Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Observing a Cooper's hawk nest

Sub-adult Cooper's hawk
Late in April a bird watching friend, Jerry, found a young pair of Cooper's hawks that had started to build a nest at a nearby park. Knowing that I like to observe and study nesting birds he let me know the location. He thought this one would be particularly important to watch as both the male and female were first year, sub-adult birds. In other words, they were last years hatch, hadn't attained adult plumage and may not be sexually mature. None the less, the pair were setting up housekeeping and had been seen mating. Time would tell if they would be successful.
Male Cooper's hawk bringing nesting material

My first visit to the nest was May 6th. The nest was high up in a sugar maple and easy to find because the pair had chosen to build on branches that had some mylar balloons hanging from them. It was also clearly visible from the ground without a lot of leaves or branches obscuring the view. On that day I was fortunate enough to catch the male bringing sticks to the nest. I watched as he flew to nearby dead trees and broke off twigs with his beak, then transferring them to his feet he would return to the nest.
The female, according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, doesn't do much of the nest building, but I did observe her on the nest and rearranging twigs to her liking. It also said that the male calls before approaching her so that she knows it's him and she doesn't mistake him for prey. Males are about a third the size of females, closer to the size of the birds that she might eat.
Once the nest was built the waiting began. There was not much to see for about a month as she incubated the eggs. Toward the end of June I started noticing her standing on the edge of the nest and reaching into it. I suspected at that time that the egg/eggs may have hatched, but just when, I couldn't be sure.
 Then, on July 4th, I saw the first fuzzy white head peeking over the edge of the nest, but just one. Cooper's hawks lay from two to six eggs and I had no way of knowing how many there might be nor exactly how old they were. Once hatched they take about another month to fledge. 

By the 17th of July I had seen two chicks and they were already starting to feather out. Vertical striped feathers appeared on their breasts as well as wing and tail feathers, while the rest of them remained covered with down.They were very mobile and one even made a leap to a nearby branch. I guessed that it wouldn't be long before they left the nest.
Cooper's hawk chicks
One of the days I visited the male had brought a freshly killed bird though he didn't bring it to the nest. Instead, he cached it for the female to find and take to the chicks. His plumage was changing just as the chicks had been changing. He was molting into the steely blue of adulthood and his feathers looked like patchwork, some brown and some gray.
Male with prey and molting into adult plumage
An adult Cooper's hawk
 (Adult Cooper's hawks have steely gray backs and tails, rust barring on the breast, a black cap and piercing red-orange eyes.)

On July 22nd I checked the nest and it was empty. Just like when the little hummer left I felt a sense of disappointment because I again had missed that special moment. I started looking around the trees nearby to see if I could locate the fledglings and could hear soft calling coming from the nest tree. Soon I located the smaller bird. It regarded me with curiosity as I moved around the tree looking for it's nest mate. Then I saw it fly, a nice flap and glide to some other branches, appearing to follow me around the tree. It made me smile to see it learning to use those magical wings, knowing that very soon those wings would be able to maneuver it through branches and fences and other obstacles without the slightest effort. It was fully feathered in juvenile plumage except for a few white tufts of down sticking out here and there.
Fledgling Cooper's hawk
 In spite of it's juvenile plumage and downy tufts there was a fierceness in it's eyes that all Cooper's exhibit. Here was a modern day, feathered Velociraptor that would soon be striking fear in the hearts of songbirds and squirrels as it learned to hunt for itself. The thought made me smile as I've seen these birds blast through my yard after my feeder birds and it's always heart stopping.
As I finished up my sketches and notes on this nesting adventure I thought of my friend, Jerry. He lost his battle with cancer two days before I first started to watch the nest. He was an amazing outdoorsman and knowledgeable bird watcher, who led our birding trips for the Canyon Birders. He would have enjoyed watching the progress of these two young Cooper's hawks and would be glad to know that they were successful. I feel honored that he chose to tell me the location of the nest and charged me with observing and recording the process. He said I would learn a lot and he was right. I have dedicated my journal pages on these Cooper's hawks to Jerry. I will miss his insight and passion for all things wild.




Saturday, July 9, 2016

Hope On Tiny Wings

For the past several weeks I have had the unique and rare blessing of monitoring a hummingbird nest. The nest was found by some bird watching friends who let me know where it was so that I could observe and document the activity. What a wonderful adventure it has turned out to be!
Female rufous hummingbird on nest

The bird is a rufous hummingbird and she chose a beautiful sycamore tree by the river with a branch hanging over the water. The nest was about at eye level from a walking path and in plain view if you knew where to look. Over the course of a few days my friend observed her bringing nesting material and binding it all together with spiders webs. The female alone builds the nest and tends the young. Once the male mates with her his duties are done and he is off to do whatever male hummers do when they are not mating.
Female rufous hummingbird
 I started watching her on May 25th after the nest was built. It is tiny, about 2 inches across and is made of soft plant material, lichens and moss and held firmly together with lots of spiders webs. They normally lay 2-3 eggs about 1/2 inch long and it takes 15 -17 days for those eggs to hatch.
I visited the nest nearly every day to take photos and just watch. Though I dearly wanted to see into the nest I never took the chance of disturbing her to see how many eggs she had and what they looked like.
Then on June 20th I observed something pointy sticking up out of the nest, but only one.
A tiny beak poking up out of the nest
Obviously, by this time the chick was maybe about a week old, big enough and strong enough to raise it's head out of the nest to be fed. 

Baby hummer with lots of pin feathers
By June 23rd the chick was moving about the nest and growing rapidly. It was covered with tiny, spiky pin feathers and Mama was bringing food about every 15 minutes to her hungry chick. She fed it a protein rich diet of tiny insects and nectar.
Mama feeding her chick
Female rufous with nest
Every day I would visit from 15 minutes to an hour. I would wear camo or olive green or brown colors and tuck myself up against a tree so as not to disturb them too much. It was great fun and I would totally lose myself in their world of buzzing insects, birds calling from nearby trees, fish jumping in the river and people walking by not more than a few feet from me that never indicated they even knew I was there. Nor did they know of the tiny wonder that was napping in it's protective nest, rocking in the gentle breezes over the water. So many miraculous things we miss in this world because we just don't pay attention.
The little hummer grows amazingly fast!
 By June 27th the chick had tiny flight feathers that looked like thin shafts with paddles on the end. It would stretch and scratch, preening it's new feathers that probably itched as they grew. By the 29th those feathers had grown at an incredible rate and after feeding it would have a burst of energy and start vigorously flapping those tiny wings.
Baby rufous tries out those magical wings.
Mama was still bringing food though she would stay away for longer periods of time.
Mama feeds her nearly grown chick
It was astounding to me just how fast this chick was growing. It was nearly as large as the female and I knew it wouldn't be in the nest much longer. References from the internet and my bird books indicated that the chicks are ready to fledge in 
15 - 19 days and we were fast approaching that time.
On July 1st I noticed a change in Mama hummers behavior. When I visited she was staying very close to the nest often perching just above it. The chick watched her intently. I knew it was almost time and spent nearly two hours there watching and waiting. I didn't want to miss the moment when the baby left the nest if it was at all possible.
Mama hummer encourages her chick
The female flew around the nest catching insects and the chick watched her. At one point she flew in and fed it, then poked it a few times with her beak as if to say, "It's time!"
Though the chick would beat it's wings rapidly and teeter on the edge of the nest it did not leave. Every time it came up out of the nest my adrenaline started pumping and I was sure I would get to see the precious moment when it first took flight on those magical, tiny wings, but then it would settle back down and take a nap. As much as I would have loved to stay longer I eventually had to pull myself away, but I checked periodically throughout that day and the chick was still there.
The baby hummer flies!
 On July 2nd I was at the nest by 7 a.m. As I drove up I could see the nest and all was quiet. It was empty, the little hummer was gone. My heart sank. I had missed it fledging. 
I hurried down to the shoreline looking for some sign of it. I had a fear that as it took that first uncoordinated flight out of the nest that it would somehow end up in the water below. I checked the water, checked the shore and checked the bushes and plants below the nest. Nothing. 
My heart sank lower.
Then I remembered something some new bird watching friends told me. "Look for the female and she will lead you to the chick after it fledges." So I wait, watch and listen, scarcely breathing and praying for one last encounter to know all is well. There's a whirring sound above my head and sure enough there's the female. Up she goes, way up near the top of the tree! I back out of my hiding place to get a better perspective and there perched on a branch high above me, highlighted in the morning sun and surrounded by glowing green leaves is the baby hummer! It looks down at me as I marvel at how high it has gone! 
Fledgling rufous hummingbird
I am now flooded with emotions of all kinds...delight, happiness, relief, some sadness, but lots of hope, too. It has been an awesome, educational and inspiring journey with this hummingbird family. I am blessed beyond measure for being able to witness it. 
With tears of joy I watch it happily beating it's tiny wings.
"Look at me, I can FLY!" 
Knowing I will probably never see it again and that it faces a lot of danger ahead as it continues to grow and then makes a journey of thousands of miles on migration, I speak a prayer and a blessing over it for a good, long life and it's safe travels. Then I leave it to it's life and I return to mine with my heart filled with a hope I didn't have before. 
Thanks, little hummers, for letting me share this magical time with you!