Saturday, February 21, 2009

Valkyrie, the Queen of Tompkins Square Park, Squirrel Copulation, and the Jones Beach Saw-whet

Photograph by Francois Portmann,
A treasure trove of this week's wonderful moments in Tompkins Square Park from professional photographer Francois Portmann.
And here comes Valkyrie gliding through the park--looking for something. Something to kill perhaps?

Photo by Francois Portmann
In this case, the something that she's killing is a stick. Valkyrie is young enough that she has the urge for "play". Play in young animals as in humans is activity that helps them learn control of their bodies and practicing the skills that are important in life.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Scoping the territory.

Photo by Francois Portmann

My, my, a pair of squirrels copulating. Spring must be just around the corner.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Valkyrie sees something and flies towards it with focus.

Photo by Francois Portmann
SNAP! And the rat never knew what hit him.

Photo by Francois Portmann

And off she goes to find a nice quiet spot for dinner.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Now what?

Photo by Francois Portmann

BAM! Time to kill another stick.

Photo by Francois Portmann
A passer-by gets the "look".

Note Valkyrie's feet. She grips one side of the bar with one foot and the other side with the opposite foot. That way she can't be blown off in a stiff wind, and she can push off in either direction.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Another stealth glide..

Photo by Francois Portmann

It isn't easy landing on points.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Photo by Francois Portmann

A Red-bellied Woodpecker keeps an eye peeled at the treetops.

Photo by Francois Portmann
Valkyrie the Drum Major throws her "baton" into the air.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Photo by Francois Portmann
This squirrel has made a large mistake; Being seen by a hungry hawk while on the ground.

Photo by Francois Portmann

Photo by Francois Portmann
And now to prepare and eat her catch.

Photograph by Richard Fleisher
Rich Fleisher, a professor at Fordham, a birder, and often a watcher of the Fordham Red-tails, Hawkeye and Rose, takes a winter trip to the beach and shares a treat with us.


Went to Jones Beach two weeks ago and was lucky enough to see both a Snowy Owl and a Saw-Whet Owl. The Snowy Owl was too far to get a good photo but here is one of the Saw-Whet.




Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Do Crows Use Playground Equipment For?

It's snowing. And it is a wet snow as the temperature is near freezing. I'd seen a family group of Crows out in the park earlier foraging, chasing off intruders, and basically going about a crow family business.

Now I see a single alert Crow in a tree, scanning the area, no doubt one of the sentinels.

About 40 feet to the north, in another tree, two other Crows are hunkered down on their branches when suddenly both heads whip north.

As does the sentinel's head. And intruder? Or has one of the Crows found some food? I scan around. What are they seeing?

Then I spot this guy on the playground equipment. He's just standing there. Snow pelting down on him.

Wait. Is there something pinkish or red by his toes.

Then he leans down and starts to eat.

Hmmm. Crow looks towards the south pipes that hold up the platform he's on.

He walks over to where he'd been looking. What is going on? I reduce the power of the scope to try to figure out what is going on.

Wow, now there are Crows all over the place. All eating. Have they found a stash? Or while I was staring at the first bird did they all go help themselves somewhere and then bring it back to eat here?

There are three far left. Center is the one I'd been staring at. Highest is the sentinel, and below him and slightly right is another eating. In fact they are all eating except the sentinel.

Oops, I spoke too soon, the sentinel may be eating as well.

And here comes another flying in from the left.

It's a fly through and I think the bird that was just slightly lower than the Sentinel has had his meal grabbed and he takes off in hot pursuit of the thief.

And then there are none...
Donegal Browne

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Skunk Info Extravaganza! AND--How to Deodorize SKUNK


Hi Donna,
The wump wump sound you describe is most likely the thumping noise the skunk does with its front paws on the ground as a warning when they feel threatened. Most times this is enough of a deterrent but when it fails they spin around , sometimes lift their back legs off the ground , raise the tail and spray . This is totally a last resort though.

Most likely a Great Horned Owl if the skunk was removed from the area and probably not too far depending on the size.

A big male Skunk can be a pretty big catch for an owl to handle.

I get calls for Skunks out east on Long Island and in the Bronx usually in very residential neighborhoods. A common call includes them dogging a den under a shed or deck in a backyard and the homeowner can't let their dog out. This one was probably showing up for whatever food falls from the feeder when times get tough.


A skunk performs a handstand, a warning that a musky shower may follow. They’d rather be left alone than spray. Courtesy photo

Spring is the time for skunks and other native animals make nests for their young. It’s also when many needless wildlife casualties occur.


WARNING! WARNING! Skunk is thumping her front feet on the ground and her tail is raised. Badger is about to be very very sorry he met her!

A Western Spotted Skunk assumes the position at...
"Behavior: This skunk will climb trees to flee predators. Its black and white coloration warns predators to stay away. If the warning is ignored, a spotted skunk will lower its head, stamp its front feet and assume a “handstand” position. At this point, it raises its tail and accurately sprays a foul smelling fluid up to 20 feet!"

Skunk Defensive Secretion, Photograph by William Wood.
Neutralize Skunk Spray: History and Chemistry of Skunk Musk
William F. Wood, Department of Chemistry
Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA 95521

Skunks use a highly odoriferous secretion to deter predation: A yellow oil composed of thiols and thioacetate derivatives of these thiols. This secretion is stored in two walnut sized glands with openings in the anus. When alarmed or attacked, a skunk can direct this spray several feet. At high concentrations the secretion causes nausea and retching and will act like tear gas if the liquid gets in the eyes. At lower concentrations it has a very foul odor. The human nose can detect skunk spray thiols at about 10 parts per billion. More information about skunk spray can be found in the following links.

· How to remove skunk odor. Household chemicals that neutralize the odor of the defensive chemical from pets and from inanimate objects.

· Chemistry of skunk spray. A chemical explanation of the molecules in skunk defensive secretion and their transformation to non-odoriferous molecules.

· The History of Skunk Defensive Secretion Research. A review of the history and chemistry of research on skunk spray.
· Skunk Pictures. Several pictures of skunks.

· Living with skunks. Examples of coexisting with wild skunks and how to make them move to a new home.

Then there is the ---

Dragoo Institute for the Betterment of Skunks and Skunk Reputations

AND---View a documentary on skunks called: Is that skunk? which premiered nationally on PBS Nature Sunday, 25 January 2009.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Who Bugged the Skunk? Plus the Dollar General Red-tailed Hawk Returns

A Skunk in grass courtesy of

Why is the lead photograph a Skunk instead of a bird? Blog contributor Karen Anne Kolling has a Skunk mystery she's attempting to crack. Here is her email---

What just happened here...

Sometime in the last few nights, I was pretty sure I saw a skunk or two out on the deck at the feeder area. I can't really see what's going on at night, since I leave the deck light off, but I was pretty sure we're talking skunks not one of the raccoons. (My mania has not yet extended to forking out for night vision goggles.)

So, as is my habit, this morning about 5am I turn on the light and go out on the deck to refill the feeders, first taking a look to be sure I'm not about to disturb anybody at the feeders. (5 am because I'm a night owl, and the birds show up at first light.)

Outside, there's a strong smell of skunk in the air, which there hadn't been after my perhaps skunk sighting a few days ago. But no one seemed to be around, so I started filling the feeders. Then I heard a whump whump sound, kind of like what I'd expect giant wings to make(do they...), and some high pitched squeaking. It went on for, I guess, ten seconds or longer. I peered, but couldn't see anything. Then it stopped, and I realized the house was getting filled with a stiff breeze of eau de skunk, so I went inside.

Was a nocturnal bird of prey carrying off one of my skunks? If so, I guess this wouldn't be the (non-redtail) hawk from a few houses down, although come to think of it, wasn't there a discussion of their catching prey at night? To add to the macabre aspect, my neighbor told me a year or so ago that the strong skunk smell in our yards was because a hawk had caught a skunk and pounded the poor guy into the ground or something.

I'm not sure how a hawk would manage to do that.

A skunk must be pretty big for a hawk (or owl?)

Now I am hoping that this skunk smell in the house dissipates...


In the literature the only predator accepted to take Skunks is the Great Horned Owl.

That said one should never underestimate a Red-tail as we all know. Let's look at that possibility first.

Yes, Red-tails have been caught hunting at night. They take bats and other nocturnal creatures. So darkness doesn't put a Red-tail out of the running as Skunk nabber.

I would be interested as to whether the "whump, whump" sound could conceivably have been a bird lifting the skunk and pounding it on the ground, up a half foot then down wham on the ground, up, down, up, down. Rather like the behavior of juvenile raptors who use this technique to kill rocks and sticks, but they also use it on live prey that they have grabbed but failed to kill with their talons on the hit.

If the whump whump sounds were from wings than our skunk grabber is less likely to have been the Great Horned Owl as owl wings are nigh on completely silent.

What about size? A small adult Striped Skunk, runs about 1 pound, 1 ounce. A Red-tail can carry somewhat less than half her own weight. The average weight of a Red-tail, though varying depending on the resource, is usually cited to be slightly less than 2 pounds and the very largest female is said to go up to 3.5 pounds. Therefore if there was a small skunk and a big Red-tail the RT would at least be able to lift the skunk to either take off with it or to batter it against the ground.

The squeaking could certainly mean that the Skunk had been grabbed but wasn't killed by the initial grip of the talons. The raptor can't get a new and more lethal grip without letting go, so they usually first try squeezing harder and if that doesn't work with struggling prey, an RT would be hard pressed to wrestle with a Skunk, so the pounding on the ground technique could well come into play at that point.

There are authors who categorically say that that the Great Horned Owl is the only species to take skunks.

Which may be true but on the other hand the clever consummately adaptable Red-tail is constantly doing things that we're able to watch in the urban setting that no one was aware they did before, until we see it. That of course doesn't mean the activity makes it into any of the literature. It is considered anecdotal. Many of us saw Pale Male taking a headless, one winged, very large gull to the nest one day. He had to fly the height in stages but he made it. He's not really supposed to be able to do that weight wise and supposedly he has no business nabbing large Gulls either.

But as Great Horned Owls are known to take Skunks...

Great Horned Owl photograph courtesy of

Yeah, what about the usual suspect in this sort of case, the GHO? Gulp, just look at size and strength on those feet!

In the Wikipedia listing for the Great Horned Owl, it says, " These birds have 500 pounds per square inch of crushing power in their talons. An average adult human male has about 60 pounds per square inch in his hands."

The average weight of a GHO is 3 pounds 1 ounce. That's in the range of a large female RT. On the other hand, the largest GHO would be a number of pounds above that figure and make the kill even easier.

That sounds like the Owl could kill a skunk on the hit, no problem. Well, Skunks are not just going to stand there and let themselves get grabbed if they can help it. If the hit was a little off or the Skunk got wind of the predator, there may well have been a struggle. Nothing says that a GHO might not have had to use the bam bam on the ground technique if pressed, herself.

So Karen what do YOU think that whump, whump sound was? Seems like that may be the telling detail. If it were wings at least.

So how is the Skunk odor dissipation going ?

Remember the Dollar General Red-tail? I'd been looking for him in this tree he'd loved to perch in for months but hadn't seen him for some time.
Well today when I went into Dollar General to get detergent, one of the clerks who has now become a hawkwatcher, came over and reported for several days now about mid-afternoon, she's seen him flying over the building, across the highway, and going to do something in the area beyond the houses facing the road which was excellent news.
Well, it was mid-afternoon. I bought my detergent, and walked out the front entrance and there above my head was our little buddy RT heading across the highway and flying beyond the houses.
I love a bird with a schedule.
Donegal Browne

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Bald Eagles Are Back!

Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times

The eagles are causing a sensation at Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

IT looked as if paparazzi had descended on the Croton Dam Bridge. Clusters of photographers with tripods and telephoto lenses conferred excitedly when they got the subject in their sights. Dozens of others had binoculars and telescopes trained on their elusive prey.

The celebrities they were pursuing? Bald eagles, which were spotted on the ice of the partly frozen Hudson River and nestling in trees on the shoreline. It was all part of Eagle Fest, an event that has been held annually for the last five years to celebrate the return of the bald eagle to the lower Hudson Valley.

From South African Film maker Adam Weltz--

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Kelly Sorenson/Contributed photo
Dr. Amy Wells of the Avian and Exotic Clinic of the Monterey Peninsula cares for a female bald eagle, 5M, Saturday. ( Kelly Sorenson )

Betty Jo of California discovered this story and wrote, " This article has a photo which shows how really huge that eagle is-"

First a little species recap-- As per the usual reverse sexual dimorphism, females are larger than males, and many are quite large, though they do vary greatly in size. Northern Bald Eagles of both sexes tend to be larger than their southern counterparts.

Wing span is up to 8 feet. Length is anywhere from 17 to 35 inches. (Think length of a yard stick and subtract an inch.) But it is the variation in weight that I found rather startling. The weight varies from 5.5 pounds to 14.5 pounds. Therefore some Balds weigh three times more than others. Our beloved Red-tails are usually only a couple of pounds.

Now on to the Mercury News Article--

Injured bald eagle recovering at SPCA wildlife center in Monterey

Santa Cruz Sentinel
Posted: 02/10/2009 04:55:21 PM PST

Contributed photo-- This bald eagle, found Feb. 1 near Fort Hunter Liggett entangled in a wire fence, is recouperating at the Monterey County SPCA. ( Monterey County SPCA )

An adult female bald eagle, found entangled in a wire fence Feb. 1 on Fort Hunter Liggett in Southern Monterey County is being treated by the SPCA for Monterey County's Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center.

The eagle, known as 5M, has deep wounds at the base of each of her wings from struggling with the fence. X-rays do not show broken bones, but her left wing is drooping.

The eagle's rehabilitation was released 15 years ago by the Ventana Wildlife Society as a young eaglet as part of a reintroduction effort.

Bald Eagle 5M was collected from a nest in the Tongass National Forest, near Juneau, Alaska, on July 22, 1993. She was 8 weeks old at the time. She was banded and given a radio transmitter on Aug. 1, 1993. Her first flight into the wild occurred 15 days later. She was part of a release of 12 eaglets that year.

Donegal Browne