Thursday, March 31, 2011

Natural History of Red-tailed Hawks

The male Red-tail feeding on our local songbirds
I've been reading up on my neighbors.  Its OK, its not like stalking or anything.  I'm reading up on my neighbors the Red-tailed Hawks.  Red-tails are the most common hawk in North America.  They were here long before humans stepped foot on this continent. According to the experts Red-tails mate for life and are very territorial, so most likely these hawks are the pair that raised two young here last year.  With the male's help the female incubates the eggs for about 30 days.  I think I first saw the female on the nest in early March and she is still on the nest so the eggs should be hatching within the next few weeks.   Then it takes about 40 days before the birds leave the nest.  Fledging can take up to 10 weeks while the young birds learn to fly and hunt.

I'm waiting for signs that the eggs have hatched.  Basically it'll be easy to spot the frantic back and forth efforts of the male to bring food to the nest.  I'll recognize the haggard look in his eyes as I think back 18 years to my son's frequent late night feedings. It's a look I remember well.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Random Acts of Wildness

At the heart of enjoying nature is a readiness to see the unexpected, the random.  As we were speeding down the highway on our way home from the hospital on Friday we saw an accipiter hawk eight feet from our car, probably a male Cooper's Hawk or maybe a Sharp-Shinned hawk.  It was diving and jerking towards the grassy shoulder in a strong wind, hunting for its dinner.

There is something sacred about these encounters.  They are certainly unexpected and undeserved.  They leave me with a sense of joy, of wonder and a kind of satisfaction.  They are frequent enough to keep me going.  I settle in and keep myself aware, watching, waiting.

A few years ago I remember driving the 2 hour drive to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge one winter's day to see eagles.  Upon my return later that day I watched an eagle flying along Missouri River near Downtown, Kansas City.  I was in awe. I didn't have to go so far to see eagles, I just had to be patient.

I am constantly surprised by the citied wilderness I live in.  Last fall I watched flight after flight of common nighthawks soaring southward over my apartment.  Or, the time several years ago that an exuberant flock of cedar waxwings visited a cherry tree near my apartment in late winter, picking it clean on their way north.

I am blessed by these visitations.  They are epiphanies of the persistence of life, of the cycle of all things.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Loose Park Red-tails

I live in a citied wilderness.  I'm reminded everyday that the vast urban landscape I live in was once a howling wilderness and may one day be again.  I have enjoyed over the past few years the regular presence of Red-tailed Hawks that have made their home in and around the neighborhood where I live and work. They are my neighbors.

The Red-tails have had several different nests. Last year they built a nest and raised two young in Loose Park in midtown Kansas City.  Amy and I had the wonderful opportunity to see the young fledge and occasionally saw them in the neighborhood making their living on the resident squirrels and songbirds.

The Red-tails are at it again. Over the past few weeks I have seen the pair near last year's nest and then yesterday saw one sitting on the nest incubating eggs.  Its stilling to think of the cycle of life and the new life and adventure that is ahead for this family.  I'll be watching them and reporting on them from time to time.  They are my neighbors after all.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Woodcock Walk

American Woodcock Photo Credit D. Fletcher @ Flickr
The first big event of every ornithological year has to be the woodcock walk.  Around here they usually occur in early March.  It's a rather lewd enterprise involving darkness, flashlights and spying.  A woodcock walk is a little like strolling through a bar and listening for pick-up lines, only classier.  This drab bird of forest floors spends most of its year in obscurity, quietly avoiding attention. But early each spring it dances, sings and flings itself into acrobatic flights, all to attract a mate. Its quite a show.

This evening we went up to the Martha Lafite Thompson Nature Sanctuary near Liberty, Mo.  Our friends Daranya Rasa and Michael Sandy were leading the walk this evening.  It was very chilly but the woodcock's didn't make us wait for long.  On our way out we were treated to seeing 4 or 5 Woodcocks flying into the peenting grounds in the prairie near the entrance to the sanctuary.

Each spring the male woodcock selects a peenting ground where he begins his song and dance.  He dances about in a small area for a few minutes peenting at regular intervals. Then, he takes to the air spiraling in a large circle ever higher and higher.  Through much of his ascent he makes a twittering noise, not unlike the sounds that flying saucers make in the movies.  Once he reaches 200-300 feet he hovers briefly, then begins a zig-zag descent making a series of short squeaking sounds like sneakers on a gym floor. He then returns landing within a few inches of the spot where he took off.  The woodcock will perform this feat several times in the fading twilight.

If you can locate a woodcock on its peenting ground you can move closer and closer to its stage in between each of its acrobatic flights. If you do it right you can catch the dancer in mid dance with your flashlights. Its quite a treat.  As always don't disturb them too much.  There is nothing sadder than a brokenhearted woodcock.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Poetry: 100 Gulls

The 100 gulls were like a small crowd I once saw, scuttling its way around a library first to one place, then another.  Moving en masse like a living organism, oozing around the stacks like an amoeba.  The gulls were a presence like the spirit of God hovering over the forsaken city.  Like men with lanterns looking for one wise man. I looked up and saw what no one else did, what no one else cared to see.  I received the gift, they went unblessed.

Seining for Birds: Missouri River Bird Observatory

It's late summer. The crisp chill of fall morning is weeks away and the heat of summer still lingers.  Along the river the forest offers a dark and comfortable haven from mid morning heat.  There is movement all around.  The Missouri river visible through the trees and brush flows constantly south.  Even when you can't see it you can sense its presence, its pull, its rush to the sea.  Fall migrants pick their way through the forest canopy and the low brush with their contact calls of chips and tseets.

Along an opening in the forest is an all but invisible mesh from knee to head height, strung between two poles seining treasures from the air.  In one net is a struggling heartbeat of feathers.  Quietly a figure approaches and cupping the bird in one hand carefully weaves the net from around his prize and slips the bird into a cotton sack and hangs the sack from his belt.

White-breasted Nuthatch
The young man moves to a nearby table and retrieves his bundle of feathers turning it over in his hands.  He works with a sense of purpose first identifying the species and sex then taking measurements of wing and tail, and checks for body fat.  He carefully records each precious fact.  Finally he selects a small silver band which contains a number and slips it on the bird's leg crimping it carefully into place.  Then he releases this little stranger to join the river in its journey southward to the sea.

The young man is Ethan Duke.  Along with his partner Dana Ripper they run the Missouri River Bird Observatory near Marshall.  They are bird banders and work tirelessly conducting a host of surveys.  Along with monitoring migrants, they also monitor the comings and goings of marsh birds, saw-whet owls and even manage to do some backyard banding. The work that they do is important because it gives us a better picture of our avian friends, their growth and health, the impact of habitat change and an idea of their numbers.

Dana and Ethan always welcome visitors and volunteers.  They are on the web at Missouri River Bird Observatory.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

First Day of Spring

Astronomers and others who are concerned about the movement of planets around the sun won't pay much attention to this day.  There is no proper alignment of planets, moons, or stars.  In outer space its just another day.  To understand today you have to cast your sights a little lower than interstellar space, down to the troposphere.  That part of the universe where our weather is made.

Today is the first day of meteorological spring. Its also the first day of ornithological spring.  That's right all the birds are flipping over their calendars, packing their bags and heading north. And in Missouri the Missouri Bird Records Committee, that gallant group of wizened birders who track the sightings of rare and unusual birds in Missouri, are passing the baton between seasonal editors.  In this case Joe Eades, the winter editor, is passing the baton to my friend Kristi Mayo, the spring editor.

Looking outside the weather is much nicer than a month ago and I'm feeling the effects of winter slowly drop off like an old worn coat.  Its time to get up, get going and get outdoors.  See you in nature!