Friday, April 26, 2013

The Hawk Chronicles cont.

(There is a pair of Broad-Winged Hawks nesting about 75 feet up and 100 feet away from our house in an oak tree on our property.)

Mars and I hear the hawks more often than we see them.   That’s not unusual in our yard, especially this time of the year.   Even though light travels faster, the sounds of spring touch our ears long before the birds that are responsible for them flash before our eyes.  Over the years we’ve grown accustomed to the ground-bound early morning “coo” of the sun-seeking Mourning Doves; the daylong stereophonic “caws” of the attention-seeking crows as they migrate through the area; the sex-seeking hook-up pleas of the male Cardinal – high up and hyper – seeking the lowdown from some down-low female of the species; the cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up” from flocks of Robins suddenly realizing that they forgot to go south for the winter; and the perpetual, overlapping chirping of finches and sparrows.  And to confuse matters more, a choir of mockingbirds arrives on the scene annually.
How do these tiny animals put forth such bounteous ballads?  We heard the answer to this enigma on WNPR’s “Bird Note” early the other morning.  (We tune in public radio to drown out the outdoor sunrise chatter.)  They were talking specifically about the Carolina Wren – but it applies to all the avian songsters.
”The answer lies in the songbird’s vocal anatomy. Unlike the human voice, which comes from the larynx way up at the top of the windpipe, a bird’s song comes from deep within its body. Birds produce song in a structure called the syrinx, located at the bottom of the windpipe where the bronchial tubes diverge to the lungs. The syrinx is surrounded by an air sac, and the combination works like a resonating chamber to maintain or amplify sound.

“Evolution has given birds a far more elaborate sound mechanism than it’s given humans. Where we wound up with a flute, songbirds got bagpipes."
The first time we heard the hawks however we both thought it was one of the squirrels.  The thin, high whistled "kee-eee." sounded more like the frightened squeal of a quivering tree-rat caught in the soaring raptor’s shadow, than the warning cry of their taloned predator.  I myself expected a deep, bass sound – similar to the rumbling roar of an amped up eighty-pound black Labrador Retriever  – and certainly not something more reminiscent of the incessant yips of a petulant Chihuahua.
The next time ever I heard their voice was when I saw the pair exchanging egg-warming duties at their nest.  Maybe it was a different call.  Perhaps it was the physical presence and threatening look on its face– but whatever the reason, this time the hawk-talk sounded much more Lab-like.
 Soon enough the early morning complaints of starved hatchlings awakening from their involuntary overnight fast – along with the angry responses of the sleep deprived parents – will shatter our pre-dawn dosing.
We’ll immediately turn on our radio and hope “Bird Note” is there to explain what it is that is happening in our front yard hawk nest.  I’ve already seen the fear-inducing visage that goes with an irately uttered “kee-eee”.  So I am perfectly willing to let someone else peer into the raptor roost, and describe the action to me.
Hear the call of Broad-Winged Hawks at

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

It's a Broad-Winged

Well Mars and I have finally seen the hawks in their nest.
We had sighted them soaring over our property and landing individually on some of our trees.  But – even though their aerie is less than 100 feet from our house and only about 75 feet up – bad timing and bad sightlines had prevented us from actually getting our own first-hand visual evidence that raptors are really taking residence on our real estate.
Most of our information has come from B and M, our across-the-street neighbors who have a second floor office with a clear view of the action.  They have been attempting to identify our tenants – thinking at first Red Tailed, the Red Shouldered, and finally Broad-Winged.  Leading me to believe that in addition to being “masters of the skies” that our hawks were also “masters of disguise”.
Their latest ID was confirmed by a trio of strangers who had gathered on our sidewalk to stare at the birds at the same point in time that Mars and I were heading out for dinner with friends.  As I wandered out to talk to them I looked up and saw the first hawks head and shoulders looming over the nest.  Then the second one swooped down into their twig and branch living quarters.  They are much bigger than I had thought – in my mind too large for the their nest – but obviously not.
“Look, it’s a Broad-Winged”, said one of the onlookers.  “You can see the speckled chest”.  Her companions nodded agreement.  She then went on to say that up the street the other day she saw another, or possibly the same, hawk flying upwards with “something small” clutched in its talon.  She asked if we had any such casualties on our property, which she had noted was pretty busy with small birds, pigeons, and squirrels.
 I had read earlier that many hawks do not hunt within their nesting area.  So I mentioned that.  But I also said that a friend who watches eagles for a local conservation group had pointed out that the squirrels and birds might be safe “until the chick or chicks are hatched, then all bets are off.”  He went on “Food is food, what ever is the easiest to catch or prey upon.” 
 Next day I called the Connecticut Audubon Society to see if they had any advice.  “Just don’t’ bother them.” they told me.  I’d found several news stories on the web about homeowners being attacked by hawks while cutting their grass, so I asked whether mowing the lawn would disturb the birds.  “You’ll have to see if it does.” 
 While I was writing this essay, our spring-cleaning landscaper and his teenage crew of two were leaf-blowing the accumulated debris of winter out of our yard – including some from the hosta bed at the base of the tree which houses the hawk nest.  I had cautioned him about the birds.  He was impressed – “That’s really cool!  They’re so big!” – but not worried for his safety.  He and his workmates kept looking up hoping to see them, but no luck.  Suddenly I realized that the machines had gone silent.  When I looked out I saw their tools placed neatly on my lawn and no indications of hawk versus human hostilities
That’s a good thing.  And I hope it stays this way.  But, as every parent knows, things can really change after the baby arrives.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Do hawks steal nests from squirrels?

The other day I found a broken pine branch in my front yard.  Nothing unusual about that – I used to find them all the time.  Until I remembered that we had our pine trees cut down last year in fear of their collapse during one of the ferocious storms that seem to have taken a liking to our neck of the woods

The next day Mars and I were looking up into our seventy-foot tall oak tree at the squirrel drey that, according to two of our neighbors (B & M), is being remodeled into an aerie for two hawks that have, like the ferocious foul weather, developed a fondness for our part of town.  We have seen the large gray birds soaring over our house and sitting in that tree, but not actually seen them performing any carpentry work on their purported new home.  It was at the base of this tree that I found the broken stick of evergreen.

“Look”, Mars said, “there’s a pine branch hanging from the nest.” 

It was a big one.  A longer version of the one I had picked up the day before. I also noticed that the squirrel sanctuary had, since the last time I checked it out, expanded from its small one-family dimensions (many residents of pocket-size) to an oversized abode suitable for a much larger tenancy (fewer, but bigger, residents).

Neighbor M says he sees the raptor pair busily building when he heads out in his truck at seven a.m.  His wife B has, from their second floor office across the street, seen them likewise employed during the day.  Mars and I have not yet spied them setting beak to branch – or whatever it is they do to construct their mansion.

Which led me to Google with the question, “Do hawks steal nests from squirrels?”  To which unflinchingly replied, “every chance they get! yes, they do along with young rabbits and rodants, [sic] the larger adults are too heavy for a hawk to fly with.”  Not quite the answer, or even the question, that I was looking for – but entertaining in its own strange little way nonetheless.

So what’s going on in my northernmost oak tree?  The forensics evidence of the broken pine branch places the perps in our yard on the same day that not one squirrel was seen at any of our seed feeders.  There were no indications of hawk-on-squirrel violence. Circumstantial evidence – but if that’s all you’ve got, then that’s all you’ve got. Today the squirrel count was back to normal, as was their ravenous behavior.

So for now I am guessing the squirrels are enjoying the comfort of their new oversized digs – but nervously looking over their shoulders.  While the hawks are trying to figure out what exactly it really means to steal nests from squirrels.

And so it goes.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

New Neighbors??

A pair of hawks may be setting up residence in our northernmost oak tree.  That’s the report from B and M, our neighbors across the street to the west of us.
For the past couple of weeks Mars and I have noticed them (the hawks, not the neighbors) soaring over our property a tad above treetop height, and occasionally alighting on some of our trees, the north oak among them – along with other oaks and maples in the immediate area.  The gray raptors, sometimes solo, sometimes as a couple, would sit and stare down from on high – usually at around 7:00 or 8:00 am.  But we just figured they were looking for breakfast, not a place to live.
We have a pretty good history of hawks in our neighborhood.  Every annum for the past ten or so we have averaged at least one scene of carnage – marked by a bloody mound of feathers or gray fur.  This pair is likely the same duo that hunted here last year – claiming as I recall at least one squirrel and one pigeon.  For a while they nested about a quarter mile down the bicycle trail that begins across the road from us.  We live on the northeast corner of a three-way intersection.  What would be the fourth-way is a recreation trail that runs northerly for a couple of miles through an archway of trees that in certain spots expands into an honest-to-goodness woodland right here in the heart of sprawling suburbia. 
The taloned twosome set up housekeeping atop one of the eighty-plus foot oaks along the crushed stone bikeway, and did at least a portion of their meat shopping at the feeders in our front yard.  They had a young one.  Then apparently the noise and hubbub of construction in the area drove them out of their aerie southwards about a mile and one half into the thicker and quieter forest of our local public park.  Still they dropped in several times a week.
Other than their possible interest in our boreal oak none of us has been able to pinpoint any other habitats for the gray-feathered raptors.
The squirrels have an enormous, several-years-in-the-making, drey in our northern oak that may have actually survived  the great Halloween snowstorm of 2011.  In addition to having the cache of a storm-resistant abode, the rough-hewn look of this carelessly designed and constructed mishmash of leaves and twigs should provide significant curb appeal to potential home buyers – along with the possibility of room and board in one convenient location.
Housing sales are still low in our area.  So is the violent crime rate.  Maybe the hawks can reverse this trend in one fell swoop.
We can only hope.  And keep the feeders filled.