Bill of the Birds
My name is Bill and I am a bird watcher...
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Return of the Death Rocket
The sharp-shinned hawk has been visiting our feeders once every other day or so for the past few weeks. We watched him sit on our brushpile for about 20 minutes, waiting for the feeder birds to
return to the trees around the feeder. He watched them very intently. Not a single bird flew past or landed within his field of view that he did not stare holes in, wanting to chase, catch, kill, eat.
I want to do a longer post about his sit-and-wait hunting technique. But I am out of time for today. More soon, I promise.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
First thing this morning, while I was talking on the telephone with a hick buddy from West Virginny, the death rocket came blasting past the studio window.
This was a big female sharp-shinned hawk and she swooped up into feet-forward position to grab a male northern cardinal. Her piercing talons must have killed the redbird instantly because he hung limp as she pumped her wings and propelled the two of them into the sumac thicket. Entering the thicket at full speed, she turned just so, and did not disturb a single snowflake from the branches as she passed.
The entire event took less than three seconds. The sharpie was in blurry, fluid motion the entire time. Many of the birds at the feeders next to the birch tree were so surprised that they did not have time to react. And in the aftermath, no one dared visit the feeders for half an hour, despite the ice and snow covering everything.
Nature red in tooth and claw...
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Sapsucker in Black & White
On a recent winter's afternoon, The Zick and I were standing in her studio looking out at the feeding station. I was telling her about the pine warbler that had visited the day before, while she was out of town. Just then a woodpecker hitched around the side of the mostly dead birch tree just a few feet from the studio window.
It was a very young female yellow-bellied sapsucker and she was striking for her utter lack of color. Her plumage was composed of black, white, and grayish feathers with almost no sign of a sapsucker's telltale head or throat coloration. There was only the slightest hint of a yellow wash across her breast, but you had to strain your eyes to see it.
The gray winter day, the duotone tree and bird, all made for a pleasingly limited palette.
As we were enjoying her, the pine warbler slipped in to the feeder, grabbed a sunflower heart and headed off to the woods. And this turned out to be a wise move...
Suddenly the feeder birds scattered and the sapsucker whipped around the back of the birch trunk in a flash. A blue-gray missile came shooting past the window—the adult male sharp-shinned hawk we'd had around all winter. The sharpie flew straight toward the sapsucker, banking sharply to swoop around the trunk just inches from the sapsucker. The accipiter missed the sapsucker, and did what most bird-eating hawks do near feeding stations: perched nearby to wait for things to calm down and for an unsuspecting songbird to move.
We were astonished at how fast this all happened—in just seconds. But we dared not move lest we scare the sharpie, or worst, scare the sapsucker into moving and giving the sharpie another shot. The sharpie stared holes in the birch trunk. The sapsucker held fast and motionless on the back side of the trunk, one eye peeking at us as if to say "Please don't tell him that I'm here. I'm just a boring old stub of a tree branch on this boring old birch. Pay me no mind."
Soon the hawk tired of waiting and moved off into the woods, no doubt looking for less wary victims.
For us it was high-five time.
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Stuck Inside, Pining
I was inside all day today (and will be all day tomorrow) at a convention center near the Atlanta Airport at the BirdWatch America Show. This trade show for the wild bird industry is where lots of vendors come to try to sell their products to lots of wild bird stores.
All day I was talking to people about bird stuff, new products, trends, ideas, mergers and acquisitions, and so on. I enjoyed it but would have been overjoyed to have been birding outside, instead.
I did see a small sharp-shinned hawk as we entered the trade show POD today. That and a song sparrow were the extent of my day's bird list. Kind of ironic given the focus of this trade show on actual wild birds.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
When Death is on the Wing
We've had a male sharp-shinned hawk haunting our farmyard and feeding station. I can see why he's coming here. We've got a plethora of feeder birds, some of whom seem to NOT KNOW WHAT AN ACCIPITER IS.
Well, in case any of our backyard birds are reading Bill of the Birds (and they SHOULD be) an accipiter is a bird of prey that specializes in eating other, smaller birds. Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks are our two widespread and common accipiters across most of North America. A surprising number of people who feed birds also get to see birds feeding upon birds at their feeding stations when an "accip" bursts into the yard to nab a victim.
Short, rounded wings and a long rudderlike tail (a build like a fighter plane) allow Coops and sharpies to pursue songbirds at high speeds through wooded habitat. They either sit and wait for a bird to pass by, or they soar high overhead and make a dive on unsuspecting birds below--often coming at them directly out of the sun, a strategy that fighter pilots often use.
This male sharpie is unflappable. He lets us snap his photo out the windows of Julie's studio and he even let me walk out the door and sneak within about 30 feet of him as he sat on the crossbar of our feeder set-up.
I love having this bird around. He's keeping our birds on their toes and keeping their populations healthy by weeding out the slow, sick, and weak.
He's not here everyday. Every third day or so I find another pile of cardinal or junco or goldfinch feathers in the yard. Then I know that death has come again, on the wing, passing through this old ridgetop farm.
It is stealth then flashing pursuit. Talons grabbing, parting feather barbules and piercing skin, a songbird's tiny heart racing through its last few beats. Blood droplets merge with the soggy soil. Then the coup de grâce, and Nature, red in tooth and claw, heaves another sigh of contentment.