Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Cooper's Hawk!

Cooper's Hawk from Town Run Park

Monday, Chris and I witnessed a murder. A quick flash past the bird window caught my eye and I watched as a large bird landed on the ground near our bird feeding area. It was an immature male Cooper's hawk, and it had caught something. Chris and I ran to get the binoculars, hoping it wasn't our Carolina Wren, the Brown Creeper who entertained us at lunch, or one of three female Purple Finches that have been visiting the feeders lately.

We snuck up to the window, hoping not to spook the murder suspect and catch him in the act. Soon he took off, but swung back around, prey in his talons, and landed on one of the fence posts that surround our bird feeding area. Handfuls of feathers floated through the air as he methodically stripped his carcass for easy access to the juicy meal. We soon made an ID of the victim he had plucked from the feeders-a House Sparrow. As he fed, he periodically looked around to make sure another animal did not sneak up on him and steal his prize. On two occasions he shifted to an adjacent post with his prey, possibly to get a better grip.
Now don't get me wrong, I don't mind the Cooper's hawk snacking on our birds. My descriptions are all tongue-in-cheek. I understand that everything in nature has its place and am quite fascinated with raptors. So, we continued to watch the scene for a few minutes, until something spooked Mr. Hawk and off he went to the woods. Another lesson in the circle of life.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Cranes, Otters and Eagles, Oh My!

River Otter, photo courtesy of Wikipedia

The recent winter weather had left me stir-crazy and wishing for adventure, so I headed south to visit some great wildlife areas that are not too far from Indianapolis. These areas are only about an hour from Indy and well worth the drive.

First stop was Muscatatuck National Wildlife Refuge. This place is great for waterfowl viewing and is a very reliable spot in the winter time to see River Otters. Today, we spotted nine. These playful creatures will frequent areas where there are holes in the ice. I could have watched these rascals for hours as they bounded across the ice and slid into the water. Some were snacking on fish while sprawling out on the ice, just lounging around. One family unit we observed had five members all playing with each other and having a ball!

Later in the day, we headed a little farther south to Ewing Bottoms, an area located near Brownstown, IN, along W. Spring Street, that currently is hosting thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes. The numbers were difficult to estimate, since the cranes were covering an area approximately two miles wide and were flying in small groups in and out of the area. They were, also, well camouflaged when walking among the cornstalk remnants. I visited Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area this past fall, and the estimated population for the day I was there was approximately 13,000 cranes. I believe there were more than that at Ewing Bottoms, today. The cranes we observed were in a bigger area and seemed more dense that what I had seen that day at J-P. The sight was phenomenal as the cranes streamed into the fields from overhead, calling loudly to one another. You can hear their unique call on the What Bird site if you click on "Listen to Call" halfway down the page.

My friend, Andrew Mertz, was able to get this picture
with his camera placed up to his binoculars.

Here is my attempt at the same technique with a group of sandhills that

are closer to the road. Note how the birds blend right in with the surrounding landscape.

Sandhill Cranes have a unique appearance. The adults have a red crown that is not covered in feathers, but bare skin. This skin is covered with small red bumps called papillae and short, hairlike bristles. The juvenile's crown will be feathered until their first molt.

This is a Sandhill Crane from Texas, showing the unique red crown.
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Indiana is an important stopover area for these cranes. The eastern population of Sandhill Cranes winter in Southern Georgia and Central Florida. They will visit wetland areas in Indiana and neighboring states to refuel for their long flight back to Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ontario to their breeding areas.

Last stop was Starve Hollow State Recreation Area, about six miles south of Brownstown. This place is a great place to view Bald Eagles. Today we could only find two, but we had a terrific look at one that was perched up in a tree near the road. I did some odd contortions and leaned out of the window while snapping this shot with the camera pressed up to the binoculars.

These three areas make for a great day trip from Indianapolis. So, if you have the winter blahs, head south for some great wildlife watching!StumbleUpon

Friday, February 15, 2008

Common Feeder Birds: Pileated Woodpecker

It is the first day of the Great Backyard Bird Count and Chris, our park manager, spotted a Pileated Woodpecker! They are a welcome resident of Southeastway Park's woods and an infrequent visitor to our feeder area. Today, he was hanging out in the area just outside the feeders, so we could view him from our bird window during our lunch break.

I think the poor bird looks like it has mistakenly employed
Heat Miser as its stylist. Talk about bad hair day!

The Pileated Woodpecker, Dryocopus pileatus, is Indiana's largest woodpecker. It is sixteen and a half inches in length, almost the size of a crow. It's size, sleek black back and wings, offset by a red crest, are obvious field marks. The males have a characteristic red "mustache", which is actually a stripe near the beak. The female's stripe is black. Another distinct field mark is the large white area under its wing which is viewed when the bird is in flight.

Male Pileated Woodpecker, photo by John Howard. Note the red "mustache".

Many a birder have quibbled over how to pronounce "pileated". Some lean toward "PIE-lee-ate-ed", while others say "PILL-ee-ate-ed". Actually, both pronunciations are accepted. Its disputed common name comes from the brilliant scarlet crest of feathers on the top of its head, called a pileum (PIE-lee-um). As a side note, in Ancient Rome, a pileus was a brimless felt hat worn by slaves that were freed by their master. The genus name, Dryocopus means "oak tree cutter", with druos meaning "oak tree" and kopos meaning "cutter".

Pileated Woodpeckers are known for the large holes or excavations they produce while foraging for food and producing their nest cavities. The holes can be greater than a foot in length. They have even been known to break smaller trees in half! They are searching for carpenter ants and wood-dwelling beetles, a favorite snack. During their quest, they produce large holes that are relied upon by many mammals, birds, and reptiles for shelter and nesting. They also will eat fruit and nuts.

Though Pileated Woodpeckers are not in any imminent danger, there is reason for concern. Pileated Woodpeckers rely heavily on big trees for their nest cavities. They prefer large dead trees within mature forests. With many areas losing large trees due to disease and clear-cutting, one should watch his species closely. Since so many other creatures depend upon this bird for survival, it would be devasting, if it was lost.

Pileated Woodpeckers will frequent feeders near a large woods. My friend, Andrew Mertz, has a feeding station right outside his patio door where as many as three Pileated Woodpeckers have been viewed at the same time. What is so surprising is Andrew lives in a apartment complex on the north side of Indianapolis, near the Castleton Mall!


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Great BackYard Bird Count!

Get ready to count dem birds! Friday, February 15th-Monday, February 18th is the Great Backyard Bird Count, a joint project by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon. What a way to spend the weekend and support a citizen science project all at the same time. This is a lot of fun, and last year I was able to submit the Bullock's Oriole to the count. What a beaut! You can view this gorgeous creature on the website, under the photo winners. Marty Jones took a great shot of it. The count is pretty simple; just count as long as you wish, wherever you are. Then go online and submit your list. You will be registered for great prizes like binoculars, feeders and books with each list you submit. If you are a great photographer, which I am not (yet!), you can submit your photos for prizes, too.

It's a great project because they use the results to track birds all over the United States. The site allows you to explore results from past years, all the way back to 1999, to see where a specific species has been observed. For instance, if you are interested in where all the Golden Eagles were spotted, it can generate a map that shows where they were discovered. Or you can generate a list of locations where they spotted Golden Eagles in Indiana during the count. Really simple and fascinating. Here is the map I generated showing where all the Golden Eagles were spotted during the count in 2007. At least one was spotted in southeast Indiana!

Have fun counting those birds! I know I will!


Monday, February 4, 2008

Common Feeder Birds: Cardinal, interesting info on their calls

I am always fascinated with bird song and calls and recently there has been a bit of discussion on the IN-bird listserv about cardinal calls. Specifically, on the Stokes CD, there is a strange call at the end of the cardinal track. When I first heard this call, I was very curious about its origins, but had never taken the time to investigate. The call is almost monkey-like, not one would normally associate with a cardinal. The discussion on the listserv once again peaked my interest, so I did a little sleuthing, found Lang Elliott's e-mail and asked the source. Turns out the call is of a group of cardinals during courtship in the Everglades. Here is Lang Elliott's response when I asked him if he could give some insight on the call. Since I am not super technically savvy, I do not know how to easily add the sound files, but will gladly e-mail them to any interested parties.
Lang Elliott's response:
"I was so very fortunate to get that recording, at the Anhinga Trail parking lot in the Everglades National Park on March 14, 1989, back when I first started recording. It's the only time I've witnessed up close a group of cardinals involved in courtship and competition. Although I cannot say for certain exactly what was going on, nor which sex was making which sound, I can assure you that the sounds were made by cardinals. There were two males and two females in the vicinity. At one point, two if not three birds flew into a thick shrub and began making these sounds. I was very close (hence the immediacy of the recording), although I could not actually see what was going on. Attached is the raw field recording."

"Now, just to prove that cardinals do indeed make the churring sound, attached is an additional recording of a male singing in New York on April 22, 1990. Note the churr that he adds to the end of his song. I have other examples of this, although it is fairly rare and sometimes so soft that people will not notice it. As this recording proves, there's no doubt at all that at least the male cardinal can make such a churring sound (although it's a bit more animated in the courtship sequence)."

So, if anyone wants to hear these sound files, just let me know.StumbleUpon

Common Feeder Birds: Hairy Woodpecker

Note the long bill on this male Hairy Woodpecker.

We are always pleased when our resident Hairy Woodpeckers ( Picoides villosus) show up at our feeders at the park. Hairy Woodpeckers are similar in appearance to the Downy Woodpecker, which I covered in an earlier post. You can click here to read that post. Later in this post, I will cover identification tips to tell the two apart, but first I will cover some of their fascinating natural history info.

The first word in the scientific name, or genus, for Hairy Woodpeckers is Picoides. The word Picoides is comprised of two parts: Picus, which means "woodpecker" and is a character in Greek mythology that was changed into a woodpecker by the witch, Circe. It is also a genus of large woodpeckers that live in Europe, Asia and North Africa. The second part, -oides, means "resembling". The second word in the scientific name, villosus, means "hairy or shaggy" and describes the long, filamentous hairs that form a white patch on the bird's back.
The Hairy Woodpecker is a year-round resident as far north-west as Alaska and as far south-east as Florida. This large variation in climate and habitat has produced a large number of subspecies. There are seventeen recognized subspecies of the Hairy Woodpecker with a large range in size and plumage. The subspecies of Hairy Woodpecker that lives here in Indiana and neighboring states is Picoides villosus villosus.

Hairy Woodpeckers, like all woodpeckers, are fascinating to watch as they forage for food. Hairy Woodpeckers will usually concentrate their efforts on the trunk of the tree, while the smaller Downy Woodpecker will explore the branches. Hairy Woodpeckers, even in the winter, feed on approximately 75% insects and 25% plant material, like seeds and berries. Most people would assume they feed by pounding like crazy on a tree, then extracting the insects, but Hairy Woodpeckers have a specialized feeding method called gleaning. They will glean insects by carefully inspecting the nooks and crannies of the tree and extract any insects along these areas. They will, also, check areas that larger woodpeckers, like the Pileated Woodpecker, have opened up and search for insects the bigger birds might have missed. The Hairy Woodpecker will excavate or open up areas of the bark by pounding a hole with its bill, but according to some studies, less than 25% of the time. The hammering noise we hear so often is mainly for communication and, also, a way of locating prey. They will tap along the trunk to find areas of varying resonance to locate insect tunnels.

Female Hairy Woodpecker foraging.

Male Hairy Woodpeckers have a red patch on the back of their head, like the Downy Woodpecker, that the females lack. They use this to display during courtship. The male will spy a lovely lady he is interested in, erect his red patch and spread wide his tail feathers in hopes of impressing her. If she is interested, they will then start a bounding display flight, with the birds following each other in great loops above and through the treetops.

An interesting tidbit is the females will do most of the egg incubation during the day, while the males will incubate the eggs during the night. Parents will feed the young by regurgitation, at first, then gradually offer whole insects to the young.

Now to tackle those identification differences between the Hairy and Downy that can be tricky. Here are a few of the field marks I like to use to tell the Hairy Woodpecker and Downy Woodpecker apart.

1. Overall Size
The Hairy Woodpecker is a much bigger bird than the Downy, with an average size of 9.25 inches in length. The Downy has an average size of 6.75 inches in length. This can be difficult to tell in the field, but I have found it is sometimes easier to use familiar birds as a comparison to help with size. With this method, the Hairy Woodpecker is a little smaller than an American Robin and a bit larger than a Northern Cardinal. The Downy is closer in size to a House Sparrow or Tufted Titmouse.

2. Bill Size
The Hairy Woodpecker has a much larger, stouter bill than the Downy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker's bill is almost the same size as the width of its head from the side while the Downy Woodpecker's bill is one third the size of its head. The Downy's bill appears more delicate than the Hairy's bill. A good site that shows two drawings of the birds is Cornell's Great Backyard Bird Count. (I will cover this in an upcoming post, this event is next weekend!)

3. Call
This takes a trained ear, and I will admit I am not the best at this. The Hairy produces a "peek" call which is louder and sharper than the Downy's call. It also has a "rattle call" which is a series of rapid notes all at the same pitch. The Downy's call is a more gentle "pik" with a rattle call that is slower and descending in pitch. (Downy= descending).
4.Outer Tail Feathers
I don't use this field mark too much, but it can be helpful if the bird is at a weird angle and you can't see the head. Hairy Woodpeckers in Indiana have white outer tail feathers, while the Downy Woodpecker has small dark bars on its outer feathers. There has been Hairy Woodpeckers with the dark bars, also, but if you have a woodpecker with white outer tail feathers, it is usually a safe bet it is a Hairy.
5. Division of Red Head Patch
On male Hairy Woodpeckers in Indiana and in the east, the red patch is divided by a dark line right down the middle of the patch. This is a field mark that is not mentioned in any of the field guides I own. I have seen it mentioned on a few websites and on The Birds of North America Online. They briefly say that male Hairy Woodpeckers have a "red band extending across back of head (often broken into 2 lateral spots in e. North America)." My friend, Steve Moeckel from Ohio, sent me a couple shots showing the back of the head on the male Hairy Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. You can see the Hairy has the aforementioned dark line and the Downy does not.

Male Downy with the solid red patch. Photo by Steve Moeckel.

Male Hairy Woodpecker with the divided red patch. Photo by Steve Moeckel.

Another shot of the Hairy Woodpecker with the divided red patch. Photo by Steve Moeckel.

Hairy Woodpeckers love suet, peanuts and black-oil sunflower seeds. Keep an eye out for them at a feeder near you!