is a striking number, but when one remembers the numerous eggs laid and multiple broods per year created by a mating pair, it makes perfect sense. If they all survived we would be inundated with birds, just like an Alfred Hitchcock film. It’s also said that the mortality rate of birds is six times higher during spring and fall migrations. Travel is risky, as we all know.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

It’s difficult to determine how many birds die at the hands or feet of other birds, or from avian diseases. Data regarding bird deaths caused by us humans is more readily available. Collisions with buildings and glass claim an astounding 600 million birds a year; collisions with vehicles, 200 million, and electric wires, 25 million. Six million birds succumb to electrocution each year and one such case was chronicled in my post of 17 November 2019. Our pesticides claim another 72 million per year, and who knows how many die from their loss of habitat. But all these numbers pale next to the 2.4 billion birds killed yearly by domestic and feral cats. That shocking number is hard to believe.

Great Blue Heron, Ardea herodias

How can I conclude such a morbid post of avian crime and death? Perhaps by showing you two Great Blue Herons in love, or by simply stating that these are observations of life on our planet as it is, and not as we wish it to be. It’s merely a description of both the beautiful and fair, right along with the ugly and unjust.

Blue Ridge Birding, Brides, and Biophilia

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

 

If you’re a urban dweller in the Washington / Baltimore corridor the urge to escape the asphalt jungle can either pull you to the east and the rural tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay, or to the  west and the historic Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains.  It was the lure of the saltwater bay that won the day for us, but not without an occasional wistful glance over our shoulders to the beautiful mountains of Virginia.  Luckily a family wedding and an invitation from friends allowed us to visit this hill country in October.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Edward Wilson codified our urge to commune with nature as the “biophilia hypothesis” in 1984.  He actually suggested a genetic basis for homo sapien’s desire to affiliate with other forms of life, both plant and animal.  I suspect it’s a driving force behind increasing urban green spaces, back yard gardening, environmentalism, and the popularity of birding.  It may have also inspired an urban bride and groom to head to the mountains to exchange their vows.

It was a perfect day for a wedding with an Indian summer sun’s slanting, late afternoon rays, shining on the wedding party.  Grazing cows on the nearby hills barely noticed the nuptial festivities.  I was not unaware of the soaring birds completing the idyllic scene.  Live music and dancing, with some blue grass flavor finished the memorable day.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

The next morning we headed further south and west, higher into the Blue Ridge, along the Cow Pasture River.  Friends from Charlottesville, two families, had jointly dreamed of owning a cabin in the hills.  It would be a rustic, secluded lodge, along a river, ideal for fly-fishing, tubing, and hiking.  It would be a country retreat for the two large families, now with many grandchildren.  It was all that and more with a large front porch, stone fireplace, and comfortable beds, with a nearby bunkhouse for the kids.

One arrives at this destination over a mile of winding, narrow, gravel road along the creek bed, past a repaired wash-out, and through the dense woods.  Several times I wanted to turn back, this couldn’t be the right route, but we pressed on.  At the edge of the forest and the top of the last hill we finally saw the house in the valley below, with barking dogs, Lang, Peggy, and Mike all welcoming us to their home in the mountains.

Right out of the car I spotted a large bird perched atop a pole and power line, maybe a quarter mile across the valley.  It had a light upper and dark lower body and I prematurely declared it must be a Bald Eagle.  I quickly unpacked my camera and proceeded to close in for a better look.  The technique is to advance 50 feet, take some shots, check exposure factors, and advance another 50 feet.  If you’re lucky you may even get a flight shot when the bird finally spooks.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

In my experience most raptors, especially eagles, won’t let you get very close.  My goal was to hide behind the last tree, perhaps 100 yards from the perching bird.  I inched my way there and still the bird did not move; something was not right.  I took more shots and zoomed them to the maximum.  It was not an eagle.  It was a Red-tailed Hawk, upside down, and dead.  The whiteness I saw from a distance was the hawk’s lower belly feathers, not the head of a Bald Eagle.

Obviously I could now get as close as I wanted, inspect the crime scene, and get as many shots as needed, all with the correct sun angle and exposure.  This hawk was not going anywhere.  How did this proud bird reach this ignoble, inverted end, hanging earthward, limp, dead?  Death had come recently.  There were no signs of gunshot, but man was not completely blameless.  I believe this was death by electrocution.

Birds land and perch on power lines everyday with no ill effect.  The flow of electrons takes the direction of least resistance through the wire, bypassing the relatively insulated body of the bird.  If that bird, however, ever touches another wire or any grounded structure, the current will flow through the bird and kill it.  My theory is that this hapless hawk landed on top of the wooden pole and its wing or feet touched the wire, completing the circuit from wire, to bird, to pole, and the ground.

Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica

I did more birding that day and the next as our hosts guided us over the suspension bridge and through their forest on barely blazed trails.  We saw other woodland birds but I could not get that hawk out of my mind.  A couple weeks later Peggy emailed me that it had finally fallen to earth and the vultures had picked over the corpse, leaving just feathers and some bones to mark the spot.

And time goes by.  This fall weekend reminded me of that yet again.  Mother Earth and all its creatures grow old.  If we’re fortunate aging is graceful and gradual, but occasionally unexpected tragedy intervenes.  We cling to nature, each other, and our God for solace, but time waits for no one, not even a Red-tailed Hawk.

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.

Caracara, King of the Road Kill

Crested Caracara, Caracara cheriway

 

Just as the song says, “sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.”  I was innocently driving my shiny new pick-up down a rural road when out of nowhere a crazy vulture swooped down and crashed into the quarter panel.  All I saw in the rearview mirror were fluttering black feathers, a new mangled roadside meal waiting for wiser vultures, and a sizable dent in my truck.  As I wrote the check to the body shop I began to reflect upon road kill and the avian community.

Black Vulture, Coragyps stratus                 click to zoom

It seems that there is a hierarchy of birds vying for the right to road kill.  One can sit by and observe the competition for the rotting carcass if you have too much time on your hands, or if like me, you are a little “bird-addled”.  My observations lead me to suggest this hierarchy arranged in order of increasing aggression:     Crows and Sea Gulls, Turkey Vultures, Black Vultures, and Crested Caracara as “King of the Road Kill”.  Eagles also fit into this scheme somewhere but are not as frequently seen at the roadside.

A Choir of Gulls

Earlier this week I noticed a dearth of good Caracara shots in my photo library so I headed to the best place in southwest Florida to correct that, the wide open flatlands along Oil Well Road in Collier County.  The stately and dashing bird is often seen there perched on a fence post or lording over road kill.  I was not disappointed.

Oil Well Road

The name “Caracara” is derived from the sound of their harsh rattling call.  Our crested northern species, also called a “Mexican Buzzard”, is most commonly seen along our southern border and into Mexico, Central, and the northern parts of South America.  The very similar Southern Caracara is found from northern Brazil south to Tierra del Fuego.  Caracara belong to the Falconidae family but are quite different from other swiftly flying falcons.  They, instead are sluggish scavengers, finding most of their dead or dying prey on foot.

Southern Caracara, Caracara plancus

Caracara are found exclusively in the New World.  In addition to the genus “Caracara”, there are four other genera of caracara.  The dissimilar Chimango Caracara belongs to the genus “Milvago”.  These pictures of the Southern and Chimango species are courtesy of Andy, my esteemed colleague, world traveller, and bird photographer par excellence, who just returned from Patagonia.

Chimango Caracara, Milvago chimango

Oil Well Road extends due east, away from the settled gulf coast and into “Old Florida”, the land of the endangered Florida panther, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, and also the Crested Caracara.  After years of exploration Humble Oil Company finally drilled a producing well here in 1943, but there are no wells obvious to me along the road today.

Turkey Vulture, Cathartes aura

Some of the road is a new divided highway with most of the traffic heading to Ave Maria University.  This college town is the brainchild of Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza.  The growing conservative Catholic university and surrounding town were literally built in the middle of nowhere, but seem to be growing as they celebrate their 10th anniversary this year.  Stop in there for a birder’s lunch and check out the impressive church in the center of it all.

The Oratory at Ave Maria

East of Ave Maria the traffic drops off and the road reverts to its two-lane rural character.  Wide grassy shoulders allow the birder to pull over and scan the roadside ditches for waders and alligators.  Wood Storks and Red-shouldered Hawks are plentiful here and you may catch sight of a Roseate Spoonbill.  It’s also where you’re apt to find the road kill and observe the avian clean-up crew at work.

American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos

The Turkey and Black Vultures will not win many beauty contests but are perfectly adapted to their niche as scavengers.  The Turkey Vulture has an exquisite sense of smell and can detect that “dead skunk in the middle of the road stinking to all high heavens” from thousands of feet of elevation.  In fact the Black will often follow the Turkey Vulture to the carcass and then, being the more aggressive of the two, will chase its red-headed cousin away.  That is, until the Caracara moves in and displaces them both.

Turkey Vulture

Black Vulture

A perfect meal for a vulture is carrion that has been dead several days.  This allows the flies and maggots to tenderize the meat.  The scavenger’s strong gastric acid neutralizes the contaminating bacteria, and their featherless heads allows for effective clean-up after the meal.

Crested Caracara fighting over a dead snake

You won’t find Oil Well Road listed as a birding hotspot for south Florida, but don’t let that deceive you, especially if you are seeking the Crested Caracara.  Just be sure to pull far off the pavement onto the grassy shoulder to give those screaming 14-wheelers a wide berth.  And also, watch out for the lurking gators in the ditches.  They may look like they are sleeping in the hot sun, but could also be lying in wait for their next meal.

Alligator, Alligator mississippiensis

 

Cape May Hawkwatch Platform

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If you had to rate birding hotspots or favorite destinations for the eastern United States, Cape May would likely be at the top of the list.  This southern-most tip of the New Jersey peninsula was named for Captain Cornelius Jacobese Mey who explored the region in 1623.  The generations of fishermen, mariners and whalers have slowly given way to vacationers enjoying the beautiful beaches and myriad Victorian gingerbread houses gracing quaint tree-lined avenues.  But I went to Cape May for the birds, who are not there to admire the architecture.

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Merlin (Falco columbarius)

In a relatively small area you’ll find a variety of habitats including woodlands, grassy fields, salt marshes, freshwater ponds, low scrubland, and sandy beaches attracting a large variety of resident and migrating birds.  Almost anything is possible during fall migration in Cape May as the northwest winds push the vast Atlantic flyway eastward toward the coast and the birds are funneled southward until they arrive at land’s end and the formidable Delaware Bay and ocean.  The smart ones rest and feed for a few days, enjoy the scenery, and create a show to remember for us birders before continuing over the water.

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Laughing Gull (Larus atricilla); the area boasts the largest breeding population of this gull–no joke.

Cape May is one of the only places I know where the birder, dressed in our weird outfits and draped with our equipment, does not draw that quizzical apprehensive stare.  You’ll see many birders and guided tour groups daily throughout the town, and may even run into the celebrities, authors, and gurus of our hobby.  There are far too many birding sites in the area to discuss here, but one of my favorites is the Hawkwatch platform near the lighthouse at Cape May Point State Park.

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Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)

Hawks have been watched and counted there for years but the counter became a formal paid position of the New Jersey Audubon in 1976 when they hired 24 year-old Pete Dunne.  The stump of an old telephone pole was the first platform, soon replaced by a plywood table built by Dunne himself.  Despite these humble beginning he, of course, is now one of our most accomplished birders and authors.  The platform itself has also grown to become a large, multi-tiered edifice and famous destination for birders, hosting 20,000 visitors in 2015.  It’s in a perfect location halfway between the dunes and beaches to the south, the tree line to the north, and directly faces a shallow saltmarsh to the east.  Curiously the migrating kestrels tend to hug the shoreline while the hawks pass east to west over the tree line.  Just to the west is the famous lighthouse, restrooms, visitor center, and plenty of free parking.

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Hawk-Watch platform and counter

Think of a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon in autumn.  There are different football games playing on multiple large screen TV’s while “experts” multitask, keeping one eye on one game and the other eye elsewhere; at the same time debating over a cold beer on the wisdom of the last play call and the preferred strategy for the next.  That’s the hawk-watch platform during autumn migration; just substitute birds for the TV pigskin and bottled water for the beer.

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Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)

On the top tier of the platform and far to the right you’ll find the official counter.  He or she is the one constantly scanning the sky and often calling out the birds while they are still specks in the distance. “Merlin heading to the right between the two fluffy clouds, one binocular field-of-view to the left of the lighthouse!”  They amaze with their knowledge of characteristic flight patterns, wing flapping, and silhouettes, but you soon begin to learn their techniques and try your luck.  If you’re brave you may even call out a bird sighting yourself, but be prepared to be politely corrected if you blunder.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

As in the sports bar you can choose to just sit quietly and enjoy the birding banter.  Someone on the right is reliving an amazing count total from the past while someone on the left is describing recent trips to birding hotspots in Arizona and Maine.  Another expert is holding forth on the best camera, lens, or field guide while on the lower tier the Swarovski Optik representative (they are the corporate sponsor of the count) is hawking their wonderful scopes and binos.  While just sitting there I learned about the distinguishing dark carpal bands on the Common Tern and how to recognize the aggressive flapping flight of a Merlin, the “falcon with attitude”.  One made a low flyover right in front of us unsuccessfully chasing a fleeing sandpiper across the pond.

Greater Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marines); look carefully to see his songbird prey

They count more than hawks from the platform with plenty of songbirds, waders, gulls, and shorebirds also called out.  My days at the platform were relatively quiet with a warm southern wind blowing in from the bay.  However, the day before I arrived they counted 91 American Kestrels and two days earlier had 325 Bobolinks coming in on more favorable NW winds.  The most common bird of prey which I saw was the Merlin, coming in seemingly every 10 minutes one mid-morning.  Extremely “big days” are possible.  Pete Dunne counted 11,096 Sharp-shinned Hawks and 9400 Broad-winged Hawks on 10/4/1977!  Oh, to have seen that!

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus)

There is no such thing as a bad birding day at Cape May.  And if the birds seem scarce just check out the “Hawkwatch Sports Bar” and you’re sure to pick up some tips or meet a celebrity birder.  There’s a counter there everyday from dawn to 5PM,  September 1 till November 30.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

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It’s just a mundane task, taking out the trash, but not that day.  With bag in hand I opened the door from the house to the garage and came face to face with a Sharp-shinned Hawk perched no more than 10 feet away on my winter-stored boat.  Piercing startled eyes, his and mine, locked on–who would blink first?  He turned to fly to the light of a closed window and crashed, and crashed again before flying right by me, still frozen in place, to the safety of the open overhead door.

The title picture above is a Red-tailed Hawk, but reproduces well the  Sharpie’s expression during our close encounter.  I know better than to leave the overhead door open.  It has acted as a giant mist net in the past and trapped other smaller birds, Carolina Wren being the most frequent captive.  Later that day I returned to the scene with yet another bag of trash, and my forensic curiosity led me to investigate more thoroughly.  Small red feathers were strewn across the floor and a small bright orange bill lay partially detached from a Cardinal’s head.  I had rudely interrupted that hawk’s breakfast, probably procured from my feeder just outside the door.

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Northern Cardinal, RIP (click on any picture to zoom)

My hawk encounter reminded me of Loren Eiseley’s close encounter with a Crow, described beautifully in his classic book, The Immense Journey.  This naturalist’s book has been in my library for 50 years, read and reread countless times.  In the chapter titled “The Judgement of Birds” Eiseley recounts a neighborhood walk in a dense fog, so dense that “planes were grounded and a pedestrian could hardly see his outstretched hand before him.”  Suddenly a large, flying, black body with wings emerged out of the fog at eye level, barely missing the author, and emitted “a frantic cawing outcry of hideous terror as I have never heard in a crow’s voice before.”

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American Crow

In typical Eiseley fashion he searched for and found a deeper significance in this event.  “The borders of our worlds had shifted…The crow had thought he was high up, and when he encountered me looming gigantically through the fog, he had perceived a ghastly and, to a crow mind, unnatural sight… desecrating the very heart of the crow kingdom, a harbinger of the most profound evil a crow mind could conceive of, air-walking men.”

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Florida Scrub Jay

Sometimes our world’s do overlap, even to the sense of touch.  I described the Florida Scrub Jay landing on my head in an earlier post, Chasing Rarities in Florida, and we’ve all had the sensation of the friendly, light chickadee feeding from our palms.  There’s the banding operations of the ornithologists and also the charitable cleaning of oil from the feathers of birds harmed by the Gulf oil spill.

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Carolina Chickadee

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Carolina Wren

We had one other close encounter in our garage several years ago, again a result of the open door.  Dressed for dinner, my wife and weekend guests went to get in the car while I locked the house door.  It was a terrible, hideous scream, this time not from a crow but from my wife.  Everyone slowly backed away as four furry legs and a fang-bared snout and head of a Red Fox peered out from below the car.  It didn’t move and on further investigation we pronounced it dead.  The experience made for good dinnertime conversation with our more urban guests; how did it get there, was it injured, was it chased into the garage, or did it come into the shelter to die of natural causes?  As luck would have it our guest was a man of letters and literary gifts.  This poem by him arrived at our house a few days later.

The End from the Eastern Shore

Is he dead

That sneaky old fox?

What sort of grin

Peeps from his whiskers?

Take care!

He could still give you

Rabies.

Lying down inside the garage,

Grey whiskers sticking out

From the SUV’s bumper,

Was it the bell-tones

Of the chasing dogs

Or just the rigor

Of old age?

We’ll cart him out

In the wheelbarrow

And leave him

To the turkey vultures.

It’s too late now

To turn another

Trick–

We hope.

Eric Robinson, 2007

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The end of Reddy Fox, a childhood friend.

 

Book Review: H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Merlin

Merlin

H Is For Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, published by Grove Press, New York, copyright 2014, 283 pages.

It was one of those nights, becoming more frequent now, when I laid wide awake at 2 AM.  When this happens I reach over to the night stand, turn on the dim light, and grab whatever book or magazine I touch first.  Reading usually puts me back to sleep. This time it was an old New Yorker.  I started at the back to avoid those long current event articles in the front that I rarely agree with, and checked out the cartoon competition and then the book reviews. The title of the review, Rapt, Grieving With Your Goshawk, by Kathryn Schultz caught my eye–I had just finished my review and post of The Goshawk by T.H. White.  The coincidence grew as I read Schultz’s review of H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, which itself is in part a review and commentary of T.H. White’s life and writings, including The Goshawk.  It seemed like a sign.  After a quick Amazon download to my Kindle, I was off and reading another hawk book and well into it by dawn’s early light.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The author was a young graduate student in the history of science at Cambridge who recently lost her father to an unexpected cardiac death.  This book is a skillful weaving of three themes:  her personal grieving and situational depression and eventual recovery, the acquisition and training of a goshawk named Mabel, and a commentary of the life and works of T.H. White, the earlier 20th century author who was also a falconer and naturalist, and also struggled with depression. H Is For Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction and the Costa Book of the Year prize.

Helen Macdonald’s father was a free lance photographer and former plane-spotter as a child.  His lessons of patient observation and sky-watching led to her unusual and precocious interest in birds, raptors, and falconry.  As a child she had already read White’s The Goshawk, Blaine’s Falconry, and all the related texts needed to master this art.  Prior to her fathers death she had already trained kestrels, merlins, and peregrines and was a former falcon breeder for the United Arab Emirates.

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Peregrine Falcon with recent kill

Why train a goshawk now with her grief so fresh and raw, and why a goshawk?  Its an uncommon, secretive, wild, and difficult hawk to train.  Just “looking for a goshawk is like looking for grace; you don’t get to say when or how.”  But its also the bird that T.H. White acquired when he sought to retreat from humankind and kindle his own feral self.  She was experiencing those same impulses.  As she relates the fascinating training of her young goshawk Mabel, she compares and contrasts her techniques with the love/hate relationship between White and his Gos.  But as this training goes on the reader senses the author’s growing alienation with humankind and identification with the bird, and her deepening depression.  The bills aren’t paid, mail and calls not returned, and human contact avoided.  As a reader I felt like an observer of a train-wreck in slow motion, not sure I wanted to see how this all ended, but the compelling writing kept me going to witness the recovery.

Black Kite

Black Kite

Midway through the book there is the memorable scene when Mabel is given her freedom to fly without constraints for the first time.  Remember this is a hawk bred and fledged by humans, never previously released to the wild.  Helen is “practically catatonic…this is ridiculous…I don’t want to be here…Oh!  And I let her go.  And immediately I wish I had not.  Suddenly my hawk is free”.  When the hawk does not immediately return to the fist Helen is devastated, “My beating, horrified heart, and my soul feeling like water at four degrees; heavier than ice, falling to the bottom of the ocean.  And suddenly she is back on the glove, I feel soaked in ice water, and I cannot believe she is not lost.  I feel like White:  a tyro, a fool, a beginner, an idiot.”

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The first step in recovery is recognition of the illness.  At some point the author disagrees with the naturalists like Muir who celebrate becoming one with nature and one with the birds.  Most have a “little splinter of wildness” while coming home, having dinner, and participating in humanity.  But she realizes, “I don’t have both sides.  I only have wildness.  And I don’t need wildness any more…Human hands are for holding other hands.  Human arms are for holding other humans close.”  She wonderfully relates this process of repair and restoration, the role of her mother, the memorial service, her friends, professional help, and medication, eventually leading to the point of separating from her beloved Mabel during the long molting phase of spring.  After all, she has her own spring revival to tend to.

I don’t believe my short review does justice to this affecting and fascinating book.  Please refer to the Kathryn Schulz review in the March 9, 2014 New Yorker for a more in depth analysis, or better yet, read H Is For Hawk.  You won’t be sorry.

 

Book Review: The Goshawk by T.H. White

Peregrine Falcon, sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk, but the Peregrine is a close but smaller cousin.

Peregrine Falcon. Sorry, I do not have a photo of a Goshawk.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White, published by the New York Review of Books, copyright 1951, 215 pages, introduction by Marie Winn.

I was browsing in the local bookstore, in the birds and wildlife section, when I saw this small paperback tucked on the bottom shelf between the large well known guides.  I tend to favor the smaller books and picked it up, but almost put it back when I discovered it was about falconry, published years ago.  No self-respecting birder would condone the enslavement of hawks, let alone pay good money to read an account of the practice from 1951.  Yet something I read on the back cover or introduction gave me pause and I made the purchase, and am glad I did.

T.H. White was an young Englishman, recently retired as an English professor and starting a literary career in 1936 when he wrote this book.  He had become a Thoreau-like recluse, living alone in a gamekeeper’s cottage, “tired of most humans”, when he received the fledging goshawk by mail-order from Germany.  The book is his non-fiction log of the training of the bird named Gos, using two dated manuals, one written in 1619, as his only guides.  It is a battle of wills, hawk vs. human, with the final result very much in doubt.  It is also the musings of an observant and perceptive naturalist with a discussion of the art and history of falconry, and what he learned about these willful birds and himself.

Red-Shouldered Hawk

Red-Shouldered Hawk

The Northern Goshawk is the largest accipiter of North America, primarily seen in the northern forests.  Its name is derived from the Old English words gos (goose) and hafoc (hawk). It was known in ancient times as the “Bird of Apollo” and its symbol was worn by Attilia the Hun, testifying to the bird’s fierceness and power.  According to White the “hawks are sensitive to the eye and do not like to be regarded–it is their prerogative to regard.”  These characteristics make it one of the more difficult raptors to train for falconry, a lesson learned late by the author. The book briefly describes falconry as an ancient art and sport, primarily of the nobles, dating back to Mesopotamia 3000 years ago and reaching its peak in Medieval Europe.  In typical English fashion, a hierarchy of raptors was allowed to the falconer or austringer depending on ones class; an eagle for an emperor, a peregrine for an earl, a goshawk for a yeoman, and a kestrel for a knave.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The book has only two characters of note, the author and Gos.   Its charm stems from the detailed description of their evolving relationship during the arduous, frustrating, and laborious training of this wild bird, spanning 3 months of days, and often sleepless nights.  Who will crack first, man or bird?  The author noted that his admiration of the skills of mothers and demands of motherhood grew from the experience.

During the training the bird was restrained by jesses or leather straps around the ankles, holding him initially by a short leash to a perch or the falconer’s padded arm. The early days consisted of frequent tantrums or “batings” of the wild bird.  Batings are “the headlong dive of rage and terror, by which a leashed hawk leaps from the fist in a wild bid for freedom, and hangs upside down by his jesses in a flurry of pinions like a chicken being decapitated, revolving, struggling, in danger of damaging his primaries.  It was the falconer’s duty to lift the hawk back to the fist with his other hand with gentleness and patience, only to have him bate again, once, twice, twenty, fifty times, all night…”.  The final breaking of the bird’s will and its acceptance of its human master required, according to the ancient lore, 72 hours of sleeplessness, enforced by the also sleepless trainer, nudging the bird awake, until the bird finally relaxes it feathers, droops it wings, drops its head, and succumbs to sleep, even in the presence of its new human master.  After this ordeal the formal training could begin.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle

“Manning” the bird involved gradually introducing the bird to the outside world, including other humans, automobiles, dogs, and other birds. The author calmly stroked the bird through each of these inevitable batings caused by new worldly contacts, and verbally soothed Gos with the frequent recitation of the hymn, Lord, My Shepherd.  White would walk the countryside for miles with Gos on his arm, and even taught the bird to perch on the handle bars of the bicycle for longer trips.  The tired falconer’s patience however had it limits as evidenced by the various nick-names asssigned to Gos through the process;  Hittite, Absalom, insane assassin, Caligula, filthy bugger, and choleric beast. Gradually the leash was lengthened and Gos could test his wings, even up to several hundred feet.  The author learned the key to enticing the bird to return to the wrist was through his stomach.  Overfeeding and overuse of food as a reward was to be avoided as William Shakespeare relates in The Taming of the Shrew:

My falcon is now sharp and passing empty;

And, till she stoop, she must not be full-gorged,

For then she never looks upon her lure.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

One finds multiple themes in this book.  One is freedom vs. enslavement;  the soaring hawk is a symbol of freedom, but when man captures it, breaks its spirit, and uses it for its own aims, nature is corrupted.  Then there’s the theme of teacher vs. pupil, or parent vs. child and the need for the instructor’s loving patience and persistence, no matter what.  I recommend this book to all who find the subject of interest; the writing is superb.  I will not give away the outcome of this adventure, other than to say life is not always as we wish it to be.  The author goes on to train multiple other birds, but in closing, sadly quotes the old proverb, “When your first wife dies, she makes such a hole in your heart that all the rest slip through”.

 Other books by T.H. White include:  The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, The Book of Merlyn, and The Queen of Air and Darkness.

Hawk Watching

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The dull drone gradually got louder as the excited but purposeful boys, 10 and 12 years old, prepared their spotting cards and cigarette packs (each pack had a different plane silhouette on the back).  Would these approaching planes be the friendly Hampdens returning from a nighttime raid, or German bombers headed to London? The Heinkel had twin engines and small tail whereas a Dornier had an unusual elongated fuselage and wide-spaced tail fins.  The fast German Messerschmitt would be a great find, but most of the small fighters would be the friendly Hurricanes or Spitfires, intercepting  the invaders and defending the homeland.  Some say these planes could be differentiated by their sound, but these boys had become experts plane spotters by learning the characteristic silhouettes.  It was the fall of 1940 and the boys were living on a small farm in Sussex England, previously relocated here from London, the main target of the blitz, with a dozen other children.  No doubt about it–these were Dorniers, headed toward the city!  The boys called their observation to the local Home Guard before the planes were even out of site, happy that they were doing their part.

“Friendly” B24 Flyover, Penn Yan, New York, 2012

Seventy falls later I was sitting on a elevated wooden spotting platform on the western shore of Delaware Bay.  Not far away, along the beach, was a tall concrete observation tower, built in 1941 to help protect the homeland from German ships and submarines.  During those war years it was important for our coastal defense but was now crumbling and overrun with vines.  I had my spotting cards ready, thankfully scanning the skies for hawks rather than bombers, but using the same spotting techniques perfected by those English boys a generation ago.

Have you ever noticed, when birding with a group, if someone spots a hawk or eagle flyover everyone leaves their warbler or sparrow to train their glass on the raptor?  The excitement picks up and the ID process begins.  There is a mystique about these large birds, heightened by their hunting behavior, armed with sinister beak and claws, always ready for the next kill.

American Kestrel

American Kestrel

To review the basic classification there are the Buteos, Accipiters, and Falcons, with the side groups of Eagles, Vultures, Harriers, and Kites which I’ll discuss on a later post. The English schoolboys may have thought of the Buteos as the bombers, the Accipiters as the fighters, and the Falcons as the dive bombers. Years ago, before the age of binoculars, the ID was made by shooting the bird and then examining the field marks, bird in hand.  The advent of good binoculars lets one check field marks on close or perching birds, but these details are rarely visible on the high, soaring, backlit raptors one usually encounters in the field, especially during spring or fall migration.  This is where the silhouette ID’s of WWII are applied to hawk watching.  Relative size, shape, wing-beat, behavior, location, and gross or large markings have become birder’s main tools, replacing the more subtle field marks.

Soaring Red-tailed Hawks

Soaring Red-tailed Hawks

A couple trips to the hawk watch platform at Cape May and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania introduced me to the basic concepts.  Learn the common birds first.  In the pictures above and below the ID is easy.  These are large buteos with wide wings and a dark leading edge or patagium on the center 1/3 of the wings, and dark comma seen on the outer 2/3’s.  It can only be a Red-tailed Hawk, my most common hawk sighting in Maryland.  The red tail itself is often not visible, but is obvious on the photo below.

Red-tailed Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

The Red-shouldered is the most common buteo I see in Florida, but it is usually found perching in the woodlands watching for small prey, rather than soaring.  Some say its a buteo that acts more like an accipiter. When seen in the air it is distinctly smaller than the Red-tailed with a more rapid wing beat and distinct call.  Its a gorgeous raptor.

Red-shouldered Hawk

Red-shouldered Hawk

The smaller, long-tailed Accipiters come in small, medium, and large (Sharp-shinned, Coopers, and Northern Goshawk) and are referred to by Pete Dunne, et-al in “Hawks in Flight” as the “artful dodgers” for their rapid agile flight.  This accounts for my limited photography of these.  The Sharpie’s and Cooper’s however do have specific silhouettes making their ID easier.  The small Sharpie has a “T” configuration with the head barely visible, whereas the larger Cooper’s looks more like a “t” with obvious head projecting in front of the wings.  I have not seen a Goshawk.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The Falcons commonly seen in the East also come in small, medium and large (American Kestrel, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon).  These are the fastest raptors with long, narrow, pointed wings, and are commonly seen in open spaces on purposeful straight-line flight, usually targeting small birds.  The Kestrel or sparrow hawk is the falcon most commonly seen by me.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

Merlin

Merlin

If seeing a single raptor is exciting, little compares with the accounts of large kettles of hundreds and thousands of birds observed during migration along the flyways.  Reportedly the premiere location to witness this natural phenomenon is Veracruz, Mexico, situated along the coastal lowlands where the flyways of eastern North America converge over the narrowing isthmus of southern Mexico.  Hawk watchers there report a hundred thousand raptors and vultures per day at peak migration.  I have not been to Veracruz, but the next best place to witness the fall migration is Hawk Mountain, Kempton, Pennsylvania, which I have visited.  Visit the web site for a history of this venerable site, set aside as a protected sanctuary in 1934 by Rosalie Edge.  www.hawkmountain.org

View from Hawk Mountains toward numbered peaks

View from Hawk Mountains toward numbered peaks

I usually do not go on trips solely for birding, but on a recent beautiful September weekend we made a memorable trip to Hawk Mountain–my first visit.  This rock strewn ridge or small mountain is at 1500 feet elevation and the north face, at the end of a relatively easy 2 mile climb provides a unobstructed view to the northeast and adjacent glacial ridges.  The raptors use the updrafts from these to conserve energy in their yearly fall migration to the south, giving birders a wonderful opportunity to observe and count.  The trail was deserted, but as we made the final climb to the summit we were surprised to find a dozen or more birders or hawkers, all settled in to the most comfortable rocky seats, with scopes and binoculars at the ready, and coolers on hand.  These people clearly knew what they were doing, were here for the day, and smart enough to bring a cushion. They have helpfully numbered the subtle peaks to the northeast and the watchers would call out, “hawk over peak #3 heading to the right”.  We’d all look for the bird, initially just a spot above the horizon, until someone would make an ID as the bird closed, perhaps by consulting the silhouette cheat sheet. When it approached our summit you could get a picture with a long lens, but remember, this was primarily long distance viewing.  The stuffed owl on the pole in the picture above occasionally caused a close encounter, but usually the hawks passed by at moderate altitude.

Hawk Mountain

Hawk Mountain

We spent two wonderful half days on the mountain, learned much about hawk ID, and just enjoyed the hike and scenery.  Our hawk count was relatively low as we were rushing migration season by a few weeks, but we did see 9 species of raptors and vultures and many other birds along the trail.  I’ve experienced the mystique of these raptors and someday may make the trek to Veracruz. I also remember those English school boys and bet they would have made great hawk spotters as well.