Dinner

Sitting in my new, husband-made Adirondack chairs, I mulled needed changes to the back garden. As I gazed outward toward the targeted area, considering what needs to go, what needs to stay, and what replacements are best, or desired, I glanced to my left, up and over my privacy fence, to my back neighbor’s mostly dead Arizona Ash. The poor ash might be dead, but it regularly hosts plenty of life, including this gorgeous, immature Cooper’s Hawk, Accipiter cooperii, who was enjoying dinner.

(Just a warning: there’s a slightly gross photo coming, not too bad, but if you’re squeamish, you might want to move on to some other reading.)

I watched this magnificent bird for about an hour, by far the longest period of time I’ve ever observed a hawk. I’ve seen this hawk plenty of times, swooping through the trees and gliding over the neighborhood in search of prey, but it’s a rare treat to watch a raptor for such a long time, relatively up close and personal, and not startle it away. A few years ago–in the Before Times–I spent some time observing a hawk in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, dining on some of SF’s finest. That was bird nerd entertainment, but this observation of the Cooper’s Hawk’s meal time, comfortably in my own garden, was fascinating and revealing. As the hawk pulled and stretched its meal, I could hear the slight snap of skin and sinew. As it plucked its prey, feathers, big and small, sleek and fluffy, floated down, probably settling in the neighbor’s pool. I imagine those feathers are still floating. During the meal, some small, downy feathers attached to the hawk’s sharp beak–as in the first photo. The hawk didn’t mind the bit of fluff as it ate.

The hawk was focused on this meal, hungry no doubt. I’m sure its hunting isn’t always successful; I’ve seen it swoop through the neighborhood trees, scattering birds, but flying off empty-taloned. This time, the hawk was victorious; the poor White-winged dove a victim of the hawk’s hunger and hunting prowess.

At one point, something startled the hawk and it mantled over the meal, keeping a keen eye out for someone intent on stealing. I didn’t see anything that would threaten dinner, and within a minute or so, Hawk was back at it: pulling, eating. Later, a group of noisy Blue Jays voiced disapproval of the hawk’s activity, but none ventured too close and kept a respectful distance while Hawk continued its meal, undisturbed and unimpressed with the Jays’ cawing. The Jays flew off in a huff.

Such a beautiful hawk. As it matures, the streaking on the chest and tummy will become more of a red and white checker-board pattern. Its wings and back feathers will turn slate grey. The hawk’s eye color will morph from its current golden to burnt orange. Cooper’s Hawks dine mainly on birds, but I’ve seen one with a squirrel, and I’m sure when hapless rat comes within catching range, they eat them, too. Raptors eat what they can catch. Cooper’s Hawks are common in urban settings and have adapted well thanks to the number of people who feed birds; there are plenty of birds to pick from, especially fat doves!

While I watched Hawk, someone else was at dinner, too. This juvenile or female Black-chinned Hummingbird, Archilochus alexandri worked the flowers of nearby Turks’ cap. As it’s early October, most of the males have migrated, but I’m still enjoying the zooming, chirping, and chasing of the females and juveniles. They’ll be gone soon too, headed south to Mexico and Central America.

Just as I acknowledged my own rumbly in my tumbly, being ready for dinner, Hawk flew off, the remains of his catch firmly in talon, ready to settle in for the evening with snack for later.

That Branch

Sometimes I look at that dead branch and wonder why I haven’t pruned it back to the  major limb that’s actually alive.  The branch belongs to a Red Tip Photinia which I planted decades ago when I was a newby gardener and knew next-to-nothing about gardening in Central Texas.  It sits near a back corner of my house and I’ve kept it because it provides evergreen coverage for the many birds who visit: those who’re migrating through and the neighborhood birds who’re making the rounds to feed, drink, and rest.  That’s why I keep the Photinia, but why the dead branch?

This is why.

Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis)

The branch is perfectly suited for a quick dash to or from the feeder: feeding birds snatching a snack, then retreat to the large shrub to nosh.  Sometimes the birds prefer the foliaged parts, sometimes, they’re content to perch in the open.

What I’ve learned in the decades since I plopped the Photinia into the ground is that the perfectly coiffed “yard” is not an inviting home or welcoming place for birds, bees, butterflies and other critters.  My goals in gardening have changed from those early days and I prefer plants, or plant parts, that are useful for those critters who live among us critters.

The branch will eventually break, either from a heavy wind or rain, or just because–but I won’t bring it down.  I’ll leave it for the birds until events require them to find another place to park.  

I’m happy to link today with Anna at her lovely Flutter and Hum and Wednesday Vignette; pop on over to enjoy garden stories. 

Stand Your Ground

I guess this post could be renamed Stand Your Feeder but that doesn’t quite resonate.  None of these birds are on the ground–standing or otherwise–one is eating at the feeder, the other two are waiting their turn.  In this bit of bird drama, it’s the younger fledgling Red-bellied Woodpecker, Melanerpes carolinus, who’s in control, thwarting efforts to dislodge him and ignoring back chat from the the European Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, to the left, and the Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata, on top of the feeder stand.  The Red-bellied is munching away at sought-after peanuts as the two adult birds caw and carp.

The little Red-belly wins the moment–and the peanuts!

Bird feeders are hot spots of conflict where birds demonstrate their more aggressive tendencies, protecting their food source(s) and trash talking one another.  Feeders invite a microcosm of natural competition that most of us don’t observe regularly, unless we notice the wildlife in our midst.

Here, the juvenile Red-belly responds to the impatient grown-ups regarding their insistence that he hurry up his snacking. 

In my head, I hear Nelson (‘The Simpsons’) obnoxious laugh when I see this teenage  Red-belly looking up at the interfering adults.  I wish that laugh wasn’t in my head.

Teenagers.  They always talk back!

In an Audubon article Who Wins the Feeder Warthe authors describe the “Hunger Games-like world” regularly seen by humans who feed local birds.  From observations by Project FeederWatch and Great Backyard Bird Count  participants, the authors share surprising results of feeder interactions between paired birds, noting the winners and losers. It’s a bird-eat-bird world out there, as they report a FeederWatch citizen scientist’s observation of a grackle’s catching and eating chickadees to prevent their muscling-in (can chickadees muscle-in?) on his feeder.  It’s not necessarily the bigger bird who wins the feeder war, but the bird who has the more aggressive personality–or more formidable beak.  The authors confirm the tenacious character of a diminutive Downy Woodpecker, Dryobates pubescens, who often rules the roost–which I’ve witnessed in my own garden–and recounts a confrontation between a Red-bellied Woodpecker and the larger Pileated Woodpecker: the Red-belly is the victor.  In my garden, a similar scenario played out recently: the younger and smaller Red-bellied Woodpecker kept the adult starling and jay at bay, while the teen noshed his fill.  Who’d want to get pecked by that beak?? 

I participate in both FeederWatch and the Great Backyard Bird Count, but I admit to not always noting the bird interactions that occur.  Woodpeckers are shy, but once on the feeder, demand respect; Yellow-rumped Warblers harass Orange-crowned Warblers; hummingbirds chase everyone, including butterflies; White-winged Doves are stupid.  And they stomp around on my plants.

Jerks.

Back to the peanut rumpus, the starling finally gave up and winged away, but the jay was determined to feed and wait out the woodpecker, complaining to all who would listen and it’s not like we had a choice.

One down, one to go!

After several minutes of nibbling, the youngster snatched a full peanut and shortly after this shot, flew to the nearby oak tree to enjoy his treat.  The chastened blue jay was a bit gormless for a time, eventually hopping to the feeder for its share of the peanut booty.

Who needs The Hunger Games or Survivor (or American politics…) when you’ve got birds in the garden, strutting their stuff and showing who’s boss?