Sharp-shinned Hawk drama has been keeping me entertained for the past month.
For the most of the past four weeks, my birding has been exclusively at our feeding station at our home in Durham as I recover from shoulder surgery. We designed our house to maximize feeder- and yard-viewing opportunities, and I am sure thankful that we did! It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I don’t sit still well, so my extended feeder-watching sessions have been both mentally and physically therapeutic. It has also been quite productive! And keeping track of daily numbers has been quite elucidating.
Despite our new construction being completed (well, mostly!) in October and virtually no landscaping occurring, we have been very pleasantly surprised by the diversity and activity – a reflection of the quality of the habitat on our property (and hence why we purchased it). Nonetheless, I did not expect to be hosting 19-22 species a day at the feeding station in our first winter!
My feeder-watching vigils began the day after my surgery, on January 19th. The ebbs and flows during that first week were quite insightful. With three storm systems and snow piling up, the daily changes were noticeable, and mostly predictable. Our feeders were busiest with 22 species on 1/23 as over 14”of snow accumulated here in Durham. Numbers of ground-feeders peaked that day, with the week’s high counts of Mourning Doves (27), American Tree Sparrows (9), Northern Cardinals (11-12), and White-throated Sparrows (3). The 22 Dark-eyed Juncos was down a bit from a high of 25 following the first snowfall on the 20th.
Despite adding a third platform feeder, some ground-feeders had moved on by week’s end: 24 Mourning Doves, 14 Dark-eyed Juncos, 10 Northern Cardinals, and only 1 White-throated Sparrow remained, although American Tree Sparrows bumped back up to 9 with the snowfall of the 25th.
Eastern Bluebirds, meanwhile, had been increasing, with 4-6 daily becoming 14 by week’s end. Two House Finches became 5; they often travel with bluebirds in winter, so their simultaneous rise is not surprising. A single European Starling on 1/24 was unwelcome.
We picked up a second Red-breasted Nuthatch by week’s end, while one each of Red-bellied Woodpecker and Carolina Wren continue. Resident woodland birds that travel together in a mixed-species foraging flocks are notoriously hard to count, as it’s often impossible to know whether you are looking at the same flock or multiple flocks as they come and go throughout the day. Therefore, we are left to take the daily “high count” (maximum number of birds seen at one time) only as our “total,” so trends are harder to detect. My high count of Black-capped Chickadees did increase from 6 to 10 by week’s end, however, while a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches, 2 Downy Woodpeckers, 2-4 Hairy Woodpeckers, and 4 Tufted Titmice remain the same.
We also have a single American Crow that visits daily, an irregular visit from a male Pileated Woodpecker, and I’m trying to get a feel for the wide variation in daily Blue Jay high counts (between 1 and 10).
The only disappointment so far this winter had been our finch diversity so far. A single Pine Siskin 1/19-20 and female Purple Finches during the storm on the 23rd were our only non-goldfinches in that first week. However, our American Goldfinch flock has more than made up for it with between 32 and 74 (1/25).
But speaking of finches, the “birds of the week” those first seven days were 5 fly-over Pine Grosbeaks on the 25th. Bald Eagles and a Red-tailed Hawk regularly fly past the windows, as does the daily commute of Herring (and a few Great Black-backed Gulls) moving up and down the Androscoggin River; hoping to tease out a white-winged gull for the yard list. We’ve also had a small flock of American Robins (up to 18) feeding on Winterberry and Multiflora Rose in the past few days.
By the second week, a relatively deep, now-frozen snowpack, and only a couple of weak weather systems, resulted in less daily variation in the numbers at our feeders here in Durham. Fluctuations in counts had more to do with the day’s weather and the presence of a Sharp-shinned Hawk (see below), rather than the seasonal movements of species as had occurred with the onset of “real winter” the week prior.
A lot of species counts stabilized, such as the daily average of about a dozen Eastern Bluebirds and up to 46 American Goldfinches. However, some changes were noticeable, especially the ebbs and flows of ground-feeders: 6 American Tree Sparrows increased to 9, as many as 24 Dark-eyed Juncos decreased to 14, and after entertaining a third White-throated Sparrow for a couple of days, we are back down to two.
An impressive 13 Northern Cardinals on 1/29 was a seasonal high count, but otherwise most counts of the 18-21 species each day remained about the same. I had still not confirmed the presence of a second mixed-species foraging flock, for example, and our only finches remain the aforementioned impressive number of American Goldfinches and 4 House Finches.
Since my “observation week” begins on Saturdays, Week 3 began the morning of February 4th with some extreme cold weather. And, wow, that was some cold! Wind chill records (e.g. -45F in Portland and an astounding -108 at Mount Washington) Friday night into Saturday were thankfully short-lived. Here at our home, our windchill was “only” -21 on a low of -16F, as our anemometer was not receiving the full force of the wind.
The short duration of the cold snap – as extreme as it was – didn’t seem to have much impact on feeder birds, especially as the rest of the week’s weather was rather benign. Our Carolina Wren made it through, and overall activity and diversity was similar to last week (scroll down for previous posts).
American Goldfinches slowly declined at our feeders this (from 46 to a low of 22), likely as our birch crop is being picked clean. Sparrows were up again, however, with 15 American Tree Sparrows now after starting the week with 6. Dark-eyed Juncos spiked again to 20 on 2/5-6 before settling back down to 18; three more than we started the week with.
A female Purple Finch returned, and a Brown Creeper was now spotted daily in the trees immediately behind the feeding station. And a single Wild Turkey has returned to the feeders after being absent since early winter. Unfortunately, a pair of European Starlings were now present.
Two noticeable declines this week were in Northern Cardinals (from 11 to 7) and Mourning Doves (from 28 to 14). Meanwhile, Eastern Bluebirds have been far less frequent at our feeders as the week went on. This is all likely the result of direct and indirect (disturbance) effects of the continuing Accipiter saga. Daily high counts of other species were similarly affected by the presence of two different Sharp-shinned Hawks this week (see below).
Not surprisingly, the spring-like weather (including two days of record warmth) and very little precipitation reduced overall activity at the feeding station during Week 4, beginning on 2/11. We now have some bare spots on a slope now, where birds have been foraging, and the snowpack is much reduced in the woods. There’s more natural food available and less calories burned, so there’s less need for supplemental food – it’s long past time to put the “dependency on feeders” myth to bed!
Nonetheless, this week saw another uptick in Mourning Doves (high of 27) and American Tree Sparrows (of 10). Dark-eyed Juncos returned to a high of 21, but they have been spending as much time on the bare slope of our berm then at the feeders.
Eastern Bluebirds have been much less frequent this week, with a high of only 3 and they’re not visiting everyday. Same for the House Finches they usually travel with in winter –it’s just a sporadic pair now. American Goldfinches, however, remain strong, with a high of 32 this week. Our latest singleton Purple Finch has apparently moved on.
Winter flocks are breaking up, and that’s likely why the bluebirds have been less frequent; they might be spreading out already. The mixed-species foraging flock of residents are breaking up as well, and “bickering” is increasing among them, especially the Black-capped Chickadees. Meanwhile, Hairy Woodpeckers are courting now, and territorial drumming is frequent.
And then, with temperatures spiking to over 50 degrees on the 16th, Jeannette had the first Red-winged Blackbird of the year flying north overhead! Already. I expect diversity and daily counts to change more often in the coming weeks now.
Meanwhile, birdwatching is not just about counting, so I kept notes of interesting observations and behaviors through the duration of my time stationed in front of the window (and short walks up and down the driveway, weather and ice permitting). I enjoyed seeing the slow but sure progression of the season, as Downy and especially Hairy Woodpeckers became more territorial, and male Hairys especially began drumming, accelerating this week. A pair of Common Ravens was regularly observed, with pair-bonding flight displays increasing. Tufted Titmice and Black-capped Chickadees began singing more, too.
I’ve also conducted an experiment with some suet products that we may bring into the mix at the store. None of which, however, has come close to being as popular as our current offerings, however.
A few of my most interesting behavioral and natural history observations were:
1. 1/28: I watched a Dark-eyed Junco that was foraging along our foundation grab a large cutworm-like-caterpillar and smack it on the snow. As it began to eat it, a bluebird flew down and grabbed the caterpillar. I had not observed kleptoparasitism in bluebirds before!
2. 2/2: The male Sharp-shinned Hawk that has been hanging around was pursued and killed by a second accipiter that had been undetected by us. The brutal end to the chase took place within 10 feet of me. It was quick, I was in shock, neither a camera nor binoculars was within reach of my working arm, and I was afraid to move as I didn’t want to disrupt the proceedings – it’s the worst feeling to flush a predator from its hard-earned prey and see that prey item suffer and go to waste.
The thing is, I think the only-marginally larger predator was actually an adult female Sharp-shinned Hawk as opposed to the far more likely adult male Cooper’s Hawk. Cooper’s Hawks are known to kill Sharpies, but I am unaware of published accounts of cannibalistic Sharpies. It all happened too quickly, and accipters are much easier to identify in flight three miles away than when they are sitting in front of your face (at least as adults). Apparently I was too traumatized by the event (and/or slowed mentally by painkillers) to look at details of face pattern. But the relative size and the paler chest and less steely-back were highly suggestive of an adult female Sharp-shinned. Hopefully, it will take up the territory and I will be able to confirm its ID circumstantially. But it was a rather violent end to my feeder-watching week!
Although only circumstantial evidence, an unequivocal female Sharp-shinned Hawk was spotted (and positively identified!) the next day thereafter, leading credence to the rare cannibalism theory. It’s only circumstantial evidence, but I have little doubt this is the bird that took the male the prior day. Furthermore, I have not seen a Cooper’s Hawk here all winter. Absolutely fascinating, and I wish I had photos to document the gruesome event.
The plot thickened even further on the 8th, when I spotted (and photographed this time) a second-winter male (subadult) Sharp-shinned Hawk hunting the feeders in the morning. He better be careful out there! The woods of Durham are unforgiving!
The next week, I didn’t see him as only the adult female was around.
3. I’ve been sorting through as many of the daily commuting gulls as possible, and finally on the 15th, I picked out an Iceland Gull for our 122nd Yard Bird! Interestingly, it was an adult or near-adult, different from the 1st winter birds that have been frequenting the Lewiston-Auburn riverfront a few miles upriver.
For almost three weeks, I left the house or driveway exactly three times (a follow-up appointment, a field trip to see Avatar, and a successful chase of the Common Ringed Plover at Timber Point in Biddeford on 1/31. Jeannette dumped me in the car and we drove down – me fully reclined and with an icepack strapped on. The bird was present as we arrived, and since the word was just getting out, we even had a parking spot. She set me up behind the scope (I had to ask a fellow birder for assistance in moving it!) and then took some photos. I was pretty uncomfortable on the way home – to put it lightly – but it was absolutely worth it!
It wasn’t until Monday, February 6th (just under three weeks since my surgery) that I went out for a little birdwalk with Jeannette at the Auburn Riverwalk. It was a lovely day, and it was fantastically birdy! We found a hen Northern Pintail amongst nearly 500 Mallards, and had three 1st-winter Iceland Gulls – the most I have had here in several years. The overall bird activity was quite a bit above average, as the cold snap finally put some ice on the river and helped to concentrate birds here. Unfortunately, we did not see the Harris’s Sparrow in Turner before my body had enough of being upright.
The next day’s outing, however, was for an easy twitch. I only had to get out of the car and find some open space along the railing of the Arrowsic-Georgetown bridge over the Back River.
So yeah, the Steller’s Sea-Eagle is back, and it was in full (albeit fairly distant) view in our first visit with it of the year. I’ll get out of my recliner for a Steller’s Sea-Eagle any day! It was also good to catch up with a friend and get out of the house for the second day in a row.
A few days later, Jeannette and I took a walk at Winslow Park in Freeport (2/9) where we were thrilled to find 7 Barrow’s Goldeneyes (3 drakes and 4 hens), the second highest count that I have had here in nearly a decade. They put on a great show, too.
A visit to the Auburn Riverwalk on the 13th yielded only one 1st-winter Iceland Gull, while a walk along Brown’s Point Road in Bowdoinham the next day produced a couple of pioneering Northern Flickers.
So there ya have it…my last month of birdwatching. With slow progress on my recovery, I expect feeder-watching will dominate my activity for a few more weeks, but temperature swings will make that interesting…and hopefully another snowstorm or two. I need to be out and about with few limitations by the time spring is here to stay!
Thanks so much for your amazing account of the Sharp-shinned Hawk attack–and, wondering if, as Climate Change exacerbates , species may have to adapt to more urgent and aggressive means of survival. (?)
I will be moving back to Maine (from New Mexico) sometime late or early summer, if a place is available…will be ready to visit and bird Monhegan Island again!
Well, it’s always been an Accipiter eat Accipiter world out there, so this is probably nothing new. However. the northward increase of Cooper’s Hawks due in part to Climate Change is undoubtedly putting more predation pressure on Sharp-shinned Hawks, however.
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