New Year’s Hawks

Cooper’s Hawk

The year 2020 has arrived, and it’s a new decade as well as a new year. Usually it’s only the excitement of starting a brand new list from scratch that gets me going out in January, so on the first day of 2020 I got out early to see how many bird species I could find. As usual, I planned to check a couple of different habitats to maximize the number of potential species; my strategy consists of birding in open farmland, forests, along open water, with a stop at the local landfill. In the past couple of years I’ve only averaged about 17 or 18 species, which is not a particularly high number. My best New Year’s Day was back in 2017 where I counted 26 species – that year I visited Shirley’s Bay, Mud Lake, Jack Pine Trail, the Trail Road landfill, and the Eagleson ponds. The best birds of that day included Bald Eagle and White-throated Sparrow at Mud Lake, Horned Lark on Rushmore, and Gray Partridge on Eagleson. I also tallied 26 species back in 2012, where an unexpected Northern Flicker at Mud Lake, a Red-winged Blackbird at the Hilda Road feeders, and Glaucous and Great Black-backed Gulls at the landfill were the best birds of the day.

I started my day with a drive through the farmland south of Fallowfield to look for Snowy Owls. I was hoping to get there early, before the crowds arrived, and got lucky – I encountered only three other people looking for them, none of whom were baiting or disturbing the owls. My first Snowy Owl was on top of a pole right at the corner of Eagleson and Akins, so I got out and took a few photos. I also saw my first coyote of the year running in the field behind it.

Snowy Owl

A drive through the area produced a total of four Snowy Owls, a high count for me. Because the day was so dark they were all perched on top of poles or in trees, much more visible than if they had been sitting on the ground where they would be difficult to see against the fresh snow. Normally they spend their days hunkered down on the ground and find a higher perch later in the afternoon when they start hunting.

I also saw two different flocks of Snow Buntings, one comprising five birds and the other comprising 15 birds. I checked them all carefully but found no Horned Larks or Lapland Longspurs among them.

From there I drove to the Trail Road landfill where I found two Red-tailed Hawks and over 500 starlings. I spent some time scanning the starlings for the Brown-headed Cowbirds that have been hanging out with them, and while I found a potential candidate it quickly flew out of view before I could get a good look.

The highlight of my day was my walk around Mud Lake. Birds were surprisingly difficult to find; there were no juncos, robins, tree sparrows, finches, woodpeckers or waxwings on the ridge, and I heard no crows or ravens until I was almost halfway around the lake. I eventually found a flock of House Finches in the southeast corner and heard a Blue Jay calling close by. A few chickadees flew up to me looking for food, and I heard a Northern Cardinal chipping close by, so I pulled out some seed to feed them. Just then I saw a small dark bird zoom out of the vegetation next to the swamp and fly across the trail to the brush on the other side. I immediately thought it was the over-wintering Winter Wren but needed a better look. After waiting about 10 minutes and trying to pish it into view – the bird was entirely silent – I watched as it scurried along the ground, darting beneath branches and walking along a log before eventually flying back toward the swamp. This was a fantastic find for New Year’s Day, as I had entirely forgotten about my attempts to find both it and the Carolina Wren last month. Despite their name, few Winter Wrens actually over-winter in the Ottawa region; while they do winter further north than most other wrens, their normal range is usually further south in the northern states.

I continued my way around the lake, listening to a pair of ravens squawking overhead. I wasn’t able to find any Red-Breasted Nuthatches, but there were several White-Breasted Nuthatches and Brown Creepers present – more creepers than I expected, with five seen or heard on my walk around the lake. I suspect this is an under-count.

So far I was up to 16 species and still didn’t have Pileated Woodpecker, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco or goldfinch. The Eastern Screech-Owl was MIA, and there were no raptors around. Then, in the woods, I heard a loud chattering sound. I’d been listening to red squirrels all morning, and knew this wasn’t one; it sounded almost vireo-like. I back-tracked until I located the source of the sound: a tiny Carolina Wren scolding loudly from the top of a root system of a downed tree! There was no mistaking this bird, for its bright orange underparts, chestnut-brown back, and white supercilium are distinctive. I tried to get a photo but my camera battery died. The wren flew up onto a branch before flying deeper into the woods, still chattering away. This was even better than the Winter Wren as I wasn’t expecting this bird to still be here – it hadn’t been reported in several weeks!

The only other species I found at Mud Lake was an American Goldfinch, which I finally heard flying overhead when I got back to my car. This brought my list up to 18 birds, which was about what I was hoping for! With a group of Wild Turkeys on March Valley Road and two juncos in my backyard later in the afternoon I finished the day with 24 species – far better than my recent New Year’s Day lists, but still below the high-water mark of 26 species back in 2012 and 2017.

The weather was still nice the following day (4°C) so I brought my gear to work with me and headed out to Hurdman at lunch to see if the Barrow’s Goldeneye was still present. I didn’t chase this bird last year, and missed it for my year list; I was hoping to rectify that this year. I missed the goldeneye, but found a female Common Merganser and a male and female Hooded Merganser instead.

Hooded Merganser

While I was walking along the bike path I heard the crows calling continuously. When I looked up, I spotted one dive-bombing a hawk sitting on top of a pole. Normally I only see Red-tailed Hawks on top of posts like this, and the size was right, so I assumed that was what it was. I walked closer to get a better look, then noticed the orange horizontal barring on the chest – it wasn’t a Red-tailed Hawk, but a Cooper’s Hawk! It was an adult, and the dark cap was visible as it bent its head toward its feet. It kept flaring out its wings and tail feathers, and I wondered if it was feeding on something it was trying to conceal, a behaviour called “mantling”.

Cooper’s Hawk

Larger birds of prey often hunch their bodies over their prey and spread their wings to hide their food from other hawks or scavengers, particularly when feeding on larger birds or mammals on the ground or out in the open. It takes a lot of effort and energy for a raptor to successfully capture a bird or mammal for its next meal, and if the prey is too heavy to fly off with it, the hawk is vulnerable when feeding where other hawks or scavengers can see it – the attention devoted to plucking fur or feathers while consuming the rest leaves little attention for watching out for birds or mammals that might be interested in stealing the prey item from the hawk. I couldn’t tell if the hawk had carried something up to the top of the pole, but I found its habit of flaring its wings and tail feathers interesting.

I left the hawk to check the river beyond the Highway 417 bridge and found more Common Goldeneye but no Barrow’s Goldeneye. By the time I returned the Cooper’s Hawk had flown into a tree across the bike path where it was vigorously preening itself.

Cooper’s Hawk

This is my favourite picture from the set – the hawk was preening its belly and I snapped this image just as it raised its head. It’s really NOT looking down at me as though it thought I was tasty meal!

Cooper’s Hawk

I was thrilled with the encounter, especially since most hawks tend to fly off as soon as they see someone looking at them. This one knew I was there, but paid little attention to me – perhaps because it was so high up or because I didn’t walk directly toward the tree or the pole where it was perching.

I headed back toward the LRT station after leaving the hawk, and as I walked down the bike path through the open field I spotted another accipiter perching in a tree close to the station. This one appeared smaller and was facing away from me – I tried to get a good look at it to see if it had the capped appearance of a Cooper’s Hawk or the hooded appearance of a Sharp-shinned Hawk but wasn’t able to get a good view of the bird as its back was in shadow. By the time I was able to walk around the hawk where the light was better and I could see a partial view of the front, I realized that it was a juvenile, not an adult, and that there was no point in looking for a cap vs. a hood – these field marks apply to adults only. The yellow eye and brown vertical streaking on the chest clearly mark it as a juvenile.

Juvenile Accipiter

I was pretty sure it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk based on the size alone, but since male Cooper’s Hawks can be the same size as female Sharp-shinned Hawks size alone isn’t enough to ID these two accipiters. I was really hoping to get a full frontal view of the hawk to get a better look at the streaking (I see juvenile Cooper’s Hawks fairly often, but Sharp-shinned Hawks only rarely) but the bird didn’t like me approaching it and flew off even though I was still a good distance away.

By the time I finished my walk at Hurdman my year list was up to 30 species (including the resident House Sparrows on Metcalfe Street). I drove over to Jack Pine Trial this morning before the snow started in order to add a few more woodland birds to my year list – I found four new species, including Pileated Woodpecker, American Tree Sparrow, Mourning Dove and Red-breasted Nuthatch. A goshawk would have been nice, but they are very tough to find so I wasn’t surprised not to find any.

I got home just as the snow was starting, and while I was eating lunch I saw a large bird zoom across the backyard. My first thought was that the Mourning Dove had returned after a two-week absence, and I when I went to peer out the window for confirmation I saw a Cooper’s Hawk instead – another adult!

Cooper’s Hawk

Three juncos and one House Sparrow had been feeding beneath the feeder earlier, so perhaps the Cooper’s Hawk had noticed them and flown in for a closer look. When I checked the yard I couldn’t see any sparrows, though a black squirrel was hunched on the branch of the cedar tree two doors down where the sparrows like to sleep. The hawk flew from the side fence to the back fence, cocking its head as it tried to see into the small shrubs growing in the neighbour’s yard. Fortunately for the overwintering juncos (I have counted as many as six) the Cooper’s Hawk wasn’t able to catch anything, and eventually flew away.

Cooper’s Hawk

It’s amazing to see so many accipiters within such a short period of time – particularly since I don’t think I’ve ever had an eBird checklist with an adult and juvenile accipiter at the same location where they weren’t interacting, and Cooper’s Hawks stop by my yard very infrequently. Checking eBird, I have recorded Cooper’s Hawk only six times:

  1. September 17, 2011 – no notes
  2. July 29, 2014 – an adult that caught and fed on a female/juvenile House Sparrow while a male House Sparrow squawked in agitation nearby
  3. December 3, 2015 – an adult seen in the tree across the street – likely attracted by the flock of ~60 starlings
  4. December 11, 2016 – a juvenile attracted by the sparrows and juncos in my yard. She spent a good five minutes peering at the cedar shrubs to see where all the birds had gone. Possibly the same individual that showed up today, all grown up?
  5. January 28, 2017 – another adult perching in the tree across the street.
  6. January 4, 2020 – an adult in my backyard attracted by the sparrows and juncos in my yard.

It’s been a great start to the new year, and I can’t help but hope that my luck with finding hawks will continue!

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