Broad-winged hawk Part II: The hunt

Two of these hawks have been hunting round my bird feeder and squirrel tree. They swoop on the squirrels, and yesterday one caught either a red squirrel or a chipmunk, or perhaps a vole. I couldn’t see clearly, but it had something in its talons when it took off again from the thicket.

Here is the young predator, waiting and watching:


They are woodland hunters, and this is their typical modus operandi, perching on a low branch concealed in the foliage, preparing to make a short glide down onto their prey.  Here he/she is, caught just after take-off swooping vertically down from the branch for the successful attack.


My camera trap caught glimpses of another attack, this time a squirrel chase:


They eat small mammals , birds and insects. Squirrels are large prey for them, but this one certainly had its eyes on a large meal!

I was somewhat puzzled by the fact that one day there were two of them swooping around, pretty much doing a synchronized aerial ballet thing.  They didn’t seem to be competing , and given that one was a juvenile, I am guessing the other might have been its mother? Or maybe it was a prelude to migration, though I have seen one several times since.

I am lucky to have observed all this because they tend to avoid human dwellings. They only appear when I am alone, never when others are with me.

Broad-winged Hawk Part I: After rain

Early one morning after a stormy night I saw this Broad-winged Hawk, Buteo platypterus, drying its wings, and I thought you might like to see the photos.  (The sun was behind the hawk, so they are rather washed out.)

A good preen:



A little shakeout of the wings:

`broad wimged hawk


And then a stony glare at my obtrusive white truck:

`broad wimged hawkThe final result:

`broad wimged hawk

Next time, the action shots!


PS This is a smallish hawk (maximum body length 17″, wingspan 39″ and weight 20oz) and it has a wide range in the Americas, from Southern Canada down to Brazil.  Some but not all birds migrate, and they often gather for the migration in huge soaring flocks called kettles.




Zombie caterpillars

Nature has some bizarre corners. A couple of years ago, I saw these caterpillars, part of a large group steadily demolishing a small shrub.


Then this year I saw this group, all together on a branch a few feet off the ground, each one bent into a U-shape, not eating, and not moving, though they were alive (I poked them gently).


I thought they were the same kind and were about to pupate, but I was wrong, on both counts. I hadn’t noticed the tiny white hairs on some of them, and the next day, they looked like this:


In close up, you can clearly see the “hairs” are growing out of their bodies:


This is a fungus which penetrates their bodies, and then absorbs nutrients from their insides, leaving a shell. This next photo is of a different group of caterpillars on the same tree. You can see that the segments  of caterpillar between each pair of legs are getting hollowed out as the fungus does its work:


A thunderstorm destroyed the whole ghoulish tangle, so I will never know what the final stage would have looked like.

By the way, I have failed to identify the fungus or the caterpillar, but the fungus is probably a type of Cordyceps. If anyone knows, let me know.

PS: I did wonder if it was not a fungus but some sort of communal cocoon, but my friendly mushroom expert confirmed the fungal guess. And if it was a cocoon,  it would need to survive a thunderstorm.

Turtle paintings

Out kayaking with three friends, on a glorious sunny day, we saw these painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, living up to their names.


They seem too exotically colored for Maine, but they are widespread, and unmistakeable. The adult females can be up to 10 inches long, though the ones I see are usually 6 or 7 inches.


The skin under the edge of the shell is brilliant red and black, and it goes over the edge, as you can see here:


I had never thought about how a turtle’s shell is attached to its body, but Wikipedia says: “The carapace is the dorsal (back), convex part of the shell structure of a turtle, consisting of the animal’s ossified ribs fused with the dermal bone. The spine and expanded ribs are fused .. to dermal plates beneath the skin to form a hard shell. Exterior to the skin the shell is covered by scutes, which are horny plates made of keratin that protect the shell from scrapes and bruises.”

Here is a close-up of where the skin meets the shell, and the transparent keratin plates:



They have a distinctly prehistoric look:


This one had something stuck on its nose, hence the cross-eyed expression:


They eat aquatic vegetation and small insects, crustaceans, and fish. They hibernate in the mud at the bottom of the pond, and can live up to 55 years in the wild.


The Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, is America’s iconic bird. They are not bald, but white-headed.


In the 1970’s there were only 39 nesting pairs left in Maine, but they are now recovering, and by 2013 there were 634 nesting pairs. A pair breed every year on our lake. I took the photo of one of the adults from a small boat (thanks, Kevin). This year they raised two chicks (now fledged).

Their nest is a messy collection of branches and twigs, high off the ground:


They have powerful feet, and prey mainly on fish, which is why they are more common on the coast.


They also snatch fish from ospreys. Round us, ospreys are rare, but one flew over yesterday:


An adult female bald eagle has a wingspan of up to 7 1/2 feet, or 2.3 meters, and can weigh up to 14 lbs, or 6.3 Kg.  Their vision is astonishing; one comparison suggests that they can see unaided as well as we see with powerful binoculars. The oldest verified eagle in Maine was 32 years and 11 months old!

Seeing their numbers recover is inspiring, but I have mixed emotions: the heron colony on my land has been abandoned, most probably because of the threat to the nests, eggs and young from the circling eagles.

PS: Many countries have chosen eagles as their national symbol, including Albania, Austria, Mexico, Montenegro, Philippines, Poland, Romania and the USA. I think the Mexican Golden Eagle is my personal favorite, partly because of the charming prickly pear cactus it is perching on.




PPS My friend Mary Pearce has explained the story behind the Mexican seal. Apparently the Aztecs, guided by the prophecies of Huitzilopochtli (the god of the sun and war), ended their migration from farther north by building Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City), on an island in a lake where an eagle held a snake perched on a flowering nopal (prickly pear) cactus.

Squirrel martial arts

Warning:  Some of these photos might be upsetting, read on at your own risk.

From time to time I see badly injured red squirrels, like this one, which actually seemed to be carrying on as usual despite the loss of one eye:


I have no way of knowing what did it, and I have tended to assume it was a fox.

But if you watch the squirrels closely their squabbles can get pretty aggressive. They are very short sharp encounters, over in a second or so, and very hard to photograph. Look at these two squaring off:


And then admire this karate kick, exactly one second later:


It is not hard to imagine a kick like that taking out an eye, especially given those claws:


Or a good kick could take out an ear: this squirrel has the equivalent of a boxer’s cauliflower ear from some old injury:


This one has injured a finger in a fight:


The squirrel with the eye injury has now been attacked again and has what look like even worse injuries, although it was running around and eating as if it were unscathed.


Defending yourself with only one eye must put you at a significant disadvantage against a predator, or indeed in fights like these.



“Red in tooth and claw” does seem pretty appropriate.  And just so you know, I googled the source of this phrase,  and it comes not from Shakespeare, but from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam A. H. H., 1850.

Sidebar! I once had a run-in with my son’s third grade teacher, who sent him home with a poem to memorize,  written by a certain Alfred Lloyd Tennyson ……


Comparing bills

I’ve been pondering this question: The kingfisher and the bluejay have quite different diets, and yet their beaks are not dissimilar. Why??

It started when I was deep in the woods, and saw some movement in a tiny stream. It was a bluejay having a bath (bad photo, sorry!):


It flew up to recover its dignity and its plumage:


The day before I had seen a Belted Kingfisher:


So now I had two photos, of pretty similar beaks:

The kingfisher of course eats fish, and this beak is well adapted for grabbing (or if necessary spearing) a slippery fish. But bluejays eat mainly seeds, so why is their beak this shape? The cardinal, a true seed-eater, has a beak like this, designed for crushing seeds:


I think the answer lies in the fact that the bluejay is in fact an omnivore.  It also eats insects (about 20% of its diet), and even occasionally small dead or injured vertebrates like baby birds. A favorite food is acorns, and they hold them in their feet while pecking them open, so the beak has to be sharp and strong enough to penetrate an acorn.  Here is a good video showing how they do it:


To do this, the bill has to be pretty sturdy, and the bluejay’s bill is definitely sturdier than the kingfisher’s, which would be unlikely to stand up to this kind of demand. In fact, it is not so different from a woodpecker’s, as you can see here:

DSC05124After all, hammering at acorns is a mini-version of hammering at trees.