Common ravens are known for their aerial acrobatics, often doing rolls and somersaults and other amazing tricks. According to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, one bird was seen flying upside down for more than a half-mile. Young birds are fond of playing games with sticks, repeatedly dropping them and then diving to catch them in mid-air. The pictured raven, however, was much too busy to be doing cartwheels in the sky. It has a nest with eggs nearby, and during its morning patrol encountered a red-tailed hawk which it drove out of sight in a matter of seconds. Although small mammals make up most of a red-tail’s diet, they are known to also prey on smaller birds, including defenseless nestlings, which the ravens will have in the next few weeks. (Because of the angle, the 24-inch-long, 53-inch-wingspread raven looks disproportionally larger than the 19-inch-long, 49-inch wingspread red-tail.)
With winter temperatures still upon us, it can be challenging to find signs of spring in the hills of Vermont. However, subtle signs do exist if you know where to look! Notice the fresh greenery in this nest – it confirms that recent refurbishing has taken place by returning red-shouldered hawks. Roughly two feet in diameter, a red-shouldered hawk’s stick nest is lined with moss, lichen, bark and conifer sprigs. Other items that have been used as building material for these raptors include ears of corn, corncobs, corn husks, tissue paper, nests of songbirds, straw, mullein, leaves, twine, various deciduous tree leaves, entire plants, dried tent caterpillar webs and plastic grocery bags. The pictured nest will serve as a nursery for two to five red-shouldered hawk chicks in about a month’s time, and as the nesting season progresses, sprays of conifers such as the hemlock sprigs you see here will continue to be added.
A cooper’s hawk made short work of a mourning dove near my bird feeder recently, killing and apparently, given the large number of feathers scattered on the snow, plucking the dove on a nearby snow bank. If you look closely you can see whole sunflower seeds in amongst the feathers. These came from inside the mourning dove’s crop. Mourning doves generally feed quickly, filling their crop with seeds which they digest later, when they’ve found a safe spot in which to roost. Unfortunately for this particular dove, it didn’t live long enough to have that opportunity.
Raucous crow and raven calls alerted me to the fact that something, most likely a bird of prey, was in the area (crows and ravens often mob and harass hawks and owls). Through the trees I got a glimpse of a raven flying beside another bird that dwarfed the raven. Soon there were two of these large birds, dipping and diving in the wind, seemingly enjoying themselves no end. They turned out to be juvenile bald eagles, last year’s young. Perhaps they were practicing for the acrobatic courtship flight displays they’ll be performing in three or four years.
If the majority of your diet consisted of one type of food, and that food was concentrated in certain spots, it would make sense to frequent those spots. Bird-eating predators, such as the sharp-shinned hawk, are frequently seen at bird feeders for this very reason. Although not very large — roughly the size of a blue jay (the female is a third again larger than the male) — this accipiter is a formidable predator, and one which causes feeder visitors to either disappear or become motionless for a considerable amount of time. The sharp-shinned hawk is the smallest hawk in North America and derives its common name from the sharp-edged “shin” on the lower part of its legs. Its long tail and short wings make it extremely adept at flying through dense woods in search of small birds.
Dramatic stories are not limited to the snowy woods of northern New England! This photograph was taken in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, Massachusetts. It tells the story of a small bird being killed by a relatively small bird of prey, most likely a Cooper’s Hawk or a Sharp-shinned Hawk – both are accipiters and predators of small birds (as well as other prey). Because their wingspans overlap, there’s no way to unequivocally state which of these raptors left this imprint, but whichever it was, it was successful, judging by the feathers and blood that remain. Both of these hawks are listed as Massachusetts Species of Special Concern, with the Sharp-shinned hawk sighted most often in the western part of the state. (Photograph by Sadie Richards)
Broad-winged Hawk chicks spend their first five or six weeks in the nest being fed small mammals, toads, nestling birds and a variety of invertebrates by their mother. They then fledge, but for the next two weeks these young birds continue to use the nest as a feeding (food is still being provided for them) and roosting site. At about seven weeks of age they begin capturing their own prey, and remain on their parents’ territory for the next month or two — just enough time to learn the ropes before migrating south for the winter, which they are doing right now (peak migration is mid-September).
Hardy birds that they are, Great Horned Owls are one of the earliest nesting birds — you can find them on nests in January, February and March, even in northern New England. Eggs are incubated for about a month, typically in March or April with young usually hatching in May or June. The nestlings remain in the nest for six or seven weeks before fledging. Unable to fly until they’re ten or twelve weeks old, the fledglings follow their parents around and continue to be fed and cared for by them until the fall. These two fledglings were sticking close together as they made their raspy begging calls from high in a white pine. Both their calls and the down that was visible on their heads told me that they were this year’s young.
Although you would think that no predator would think of preying on, much less eating, a striped skunk, there are a few mammals, including coyotes, foxes and bobcats, that do just that, but only if they are in danger of starving. One predator that routinely dines on skunks is the great horned owl. One summer night I made out the silhouette of an owl flying in my direction, and as it flew by me its identity was confirmed by the skunk-like odor that accompanied it.
The red-tailed hawk nest that produced two chicks last summer is once again occupied by a pair of red-tails. A conifer sprig adorning the outside of the nest was the first clue that a second brood might be in the works. Yesterday I saw both male and female return to the nest carrying strips of bark, which the female applied to the lining of the nest. Mid-March is when red-tails typically are building or refurbishing their nest and laying eggs. They begin incubating as soon as the first (of 2 – 3) egg is laid, with the male and female both participating. This photograph was taken at the changing of the guard.
Right on time, the second week of March, Turkey Vultures are back in central VT/NH. Recognizing them is not too hard – they’re bigger than any other raptor in New England except for eagles. At a distance Turkey Vultures look all black, but a closer look reveals that the undersides of the flight feathers, along the trailing edge and wing tips, are lighter in color than the rest of the bird, giving the wing a two-toned appearance. (Black Vulture wings are solid black with silvery tips.) The feathers at the wing tips are often separated, which some birders refer to as ‘fingers.’ In addition, vultures hold their wings slightly raised, forming a ‘V’ or dihedral shape in the sky when viewed head-on. Turkey Vultures soar in circles as they ride the thermals, using their sense of smell to locate tasty carcasses on the ground.
Given the right lighting, it’s very easy to see how red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) got their common name (although the tail of juvenile red-tailed hawks is brown for their first two years). Central Vermont and New Hampshire is at the northern end of the red-tailed hawk’s year-round range – if they live much further north, they usually migrate south for the winter. This common bird of prey typically inhabits open areas interspersed with trees. It is usually observed soaring in wide circles over a field, or perched high in a tree, where it sits and waits, keeping an eye out for prey such as mice, voles, rabbits and hares. Once it spots a small mammal, as the red-tail in this photograph just had, it quickly takes off and uses its talons to capture its next meal.
Your chances of seeing a snowy owl are better this winter than they’ve perhaps ever been. We are in the middle of an irruption (the migration of large numbers of birds to areas where they aren’t typically found) of snowy owls. There are several reasons for irruptions, the most common being a lack of food in the birds’ normal wintering grounds. When there is a seed crop failure (birch, maple, pine, spruce and hemlock) further north, we often are inundated in the winter with seed-eating songbirds that typically overwinter in Canada, including waxwings, redpolls and grosbeaks, among others. Birds of prey typically irrupt at this time as well, for when the seed crop fails, the (seed-eating) population of rodents also crashes, driving rodent-eating raptors further south to find food. Snowy owls dine primarily on small rodents called lemmings, so one would expect from the current irruption that the Canadian lemming population must have crashed. However, the opposite appears to be true this winter. Arctic researchers report that this year lemmings were at historical population highs allowing for a very successful breeding season for Arctic raptors, including snowy owls. The resulting population boom caused overcrowding and competition at typical wintering grounds, resulting in our current banner snowy owl winter.
The red-tailed hawk nest which has been featured several times this summer is empty! Yesterday I watched as the remaining young red-tail climbed out on a branch above the nest and flew over the adjacent field, landing in a tree on the edge of the field. Because recently-fledged red-tailed hawks tend to stay very near their nest for the first few days (and sometimes weeks) after fledging, this may well have not been its maiden flight. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful sight to see!