Red Tailed Hawks and Winter Birds of Prey

Our most common hawk is the red tailed hawk, although I have counted as many as 4 other different hawks on my property alone. I’ve even seen a Bald Eagle in my maple out front–not because there’s anything so fabulous about my property, really, but because there’s a body of water across the street where they will occasionally fish in the winter. But to see an eagle in a tree on your own property–that was a sight I hope I never forget. And it wasn’t that it stayed for too short a time to photograph. It stayed quite some time. But it was past dusk and no photo would have come out. Besides, sometimes, these things are best remembered with “the mind’s eye” to quote Hamlet.

As any of us drives around Connecticut in the winter, all we need to do is to glance up to notice our most common bird of prey, the red-tailed hawk. According to Cornell, it is possible to see one on a car ride almost anywhere in North America!

Here in Connecticut, the light stanchions will be the place to find them. They perch, observing the fields alongside the highway, looking for an easy meal. If you are the passenger and can observe for a moment, it is often possible to notice the way the hawk’s head swivels. It really is a marvel of a thing–the human head can’t swivel like that!

To me it seems as if its head is swiveling almost all the way around, but of course that’s not so. It certainly can look further over its shoulder than most humans.

Cornell says that most hawks do not visit suburban backyards. I must live in an exceptional place. Not only do I have a pair that regularly visits, but the female has a spot that she regularly “stakes out”–under a very low-branched magnolia. This same pair breeds in my neighborhood each spring and raises its young–we can tell the young by its screeching call, very different from its parents.

I know I have talked about the male before as well. He is not a terribly good hunter. I have watched squirrels chase him away and I have watched him try and fail to catch squirrels on more than one occasion. The female appears to be deadly accurate and I have found the detritus of several species in my yard to prove that.

The other hawks I have had are sharp shinned (for awhile one year, a sharp shinned visited every week, only on Friday. It was the strangest thing. I wondered if he kept a calendar somehow–and yes, he was a male), a Merlin, a Coopers hawk and on one instance the Peregrine falcon. It must have come in from Hartford, where it nests.

I feel blessed to have all these birds of prey visiting. They do enliven my winter bird watching!

Great Backyard Bird Count

It’s almost time for the Great Backyard Bird Count.  For those with long memories, you may remember me mentioning this event last autumn in my posts on birding and Project Feeder Watch.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (or GBBC for short) is a joint project sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon, and some commercial sponsors.  It’s an all-online bird count that takes place over the 4 day President’s Day weekend, which means that the count officially begins at midnight tomorrow.

There’s an official web site where participants and would-be participants can learn more about it–and if you decided to participate, you can enter your bird counts there.

The way this works, and it’s pretty simple really, is that you decide where your count site will be–most folks choose their yards, but if you’re an apartment dweller, then you can choose a park or some other site nearby–and you choose a time that convenient for you to count birds that you see, and the  you merely record the number of birds that you see at that place each day.

The number one question, of course, is “How can you count birds?” and the web site explains it quite well.  But I’ll take a stab at it too.  You count birds by counting the highest number of birds you see at any one time.  So say I see 4 juncos when I start to watch.  And then another joins them.  Now I have 5 juncos.  Then something happens and they all fly away.  A few minutes later, two come back.  I don’t count those–they could be part of the original group.  But if 6 more join the 2 that are now there, then I record a total of 8, because that is now the highest number I’ve seen at one time.

So it’s pretty simple, it’s fun, and it’s very necessary to help those who study birds figure out what’s going on with them.  Join in, won’t you?

Canada Geese

[Photo from]

You may wonder why we call them “Canada Geese,” or as some folks call them incorrectly, canadian geese, when they don’t seem to have much to do with Canada but they stay right here in the United States.

Well, only some of them stay here.  One of the signs that fall is coming to most parts of the country is the migratory flocks of Canada Geese flying over, in their classic “V” formation, honking their little heads off.

The “V” formation actually helps them achieve better speed and less wind resistance–I learned that from a biology professor who stated that no action in nature is ever wasted.  He didn’t really have an explanation for all that honking, though–that seems like wasted action to me.

There are 3 distinct populations of Canada Geese–two are migratory–the honking “V”s we see flying over–and one has become resident.

The resident population is actually protected by Federal law from hunting.  Special exceptions must be made to allow hunting of the non-migratory geese.

It is not exactly known what has caused the resident population to become migratory but protection from predation and hunting, and the proliferation of their habitat–grasslands in suburbia and office parks surrounded by lakes and ponds–is believed to be the cause.

I’ve been a birder since childhood but I’ve only recently learned the story of the 3 distinct populations of Canada Geese.  I read about it in my state wildlife magazine, Connecticut Wildlife, I heard a very good story about it recently on Bird Note, on NPR and of course I’ve had the biology course where I heard about “nothing being wasted in nature.”

There are some very good resources out there for amateur naturalists to learn more about nature and wildlife.  It’s always good to get more informed about these things.

Is It Bird Food–or Art?

This is a great item I got for Christmas.  It’s required a little creativity on my part to make it a “bird” feeder and not a squirrel feeder but I think I’ve got it down now–and just today I saw a red bellied woodpecker enjoying it and caching the suet in the bark of the tree (which is a sugar maple, acer saccarum). The nuthatches have checked it out but have not liked it–I’ve seen them wiping their little beaks off after indulging!

If you look closely you can see florist wire beneath the suet balls.  Originally, before I found the suet balls I have there now, the squirrels would grab the balls (which are actually quite heavy and would sometimes take several tries) run up the tree with them and devour them almost as fast as I could put them out.

These balls have hot pepper in them somehow.  The birds don’t taste it but mammals like squirrels and chipmunks do–so the balls stay in place until the birds find and eat them.  And now that my red-bellied has, I doubt they’ll last long!