Winter Birds: the Red-tailed Hawk

Hawks and eagles are valuable, exciting elements in the winter landscapes of Central New York. Whether perching high in a roadside tree, soaring among the clouds, or evading a mob of crows, red-tails are the species of hawk that is most visible and widely known.

The red-tail’s soaring habit; large, broad wings; rufous tail and dark, broken band across the stomach take much of the guesswork out of identification, even at long distances.

 

Red-tailed hawks thrive in agricultural areas where the large, deciduous trees in farm woodlots provide nest sites and nearby fields and fence rows provide habitat for small mammals like mice, voles and cottontails – their dietary staple. However, this food source can be scarce and unreliable, especially when winters are long and deep snow cover persists. Red-tails, eagles and other predators have adapted to such scarcity by being opportunistic and scavenging on carrion. Here, that generally means road-killed deer.

As a rule, it is unethical to disturb a raptor when it’s feeding, for fear that it will lose precious energy when escaping and abandoning its food. This red-tail was the exception. It was feeding on a deer carcass in a farm field, not far from a residence, and was more or less oblivious to the presence of a solitary human. There were no signs of poisoning or bodily injury and the bird eventually flew to roost. The consensus among viewers for this highly unusual behavior was simply “old age” (?).

I slowly and cautiously worked my way around the bird, shooting all the while. I hoped to capture feeding behavior in detail, without pushing the hawk off the carcass. One behavior in particular caught my attention. Initially, it turned its back to me, hunched over the carcass and covered it with wings and tail. This was classic “mantling” behavior, a strategy to conceal and guard food from other predators that might attempt to steal it. In this case, I was the threat.

Mantling behavior by a Red-tailed Hawk while feeding on a deer carcass

The final images illustrate the challenge of ripping frozen meat from carrion!

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

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“Bird” Feeder Survey, December 2018

In the snow belt, harsh winter weather and snow cover trigger aggressive feeding by resident wildlife. Bird counts and squirrel activity at artificial feeding stations reach an annual peak, a phenomenon that is most apparent in the midst of a snow storm. At various times throughout the day, chaos reigns as dozens of birds and mammals converge at feeders, providing wonderful opportunities for “wildlife watching” …and photography.

Chickadee and Downy Woodpecker feeding on a block of suet and grain.

Red-breasted Nuthatch at rest near feeders on a frigid winter morning

Blue Jay evaluating its feeding options

A pleasantly plump Gray Squirrel eating …. because it can!

White-breasted Nuthatch, an upside-down favorite

Red Squirrel digging for grain under a layer of fresh snow

Squirrels are notorious for their creative gymnastics around elevated “bird” feeders

Perhaps our most popular winter resident, cardinal sightings are down this year, and we don’t know why

Woodpeckers (Hairy and Red-bellied) squabbling over access to a suet block.

The Tufted Titmouse is expanding its range northward, influenced by artificial feeding and global warming

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

Holiday Greetings from Central New York

Wetland in late evening; 2Nov2018

A mink, busy hunting frogs in a nearby stream and caching them in a den under tree roots; 2Nov2018

Winter arrives early, triggering a frantic search for recently buried red oak acorns; 15Nov2018

A wintry scene on the river; 23Nov2018

Shallow ponds are freezing quickly, leaving little open water for foraging muskrats; 28Nov2018

The main whitetail rut is winding down, but not over;  he’s tending an estrous doe; 29Nov2018

Eagles weathering the storm, with a watchful eye on ice-free surface water; 7Dec2018

After the storm: a red-bellied woodpecker probes dead wood high in the crown of a declining sugar maple; 9Dec2018

Photos by NB Hunter. © All rights reserved.

The Wonderful Month of June

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A favorite freestone stream in the mountains, alive with aquatic insects and foraging trout

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A massive White Pine with centuries of stories locked within

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Tiger Swallowtails “mud-puddling” to ingest nutrients and improve reproductive success

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A chatty House Wren, rewarding me for the nest box I hung on a garden post

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Taking a grooming timeout while guarding the nearby nest and solitary eaglet.

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Ruby-throated Hummingbird incubating 1-3 eggs; they’ll hatch in about 2 weeks

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An egg-laying Snapper; she dug her nest in roadside gravel near her swampy habitat 

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A month-old whitetail fawn learning about mobility

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Wild mustard colonizing a fallow field on a dairy farm

Photos by NB Hunter (June, 2018). © All rights reserved.

May 2018: Colorful Memories

After an agonizingly slow start, Spring in Central New York did not disappoint! The month of May has been a delightful mix of activity in living color, plants and animals alike. I’m posting selected highlights, in chronological order.

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Bloodroot (4May2018)

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Marsh Marigold (7May2018)

TroutLily8May18#3289E2c8x10

Trout Lily (8May2018)

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Serviceberry (12May2018)

SandCherry15May18#3593E2c8x10

Sand Cherry (15May2018)

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Red Trillium (16May2018)

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Goldfinch on Sand Cherry (18May2018)

 

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Wild apple flower buds (20May2018)

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Wild apple blossoms (20May2018)

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Baltimore Oriole on its breeding territory (26May2018)

Photos by NB Hunter. © All Rights Reserved.