Visitors to the feeder

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male

I really am something of a lazy birder in winter. Winter birding in Ontario, or indeed much of the northeast, tends to one of two approaches: (a) know the hotspots, the key locales, and make trips out to these places to look for birds, or (b) do your local stuff and just be content with whatever you happen to see. I very much fall into the latter category. Which means I tend not to see too much once the summer birds leave town, but that’s okay with me. I appreciate what I do see.

For instance. We (read: Dan, who’s got a wonderful get-r-done attitude when it comes to such projects around the house, a highly-desirable trait in a man, IMHO) put up our feeders last week. Within hours we had chickadees coming to them. Within days, we were up to six species. Just over a week later, my tally stands at 12 species, and the feeders are always busy. It’s amazing how quickly word spreads!

Curiously, while we’re still waiting on common species such as Downy Woodpecker (which actually isn’t all that common in our neck of the woods), we’ve had a few rather interesting (for me) birds drop by. The first one I was alerted to by the sound of some unhappy chickadees in the lilac bush beside the feeders. Can you see him?

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male

Here’s a shot a little bit closer. It took me a moment to pick him out from amidst the tangle of twigs, but I was delighted with what I saw: a first-winter male Sharp-shinned Hawk. I knew he was male because of his size – Sharpies are small to begin with, but the males can be absolutely tiny. This guy wasn’t a whole lot larger than the Blue Jays that were also coming to the feeder. And I knew it was a first-winter because of the brown plumage, streaked breast and, especially, the yellow iris (adults would be gray-blue, red-barred and orange, for the three characteristics respectively).

As for Sharp-shinned Hawk over the nearly-identical Cooper’s Hawk… Well, the size was a giveaway, for one. But even besides that, I’ve always found Coopers to have heavy brow ridges and a thicker bill that give them a decidedly fierce look. This one lacked those features and looked dainty in comparison. He flew up to the maple after a bit, where we could get much better looks at him, but where he was unfortunately backlit for photos.

Sharp-shinned Hawk - first-winter male
Photo by Dan, whose camera has a superzoom

Many folks would dislike having a hawk hanging around the feeders and potentially preying on the smaller birds, but I don’t mind. The hawk is still going to eat small birds for dinner, whether he does it in our yard where we can see him, or out in the forest where he’s out of sight. He’s not going to eat more than he needs to survive (unlike cats, for instance, which hunt and kill out of instinct rather than hunger), so he won’t ravage our bird population. And him coming to our unnatural aggregation of small birds is no different than the small birds coming to our unnatural aggregation of seed.

The only time hawks become a “problem” around feeders is if they start hanging around so routinely that the small birds no longer come to the feeders (or, if you’re a bit squeamish and you find a larger hawk has started leaving its leftovers behind in the yard, I suppose, though I’d personally find that fascinating). The easiest way to encourage a “problem” hawk to leave is simply to stop putting seed out for a week or so. If there’s no seed, there will be no little birds; if there are no little birds, there will be no hawk. Once the hawk moves on to a new hunting ground you can start putting seed out again, and your little birds will return quickly.

Purple Finch - male

Then there was this guy: a bright male Purple Finch. Although he’s not an especially rare or unusual species, per se, he was the first one to turn up at the feeders and I’ve always had a soft spot for them. He’s uncommon enough that we’re unlikely to have more than half a dozen individuals or so visit our feeders at any given time over the winter. Their numbers are declining in much of their range, and this includes Ontario. Back where I grew up in the Toronto area we might, in a good year, have a couple pairs come to the feeder in the winter. Our current house lies in one of the high-abundance regions of the province for this species, so we see a few more, though not a lot more.

Evening Grosbeak - female

And finally, what was probably the most exciting visitor so far this fall: a female Evening Grosbeak. She lingered at the feeder just long enough for me to decide to get my camera’s long lens out, but not long enough for me to actually get a photo. The first bag of seed we bought, thinking it was sunflower, turned out to be a millet-heavy mixed bag with very little sunflower. She wasn’t that taken by the mix and didn’t hang around long enough to see the sunflower we rushed out to get as soon as we spotted her.

The last time I had an Evening Grosbeak visiting the feeders of the house I was living in was about 15 years ago or so, while I was young enough to be still considered “growing up”, and well before I’d taken up birding as a hobby. I recall the birds being nearly annual when I was a child in the 80s (or that part of the 80s that I was old enough to remember), but numbers petered out into the 90s, and then they stopped coming altogether.

The decline is due to the forestry industry’s control of Spruce Budworm outbreaks, the timing of which corresponds nearly exactly. Evening Grosbeaks are budworm specialists in the summer, even becoming pseudo-nomadic to take advantage of the bounty afforded by outbreaks, and the suppression of these outbreaks has meant a corresponding decline in all of the bird species that depend on them (the grosbeaks aren’t the only ones – several species of warbler are also strongly tied to budworm outbreaks). When I was growing up, budworm outbreaks affected between 8 million and 18 million hectares (20-45 million acres) annually. Since 2000 the average area affected in a given year is only a fraction of that: 81k to 337k hectares (200k-830k acres).

On the other hand, Evening Grosbeaks aren’t originally native to eastern North America. They’re from the west, and moved east as human activity started to create more extensive tracts of the sort of habitat (and vegetative communities) that they prefer. The first breeding record of the species in Ontario wasn’t until 1920, up at the Manitoba border. Twelve years later they’d reached Algonquin Provincial Park. Survey data suggest that Ontario population peaked in the 80s. That said, they’re also on the decline in other parts of Canada, even where they’re historically native – most likely also due to Spruce Budworm control.

So. My first Evening Grosbeak feeder-visit in a decade and a half… you can imagine I was pretty stoked. Even though this is a pretty crummy photo, I had to have a record shot. She had, fortunately, not gone far when she left the feeder – she’d flown into one of the big maples in the yard and was eating maple keys, the few that hadn’t ever gotten around to falling off the tree. Dan had heard some flying overhead a few days before she showed up, and yesterday he noticed a male and a female at the top of the big maple. They didn’t come down to the feeder, but I’m hopeful that we’ll have a few grosbeaks visiting this winter. [I should probably have saved all that budworm info for a later post… but you know if I did, we won’t end up seeing any.]

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Sunday Snapshot – Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk with prey

My parents were up today for a visit; we were going to “Seedy Sunday”, a seed exchange/sale held by the Perth Farmer’s Market. I didn’t check where it was being held yesterday, and naturally this morning our internet went down. As we were wandering around downtown Perth trying to figure out where the event was taking place, a low-flying Sharp-shinned Hawk swooped by, carrying something. It banked and landed in a tree across the street, so I stealthily made my way over, pulling the little point-and-shoot camera from my purse that I now carry for just such emergencies (it was a spare my dad had and offered to me – very grateful, thank you, Dad!).

Couldn’t quite tell what the prey item was, besides simply a bird, and was unable to blow it up once it was on the computer as I hadn’t realized the photo size was set to a lower resolution. My first guess was Blue Jay, since it looks a little too slim to be a pigeon, and the tail’s not the right shape for a Mourning Dove, and I can’t think of anything else that large that’s pale like that around at this time of year. The dark band across the end of the tail puzzles me, though. Maybe it is a pigeon, after all. Birds always look smaller in death.

Today at Kingsford – Sharp-shinned Hawk

Sharp-shinned Hawk checking out feeders

Dan is always up earlier than I am, but especially this morning, as I’d stayed up late last night to download a large file (something we can’t do during the day because of our download threshold limits, but we have an unlimited-transfer window in the wee hours of the morning). So I was still snoozing in bed when he came in and woke me up, and told me to grab my camera because there was a Sharp-shinned Hawk at the feeders. A bit bleary-eyed and foggy-brained, I still hopped out of bed quickly, reluctant to miss such an interesting sighting. I switched out the lenses on my camera, and then joined Dan in the studio where he was looking down on the feeder ensemble.

Sharp-shinned Hawk checking out feeders

Sitting on a small stump amid the tangles of the raspberry canes was a small accipiter. Its back was to us, and to the feeder, but facing the open direction of the steep slope. It was a bit lower than the feeders, slightly downhill. It was constantly vigilant, turning its head back and forth, looking over its shoulders, and up at the feeders above. Given the bird’s relatively small size, I figured it was probably a male. He’s a youngster, hatched last summer – you can tell by the brown back and yellow eye; an adult would be blue-gray with an orange eye.

Despite an ongoing scolding by the chickadees in the area, they remained their bold, cocky selves, still continuing to come in to take seeds. After running off a few shots (all of which looked pretty much the same from the vantage we had), I lowered the camera and just watched him sitting there. Dan got out his video camera and grabbed a short clip of him. Half a minute later, a chickadee or some other bird that had come in to the platform caught his eye and he swooped off the stump, into the open downhill, then made a quick u-turn and flew rapidly up the slope, over the feeder (startling the little bird, who zipped off), and around the corner of the house after his intended prey, out of sight. We don’t know if he caught it or not.

Sharp-shinned Hawk checking out feeders

I certainly don’t begrudge having the hawks come and visit our feeders. This is the first one we’ve seen hanging around out there this winter, though Dan also had one do a fly-by a few weeks ago. Many people don’t like seeing the “ugly” side of nature happening in their backyard, but it is simply that, just nature. The hawks need to eat, too. And if we’re putting out food for the little birds, it seems a bit prejudiced to allow one group of birds to eat in your yard but not another. Because he’s so young, he is probably still honing his hunting skills. I’m quite happy to have him practice around here where we have the privilege of watching him. Also, it will be a little easier for him to get enough food when it’s so concentrated in one area; out in the rest of the forest, it’d be a daily struggle finding enough nutrition to survive the cold.

After the chase we found him again sitting in a tree behind the house, but he then flew off down the road and wasn’t seen again. He’s welcome back anytime, though, we’d love to have him around.