Saturday, July 16, 2011

Battle of the Birds

It has been an exciting week in ornithology this week.  I discovered that I have not one but two Cooper's Hawks living somewhere near my house.  But let me backtrack a bit...

I developed my love of nature from my Mom.  I think it was some combination of her enjoying bird watching herself and her reading me English Fairy stories when I was young and impressionable.   I used to help her garden and although she claimed she had a black thumb she was tenacious and was always trying to grow various plants and flowers in our horrible sandy soil on Cape Cod.  She was the one I learned my first birds from, the Robin, the Chickadee and the Bluejay.  We still email and Facebook our various bird sightings to each other and I recently gave her her very own copy of Sibley's Birds, my absolute favorite bird identification book.  I originally bought it as much for the art work as the bird ID.

Anyway, back to the present:  a couple of days ago when I was sitting out on my deck I spotted a raptor eating something up in the oak tree in my backyard.  I very slowly walked back into the house to grab my binoculars so that I could get a closer look.  I then slowly came back out and sat back in the deck chair and proceeded to try and find the bird again.  He had moved.  I put the binoculars down only to notice grey feathers raining down on me from the tree.  I followed the trail up to its origination point on the other side of the tree from where I had been looking.  Using the binoculars again I took a closer look: there was a large bird with a grayish back, light grey head, black cap, golden eyes and orange striping down to its very fluffy feet (reminded me of some varieties of chickens that have feathered feet).  I had never seen this type of bird.  I memorized it general size, shape and major markings so that I could try and find it in my Sibley's book.  I found that if I don't make a conscious effort to do this I start to forget features as I look at other birds in my book and then can't figure out which one matches my bird (turns out there is a real neurological reason for this that doesn't have anything to do with CFS: see the book Brain Bugs).

I couldn't decide if my bird was a Cooper's Hawk or a Sharp Shinned Hawk.  Neither of them had fluffy feet with stripes down to their ankles.  I went on Cornell University's Ornithology Facebook page and asked for help and everyone suggested the same two hawks.  After some searching on Google I found a picture of a Cooper's Hawk that looked almost identical to the one I had seen:'s_Hawk
Then today I saw the bird again.  I more or less confirmed the Cooper's Hawk markings but couldn't see it clearly through the leaves of the oak tree.  It has an affinity for my oak tree apparently.  It called a few times, a single kee, kee, kee sound, and flew off.  I could see food dangling from its talons so it must have just picked up dinner.  I went inside and looked up Cooper's Hawk calls on Cornell's site and it turns out he was using the "Honey, I'm bringing home dinner" call.  Then I listened to the "Honey I'm hanging out near our nest" call and it clicked.  Those bird calls that have been driving me batty these last few months because I haven't been able to identify the bird have been the different Cooper's Hawk calls.  This means that the nest must be near my house and there are probably young in it.  Hence the hawk bringing home dinner as opposed to ripping it apart in the tree like it did a few days ago.  

While inside the house, I decided that since I've had a lot of great bird sightings this year it is time to make them official.  So I registered with eBird and logged my Cooper's Hawk sighting.  At least I could do a little scientific field work from my back deck while I am sick.  Makes me feel useful and sciency at the same time.

I went back out on the deck to sit with hubby while he grilled burgers for dinner.  My hawk landed back in the oak again and this time I had a clear view of him so, Sibley's in hand, I got a good look: stripped tail? check.  black cap? check. grey back?  check orange mottling?  check.  Wait a second!  This was a different Cooper's Hawk!  It has a white tushy.  The whole bottom third of its body is white!  It didn't have orange stripes down to its ankles like the one I saw the other day.  I have TWO Cooper's Hawks!  Probably a nesting pair with young!  Woohoo!!  Not only did I get to see a bird I've never seen or heard before this year but now I have two of them that live near my house and like my oak tree!  Oh happy day!

After dinner, I was at the sink in my kitchen when I saw the hawk swoop past the window so I ran (make that walked fast) to the deck where I had left my binoculars hoping that he would land in my tree again.  This time it turns out he was chasing one of the local crows around.  The hawk was winning until the rest of the murder showed up and started one hell of a ruckus.  There were angry squawks and much wing flapping from all of them.  I think the murder ended up chasing the hawk off since all the bird calls rapidly got further and further away.  I could just make out far off tree branches rattling as the crows sent up the alarm until the hawk finally left.  What a great bird watching day!

Now that I know there are two of them, I just have to figure out which is the male and which is the female.  I asked again on Cornell's FB page and a helpful person told me that the female is the bigger of the two birds.  So now I just have to pay close attention to their different sizes when I spot them.  Now that I know their calls, I should be able to spot them quicker since I know what I am looking for.  Also I know they like landing in my oak around 5:30pm with their dinner catch before heading to their nest.  I also want to try and locate their nest.  It has to be close by because of the call patterns I've heard.  I'm even wondering if it is the Linden tree in my front yard since I've heard some very loud squawks right outside of my window when I've gone to bed at 4:30am.

So I've got some scientific investigative work ahead of me.  I'm excited.  I'm going to try and start logging my bird sightings.  Maybe I'll start carrying a notebook and pencil along with my Sibley's and binoculars when I go out to sit on my deck and then spend a little time each night on eBirds logging my sightings.  This is exciting!  I can help ornithologists with their bird counts while sitting in a deck chair in my backyard and get to learn things at the same time.   Yay!!  I can do science stuff again!  Woohoo!!

1 comment:

  1. That is totally cool! What a great way to pass time and to enjoy your time outside.