Saturday, November 08, 2008

Red-tails and What Prey is That?

Photograph by Cheryl Cavert
Cheryl Cavert of Tulsa has had some very hot days of hawkwatching of late,

And R. of Illinois after seeing her photos wanted to know just what this hawk was eating. Many thanks to Cheryl for taking these wonderful photos which make great examples as to what to look for when hoping to identify prey. She was wondering if perhaps this was a Grackle. It's about the right size and those wings look about the right color.

First step: Is it feathers are fur? In this case, feathers. Dark flight feathers.

(Is it a Grackle?)
Second step: Can you see feet or beak? Feet, with longish toes.

Photograph by Cheryl Cavert
Ah ha! Feet pale in color.

And that tells you what? That it isn't a Grackle as they don't have pale feet.

But what else is apparent as the hawk continues the meal. There are pale gray feathers. Is that not a keel bone? Yes, and therefore those are likely pale gray breast feathers.

Can you think of a native bird this size with these characteristics.

1. Light gray breast

2. Dark primaries

3. Lighter secondaries, in mid-gray range (see photo)

4. Pale feet, not yellow or black.

I can't. That's Columba livia, a pigeon.

Photograph by Cheryl Cavert

As I was scrutinizing the prey, I saw something that might help identify this hawk the next time she appears.

Look past the prey feathers to the hawk's eye. Instead of having a much paler "eyebrow" like many hawks do, she has a white streak under her eye and not on top. That isn't all that common in the Red-tails I've seen though it could be different in Tulsa.

Folks of the Tulsa Forum? Is that the case?

Photograph by Cheryl Cavert
Look at that stuffed crop and compare with her crop in the first photo. It looks quite full there but even fuller here as she kept eating. Was that a particularly meaty pigeon or is this a second on top of a first. Is she feeding up these days in preparation for breeding season?

At least in NYC there is often a bumper crop of young pigeons hatched in October and off the nest by November. Some without much savvy in the ways of hunting hawks. Though one rarely sees a crop that full unless it is a well fed growing eyass, who needs many many calories to grow that rapidly.

Perhaps we just haven't noticed the formels doing it in earlier in the season prepping for those eggs that have to be produced.


Autumn foliage with mallards--Yet another wonderful photograph and Central Park moment captured by the indomitable Eleanor Tauber

And here, one of the telling field marks cuing us that we're looking at House Finches and not Purple Finches. Do you know what it is?

See the back of the bird's head who is upside down? Instead of the vivid scarlet seen on the front and top of the male's head, the back of his head is more similarly pigmented to that of his back. Therefore--House Finch.

(Sorry about the eyes from the flash. My editing program isn't up to demon cat eyes. )

We're currently working on "this is my food" and that "is your food". Being a stray the smell of food currently sets her off out of habit though she has a big bowl of cat chow to indulge in anytime she wants some and the food panic is getting better. She's no dummy.

She sleeps next to me and if I sit down she invariably jumps into my lap for a nap. The bad spells occur if I have to leave the house to do an errand. By the time I return she is under the bed, meowing pitifully, and doesn't come out unless coaxed.

But I've no doubt this kitty is going to be just fine eventually.

Donegal Browne

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The Northern Harrier, a Rainbow, and Pye the Stray Cat Comes Round

Photo Courtesy of the Illinois Raptor
Northern Harrier, Circus cyaneus

It is raining and the squirrels keep whining. I can't figure out why. It must be important because they are sitting out on the bare branches without cover getting soaked And it isn't just one or two, there are five squirrels in the backyard whining their guts out.

What is the problem? The cat is now in the house. The Cooper's and Sharpies have gone south as far as I can tell. Is there another cat? Not as far as I can see even with binoculars. I scan. Shoot! I forgot.

When I took the pick-up out of the garage yesterday, I had to move the riding lawn mower to the yard in order to get the truck out. And I forgot, left it there, and it's now been steadily rained on for quite some time.

While I've been looking, the rain has slowed down considerably, I should put the machine away now before the precipitation gets heavy again. Though the mower probably isn't going to start anyway as it tends towards non-starting mode in the first place.

But I should try. Guilt, guilt, guilt.

I scamper out with a towel, dump the water out of the seat, give it a quick swipe, hop on, turn the starter--and wonder of wonders she starts. I do a turn around in the back yard to get into position and start heading for the garage. When suddenly flying from behind me, about 8 feet off the ground, is a brown hawk with a big fat white rump spot. DRAT! DRAT! DRAT!!

So that's what the squirrels were going on about and I missed her. Unbelievable. I had a Northern Harrier, either a juvenile or a female sitting around in the backyard, and I missed her.

Harriers are very nifty . They have a facial disk similar to that of an owl. And for whatever reason they tend to hang out with Short-ears.

I realize that the sun is shining like crazy through the rain. There ought to be a rainbow out here somewhere. On cue, my cell phone rings. It's a Wisconsin friend, he says if I hurry up over to Frank's parking lot I'll be able to see the whole bow!

Scramble, scramble.

But as we all know, rainbows are transitory things . Part of the reason that they are so special. By the time I arrive at the appointed parking lot, the clouds have moved in and the whole bow is no longer visible. But that's alright. Even a portion of something that signifies a promise that brings hope is far better than none of it.

Then I think about the supposed pot of gold hidden at the end of the rainbow, and the third thing I think of, is sixth grade science class. White light breaks into what colors? Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet.

It's time to go back and check on Pye, the cat. Last night while Pye was insisting on pasting herself against the glass, sitting on the top of the very narrow window, I decided that I'd take the chance of touching her.

I slowly reached up and gave her a gentle scratch on the neck. She yowled and became even stiffer than originally if that was possible, but she didn't fling herself about the room as she had been doing previously, nor hiss, or scratch. That seemed a very good sign. As was the fact that she'd used the box when I looked. Excellent.

Periodically I went back and did it again. Then this morning I opened the door and she had gotten out of the window and was hiding behind the toilet. I made soothing noises, reached back and petted her again. Now she nervously meowed instead of yowling. Very good.

According to The Humane Society, no one has called and is missing a cat of Pye's description.

Once again I stopped in for petting repeatedly. I arrive with a cat brush and brush her her dirty matted fur. She likes it. Purr, purr.

She has mats an inch across on her chest and stomach, but they are matted right up to the skin so probably will eventually have to be cut off. A bath would help loads. I consider bathing her. Bad idea. Build more trust first. Brush, brush, brush. Beyond that, her fur isn't in bad shape once the dirt and bits are brushed out.

Back from the rainbow, I enter Pye's bathroom, she meows, comes out from behind the toilet after one pet--

...and rubbed her head on my ankle.

Then rubbed left.

Rubbed front.

Rubbed right.

And left again.

Then she planted herself between my feet and looked into my eyes, as if attempting to telepathically say, "Okay, I've used the box, and did all that sucking out. Will you let me out of the bathroom now?"

It was true, so I opened the door. She looked out but wouldn't pass the threshold until I did. Then she flattened herself a little closer to the floor and came out. Checking out the things that had been moved out of the bathroom before she went in.

Then she went under the bed--and yowled. Overstimulated maybe? I left the bedroom and closed the door. In a hour I came back. She was laying on the bed, hopped off , almost went under but changed her mind when I spoke. More petting. Then I turned off the light, went to the hall, and left the door open.

She peeked out but didn't come any further. Should I try to pick her up?
Worth a try. And she let me. We went to the living room. She took one look at the talking heads on PBS and fled back to the bedroom. ??? It turns out she is frightened of the TV. Has she never seen one before? That would be weird because she seems somewhat habituated to humans.

I retrieve her and sit in the chair. I don't hold onto her beyond petting her and she stays on my lap, meowing for more.

Donegal Browne

P.S. In actuality whether Pye is male or female is still an open question. I don't know that she's up for me flipping her onto her back for genitalia inspection. Age? She's small and I suspect young. Though as I don't know how to age cats by their teeth, which is the accepted technique, we'll have to wait for the vet to tell us.

The foliage seems particularly spectacular this fall. Also rather spectacular was the release to the bathroom of the stray kitty that's been hunting the bird feeders. I got a hold of a live trap and as I'd been feeding kitty for several days on the back step waiting for my capture chance, I put the trap with some tasty roast beef on the back step in the same position. I thought it would take awhile for the cat to be enticed into the trap but decided I'd get the bag of litter out of the car.

After bringing it in, I peeked out of the curtain, and wonder of wonders there was kitty inside the trap. Wow! That was fast.

Kitty does not look happy, actually.

I rushed out the front door and got some leaves and dirt. Went into the second bathroom where I was going to put kitty, mixed the leaves and dirt into the litter. That way kitty will be cued to use the box as she's been using the dirt outside. A food and water bowl, and now the interesting part.

I pick up the trap and kitty yowls. Kitty is a very strong yowler.

Kitty glares. I get the trap to the bathroom and after some tinkering get it open. Kittt whips out, jumps onto the counter, and then knocks the loose toiletries all over with a rattle and a crash. Kitty they leaps for the curtains and begins to climb them.

I should have the camera.

By the time I get back, kitty or Pyewackit, as I've decided to call her for the cat in the play, "Bell, Book, and Candle, has made it to the window and is sitting on the inch and a half sash. Can't be that comfy. But Pye is pretending not to be there so isn't complaining.

You'll notice that the curtains have lost some of their hooks and now look a little the worse for wear.

Note the towel rack. It will make another appearance later.

When I return with some bedding, Pye's head has made an appearance.
I leave again and go about my business, until I hear an awful crash and clatter from the bathroom. I go in to check just to make sure that no glass has broken. I don't want her to cut herself.

Nope, there isn't any broken glass but somehow Pye has torn the towel rack off the wall. What a talented kitty.

I don't have a full photo of talented kitty so I go outside as that is on the other side of the curtain. Outside, I mean.

It's night so the flash goes off. Pye doesn't seem to mind be it does make her look quite demonic.

She's rather long haired. See her bottlebrush tail. Actually in Wisconsin quite a few stray cats have long hair. I assume it's an adaptation that helps them make it through the winter. She had taken off one of Fluffy's holes, the one under the neighbor's shed, so she'd have likely been hunting my bird feeders all winter.

It's one thing for a native hawk to do it, but quite another when a cat does it. Cat's aren't native and they decimate bird populations

Actually it took about thirty seconds after the live trap went into the house for the Junco's to arrive at the feeding area for one of the first times today. Pye kept sitting under the picnic table pretending to be a barbecue grill or something.

Why are those Canada Geese walking across that parking lot?

Possibly since the ice age or at least for very long time. There was a small lake just as one came into the town of Janesville. That little lake or perhaps it was a pond, was extremely popular with migrating waterfowl.

Two years ago the city fathers in their infinite wisdom allowed the lake to be filled in and a box store built on top of it. Just what the world needs another box store. Much more important than habitat.

It was actually quite awful. The migrating birds arrived last season and they couldn't find the lake. They flew in circles above the box store for hours, while more and more tired hungry birds arrived and joined the confused circling birds. They were in a panic, calling to each other, desperately trying to figure out what had happened.

Now this year I see these troupes of geese walking south through town, away from the former location of the lake. It turns out that there is a small drainage area near the road which thankfully is currently full of water and the birds walk over and get in. Though it is dreadfully crowded.

They've stayed to rest through the four days of Indian Summer we've had.

But the weather must be about to change because late this afternoon, birds from everywhere in the area began taking to the air and leaving town. And geese of course always announce their departure with many choruses of honking. I assume they don't want anyone to be left behind. And no doubt there is discussion about who is going to be where once they arrive at cruising altitude.

The deer is at quite a distance but at least she stands still long enough for one photograph.
Before turning, with a flip of her white tail, for the woods at speed.
Donegal Browne

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I'd been thinking I hadn't seen any new albinistic birds lately.

And here came this little female House Sparrow. The two albinistic patches, two feathers on the right and two on the lelft, are symetrical.

You may not know, as it's so seldom seen,

But Black-capped Chickadee's really do have necks.
I looked out and saw a Chipmunk. Chewie is back yet again? No. Look at that bottom, it isn't the color of Chewie's bottom.

This Chipmunk not only isn't the right color but she's also smaller. This is Dinky.
Donegal Browne

Monday, November 03, 2008

Is It Thunder???

Photo Cheryl Cavert-Possible Thunder

In October, Tulsa Hawkwatcher Cheryl Cavert, came across a hawk, that looked to her mind very much like Thunder, the daughter of Kay and Jay Red-tail.

Thunder hatched from the KJRH TV Tower nest in the 2008 season. The Tulsa Watchers had been looking for Thunder without any confirmed sightings for some months and the Hawk Forum was very excited that perhaps Thunder had come back to Tulsa after a brief vacation.

What about age? Is this hawk the proper age to be Thunder?

We can all see the light eyes, and Cheryl also checked the tail. It was brown. Therefore it's a first year. The proper age to be Thunder.

Can we take a shot at the sex of this hawk? To me the skull shape looks female. I'm not sure how to explain it, but often I find that females have a more "hawk-ish" shape to their faces. You know how Pale Male looks more round in the face? And shorter beak to eye from the front? Well, look up at P. Thunder. To me in a female the beak to eye proportion looks narrower and longer.

Next, look at P. Thunder's "ankle". Though unable to put a gauge on the bird to check it looks thicker than a usual males. Therefore I'm going for female. She also has that robust look of females.

" Possible Thunder" was sighted just past where the Tulsa watchers have tentatively placed the boundary of her parent's territory.,-95.983772&spn=0.019486,0.06815&t=h&z=14

From Jackie Dover, Tulsa's Map Mavin--
This link takes you to the Tulsa Redtailed Hawks Map. All the red markers represent sightings of the KJRH hawks (and possible sightings). The list on the left of the screen presents them in chronological order. You can scroll down to find the various sightings. Click on any marker, and you get a text box and any photos giving specifics.The possible latest sightings of Thunder were on October 16. Catgirl reported two consecutive sightings that evening in the same general vicinity, possibly both Thunder. The red markers mapping them are # 24 and 25. Only # 25 has photos.There had also been other un-ID'd sightings on Sept. 26 and 27 (markers # 22 and 23) but the photos seems not to show clearly whether that was an adult or juvenile, or even the same hawk (though the location was almost identical). So we don't know who that was.

We have often suspected that juveniles in NYC set up shop their first year in areas of deep prey base near their parent's territory or natal territory as it is familiar ground and they know the necessary hunting techniques for the local prey.

Screen Capture by Tulsa Watcher Donna Johnson from the Hawk Cam courtesy of KJRH TV.
Here note the pigmentation of the feathers. Due to the nature of feathers, light, and cameras, color isn't always reliable. More reliable is the position and ratio of dark and light. The top of Thunder's head is similar to the top of the shoulder as is P. Thunder's.

Helpfully, Thunder started with a definite spotted belly band and seems to have kept it. No thick streaks or "paint drippings" for a belly band on this bird. The same as P. Thunder.

Another example of the spotted band plus note the white strip between the darker head and darker wings. In some birds there is a definite continuation of the head "color" down the chest and shoulders. In other birds such as Thunder that isn't the case. Thunder has a few streaks not full pigmentation there. Not the neck of P. Thunder.

Look at the difference in "color" due to light when this photo and the next are compared. Note the streaks on the neck.

Likely late afternoon light has brought up the orangey-brown glow. Her distinctive white eyebrow is also quite apparent. Compare with P. Thunder below.

A profile photo of P. Thunder by Cheryl Cavert.
In the top photo P. Thunder's white shoulder strip isn't apparent but when she turns her head as in this photo. There it is.
Photo Cheryl Cavert
In this photo of Thunder the similar beak head proportion isn't that apparent.

Thunder, August, 2008, Cheryl Cavert
But as she matures, here in the August shot her personal ratio is appearing.
Photo Cheryl Cavert
As fledgling Thunder's neck feathers blow up one can see the beginnings of the more mature bird's neck streaks.
If you'll remember there was a time period when both Kay and Thunder seemed to disappear and Jay was left holding the fort. He could be seen up high surveying the territory on and off but neither Kay or Thunder seemed to be in the area. Then about the time that Kay and Jay appeared together on the nest, around October 16th.
Jackie notes that Cheryl's sightings were October 16th for P. Thunder. Did Kay and Thunder head out of town to learn less urban hunting techniques? And when Kay headed back to Jay and the nest, Thunder tagged along. We'll never know.
We haven't the only definitive I.D., that of a band, but I'm as sure as I can be in this situation that P. Thunder and Thunder are the same hawk.
Many thanks to Cheryl Cavert, Donna Johnson, Jackie Dover, and Catbird for their grand efforts, accumulating data, their sharing of knowledge, and their tireless help in sorting out the mystery hawk.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, November 02, 2008


There may be hope for the lower East Side territory this coming hawk season. I just received this email in my box.


I just wanted to write and let you know that I have just spotted (9:35
AM) two Red Tail Hawks a male and large female flying over Houston Street and
Avenue D on the lower east side of Manhattan.

I do not know if it is the same female Red-tail Hawk that I had been watching back in May and June but it could be her.

The female hawk likes to stop on top of the NYC Housing Project on the
North West Corner of Houston and Columbia Streets.

I will check the old nest on the air conditioner on PS 188 to see if they might be thinking of using it as a nest.

Houston Hawk Watcher

Let's hope nature finds a path to a healthier hawk family in that territory if the birds stay.

P.S. Yes, I'm working on the Thunder comparisons but I am having dreadful loading issues with Blogger. And without readily available photos for you to compare, it rather defeats the purpose now doesn't it? I'll keep at it.

Donegal Browne