Birds of prey seemed to dominate the interesting bird sightings this past week. A peregrine falcon was spotted flying over the farm fields in Amagansett, the same area that has a resident pair of red-tailed hawks, a pair of Northern harriers, and all three accipiter species: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk and goshawk.Peregrines overwinter as far south as southern South America. But a few are known to overwinter here on Long Island in places with lots of open fields, meadows and dunes. At this late date, the individual sighted last week might not migrate any farther south and might be one of the birds tallied on our upcoming Christmas Bird Count.
The sharpies and Cooper’s are probably here for the winter. Their numbers have increased on Long Island in recent winters, exploiting the boom in backyard feeders that creates a large pool of prey: songbirds of all shapes and sizes taking advantage of the handouts.
Blue jays have learned a neat trick for making room at a crowded feeder: They will perch just out of sight of the food station and mimic the call of a hawk, usually that of the red-tailed hawk, prompting the feeder birds to take flight and find cover. Interesting that they chose the red-tailed’s call, as its prey rarely includes other birds.
Some people develop a bond with the songbirds that visit their feeder every day and are not happy to have a hawk hanging around and picking off one of their flock on occasion. But once a sharpie or Cooper’s takes a liking to your backyard feeder setup, there’s no legal way to shoo them off. They’re here for the winter.
The goshawk is another story. That’s a rare bird for this area in any season, but now that is has developed a taste for chicken, it might settle in for the winter, unless Farmer Duryea comes up with a plan. Last week, it picked off yet another hen … number four. Although the full-grown, meaty hens should keep the 2-pound accipiter well fed for at least a week, a number of other carnivores partake in the carcass under the cover of darkness: raccoons and red foxes.
The pair of Northern harriers appeared to be a juvenile, with its distinctive orange-colored breast, and an adult male, as noted by the pale gray on the topsides of its wings. These are not year-round residents. The New York State Breeding Bird Atlas lists eight confirmed nests in Suffolk County over the 1980 to 1985 survey period, and only one during the 2000 to 2005 survey period.
This is a grassland and low shrub habitat nester. I’m not sure what the exact cause of their decline is here on Long Island, as we have suitable nesting habitat in the form of extensive preserves of dune and marshland, and the dwarf pine barrens. It’s possible that its habit of nesting on the ground, within easy reach of the ubiquitous, egg-hungry raccoon, has impacted nesting success.
These beautiful birds hunt by sound as well as sight, and have a dish-like face, similar to that of the owls, to help focus the sounds of their small mammal prey moving in the tall grasses below. They are a joy to watch soaring low over the marshes and fields with open wings.
The final bird of prey noted this week was not seen but heard, and that was the great-horned owl. What was particularly exciting was hearing not only the deep, booming hoot of the male, but periodically the softer, higher “hooo-hooo” of the female—a mating duet in the neighborhood!
Some readers might be surprised that December marks the mating season for the great-horned. The pair will refurbish a hawk or crow nest, or a suitable tree cavity, and they will be incubating eggs before the end of January … brrrr!
This early nesting strategy is thought to enable the owl pair to provision their hatchlings in very early spring without the extra competition from other birds of prey also trying to feed their offspring.
Standing 2 feet tall and weighing in at 3 pounds, the great-horned owl is often described as an imposing and fierce predator. That may be true, but I was lucky enough to witness another side of this magnificent bird.
While working as the resident naturalist for New Hampshire Audubon one winter, I shared a small cabin with an adult great-horned who was recuperating from a motor vehicle collision. Badly shaken up but with all bones intact, the big bird perched on an oar lashed in a corner of our only regularly heated room, a tiny 3-foot-by-5-foot bathroom, the sole WC on the premises. Upon entering, I would be greeted by some nervous bill clapping and fluffing up of feathers, the translation being: “Watch out, buddy!”
The most interesting aspect of our two weeks rooming together was feeding time. My colleague would don the super-thick leather gloves used to feed the wood stove, carefully perch the owl on one hand and secure the feet as best he could with the other gloved hand. We were warned that this was the business end of the big owl. Their talons are large and sharp, and their toes and feet are incredibly strong.
To emphasize the point, Carol, our owl expert back at the main office in Concord, told us a story about another staffer who was not careful handling a great-horned, and the bird accidentally settled on his bare forearm. The talons set deep inside his arm, and in the ensuing excitement, the bird tightened its grip such that it was impossible to physically pull the toes free. The only recourse was to sever the muscles in several of the owl’s toes, an unfortunate and horrible outcome. The point was driven home.
The owl was remarkably compliant with our awkward handling. Once in position, I was usually relegated to serving the meal. The first few days, this involved smearing a toothpaste-like gel on my index finger, and offering this to the bird’s large, scary-looking beak. This maneuver did not make any sense to me at all, and it took some extra convincing from Carol that the owl does not tear its prey with its bill but swallows it whole. “You only have to worry about the talons,” she assured me. “If you stick your finger down its mouth, the owl will gently scrape the gel off. Repeat this as long as the bird will take it.”
If I hadn’t known that she was all business, I would have thought that she was messing with me. She was correct. And that was an experience I’ll never forget.
Within a few days, we were feeding it whole mice, holding them by the tail above its gaping beak until the head was well inside, and watching it work the rest of the body down the hatch.
On the first warm spell that winter, we gave it a big feed, transported it back to the scene of the collision, and set it free.