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Birds of Prey

American Kestrel Chicks Fledging

 

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The American Kestrel is the smallest, most numerous, and most widespread North American falcon. Roughly two months ago these birds (formerly known as Sparrow Hawks) were mating and laying eggs in nesting cavities (natural tree cavities, woodpecker holes, nest boxes), most of which are located near open fields with low growth (to facilitate finding insects to eat).  The female kestrel does most of the incubating of her four to five eggs (one month), and all of the brooding (one month).  The male rises to the occasion and feeds the newly-hatched chicks for the first 7-10 days, and then the pair shares the feeding.

After 26 – 28 days in the nest, American Kestrel chicks are ready to fledge.  Their first flight, consisting of alternate fluttering and gliding, can be quite short or as long as 200 yards, and typically ends with an awkward landing.  After the chicks have fledged, the parents continue to feed them for up to 12 days. During this period young American Kestrels have been observed returning to their nest cavity to roost.

(Photo:  Male American Kestrel nestling, roughly 22 days old. Note feathered “eye” spots on back of head (serve to ward off predators) are already showing. Thanks to Joan Waltermire, John Douglas, David Merker, and Sebastion and Carter Lousada for photo op.)

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Barred Owls Fledging (But Not Flying Yet)

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If you heard Barred Owls calling this winter, and have occasionally spotted one in the same vicinity this spring, now is the time to start looking up at the canopy to see if they produced any young owls. Having spent four or five weeks in a tree cavity being fed and cared for by their parents, Barred Owl nestlings get the urge to spread their talons (and eventually their wings) and leave their nest about this time of year. It will be roughly another month before they begin short flights; until then the fledglings are referred to as “branchers,” as that is where you will find them, perched and begging for food from their parents, who will continue to feed them until late summer or fall. (If you know a youngster who is captivated by owls, they might enjoy reading Otis the Owl by yours truly!)

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Bald Eagles On Eggs

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Thanks in large part to the Vermont Bald Eagle Restoration Initiative, seeing eagles in Vermont is not all that unusual these days, even in winter. The open water of Lake Champlain (as well as ice fishermen and White-tailed Deer carcasses in other parts of the state) allow them to survive here during our coldest months. Vermont’s mid-winter Bald Eagle Survey documented 84 eagles in January, 2018.

Equally as encouraging is the growing breeding population of eagles in this state. This past year 21 adult Bald Eagle pairs successfully produced 35 young in Vermont. The return of eagles to their nest site is always a much- anticipated event, which often coincides with the opening up of the Connecticut River for at least one pair that nests on its banks (see photo).

Eggs have been laid and eagles (both male and female) are engaged in incubating them for the next month.  One can’t help but be impressed by their perseverance — recently they endured three Nor’easters in 10 days while incubating their eggs (note snow on rim of nest)!

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Snowy Owl Gets Mouthful When Hunting In Tall Grass

12-8-17 snowy owl and meadow vole3 049A9802Only Naturally Curious readers would come up with flossing!

If lemmings are in short supply and you’re a Snowy Owl, head for tall grass where small rodents dwell. This juvenile female Snowy Owl successfully caught a Meadow Vole (along with a footful of grass) in its talons and proceeded to swallow the vole whole, along with some of the grass. However, most of the grass remained hanging from the owl’s mouth after the vole had been consumed, so it proceeded to grasp the grass with its foot and pull it out of its mouth (yesterday’s Mystery Photo).

Although many people are under the impression that hard weather forces Snowy Owls farther south some winters, the reason for Snowy Owl invasions or irruptions turns out to be linked to either prey population crashes in the north, high productivity breeding years (producing more predators than the prey can support) or a combination of the two. New research has shown that the abundance of Snowy Owls seen in the eastern U.S. during the winter of 2013-14 was the result of a particularly good nesting season on the Arctic tundra. A population boom of lemmings, the Snowy Owl’s primary food source, translated to a population boom of owls.

 

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Barred Owl Parents Providing Fledglings With Food

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Young Barred Owls are fed from the time they hatch (four to six weeks old) until late summer or early fall, months after they have fledged and long after they are capable of flight. When first out of the nest, the fledglings cannot fly, and thus are totally dependent upon their parents’ continued delivery of prey. The fledged young initially stay near one another and the nest site. The parents continue to feed them, and as the young become more mobile they slowly move away from the nest tree. Flight is attempted between the ages of 12 and 15 weeks. The first attempts are, as you would imagine, rather awkward, but as their wings strengthen, the young owls’ flying skills improve. Even so, the parents continue to feed them through the summer and often into the fall, when prey deliveries slow down and eventually cease, forcing the young to disperse. (Photo: Recently-fledged Barred Owl chick eyeing the Flying Squirrel its parent is delivering.)

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Barred Owls Parents Tending Chicks

5-12-17 adult owl in nest hole 241For about a month the female Barred Owl sits on her 1-5 eggs (usually 2 or 3) until her white, downy chicks hatch, usually around the end of April or beginning of May. At about two weeks (mid-May) their natal down is being replaced by a white-tipped gray-buff secondary down, and primary feathers are beginning to grow in.  They remain in their cavity nest for their first month.

It is pretty safe to assume that the adult owl in this photograph is a female as she is in constant attendance during the chicks’ first two weeks. The male brings her food which she tears into little bits so the chicks can swallow it. At the beginning of the third week, the female begins leaving the nest frequently to hunt. When she is at the nest, she often takes breaks from the kids and sits at the entrance surveying her surroundings.  At this point the chicks start consuming prey (that is delivered to them) on their own. In a week or two the chicks will also start appearing at the cavity entrance.  By their fourth or fifth week, the still-flightless chicks will leave the nest, but parental provision of food continues until fall.

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Feathered Fishermen

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Using their keen eyesight and sense of hearing, Barred Owls typically sit and perch on a branch, surveying the ground beneath them for whatever morsel appears, small mammals and birds being at the top of their list during the winter, with more emphasis on amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates during the warmer months.

Several times I have observed a Barred Owl taking advantage of a vernal pool that was teaming with life, specifically Wood Frogs and Spring Peepers. Perched in a nearby tree, the owl kept an eye out for any sign of movement in the water.  When ripples appeared near the shore it would swoop down to the water’s edge in an attempt to grasp a frog with its talons. Although it met with repeated failure, success was inevitable due to the plethora of distracted mating frogs.

Because they lack hair and feathers, frogs may be underestimated when scientists dissect owl pellets to see what Barred Owls eat. Given the frequency with which I have observed these feathered fishermen, I would think that might be very likely.

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