Hawk Conflict

My husband and I were working the backyard this morning, cleaning up the garden after a long, hard winter. The hacking, digging and trimming were beginning to pay off when both of us heard the unmistakable “Kreeee!” of a red-tailed hawk.

We’ve had a red-tailed hanging around the neighborhood for the last few winters https://amylaw.blog/2018/12/13/red-tailed-hawk/, which I’ve always thought was kinda odd — they are perch hunters of open spaces. But for the past five years or so, we’ve had an overabundance of cotton-tailed rabbits, a favorite prey item of red-taileds. And just this week we found a bunny in the street that had been ripped up by some sort of hawk.

But when my husband and I looked up to spot see the red-tailed, we saw not one, but two hawks careening through the trees. By the time I had grabbed my camera (always withing handy reach) and bolted out the front door, I could only see one of the hawks flying in tight circles above the house.

After snapping a few pics, the hawk began to fly out of range. I lowered my camera and my husband pointed out the other hawk, huddled in a tree across the street.

At first glance, this looked like another red-tailed hawk — speckled belly, and rusty tail feathers. But something about the eyes made me question that identification.

She didn’t like me looking at her (in my defense, I was 20 feet below her), and so she took off. And instantly, I knew she was a Swainson’s hawk.

Not having seen the original altercation, I have no idea what set off the spat between these two birds. It might have been food — Swainson’s also eat rabbits. But even more, they eat ground squirrels, and insects. Or the Swainson’s might have gotten too close to the Red-tailed’s nest.

Once she took flight, she lost no time in heading back to the open spaces she felt most comfortable in.

It will be interesting to see if she stays in the neighborhood. I’ll have to keep an eye out her.

Hawk Nest Monitoring Begins

As many of you know, I volunteer for the Jefferson County Open Space along the Front Range of Colorado. Last year, I worked on a new-to-me program, hawk nest monitoring. The nest I watched last year seems to have been abandoned, so I moved to a new spot this year, watching Red-Tailed Hawks.

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Nest on a ledge in an old quarry. The fine wavy lines on the orange rocks to the left are ripples in the fossilized beach sands that make up Dakota sandstone.

So far this year, there hasn’t been any activity by Red-Tailed Hawks at the nest itself. A couple have landed nearby, but they didn’t approach the nest. They still have a few weeks before they need to decide where they want to raise their young this year.

I did see a pair of Red-Tails come by, but I think they were migrants, on their way further north. The Dakota Hogback is a major hawk migration route, and this nest is very close to the hogback.

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I was only able to photograph one of the migrating Red-Tails, and that was against a cloudy background that makes it hard to appreciate their colors. But this bird has classic Red-Tailed markings — dark head and leading edge of the wings, dark “commas” where the flight feathers begin, white underside with a dark belly band. And of course, a red tail.

But I did spend a pleasant couple of hours watching 50 Dark-Eyed Juncos scratch in the dirt.

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All Dark-Eyed Juncos have dark eyes and pinkish bills. But Dark-Eyed Juncos come in four different color variations. The dark headed bird above is an Oregon morph.

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Male pink-sided Dark-Eyed Junco.

I would have called this a tri-color bird, but it is officially called a pink-sided Dark Eyed Junco. The sides look more orange or tan to me, but again, I didn’t get to name it.

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Female pink-sided Dark-eyed junco. See how her colors aren’t as intense?

At the same time I was watching these little guys forage in the foreground, about 20 Mountain Bluebirds looked for food about ten yards distant.

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With their striking blue colors, these guys are noticeable when they fly by in a flock.


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Male Mountain bluebird going after something it’s seen on the ground.

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As with many bird species, the females lack the bright colors that the males wear. But you can still see a line of blue just under her wing and onto her tail.

Coopers Hawk Misses Dinner

Image    It was an cold and wet weekend.  Pouring rain alternated with a light drizzle, and the temperature hovered in the mid-fifties.  Perfect weather to suck the warmth right out of your bones.
You could tell the little brown birds – sparrows, finches, goldfinches and a few chickadees – were feeling the weather.  Probably twenty little birds jockeyed for position at our feeding station.  They packed our feeders, with waiting lines for the birdie buffet extending onto the stair railings.  When they weren’t eating, they huddled next to the house for warmth and to stay out of the rain.
I see mostly these same neighborhood birds in our backyard, but once in a while something new shows up.  Hummers are coming through now, and last year we had juncos and towhees.
So I keep watch on the bird feeders, alert for anything unusual. Something outside must have caught my eye – probably the little songbirds taking off en masse.  When I glanced up, I saw a pair of yellow talons and barred wings and tail screaming over our roof towards the bird feeders.
The hawk crashed into the swirling mass of panicked birds.  To my amazement, and its frustration, it passed through the scattering flock without snagging anything.
I snatched my camera, handily sitting on the kitchen table, to snap this picture of the accipiter hawk looking back over its shoulder at all the snacks on the wing that got away.
Accipiter (ak CIP e tor) hawks are a group of smallish woodland hawks with short, rounded wings and long rectangular tails.  Accipiters thread their way through heavy woods in pursuit of the songbirds they hunt.  We have two types of accipiters in Colorado: Sharp-shinned hawks and Coopers hawks.
Sharp-shinned hawks are robin-sized steel grey birds with reddish breasts and a square-tipped tail.  Sharp-shinned Hawks earned their name because of their stick-like legs.  In Colorado, their favorite forests are the spruce-fir ecosystem in the mountains and on the Western Slope; and in urban and suburban yards like mine.  Young sharpies leave the nest in time to prey on songbird fledglings (birds just learning to fly).
Cooper’s Hawks are crow-sized slate blue birds with rust breasts and a rounded tail.  In Colorado, they prefer dense wooded habitats, especially piñon-juniper and riparian (stream side) ecosystems of the mountains and western slope. Coopers hunt song birds, Passenger Pigeons (until their extinction) and farmyard fowl (until chicken raising became an indoor industry).  They were called chicken hawks for this last prey preference, and were heavily persecuted for their predation of poultry.
My overall impression of either sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks is of a bird with broad wings and a long tail gliding through a forest or open woodland about ten to twenty feet over my head.   As they pass over, I can see that they have lots of medium strips (“bars”) across their wings, chest and tail.  You are considered an “expert” birder if you can tell a Coopers from a sharpie when they are lying next to each other.
For those of us who are NOT experts, my recommendation is to simply declare with confidence “Look!  There goes a Sharpy!”  Who’ll disagree?  By the time everybody else figures out what you’re talking about, the bird will be lost in the trees.
The little birds returned to our feeders later in the day, but remained jumpy.  Every time a raindrop hit them they startled, and look around for the accipiter hawk.  And rightly so.  The day after the accipiter missed snagging a feathered lunch at our feeders, I saw him perched high in our cottonwood, waiting for another chance.