Saturday, February 15, 2014

Feather Fall

The early morning's clear skies seemed to promise a day of good light, but a quick check of the weather forecast showed it would only last a couple of hours. By the time I got to Pheasant Branch Conservancy, the clouds had already moved in. This has been winter's pattern; either clear and bitterly cold, or less cold with falling snow.

As I made my way down the overlook path, I couldn't help but notice there was very little in the way of songbird activity. A couple of crows flew overhead and a Red-tailed Hawk patrolled the skies over the marsh. When I arrived at the small springs, I found a couple of Mourning Doves perched above the water. The crunching snow was so loud that I stopped to listen for bird calls. I heard a couple of White-throated Sparrows, but nothing moved – not even the cardinals. Where were the juncos and tree sparrows?

I eventually located one of the White-throated Sparrows, but it appeared frozen in fear. From this and the relative quiet, I surmised that the songbirds probably had their eye on a nearby predator. Then without warning, the cardinals and chickadees sounded off a series of sharp alarm calls as a small accipiter zoomed in. It snatched a chickadee on the wing and carried it off to the dense tangle.

It was a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The hungry raptor had already killed the chickadee – the songbird's window to the universe was now closed forever. Next began the feather plucking and flesh shredding I've witnessed other accipiters do. I tried to get a clear angle on the grizzly scene, but there were too many obstructing branches in the way. Perhaps that was better.

I can't help the mixed emotions I feel when observing the death of a songbird at the talons of a raptor. I love all birds, and as much as I adore chickadees, I was glad the hawk was able to capture something to eat so it, too, can survive. But why couldn't it have been one of the dozens of nearby House Sparrows? Well, it probably has. This time, though, it was a chickadee. Chickadees have great warning strategies that even other birds have adapted to recognize. When you're a small songbird, there are a lot of things to pay close attention to. Most of the birds seemed to be aware of the sharpie before it flew in for the kill. Lose focus in Nature for even a fraction of a second, and it's over.

Pheasant Branch, Dane, US-WI
Feb 15, 2014 10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
29 species

Canada Goose
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Great Horned Owl
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
American Kestrel
Northern Shrike
Blue Jay
American Crow
Horned Lark
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
American Robin
European Starling
American Tree Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

All images © 2014 Mike McDowell

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