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19 September 2005
The Accidental Birdist

I had a pretty good birding day on Saturday, even though I stayed inside the house for nearly the entire day. Have you ever had this experience? Every time you pass a window, there's some cool nature exhibit in the yard? That's how my Saturday went...

We've had an extrordinarily high amount of Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) traffic at the nectar feeder on our back porch this summer. In recent years, we've typically had a pair of hummers or a family in the general vicinity who we'd observe at the feeder every few days. But this summer, I think the Hummer family was nesting in the small tree immediately adjacent to the house and so ended up frequenting the feeder a lot more than usual. Or perhaps there was more than one pair in the area. This summer, their thin 'chippy' little voices were regular features of our backyard. We've heard and seen them zipping about in the yard, survived them zinging close to our heads, and we've seen them around the porch and feeder every day. Anyway, that's a long intro for my point - there were hummers loading up on sugar-water at the feeder almost every time I passed by the big glass back door on Saturday. I enjoyed stopping to watch them several times as I poked around in the house. I was working on a research proposal and on designing a new doghouse for Dylan - I'm an amateur engineer-wannabe. I had plenty of occasions to get up from my desk, walk around and stare out the back door. These hummers are relatively bold, continuing to sip even when a big ugly human is watching from a few feet away. They must be focusing on carb-loading for their big trip south to Mexico or Central America; packing on a few extra micrograms.

Later, on a hummer-free trip past the door, I happened to notice a meadowlark-sized, and meadowlark-shaped, bird perched at the very top of the large mature oak tree in the field across the backyard. Grabbing my binoculars for a better look, I could see no yellow coloring and definitely no black "V" on his breast - so not an Eastern Meadowlark. He was mottled over the breast and his beak was somewhat long, similar to a meadowlark's . He sat still for several minutes, providing a good unimpeded view so I have no good excuse for my lack of a certain identification. After flipping through the Stokes'and Peterson's guides a couple of times looking for a good idea, I still came up with nothing. Hmmmmm.....it bugs me that I don't even have a good guess. It could've been somebody unusual migrating through,it could've been an oddly colored meadowlark (what does a juvenile look like?), or it could've been that my vision and birding skills are sub-standard.

On another trip to the fridge for a cold drink, I coudn't help but spot a smaller-than-average, darkly colored Red-Tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched atop the bluebird nestbox at the back of the yard, not 60 feet away. He was methodically consuming a small snake. I missed the snake-capturing part of the story, sadly. He took is time with the snake, re-situating it in his talons a few times though it appeared to have expired as it was not resisting his manipulations. I was reminded of a similar 'hawk show' B and I saw while hiking through a northern Florida campground several years ago. We were making our way through the campground and heard a Pileated Woodpecker over our heads. We stopped, spotted him and trained our binocs on him for a good long look. Not 20 paces further up the trail, we stumbled into another extremely cool birding moment (here's where the relavant hawk part comes in...). We first noticed a loud mixture of very excited songbird voices, squawking nervously and shrieking alarm calls. Scanning the canopy, we quickly spied their problem - a Red-Shouldered Hawk (Buteo lineatus) was perched in the crook of a hardwood with a vigorously writhing snake in his talons. The hawk made several attempts to swallow the snake alive and whole, but each time the hawk started the snake down his gullet, the snake wrapped his tail around the hawk's neck and brought the process to a screeching, gagging halt. The hawk then had no choice but to grab the snake in his talons and pull it back out, reorganize and start all over again. During all this, the songbirds kept up their dischordant chorus, attempting to drive the hawk from their grove. The Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were the most courageous of the songbird army - dive-bombing the trespassing hawk while he was otherwise focused on his wriggling meal. The Jays actually bashed into the hawk several times. The hawk seemed unaffected by all the commotion and Jay-impacts. He really just wanted to get the snake down and, after 6 or 7 attempts, he did. Then he flew off to safer spaces. The Red-Tailed Hawk in my yard on Saturday enjoyed a much more relaxed atmosphere - no songbirds, jays or commotion. He hung out on the bluebird box for a spell after his meal. I wished for my camera, which was not quickly accessible, so that I could try capturing his visit via digiscoping. Maybe next time...

ADDENDUM: This post was included in I and the Bird #7 hosted at Bird TLC on 9/26/05.

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