Friday, February 19, 2010

Janesville Rock River Eagle, the Hot Air Balloon, Lots of Geese, Mystery Waterfowl and Phoenix Flies Through the Rainbow

One of the Janesville Rock River Bald Eagles in one of their favorite trees. Unfortunately the light is dim and the air dense.

When I come to look for the eagles, as I turn into the boat landing I always look for a lump in the far tree that is the tallest. It is directly across from the landing on the intersection of a feeder stream and the Rock. Can you see the lump in the top right of the tree. By the way, Eagle is currently being bombed by, I think, Starlings.

The Canada Geese on my side are flying around manically honking. I look behind me.

Good grief, there is a hot air balloon landing over there.

The geese do another round and then must decide the balloon is no big deal and go back to their river business.

Eagle on the other hand is still keeping an eye on the balloon area, but doesn't look the least like she wants to fly off.
This is when the weird waterfowl comes past. Something about it's head, or profile, or long bright beak made me think of a Cormorant, but some how the rest of it doesn't seem to fit.
The creature is smaller than a Canada Goose and a good bit bigger than a mallard. It's beak is red or orange and there is a white patch around the bill. Any suggestions?
As the next photo is of Mallards one might think Eagle was looking at them. Nope. Eagle was looking at the mystery fowl above. The ducks came by 10 minutes later.
She may have looked at the Mallards as well, but just about that time I noticed a gentleman on the other side of the boat landing looking at the lump in the tree himself. I asked if he was looking at the eagle, which he was, so I asked if he'd like to look through the scope. Then I noticed his pair of compact binoculars. It turns out Bill is a bicycler and a birder so he had many helpful things to share with me.
We've chatting along when suddenly Eagle decides to to take off.
By the way, see those houses? See eagle heading out that way? She then heads along the river. On the other side of those houses is Main Street in Janesville. It's quite amazing that all this action is occurring in a downtown area.
A few minutes later, a big bird comes from the south. What is the eagle back? Oh no, this looks more like a pterodactyl. Bill had mentioned that there was a Great Blue Heron around and I believe that's what we've got. A pterodactyl would likely be too much to ask for. Besides a Great Blue is extremely cool.
Those massive wings keep flapping.

and flapping,
and flapping.
And then suddenly there is no one. No Eagle, no Heron, no ducks--and soon no me either as my feet won't take waiting to see if anyone comes back to roost in the eagle tree.
From Chicagoan Ken Zommer, who has been keeping up with the status of Phoenix the Red-tail, sad news--

Chicago Sun Times 2/18/10
Bye-bye birdie . . .
Feather duster: The perched red-tailed hawk named "Phoenix," burned by a fireball caused by a Sugar Grove plane crash in late January -- was euthanized last week. The bird was triaged by Dawn Keller, founder of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, who had been optimistic about a full recovery, but the bird had respiratory complications from inhaling fumes.

Rose and Immature Red-tail vs the New York Botanical Great Horned Owls plus More on the Mystery Nest

Female Great Horned Owl of the NYBG
I received an email today from Carol Capobianco, the Editorial Content Manager at the New York Botanical Garden--

Debbie Becker, who leads bird walks here at The New York Botanical Garden, witnessed a face off between two red-tailed hawks and the great horned owl who is nesting in the Forest. She blogs about it on today’s Plant Talk.

The Red-tails in question were Rose, former mate of Hawkeye of Fordham and the Library NYBG nests. And the Great Horned Owls were those who have nested in the NYBG for some years. The male in particular, I understand has been there at least a decade if not longer.

Male Great Horned Owl of the NYBG
It is interesting that though we try to observe this sort of possible life and death situation in an unbiased manner , the folks at the NYBG were definitely on the side of the owls and we, who have watched Rose raise her families for some years cannot help but fear for the Red-tailed Hawks.

Do read the first hand account at the link above and as I thought there might be some inconsistencies with my knowledge at that possibly espoused by the writer, I contacted John Blakeman for some of his experienced advice.

I don't see the interaction as a form of pack hunting but more in the vein of the typical double defense often seen in Red-tailed Hawks when they feel endangered. In this case it looked to me like a preventative strike. The Red-tails might well have reason to fear the Great Horned Owls.

I have read of incidents in which Great Horned Owls will predate the nest of Red-tailed Hawks and have the eyasses for a midnight snack if possible. They being nocturnal. A couple of years ago, a Red-tailed Hawk was found dead in the garden and the thought was he had been killed by the GHOs.

In researching this issue, I found one entry in which it said that Red-tails will also predate the young of GHO nests. Personally I'd think there were easier meals to forage for but perhaps that was also a preventative strike as might be the predation of RTH nests by GHOs.

As far as I can tell neither act is all that common, though there was more information on the GHO's being the predators available which would lead me to believe that as humans are less likely to be watching at night, and humans are reporting the events, that the predating of young Red-tails is more common act.

Ms. Becker feared that Rose and her immature friend were more dangerous to the Owls than the other way around because they had stronger beaks than did the Great Horned Owls. But as we know Red-tailed Hawks rarely use their beaks in attack, it is the talons that do the work. And as it turns out, the talons of a Great Horned Owl are far more dangerous than those of a Red-tailed Hawk.

I read a report concerning just this thing. Red-tailed Hawks rarely if ever go after house cats, they just haven't the strength in their feet to make successful kills whereas Great Horned Owls appear to have no trouble at all in removing tabbies from the landscape.

Ms. Becker and her fellow birdwatchers eventually disrupted the interaction for fear of the Owls being hurt. Perhaps Rose had concrete reasons for her preventative strike in that there had been forays from the owls during the night when humans weren't observing the interaction, I don't know. Or if the immature bird with her was not one of the previous year's young, but rather a very young mate (Pale Male first mated as a brown-tail), she might well fear that her mate was not yet up to doing his full share during a night raid, she felt it necessary to do a day raid to protect her future young.

On the other hand, a female owl sitting eggs makes a reasonably easy target if she is sitting tight and the male is not at hand to help in her defense, but in this case he was at hand

Of course the whole thing could also be put down to a display of strength on the RTHs part to let the owls know they just weren't a couple of push overs and that detente should be the order of the day.

Time may tell us just what they were hoping to accomplish. I'm hoping it was detente for everyone's sake, the birds and the humans who watch them included.

Re: The nest found near the Rock River in Beloit, WI featured on a previous blog.

Courtesy of
And example of a Baltimore Oriole nest--it appears to be more of a drawstring like purse shape.

Whereas the Orchard Oriole nest appears to be rounded with a wider opening at the top. I saw some examples in which the nest actually rested in the crouch of several twigs.

Donegal Browne

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Eagle Search, Angry Geese, and Mystery Scaups

On Wednesday morning I missed a call alerting me that there were a pair of mature Bald Eagles on the ice of the Rock River off a park in Beloit. A town about thirty minutes away. By the time I got the call, got directions, got lost, very lost, several times, this is what I saw when I arrived. You'll note there are no eagles in the picture.

Feeling downright incompetent I stood there scanning, scanning, scanning the trees when suddenly I heard a tremendous din of Canada Geese honking.

With one goose in the lead, there are five in a group bringing up the rear. Are the five just slow or is number one very fast or is number one in some kind of goose trouble?

Looking at the fact that the Five, who are honking their brains out, all have their necks craned to keep One in view, and their feet swinging, I'm hypothesizing that One is in some kind of trouble.

They may see him but I don't. Don't see any eagles either for that matter I look up and down the shoreline looking for big white heads.
Wait a minute where did all the geese go?

I look up and see three tails. They have circled but where is the alleged culprit and two of the original five?

The three circle back yet again but this time there is no honking and then they too fly beyond the shoreline and disappear.
Well, I don't really know what just happened but now I'll know to look for it again and perhaps the next time...

No big birds anywhere; the air is crisp and all is quiet.
Perhaps tomorrow....

It is now tomorrow, Thursday and I'm standing in the yard of a museum. When I look down in the snow, I see some very odd tracks. They are windblown so their shapes have softened. Of course!

I've not seen them before but these are of course the tracks of webbed feet. They're too small for geese. Ducks must have come up to forage for grass and goodies in the bare spots.

I look across toward the river and there indeed is a---What? A scaup perhaps? The head has a dull greenish cast to it which might make it a Greater Scaup, Axthya marila. But I understand that head color isn't always reliable, so lets just call him a scaup for the moment. But I'm more interested in why is he here and...

...everyone else is over there? Wait a minute there is also a lone scaup on the other side of the group too. Look carefully for the speck some feet in front of where the dock meets the shore. See him?

I'm loosing the light but you can see the white patch near the bill, that would make those particular birds females of the group.

You know what? I think many of these ducks may have been napping when I originally showed up. There are still a couple with their heads tucked.
And here is the lone scaup on the far side of the flock. His head doesn't appear greenish at all it could even be considered a bit purplish, which would mean he'd likely be a Lesser Scaup.
But the question I find much more interesting is whether scaups have sentinels that remain alert while the others get some sleep.

Now having even more questions about water fowl than when I started which isn’t such a bad thing really, questions are always good, but feeling rather raptor-less, I opened the comments from the blog and guess what? There was an update from “Beakerless” of Janesville from 11am Wednesday saying—

I just saw a mature bald eagle following the river toward downtown Janesville. It was flying low over the Racine St Bridge.

It appears that while I was being lost in Beloit looking for Bald Eagles and not finding them, possibly Rock or Jane from the Janesville Rock River pair was hunting much closer to home.

Donegal Browne

Who's nest is this?

Technical difficulties are limiting the blog this evening therefore, it's time to NAME THAT SPECIES.
1. Which species crafted this nest?
2. What were some of the materials used?
The location is a small tree near the Rock River.

Monday, February 15, 2010

John Blakeman on the Vision of Hawks, Rural Red-tail, and the Great Horned Owl in NYBG

While driving down the road with a friend, we saw this hawk flapping across a field, she very kindly perched for us.

Before the snow started again today, there was a small thaw which brought the snow depth down yesterday. Late afternoon there was an influx of birds going north, the vanguard of Starlings, much honking and three Canada Geese sighted and where ever the hawks were they have begun once again.

She scanned the area intently. We later saw what might have been a Merlin or a Peregrine as we started to roll again in the direction in which she seemed to be scanning the most intently.

She then took off, using the available cover, which Hawks everywhere appear to do, whether the cover is trees, or cliffs, or buildings.

Flapping at speed.

Navigating the branches.

A glide.

And then she disappeared into thicker woods.

Yesterday I talked about where Mrs. M appeared to be looking, but according to Red-tail expert John Blakeman things aren't nearly that simple--


One can’t be always so sure of just where a perched (or even flying) red-tail is peering. Direction of the head does not always reveal this.

This is because the retinas of hawks have two foveas, two centers of concentrated cones that can detect great visual resolution. Mammals have only one, in the center of the eye. That’s why we see so clearly (except with macular degeneration) in the center of our visual field, with things in the periphery a bit less detailed.

For red-tails, they can pear straight ahead, concentrating their focus on the high resolution vision centers at the back of the retina. But also, they can peer with great resolution pretty much straight out to the side, focusing matters of interest on the second retinal vision center.

Merely peering at a hawk on utility pole seldom reveals what she’s (yes, “she,” even though it might be an unknown “he”) looking at, at least when she’s looking at something in the horizontal distance.

Now when she turns her head down and appears to look straight below her, she is indeed looking there, looking straight ahead.

But I feel that the second retinal vision center used when looking sideways is probably even stronger, more detailed than the usual one on the rear of the retina. During migration in the autumn I notice that my falconry red-tail, when sitting on my fist, often turns her head sideways and peers up into clear blue sky with one eye. After a bit of searching, I, too, can often find what she’s looking at. It’s a mere speck of a migrating hawk some one or two thousand feet overhead. My red-tail sees it from afar and tracks it as it passes far overhead.

She prefers to use one eye, with the sideways posture when looking for these distant birds. She usually sees them far before I can. I can only know what part of the sky she’s looking in. Then, after a few minutes, as the hawk passes overhead, I can sometimes discover the mere dot of feathers above. Sometimes, without binoculars I can never see what she has been following so attentively.

So, the nice big haggard you photographed sitting so safely up there on the utility pole, just mere inches away from a lethal 12-hundred volt spike of AC current, could have been looking straight ahead, or just as effectively out to either side. No way of knowing.

A note about the conventional “she” designation for all hawks of unknown sex. This was surely not an imposed convention either of Chaucer, Shakespeare nor of Queen Elizabeth I. As influential as both were, the universal “she”was in general falconry practice for two or three previous centuries. It derives simply from the fact that female hawks, eagles, and falcons are larger and often preferred hunters compared to the smaller tiercels. Female raptors are just plainly superior, in almost every respect, so the “she” attribution was (and is) most appropriate.

--John Blakeman

From the intrepid Pat Gonzalez, our contributor from the New York Botanical Garden--

The native forest, trails and other portions of the NY Botanical Garden are covered in snow. In some sections, nearly two feet. (Friday, February 12).

I noticed that finally, the bird population is returning to normal. I saw lots of chickadees (yay!), cardinals, white throated sparrows, blue jays and others in many different sections of the garden. Lots along the wild wetlands trail which is a good thing as this winter, because of the pruning, it is temporary wasteland. So I was glad to see the old crew back!

Speaking of which, the female great-horned owl was inside an old tree. I usually stand about 12-15 yards away when I take photos, but getting to that spot was something else. I had to drag myself through mounds of snow. But I think it was worth it. Look at those yellow eyes! She is beautiful. I so hope she lays eggs in this tree. She's about 20 feet off the ground and is so well dug in, it is hard for blue jays, crows and other birds to get to her during their occasional dive-bombing.

I had taken a fair amount of photos and video and began to climb down, when two very nice ladies with binoculars introduced themselves to me. They said that they were both Docents at the garden and had enjoyed reading about my adventures and photos on pale male irregulars. Sadly, I forgot their names and had nothing to write with (sorry ladies, I'm AWFUL remembering names). As we started to walk away, a group of crows landing near mama owl. Some began their dive bombing, but couldn't go any where near where she was. I wondered if the male was nearby. The three of us looked but couldn't see anything. After a few minutes, they all took off.

Here's video of the owl from today which I've already posted on youtube.

If all goes well, and if it doesn't snow or rain, I'll be back at the Garden next Tuesday.

Thanks Pat!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Red-tail Update- An M and Hawk Pronouns

Photos:Donegal Browne
Finally after several days of searching I found one of the Ms. I think the fromel, though I had some doubts as she was not glaring at me. Though perhaps the glaring is reserved for nest duty. Either way, as Mr. Blakeman has explained, a hawk of unknown sex, according to current falconers, was historically called she, as a compliment to Queen Elizabeth I.

5:01PM I'd scanned the nest side of the road thoroughly and was about to give up when I turned around and realized that one of the power poles on the other side just didn't look right.

And there she was. I'd left the car running, the lights on, the stereo playing, and at least at this point she didn't even seem put out enough by my presence to look at me.

But that didn't last more than a few seconds. When I next looked up she was looking at me.

She is still actively surveying the area and so still actively hunting. I can't see her crop so I've no idea how she is doing in the food department, though she looks in fine feather and bright eyed.
Mrs. M. is now looking over the side road directly at the area in which the Gilmour's have their shop.

Now back at me.
Anything scampering below in this direction? Then she stared fixedly at me and I was concerned she'd flush so I turned my back to her...
...and took a closer current view of the nest so we'll have something to compare to later photos as the season progresses.
It worked. I turned my back and she felt comfortable enough to turn her back as well.
Now she scans below the pole near the roadway. So far, evidently there are no little rodents to swoop down on.
A car comes down the side road past her and while I'm looking at it turn on to M, and doing the polite Wisconsin wave, M takes to her wings and heads toward that silo and beyond. She then flies and flies and flies off for the far distant trees and disappears. Ah, their territory most likely includes that area. A passer-by had once told me that he often saw a hawk near Sunset, a street on the very edge of Milton, which is the first town in the direction in which the hawk just flew. I get into the car to try and follow her.
The first street one comes to on the edge of town is Ivanhoe. Here I found a woody ravine with the subdivision's houses regularly buildt along Ivanhoe
But Ivanhoe is built up over the ravine and the depression travels at right angles to it in both directions. If you peer through the branches you can see above that there is a bare area beyond the trees. Possibly a frozen pond or at least a vernal pond extant long enough in the spring and summer to keep it bare and a possible place for raptors to hunt while using the trees for perches. Sunset, the road which was mentioned to me also has views of the ravine. I didn't see Mrs. M but it was getting dark and there were plenty of places for her to perch unobserved. This possible boundary is a place to keep an eye on in the future.
Photographer Francois Portmann and I have been having a discussion about the fact that using "it" for a bird seems disrespectful but on the other hand people who don't know you are using she in the universal sense might become confused. It is a quandary.
Here is his latest offering which I find extremely titillating, being a classical trained actress, I see Will Shakespeare everywhere in life already.

Hey Donna,
Regarding the matter of pronoun,
I find this interesting too:

“Henry's daughter Elizabeth (b. 1533; d. 1603) loved hunting and hawking, and one source claims that she had a woman, Mary of Canterbury, as her Grand Master of Falconry. The queen's royal rival. Mary Queen of Scots, was eventually executed by Elizabeth. During Mary's long captivity she whiled away some hours by flying a merlin. Elizabeth's heir, James I, was a falconry enthusiast. Shakespeare, who was writing his plays during this period, used extensive falconry imagery.”

“Shakespeare and the “haggard hawk”
Many have noted Shakespeare’s fondness for the metaphor that compares a fickle woman to a “haggard hawk.” It appears in Othello (3.3), in Much Ado (3.1), and most notably in Taming of the Shrew, in which Petruccio demonstrates how to tame a shrewish bride with the same methods used for taming a falcon: denying food, sleep, etc.. Shakespeare invariably refers to hawks as “she,” because it is the female, or peregrine falcon that’s the best for hunting, the female of the species being bigger, stronger and faster than the male.”

Is it Shakespeare’s influence?
Who knows,


Donegal Browne