Nemesis, aka a Sharp-shinned Hawk

[I’m sending this out before Christmas picks up steam, and then I will go dark till the New Year, unless something so special happens I cannot resist. I do hope you are able to enjoy your holidays, in whatever form they take in this strange year.]

In winter our bird-feeder is close to the house and visible from the kitchen, and from my desk . It attracts chickadees, tufted titmouses (titmice??), red squirrels, downy and hairy woodpeckers, cardinals, and lots of bluejays. The other morning there were eight at once, feeding on the ground beneath the feeder. By tea-time, there were seven.

A Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipter striatus, swooped in and pinned one unwary bluejay to the ground on the opposite side of the trellis that supports the bird feeder. My first shot is taken through the window, and through the trellis, but the fierceness of this small hawk is clear. He is not much bigger than the bluejay (both measure 11 inches, but the hawk weighs 5oz to the bluejay’s 3oz), nevertheless it didn’t have a chance.

The hawk held it down, and started to pluck it, while it struggled in vain.

The hawk went for an area of soft dark feathers on the breast underneath the wing, and afterwards when I searched the crime scene there was not a single larger feather removed, only tiny dark downy ones:

Eventually I decided to risk opening the window to take better photos, and it flew off, but only a short distance, where it thoughtfully settled in full view and started to feed in earnest. This hawk is mantling, spreading and dropping its wings to hide its prey from other predators, such as larger hawks of coyotes.

It reminds me of an avenging angel fixing its stony gaze on its hapless victim:

When a hawk has just killed it does not feed elegantly; it rips out chunks of meat, feeding fast before predators come, taking the edge off its hunger, and storing extra chunks in its crop for later regurgitation and digestion:

I feared at times that the poor jay was still struggling, but it may just have been the hawk shaking its prey. At one point it lifted it and moved it, as if to get a better angle, which was very thoughtful of it from my point of view:

And then it paused, called,

and took off, the bluejay in one talon, and headed for the woods, there to finish its meal in privacy.

My husband now refers to our sunflower seed repository as “the hawk feeder”. I fear he will be back, but meanwhile the blue jays have returned this morning, undeterred.

PS The Sharp-shinned Hawk gets its name from its un-feathered scrawny lower legs.

Squirreling away

American Red Squirrels are pretty small, only 6.5-9″ long (excluding the tail) and Eastern White Pine cones are nearly as big, up to 6″. They contain a tiny seed at the base of each scale, and the squirrels love them. They prefer to dine on a lookout, like a tree stump, large rock, or in this case thirty feet up in a white pine. This video shows the tree, the large one in the center of the frame, and zooms in on the squirrel just as it irritatingly decides to descend. (When you play the two videos in this blog, they are not as dark as they look here.)

Luckily I had been watching it earlier, taking photos from ground level far below, and you can see what a humungous cone it had unearthed from the snow:

Starting at the bottom, it removed one scale at a time, and ate the one or two seeds at the base. It carefully worked its way up the cone, one scale at a time, holding on tightly to its trophy:

When it has finished, it will leave just the central spine behind, surrounded by a litter of scales:

Below is a video of the squirrel tucking in. By now he has worked his way half-way down the cone, and he reminds me of a Frenchman eating an artichoke:

American Red Squirrels, Tamiasciurus hudsonicus, particularly like the cones of pine and spruce and they cache their food, sometimes underground, but not always. This squirrel had collected heaps of pine cones at the base of his special tree, and also beneath several others nearby.

I counted fifty at the base of this tree alone, and was rather impressed by the care with which they had been arranged, most of them neatly lined up, and largely pointing in the same direction, away from the tree. Perhaps it gives the squirrel the same satisfaction as reorganizing the sock drawer gives us on a grey day.

They also eat other nuts: this one had started in on a Red Oak acorn:

PS The scientific name Tamiasciurus comes from the Greek ταμίας “tamias”, meaning treasurer or steward, or one who collects. Apt.

Grand Designs of the Wasp World II

My last group of nests are built of paper, which the wasps create by chewing wood fibre into pulp. So in the Three Little Pig story they are the house of wood or sticks!

Hornets and paper wasps are eusocial* insects, and live in large colonies. In Assam, I found this hornet nest, probably Vespa analis judging by the beautifully scalloped pattern of the nest; the huge nest dwarfs the hornet in the middle, and must contain a sizable colony:

The next photo is the nest of Maine’s Bald-Faced Hornet, Dolichovespula maculata, not quite as big, but still a very respectably sized abode. They can reach two feet tall, and contain up to 700 workers:

They are intricate constructions. The outer case is layer upon layer of paper, like a mille-feuille pastry.

The outer layer conceals tiers of honeycomb chambers. This disembowelled one was in a lilac bush in my garden, and its inhabitants were responsible for a nasty sting which blew up one side of my face to unattractive proportions last summer.

The nests are built freshly every year, so taking one apart during the winter in the interest of science is OK, and also safe (post-frost) because only the fertilized queen survives the winter, and she hibernates elsewhere .

The Northern Paper Wasp, Polistes fuscatus, builds a smaller nest, and the cells are exposed, like this one under the eaves of our cottage. They are not very aggressive, and you can watch them at work, from a safe distance.

The queen lays a single egg in each cell. The developing larva is fed by the workers with such delicacies as masticated caterpillars. If you look carefully, you can see the light brown larvae in two of the cells near the bottom left of the photo below, and in the cells a little higher up there is a greenish sludge that I think is caterpillar puree.

When the larva is fully developed it spins a silken cream-colored lid for its cell, beneath which it pupates. You can see one in the centre of the photo above. Soon after, a new wasp emerges from the pupa, cuts off the lid, and crawls out into the world.

* Eusocial insects show an advanced level of social organization, in which a single female or caste produces the offspring and nonreproductive individuals cooperate in caring for the young.

Grand Designs of the Wasp World I

[Here is another post that I saved from a warmer month, to provide material to keep me going through this bleaker time of year.]

The three little pigs built their houses out of straw, sticks, or bricks. And so do wasps.

Imagine a wasp’s nest. Paper, hanging from a tree or some eaves, right? Well yes, but that is not the whole story.

These wasps build their nests of mud (bricks!):

Mud dauber wasp nest

And add to them year by year:

Mud dauber wasp nest

The stucco nests are made by the Black-and-Yellow Mud-dauber wasp, which collects little balls of mud from puddles, and carries it to its building site. The different sources of mud produce the multi-coloured effect. 

The Grass-carrying Wasp, Isodontia mexicana, builds its nest of grass (straw!):

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

These solitary wasps wriggle into crevices, like this one between two shingles, where they lay their eggs:

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

Then they carry grass in their mandibles and seal the hole up:

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

In this last photo you can just see an empty papery whitish carcass of a tree cricket which they stash to feed their larvae.

Grass-carrying wasp, Isodontia mexicana

Next time, I’ll return to those familiar paper nests, made of masticated wood pulp (wood!), and take you into their innermost workings.

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