Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Birding the Dog Parks

Birding the Dog Parks  

March 2, 2018 – We adopted a dog, a pug-Boston terrier cross (aka a “bug”) named Frankie by previous owners, a couple now divorced. Frankie is our first dog in over twenty years. She is a small, glossy, black, short-haired muscular bundle with bulgy chestnut eyes and a little nose like a black ju-jube. When she walks in an exciting, smelly environment, she hoovers along, nose to ground, hind hips slightly higher than her shoulders, a walking wedge followed by a curly tail. She’s energetic and has to be walked and that’s where the birds come into the picture. 

The closest off leash Vernon dog parks are BX Dog Park and Mutrie Dog Park, only a few kilometres from home. Sonja and I have become very familiar with both. They are fenced fields, a bit stony, pock marked in place by the diggings of Northern Pocket Gophers. Dogs and owners have worn informal paths around the outer edges of each park. 

Mutrie is simple, the bald top of a hill on the outskirts of Vernon’s populous East Hill neighbourhood. Look west and you’ll see streets of houses. Look east down the other side of the hill and you’ll see a broad expanse of hayfields in a swale to Vernon Mountain with a view up the BX Creek drainage to Silver Star Mountain.

Bare as it is, the appeal of Mutrie, birdwise, for the slightly disengaged dogwalker includes Ring-necked Pheasants and raptors. The pheasants seem abundant in the hay fields and are always doing something new, or at least new to me. For example, yesterday six hens perched side by side atop a fence presumably to take in warmth of the rising sun. Meanwhile a crowd of a dozen more trailed through the long grass below the perch. Eighteen pheasants in one spot! Clearly I have many things to learn about pheasants. However, pheasants aside, it’s raptors that are the stars of Mutrie. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks are resident and Northern Harriers may breed somewhere not too distant. Certainly, deep orange and chocolate brown juvenal harriers are present from late summer to late autumn quartering in their characteristic zigzag ways across the fields to the east, learning to hunt. Last winter a young Rough-legged Hawk took up residence south of the park, spending long afternoons on one of two favoured perches, the tallest Douglas-fir along Black Rock Road or on a pole along Mutrie Road which not surprisingly leads to the park. One of the resident Red-tails sometimes took exception to the Roughie and scraps, mostly verbal and fluttery, would occur, especially as the Red-tails’ territoriality increased in the early spring. Year round a dog walker is liable to see 1-2 raptors per walk here. However, Mutrie is most interesting during the autumn, especially when the winds creating updrafts that enable passing hawks and others an almost effortless ride. 

Turley Vultures and Red-tailed Hawks are the most common migrants. In late September on special weather days with air currents just right, the passage of Red-tails can be of one bird after the other, not spectacular like Cape May or Hawk Mountain, but enough for the watcher to know that he’s seeing definite raptor movement.  Most of the Red-tails are Western types but among them are occasional Harlan’s types and many birds unassignable to group or subspecies. Dark, light, and intermediate morphs, immatures and adults, phases and ages add to the mix. 

From late April to late September Swainson’s Hawks are not uncommon summer residents. The lucky dogwalker-birder may see an adult with a juvenile hunting the newly harvested hayfields east of Mutrie in the later half of August. After Thanksgiving Rough-legged Hawks may pass by, though the species is much less frequent than it was in the 1990s. 

BX Dog Park occupies part of a more complex landscape than Mutrie does, though it too is graced with a resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks. In 2018 the pair occupied a nest near the top of an isolated Ponderosa Pine in the middle of the park.  Everything else is a grassy flat. Before the area was settled the field was the flood plain of BX Creek, its native cover a mixed forest of D-fir, P Pine, and Western Redcedar.  This location was the farthest west the shade, moisture, and cool loving redcedars could advance along the deep mountain folds to the flat sun-blasted valley bottom. Remnants of the coniferous riparian remain at the eastern end of the park and beyond for the person who wants to take his dog on a longer than usual walk. 

Frankie appears to find the dog parks much more fascinating than we do. It’s her twice daily opportunity to pee and poop and witness by nose and eye what other canines have done, or are doing. Also it’s clear to me that though both dogs and humans are social animals, the average dog is much social than the average human. Dogs at least sniff each other in passing whereas it’s not that rare that a human will pass another human as if he weren’t there. This is just an observation; I don’t have a problem with privacy in public places. However, one can keep one’s privacy and still watch fellow humans.  Mutrie attracts lots of young mothers, retirees, and neighbourhood children walking the dog after school. BX, on the other hand, is favoured by boys (of all ages) with their big dogs that require exercise.  

With a creek on one side, a brushy hillside on the opposite side, a former farm at one end and a redcedar riparian woodland at the other, BX Dog Park has three times as many bird species as hilltop Mutrie does. So far in 2019 I have seen 29 species at Mutrie but 89 at BX. While buteos, vultures and eagles soar over Mutrie, they also appear over BX, along with bird-hunting  accipiters and falcons. Snags in the forest attract Cooper’s Hawks, Merlins, and even the occasional Peregrine Falcon. The Merlin is most frequent. I missed Merlins this spring but with the passing of July, a little male appeared, chasing passerines in exciting aireobatics overhead. 

BX Dog Park has resident flickers, chickadees, nuthatches (including Pygmy Nuthatches), House Wrens, Bullock’s Orioles, and Song Sparrows that treeless Mutrie lacks. Summer residents include Western Wood Pewees, Violet-green Swallows, Northern Rough-winged Swallows, and Belted Kingfishers, these last two nesting in exposed face of a road cut. Also common in summer are Gray Catbirds and Spotted Towhees. Spring brings migrants in the creekside woods like Hammond’s Flycatchers, Pacific-slope Flycatchers, Cassin’s Finches, Nashville Warblers, and Yellow Warblers. Late summer and early autumn bring the wild fruit eaters to the berry thickets like Cedar Waxwings, Warbling Vireos, Swainson’s Thrushes, White-throated Sparrows, Orange-crowned Warblers, and others. 
Finally winter, that grim season of packed yellow snow and grey ceiling of valley cloud, is the time for flocks of Bohemian Waxwings, House Finches, wandering flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds, California Quail huddled in the bushes and perhaps a raptor or two. 

I make no special efforts to hide my binoculars when I’m walking Frankie in either of these parks. People routinely ask me what I am looking for and when I answer that I am “just” watching birds, some of the chatty ones will trot out their bird stories. But that’s not news to you, is it? You’ve been told much the same stories, some of you while you were walking your own dog, your beloved Bella, Kingsley, Loki, or Muffin. However, I find that even after spending almost all of my life being a birder, I am still self conscious about pishing in public. And pishing is required almost daily, especially in BX Park where birds must be drawn out of the thickets and woodland edges. I walk close to the shrubby edge, I look around to see of the coast is clear of other dog walkers and I pish, but as soon as a walker is within what I consider to be hearing range, I stop pishing and try to look silent, innocent and sane. 

For those of you who consider yourself liberated from society’s restraints and the tyranny of self-consciousness, I dare you to pish in public, alone, not with some group, but as a solitary figure in a landscape where your only emotional support is the family dog. Let me know how you do. 

Monday, 7 October 2019


Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia revisited

New World warblers have their moments in the sun when their stunning colours seem to eclipse everything else around them, but then they flit into the leaf shadows and are gone. Think of that little flame, the Cape May Warbler, that you finally spotted singing from atop a White Spruce or the dramatic black, green and yellow Townsend’s Warbler whisking through the Douglas-firs like a spot of light. Here and then gone. 

Bird books are similar. The longer you’re a birder, the taller the stack of once must-have/now forgotten books you’ll leave behind. For example, in 1983 you had to have the three volumes of The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding for the latest field identification tips. Since 1983 the Master Guide slipped into the shadows like the Cape May Warbler and really hasn’t been heard of since (though the authors of the Guide were responsible for discovering field marks that have since become part of our modern field guides). Once field identification was dominated by an enormously talented painter-writer with the initials RTP whose field guides were on your shelves and in your car. Now those letters have been obscured by the abbreviations “Sibley” and “Nat. Geo.” However, one book, a study of the birds of one long valley in British Columbia, remains as influential today as it was when it was published over three decades ago and if it’s not in your reference library, it should be. 

As I examine other works of B.C. regional ornithology, it’s clear that Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia remains the very best single work to date. Thirty-two years after its publication, this book by Robert, Sydney and Richard Cannings remains an invaluable resource for naturalists and birders and is widely regarded as one of the best regional ornithological works of North America. There’s still nothing quite like it on the market or online. For anyone who hopes to write a regional bird study, this book stands as a model of the best kind. For the BC birder who wants to know more about the birds he’s seeing, “BOKVBC “is a must have. 

Several factors contribute to its value. No other regional work deals in such a depth of local detail as BOKVBC does, including its clear maps, superb historical photos, and its comprehensive introductions to the valley’s geography, climate, and habitat. Secondly its essays on the geographical composition of its bird fauna and the history of its ornithology serve as valuable context to the book’s 307 species accounts.  Thirdly, each account for the 192 breeding and 92 migrant and/or wintering species of at least casual occurrence contains unusually complete analysis of local data including range within the valley, arrival and departure times, wintering population size (each species’ range, frequency, and mean for Christmas Bird Counts of Vernon, Penticton, and Vaseux Lake), nesting information including habitat preferences, nest sites, laying and incubation data, period of chick dependence, and foraging strategies. Finally, the brief but detailed essay entitled “The Okanagan Birding Year” is as useful today as it was in 1987, and that despite local habitat loss, urbanization, and climate change. It is a synopsis of what a birder can expect to find happening among the birds of the valley. Each month is divided into two with the main avian events described. To paraphrase, from March 16-31, for example, Cassin’s Finches and Spotted Towhees arrive, Common Goldeneyes and American Coots show up in numbers on the lakes and Great Blue Herons arrive at their colonies. Dusky Grouse hoot in the hills and towards the end of the period Ruffed Grouse drum in the draws and Chukars cackle from the cliffs. Red-necked Grebes return. Expect movements of Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels through the valley by month’s end and the return of Brewer’s, Red-winged, and Yellow-head blackbirds in abundance. Early nesting occurs among Common Ravens, Mallards, and Canada Jays. Despite global warming trends, “The Okanagan Birding Year” remains remarkably accurate and useful, as well as serving as a chronological benchmark against which to measure future changes. 

Fans of the online program, eBird, might argue that regional bird books no longer need to be written, since eBird automatically produces bar graph checklists illustrated with the best available bird photographs of local origin. However ebird is a database which does not include life history and ecological information and habitat.  

Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia has aged far better than many of the birders it has served over the years.  The AOU, now the AOS, has shuffled the taxonomic order of the North America bird families at least twice since the book’s publication. The book presents its birds in the old Wetmore order, beginning with loons and ending with weaver finch, not a major problem since you won’t be carrying the volume with you into the field and will have time at home to use the book’s index. The English names of species have fared better than their taxonomic order, with only 15 of the book’s 307 species having official name changes. These include Green-backed Heron which was flipped back to Green Heron; Oldsquaw which is now known by its non-racist Old World name, Long-tailed Duck; Rock Dove which became Rock Pigeon (and almost no one cares), and most recently Gray Jay became Canada Jay. 

Since 1987 the Okanagan has gained several species due to taxonomic splits including Cackling Goose, American and Pacific golden-plovers, Pacific and Winter wrens, and Bullock’s and Baltimore orioles.

Next to Vancouver and Victoria, no area in B.C. has gained more accidental and casual species than the Okanagan Valley, partially because over the years several of the province’s top birders have lived there. About 40 species have been added to the Okanagan checklist since 1987. These include Tufted Duck, Black Scoter, Clark’s Grebe, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Ruff, White-rumped Sandpiper, Little Gull, Western Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Slaty-backed Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, Least Tern, Brown Pelican, Snowy Egret, White-faced Ibis, Black Vulture, Broad-winged Hawk, Acorn Woodpecker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Black-capped Vireo, Winter Wren, Sedge Wren, Bewick’s Wren, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Wood Thrush, Brambling, Lesser Goldfinch, Green-tailed Towhee, Orchard Oriole, Great-tailed Grackle, Black-and-white Warbler, Prothonotary Warbler, Lucy’s Warbler, Northern Parula, Blackburnian Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Summer Tanager and Indigo Bunting.  The majority of these species are of accidental or casual status and as such don’t affect the main contents of BOKVBC. 

Species that have experienced substantive changes in status since the book’s publications are far fewer. Changes in birds’ status within the valley are a topic deserving its own article, if not book, and of course I encourage the authors to revise Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, but given that Robert, Syd and Richard are busy men, I don’t expect this to happen any time soon. So for the purposes of this article let a few examples of changes suffice. There has been a dramatic increase in Broad-winged Hawks appearing as autumn migrants.  The Burrowing Owl re-introductions initiated in the 1980s have not been successful to date in spite of huge volunteer effort. A few species have finally been documented as Okanagan breeders like the Great Gray Owl. Pure and hybrid Glaucous-winged Gulls have been increased as residents. One or two Lesser Black-backed Gulls make almost annual winter visits. Bewick’s Wren established itself as an uncommon resident in at least as far north as Kelowna, and Lesser Goldfinches show signs of becoming local breeders near Osoyoos. 

Whether you’re a young birder who has not yet had a chance to purchase a copy of Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia or a someone who has come late to birding, now is a good time to look for second hand copies as birders who have aged beyond the demands of their hobby down-size their book collections. At a Vernon second hand bookstore I frequent, there’s almost always at least one copy for sale. Expect to pay about $35.00 for the sturdy soft cover edition and more for the much scarcer hard cover. Hard cover or soft, this is one book every birder living in or visiting the Okanagan Valley will find rewarding and well worth the purchase price.

Friday, 1 February 2019



I didn’t catch sight of the bird speeding low over the shore until it was passing me. It was slender and very fast, and for a second I wondered “Mourning Dove?” but then in a flash of pleasant recognition realized the bird was a Merlin in “fast contour-hugging” flight (Bildstein 2017) along Goose Lake near Vernon, hunting the shore at maybe 40 km/hr for shorebirds, pipits, longspurs, and sparrows that had strayed too far from the sheltering grasses.

Merlin - a female or immature atop a power pole between Vernon and Armstrong. Photo by Chris Siddle. 

If I had to name one favourite bird out of the 10,000 + species of the world, the Merlin might be my top choice, It’s a minimalist’s dream of a raptor, a compact, graceful little killer. What it lacks in bright colour it makes up for in speed. Merlin literature, and there’s a fair bit of it since the bird is found across the Northern Hemisphere, often uses the words “compact” and “dash” to introduce this fast species. Compact it is, one of the world’s smaller falcons, weighing in at 160-170 g for males and 220-240 g for females (compare to America Kestrel 80-143 g males, 86-165g females), making the Merlin about the same size as a kestrel but significantly heavier. I like to think the extra weight translates into strength needed to subdue its mainly avian prey. The American Kestrel has a wider range of prey from insects, rodents, and small birds. The Merlin focuses much more upon small birds, even those as heavy as a Rock Pigeon.

Another common attack pattern involves the Merlin “jumping” a single bird by surprise. This may involve using the landscape as cover, or fast contour-flying, such as I described at the beginning of this piece or spotting the prey while the Merlin is perched or flying

Although I have seen Merlins chasing prey a few dozen times, one memory stands out. On a late September day in the early 1980s an estimated 10,000 Lapland Longspurs were feeding in the farm fields at the tiny farm community of Nig Creek 100 kilometres north of Fort St. John. Among the clouds of longspurs three Merlins coursed, creating panic among the already restless birds.  The little falcons worked the edges of the fields, often engaged in tail flights, chasing a longspur from behind. Although dramatic, these chases are often unsuccessful for the Merlins. Flocking is an effective anti-predation strategy used by many species in addition to longspurs. 

Principal prey of breeding Merlins varies across its range. The figures I found in the BNA account were for the north and west of its North American range. In urban Saskatoon principal prey was House Sparrows; in Alaska it is American Tree Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Lapland Longspurs, in rural Alberta Horned Larks, and Chestnut-collared Longspurs, in Montana Horned Larks, Lark Buntings, Vesper Sparrows. This selection for prey is clearly does not take into account Merlins breeding along the coasts where shorebirds become significant prey. It also doesn’t address the diet of Merlins that overwinter in the interior of North America, where, in the northwest at least, Bohemian Waxwings in their fruit-eating hordes,are commonly preyed upon by Merlins. 

At what speeds does a Merlin attack? 

In straight migratory flight Merlins have had their air speed clocked at an average of 39 km/hr. A captive Merlin in straight flight flew at 35 km/hr. But during a shallow stoop, this same captive increased its air speed to 70 km/hr. (Sale 2015), certainly fast enough for its impact to stun or kill small prey. 

An interesting study of Merlins attacking European Skylarks in winter was carried out by W. Cresswell on the Tyninghame estuary in East Lothian, Scotland. When attacked, besides flying for its life, a skylark may remain mute, sing poorly, or sing well. The Merlin attacking had no way of knowing what its potential prey would do. Skylarks that sang well when being pursued by a Merlin escaped at least twice as often as skylarks that sang poorly and four times more often than larks that didn’t sing at all! Also a Merlin pursuing a full singing bird, did so for the shortest distance before giving up the chase. Cresswell’s data show clearly that Merlins called off the chase of full singing skylarks early. Cresswell hypothesized that larks in good condition with enough energy both to fly well and sing a full song were advertising their fitness, and that the Merlin, in giving up early, was receiving their message and not wasting too much time chasing them. 

Some observers have reported Merlins hunting co-operatively in pairs. Sometimes, as in Saskatoon, the attack involved one bird flying along a tree line, flushing waxwings, while the second Merlin followed behind, attacking disturbed singles. When another raptor, like a Northern Harrier, disturbs previously hidden songbirds, Merlins can take advantage of the situation and pursue the prey. Is this true co-ordination, or just the Merlin using the situation to its own advantage?

Besides flushing and chasing a small bird, I have seen a Merlin use a slightly different tactic. BX Dog Park is a field at the foot of a steep wooded hill on its south and southeastern sides. While walking my dog there in late summer I noticed for several evenings, up to 100 Red-winged Blackbirds gather in the tallest Ponderosa Pines to sing before flocking away to the cattail beds of Swan Lake to roost for the night. One evening a Merlin left its customary perch atop a pine snag and flew straight and level for about 150 m over the field at tree top height and straight through the crown of the pine where blackbirds had gathered. There seemed to be no delay as it passed through the crown; it must have had less than a second to attempt a grab at a blackbird. The Merlin emerged from the crown still headed in the same direction, as the blackbirds exploded from their perches to head for their roost early. This unsuccessful attack reminded me more of a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned hawk’s perch and wait attack than that of a Merlin’s but it does illustrate that as far as tactics go, the Merlin is quite adaptable. 

Juvenile Merlins are said to often sally from perches to catch late summer dragonflies. I have seen Merlins doing this, but so far because the juvenile and the adult female so closely resemble each other, I cannot swear that the birds catching dragonflies are all juveniles.

Merlins have benefitted from the European settlement of central and western North America. Townspeople planted ornamental shrubs and trees that bear fruit like Mountain Ash berries. The annual crop attracts swarms of Bohemian Waxwings which, along with House Sparrows, become prey for Merlins that have moved into towns. American Crows and Black-billed Magpies, also favouring parkland within urban boundaries, build nests that Merlins usurp for their own nesting. With plenty of prey throughout the year, some Merlins have ceased migrating south for the winter, or move into town for the winter from the countryside. 

Urban hunting is not without its problems. Merlins and their prey collide with plate glass. Also, buildings can sometimes provide desperate prey with refuge. This didn’t stop a Whitehorse Merlin mentioned in Birds of the Yukon that chased his prey into the bay of a downtown garage, killed the pigeon and consumed it in front of interested human spectators.

After a Merlin has killed a bird, his problems may have just begun. I encountered a Merlin trying to walk its very dead Rock Pigeon prize along the inner edge of a sidewalk in Salmon Arm. It reminded me of a Warner Brothers cartoon of a baby hawk trying to persuade the rooster, Fog Horn Leg Horn, that he has been captured and should allow himself to be taken away by the tiny predator. The Merlin was searching for a secure at which to pluck its prey, prior to eating it. Plucking takes from 5-15 minutes. Because Merlins often select utility poles and street lamps as plucking posts, it’s not unusual for a trickle of feathers, including hundreds of tiny contour feathers, to shift down from the Merlin’s plucking. 

Several times in downtown Vernon I have seen human pedestrians pass through a shower of feathers coming from the top of a power pole where a Merlin is plucking its prey. Concentrating on their cell phones or just preoccupied with other matters, many a person has become an oblivious temporary resting place for a few feathers. I have fantasized about becoming Sherlock Holmes to amaze people with my observational and deductive powers: 

“You have within the past hour walked by the intersection of Main Street and 30th Avenue,” I observe to a friend visiting me.

“Yes! But how could you possibly know that, Mr. Holmes/Siddle?” 

“Simple observation and deduction, sir. I noticed as soon as you came into the room your worn but highly polished shoes. From this and from the general appearance of your clothes, though not the newest, but well cared for, I deduced that you take care to appear neat and tidy. However, you have a sparse dusting of down on your shoulders, not something you would tolerate if you had noticed it. The feathers cannot have been on your jacket very long.”

“But where did these wretched feathers come from?”

“There’s a lamp post above the traffic light at Main and 30th. While you stood waiting for the light to change, a Merlin that has made the post a favourite perch, plucked the feathered prey he has just captured.” I reach out and take a feather from my friend’s shoulder to examine it. “House Sparrow,” I would say. “Looks like the unworn greater covert of a juvenile, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Astonishing, Holmes-Siddle!” replies my suitably impressed friend.  

 When not dusting people with stray feathers, Merlins commonly cache food in breeding season and in winter. So do their distant relatives, American Kestrels. Food may be hidden in a conifer or on the ground. Cached resources may be retrieved by Merlins to see them through periods of bad weather when hunting is poor, and sometimes as a meal eaten just before roosting for the night.


Like all falcons, the Merlin has no song, but as Gary Davidson of Nakusp can tell you, come spring the Merlin announces his presence with an insistent, noisy, slightly shrill “kee-kee-kee-kee” that fades and rises on the air over Nakusp’s municipal campground where a grove of pines has provided Merlins with nesting sites for at least 35+ years. The female has a similar call but slightly lower pitched. Courtship involves aerial displays by the male including “power flying” where the male in strongly flapping flight rolls from side to side alternately showing his back and his belly. Males and females are known to power fly together. Less intense with no flapping is the “rocking glide”. One of the most common male displays typically performed around the nest site is the “flutter flight” following a circular or figure eight path. Both sexes soar near the nest in territorial displays (BNA).

In Vernon I live about half a km from nesting Merlins. Another pair or two nests among the tall Douglas-firs, Ponderosa Pines and spruces of Vernon’s East Hill. Call me shy, but prolonged periods of hanging around an elementary school or standing around back alleys of residential neighbourhoods increases my self-consciousness to an excruciating level, preventing me from keeping long watches near nests. Since it is known that Merlins have moved into towns across western North America during the last half century to take advantage of resident populations of House Sparrows and wintering Bohemian Waxwings, where the little falcons have happily taken to nesting in old crow and magpie nests, I will just have to keep looking for a Merlin nest on public property where I can watch the birds in solitude. 

When the stick nests of corvids are not available for nesting, Merlins will nest on a ledge on a cliff, a tree cavity or even make a shallow scrape on the ground.  The female lays 1-7 eggs (usually 4-5) which are incubated about 30 days since the laying of the last or penultimate egg. The male shares in a mostly minor way with the incubating, with his main role that of provisioning the female. Most of the time the male plucks the prey, usually removing head and wings, at a favoured plucking post often within 150-200 m from the nest, but sometimes he delivers the prey unprepared.

The chicks require brooding by the female for about the first seven days to maintain their body temperatures. Contour feathers first appear in sheaths between 9- 11 days; tail feathers break from their sheaths between 15-17 days. The chicks fledge at about 29 days after hatching and are dependent upon their parents for another 1 – 4 weeks, remaining neat the nest site (BNA 44, 1sted.).

Once old enough to forage on its own, the juvenal Merlin looks very much like an adult female, and under normal field condition, is difficult or impossible to separate. The adult female has a slate brown rump and upper tail coverts that contrast with the dark brown of its back. The rumps of immatures are the same colour as their backs (Temple 1972). This is difficult to see since Merlins typically perch in a high place, their rumps out of sight. There are also differences between immature sexes in the shade of the pale tail bands but nothing really helpful to the birder. Unable to differentiate the ages, I have resorted to writing “female-type” or “female-like” in my field book for brown backed birds. 

Rural hunting Merlins fly up to 15 kms into urban areas to roost for the night, selecting the  leeward side of conifers, warmer and safer from the Merlin’s nocturnal nemesis, the larger owls such as Great Horned Owl known to predate Merlins.  

References: Richard Sale’s monograph The Merlin (2015) was invaluable, as was Keith Bildstein’s Raptors, The Curious Nature of Diurnal Birds of Prey (2017), the Birds of North America Merlin account 44 (1stand 2 versions). Brian Wheeler’s recent field guide, Birds of Prey of the West (2018); Cramp’s Handbook of Birds of the Birds of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Vol. 2 (1980); Palmer’s Handbook of North American Birds – Vol. 5 (1988) and S. Temple’s paper on sexing and aging Merlins (1972) were very useful. Regional works consulted include Campbell et al’s The Birds of British Columbia, Vol. 2 (1990); Frank Beebe’s Field Studies of the Falconiformes of British Columbia (1974); Sinclair et al’s Birds of the Yukon Territory (2003) and The Atlas of Breeding Birds of British Columbia 2008-2012 online. 

Friday, 30 November 2018

Lesser Black-backed Gull - November 2018

On November 26, 2018 I visited the sandbar at in mouth of Vernon Creek where it empties into Okanagan Lake at Okanagan Landing. This spot is one of the best sites in interior B.C. for viewing different species of gulls. Herring, California, and Ring-billed Gulls are almost always present except in a complete freeze-over or in the height of summer when human beach goers abound. Beginning in October a few Glaucous-winged Gulls can usually be found as well. On November 26, a stranger stood out among the usual species. It was a Lesser Black-backed Gull, not the North Okanagan's first by any means, but rare enough so that it got my heart pumping.

Figure 1 - The first image I got of the Lesser Black-backed Gull was with my iPhone held up to my Kowa scope. I had my usual camera with me but had accidentally left the photo card at home.

Depending upon the species, gulls take 1-4 years to attain mature plumage. For each year of immaturity, the gull will have a distinctive plumage, quite different from its adult feathers. The Lesser Black-backed Gull is a three year gull. Its first-year plumage is quite obscure, but its second year plumage is pretty distinctive. Look for the pale head and chest contrasting with the grey-brown back and wing coverts.

I returned after lunch with my regular camera, this time with a card in it, and took several images of the bird when it re-appeared around 2 p.m. Unfortunately it stubbornly remained in one spot near the tip of the sandbar and all of my images for that session look like this:

Figure 2. Lesser Black-backed Gull - second year plumage. American Herring Gull in the background.

The Lesser Black-backed Gull has unusually long primaries, which is to say the flight feathers visible as black in Figure 2. They extend well beyond the tip of the tail.

During my initial sighting of the gull, it had taken flight and chased another gull quite aggressively. I had been quite impressed with its black tail and white rump, so two days later, when I re-sighted the gull on the sandbar, I made a special effort to stick around until the gull flew. The flight shots reveal the dramatic contrast between the upper wings and the pale body. 

Figure 3. A slightly over-exposed shot of the Lesser Black-backed Gull in flight.

Figure 5. The white rump had a strong tendency to throw off the meter of my camera, over exposing the shot. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to get better exposed images.

Figure 6. Note the long white axillary ('wing pit") feathers. 
Figure 7

Figure 8. In sunlight the mantle or saddle is quite grey, and the coverts are shades of brown. Note the white tipped tertials. 

Figure 9 
Figure 10. Note that there are a scattering of bars down the centre of the rump.

I left the gull as it returned time after to to a small dead fish that a California Gull had initially dragged onto the edge of the bar. The Lesser Black-back once again displayed an aggression that enabled him to reclaim the fish from other smaller scavenging gulls.

Lesser Black-backed Gulls are interesting in that the species is not known to breed in North America, aside from a small colony in Greenland (Dunne and Carlson 2019). The species normally breeds along the coasts of northwestern Europe and Iceland. Beginning in the 1940s the species began to expand its range north and westward. The first occurrence in North America came in 1934 (Olsen and Larsson 2003) and in Canada in 1968 (Godfrey 1986). The first B.C. record was made by the late Doug Powell of an adult at Revelstoke from October 26 to November 10 1989 (Weber and Cannings 1990).  The second record occurred at Burton, south of Nakusp from 26 September to 18 October 1993.  Beginning about 2002, the species has become almost annual  in the Okanagan Valley, with one bird occurring most winters somewhere between Vernon and Osoyoos. Most records have been of adults. For a more complete status report on this species in British Columbia see Rick Toochin, Don Cecile, and Jamie Fenneman's efauna document.


Dunne, P. and K. Karlson. 2019. Gulls Simplified.

Godfrey, W.E. 1986. The Birds of Canada 2nd edition.

Olsen, K.M. and H. Larsson. 2004. Gulls of North America, Europe, and Asia.

Toochin, R., D. Cecile and J. Fenneman. date? Status and Occurrence of Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscus) in B.C.

Weber, W. C. and R. J. Cannings. 1990. Fall season: August 1 – November 30, 1989- British Columbia and Yukon Region. American Birds 44: 144-149

Acknowledgement: Thanks to birding veteran Gary Davidson of Nakusp for improving the accuracy of the Lesser Black-back Gull's provincial status.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Hawk Owl by Chris Siddle
Guiguet the Great
If you are in your sixties, you may remember when the only detailed information about the owls of the province was to be found in the British Columbia Provincial Museum’s Handbook No. 18 Birds of British Columbia (7) Owls written by C.J. Guiguet. This sixty-seven page booklet, first printed in 1960, reflected the current state of knowledge about most of the owls of North America since B.C. is blessed with 15 of the 18 species that occur regularly north of the Mexican border. At that time there wasn’t much known about many owls, especially northern species like Great Gray Owls, Boreal Owls, and Northern Hawk Owls, not only within British Columbia, but throughout North America. So Mr. Guiguet had to borrow liberally from that preeminent source of information, A.C. Bents’ Life Histories of North American Birds of Prey (Smithsonian Institution U.S. National Museum Bulletin 170 1938). I was twelve when I wrote to Mr. Guiguet, who replied with a kind letter and copies of all the Birds of British Columbia Handbooks published at the time. This was very generous of him.  The tone he adopted in this letter and in a second one sent a year later, was as one birder to another. He took my pre-adolescent bird yearnings seriously, and without criticism. His letters were supportive and phrased as if to a peer and not to a child. How I relished those letters! Guiguet’s gentle enthusiasm help set me on my life’s course, the birding part of it any way.
My First Owls 
I read and re-read the B.C. handbooks as only an obsessive pre-teen can. Not long after reading The Owls for the first time, I lucked into my first wild owl. On a hot August evening my parents and I were slowly driving along a gravel road towards Norris Creek to cool off in the stream’s icy water. I glanced out the side window to see (oh, heart, be still!) a Great Horned Owl glaring at me just before it flew from the alders along the edge of a dark Fraser Valley forest.  Its yellow glare is branded in my mind’s eye even today, the mental image more a part of me than any photo could be. Such wild, dismissive, seemingly angry eyes! 
Great Horned Owl - Not angry-eyed like my first, best Great Horned Owl. Photo by C Siddle. 

 My second owl wasn’t quite as dramatic but provided me with a thrill as I realized that the small shape on the utility wire that stretched over a neighbour’s hillside driveway really was an owl, an owl that allowed me to get close enough to recognize it a Western Screech-owl, an unexpected reward as I walked home at dusk from school. To be shown an owl is good; to find one on your own, along a route as familiar as the one you had walked to and from school, was great. Again, the mental image I formed of this bird is somehow far richer and more meaningful than any photo I could possess. 
By the time I graduated from high school I had been birding about six years and had seen most the other usual owls of southwestern B.C.: Barn, Short-eared, Snowy (during the great invasion of 1967), Northern Saw-whet, and Northern Pygmy-Owl. 
My parents didn’t like travelling, perhaps because as an airman and a WAF they had been moved around a great deal during the Second World. Once settled in Mission they were quite happy to stay home. However, they were unusually supportive of my birdwatching, spending much of their rare spare time taking me on short day trips to birdy places like Pitt Polder, Birch Bay, and Deroche Slough. However, this indulgence did not extend past the Fraser Canyon. So I was excited to escape the Fraser Valley and explore the Interior  when I accepted my first teaching job in Fort St. John. 

Northern Hawk Owls  
On 1 Nov. 1975, two months into teaching, I glimpsed my first Northern Hawk Owl along the Alaska Highway where it curves down the hills on the north side of the little community of Taylor, B.C. Hills like these are locally known as breaks and are prime habitat for Northern Hawk Owls in migration and winter. The breaks line the north and western sides of the Peace and its tributaries like the Halfway and the Beatton rivers. They are also an obvious feature of Highway 29 which runs across the tops of the breaks from Charlie Lake to Hudson Hope.  The breaks are remnant prairie grasslands, much more exposed to the warming sun and the drying prevailing southwest winds than the sheltered, shady and cooler south and east banks which are forested.  In the moist draws between the grassy hill tops are open stands of slim Trembling Aspens, their growth limited by the height of the draw which shields them from desiccating southwest winds. 
On the breaks the snow cover is at its thinnest and the view of the river valley is good. It’s a good place for a hungry Northern Hawk Owl looking for mice, voles, grouse and small birds. The hawk owl is active by day and often unusually tame, allowing the observer a close approach.  As exciting as my “life” sighting was, I couldn’t tarry more than a minute or two near the owl because I was a passenger in a car full of non-birding teachers who had received their first full pay cheques the afternoon before and were headed to Dawson Creek for a Saturday of wining and dining. 
My second hawk owl appeared twenty-two days later along Highway 29 on the breaks above the confluence of the Halfway and Peace rivers. With this bird I was able to take a little more time thanks to a patient driver. This bird was perched in a roadside aspen and allowed me to get within 4 metres without appearing disturbed. It never stopped scanning the snowy grasses. As a test, I had the driver blow the car’s horn. The hawk owl didn’t even flinch, just kept scanning. We left him as the early winter dusk came on and a snow flurry began.
I didn’t see another hawk owl for the next two years. I was too wrapped up in learning to be a school teacher to look for one.  I had a hard time disengaging from work as an English teacher. There was always marking because I believed the only way kids learned to write was to write, and a “good” teacher read over all their work and made suggestions for improvement and left encouraging little comments in the margins. A good teacher also planned. Oh, Lord, did I plan. Every 15 minutes of a lesson was planned if not partially scripted.  In truth I was deeply insecure about my ability as a teacher and I overcompensated my way through my first several Fort St. John winters. 
Between 1975 and 1981 everything I learned about Northern Hawk Owls from field experience could be summarized in a couple of sentences. In the southern half of the North Peace the species appeared most often in March – May and again in November. It often, but not always, favoured, edge habitat such as the breaks. When one discovered a hawk owl, one usually didn’t see much hawk owl behavior other than the bird perched high atop a tree or pole, waiting for prey (voles in late spring and summer; voles and birds the rest of the year) to make its whereabouts known. 
After six years teaching in a junior high school, I had transferred to North Peace Senior Secondary School. Instead of 13-15 years old, I was teaching 16 -18 year olds, teenagers who for the most part were pretty serious about doing well in school. At first even the “town” kids had only two TV channels, and many of the country kids had no TV at all. Many of the students read books, and many had had excellent English teachers in the past, so my job became easier almost overnight. Also, since the senior high school was the only one in the district, my students came from a huge area, including the Alaska Highway from the Peace River north to about Mile 142, west to the Halfway River and east to the Alberta border. By now many people knew that I was the local “birdman” with the result that students and their parents often reported unusual birds to me. In late 1982 a Grade 11 student told me that there were a lot of owls around his parents’ ranch between Fort St. John and Hudson Hope. I followed up the tip and found it quite accurate. 

Northern Hawk Owl - photo taken by Gary Davidson, a thoughtful photographer who makes it a point never to needlessly disturb or harass wildlife just for the sake of an image. 

 Misguided Attempts at Owl Photography
On 11 Dec. my friend Joan, and I found 6 Northern Hawk Owls along less than 30 kilometres of road on the plateau between Cache Creek (not Cache Creek near Kamloops) and the Halfway River. The habitat was ranchland with plenty of large fields, young aspen forest, a beaver swamp, and several patches of Black Spruce muskeg. 
I wondered if any birder had ever seen SIX hawk owls in one day before in British Columbia, but my pondering was short lived, because on 16 January 1983 not only did Joan and I re-locate the original six owls along our original route, but also spotted an additional four closer to Hudson Hope.  It was the most memorable day in my hawk owl experience. Ten hawk owls in one day. 
16 January was also the day we tried an experiment that could only be described as ham handed, and wrong minded. (I was much older than Joan, and should have known better. I take full responsibility for the following stunt). 
 Joan had a wind-up plastic mouse that ran on two wheels instead of back legs. When we discovered that the mouse tended to spin its wheels on the frozen snow, we cut notches along the edges of its wheels to give them grip. Now that the mouse had snow tires, we had to soften its unattractive plastic appearance. A liberal application of white carpenter’s glue over the mouse, followed by a heavy sprinkling of deer hair gave the toy an feral quality, producing a fake mouse that combined, to my mind, the anarchic with the gormless, like Sid Vicious meets Mr. Mole. 
Hawk Owl Number Four was our first test subject. He happened to be a one-eyed individual although that’s not why we picked him. He was perched close to the hard snow on the road’s edge, a good location on which to run our punk rodent. 
About 11 AM Joan wound up the mouse, which we now optimistically called the lure, and let it run along the snow. At once the owl swooped from its aspen perch but perhaps sensing all was not quite right, hovered over the lure without taking it. Hovering is a foraging habit the hawk owl is well known for. The second time we ran the toy mouse, the hawk owl swooped, seized the mouse in one feathery foot and perched with it on the tip of a 15 m White Spruce. For a full minute it perched gripping the mouse but didn’t reach down to attempt to eat the “prey”. Finally it flew with the mouse still its grasp to a snowbank at the edge of the forest and with its back to us mantled over the lure, then flew off, leaving the toy mouse in a depression in the snow.
We tried the lure on three more hawk owls. Bird 5 ignored the mouse entirely.  Bird 6 responded to the lure once we dragged it through the snow attached to fishing line. The owl hovered over the moving prey but didn’t strike and couldn’t be coaxed to leave its perch again. The last bird we pestered was Hawk Owl 2 which flew in from an impressive distance (well over 100 metres), hovered, and then left. 
This was our only day using the toy mouse. We discussed how our meddling was causing the hawk owls to waste precious calories in useless pursuit.  Thereafter that winter we used a dead mouse tied to fishing line as a lure hauled across fresh snow with a rod and reel. and we would let the hawk owl have a mouse at the end of the brief period of attracting. Our objective, beside the dubious but always strong desire to get closer to a creature we admired, was to photograph the hawk owls in action. However, photography at -15 to -25 Celsius proved to be a miserable flop. Film froze and shattered when we advanced it, or was scarred by static in the dry winter air. Our mid-price range 1980s cameras and lenses weren’t up to the task of capturing a crisp hunting hawk owl photo. After a few experiments we gave up.
Learning to Identify with the Owl
With our failure came a lesson learned. We put ourselves in the place of the owl. If as owls we lived on the edge of survival in the harsh Peace River winter, would we have found photographers’ efforts intrusive? Of course.  We could no longer rationalize that we were just two photographers taking up a few minutes of one hawk owl’s day. 
The next time that you see a wild owl, try to remember the situation I described in the paragraphs above. Resist the urge to make a photoshoot out of the situation. Leave the owl alone. Move on. And don’t tell anyone where the owl is, because there’s are always people who won’t/can’t make the effort to imagine themselves in the place of the owl. There are always people who will say to themselves, ‘What could one or two pictures hurt?’ 
If you live in the Lower Mainland or Southern Vancouver Island maybe you have seen the so-called “owl paparazzi” pestering owls. Except it goes way beyond pestering. Some would-be wildlife photographers flush owls repeatedly, checking the backs of their digital cameras each time, always hopeful that the next image will be sharper. People push with their little One Shots,and zoom Canons and Nikons into thickets looking for a better angle and use flash for better detail, and squeak and gibber to get the owl’s attention. They trespass into barns. They carry their long lenses like weapons of war across the salt grass, having ignored signs that tell them how far some owls have migrated just to hunt the foreshore. Photographers always want to get closer.
The cumulative effects of human disturbance on roosting and hunting owls can be massive on a local scale. People will tell you that a photographer is photographing the owl for only a few minutes of its life, but never mention that an owl’s life span is much shorter than a human’s. And where there are many humans and few owls, someone is always waiting in line to photograph the owl when the first guy has finished. 

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Bird Migration around Vernon; What Are Those Little Birds with Black and White Heads?

It's the later half of April or early May and suddenly your bird feeder is surrounded by ten or fifteen little brown and gray birds with strikingly obvious black and white stripes on their heads. They look a bit like mice as they jink around on the ground eating seeds. They move so that each bird has an individual space around it, occasionally invaded by a contender, but fights between birds are brief and unspectacular. What are these little birds? Why are so many in my yard when last week there were none?

These birds are White-crowned Sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) and they are re-fueling during their migration through the lowlands of the Okanagan Valley. In a few days they will have moved on to their breeding grounds across northern and central British Columbia. A few will migrate up into our local mountains to breed in the brushy edges between the clumps of subalpine forest. A very few might remain in the Valley to nest, but lowland nesting for this group is a rare event.

What you are witnessing is the spring migration of White-crowned Sparrows through the Okanagan Valley. In their classic study of the birds of the area*, the Cannings brothers point out that obvious migration events are rare in the Okanagan, but the relatively compressed spring migration of White-crowns is a classic example of such a movement. The majority of the 300 species of birds that annually visit the Okanagan Valley are migrants too, but migrate in quiet, less obvious ways, many of them songbirds that pass largely unseen by all but the most dedicated birdwatchers as they (the migrants) move through the fields and forests on their way to nesting areas. Many of our waterfowl that spend the winter on our lakes are also migrants, but unless you go out of your way to survey ducks and geese on local water bodies, the migratory arrivals and departures are not as obvious as the sudden arrival of the White-crowned crowds to your yard.

White-crowned Sparrow at a BX feeder in April 2016. Photos by Chris Siddle

Enjoy "your" White-crowned Sparrows while you can, for they will not tarry long on their way north. Consider putting out a little extra seed for these weary travellers, and certainly some pans of fresh water so that they can drink and bathe. Make an extra effort to shoo away the neighbours' cats to keep these sparrows as safe as you can, for each sparrow is driven by migratory forces that scientists, let alone the rest of us, are only beginning to understand.

Other examples of spring migration to look for in the Okanagan Valley:

1. the arrival and movement of Yellow-rumped Warblers through the lowlands. These beautiful "butterfly birds, named for their many colours and restless foraging, are most obvious when cool, wet weather forces them out of the forests to look for food in low bushes, grassland edges, and marshes.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in bushes along Deep Creek, Larkin Cross Rd., April 2018.

2. the visitation of swans to the Deep Creek floodplain between Armstrong and Head of the Lake. Lately the corn field at O'Keefe Ranch has been a very productive spot for over a hundred Trumpeter Swans to gather to feed in March and the first half of April. Among them will be a few Tundra Swans as well. By mid April, depending upon the weather, both species will have continued their migration to the north, the Tundra Swans breeding on the tundra of the Canadian arctic.

Trumpeter Swans flying towards corn field at O'keefe  Ranch, March, 2017

3. the sudden appearances and very short visits of the dark hooded little Bonaparte's Gulls at Okanagan Landing-Okanagan Lake, Swan Lake, and Otter Lake.

There are many other examples of migratory birds coming and going through the North Okanagan. And, of course, there are birds like American Robins, which flock together in winter, overwinter in roving groups looking for food sources, and disperse into neighbourhoods with the first good weather in early spring. Then there are the birds that winter here from elsewhere. Our huge flocks of Bohemian Waxwings originate as pairs and their young leave their isolated Boreal Forest muskegs to gather in huge flocks to travel to the Okanagan, arriving in late November or December and visiting our local fruit-producing bushes, shrubs, and trees, especially the Mountain Ash trees, stripping the fruit and befouling the ground beneath as each bird rapidly digests the frozen fruit. By the end of March, most years, the Bohemians vanish once again, back into their forests and muskegs, changing their party life-style to become, for the spring and summer, responsible monogamous parents.

Bohemian Waxwings stripping a bush of berries, Highland Rd., s. of Vernon, Dec. 2016

*For more about movements, migratory and otherwise, see Birds of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia by Robert A. , Richard J. and Sydney G Cannings. 1987. Royal British Columbia Museum, available in public libraries and possibly second hand bookstores. Pages 352-3 specifically cover White-crowned Sparrows, while pages 53-6 contain an invaluable summery of bird migrations and other activities through the calendar year. 

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Close Encounters: Cooper's Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk

There is a life and death drama being played out in my yard. From my kitchen and living room windows I have the best seat in the house.

Meet the killers. The first is an adult Cooper’s Hawk, which I have judged to be a male by his size. He has been visiting my yard at the base of Silver Star Mountain, Vernon, since mid November. He favours the neighbours’ big maple tree because a perch halfway up gives him a commanding view of my yard where I maintain a bird feeder.

Fig. 1 - The Cooper's Hawk in my yard 31 Jan. 2017

Actually, bird feeding station is more accurate than calling where I put seed a “bird feeder". Every dawn I scatter about a dozen cups of mixed bird seed on and around a big round piece of an old Siberian Elm that was felled and cut up a few years ago. The pseudo stump sits at the base of a little patch of lilacs growing next to a sprawling ancient apricot tree. Lilac and apricot are growing more or less directly below the maple.

Fig. 2 - The feeder area. The plastic dish is used for a bird bath in the mild months.

Meet the second killer. He’s a Sharp-shinned Hawk, also an adult and also a male. He visits the yard as well, but rarely on the same days as the Cooper’s and never, to my knowledge, at the same time.

Fig. 3 - Sharp-shinned Hawk in my yard. Note how its expression differs from that of the much larger Cooper's Hawk . 

Attending my feeding station are Black-capped and Mountain chickadees, a couple of Red-breasted Nuthatches, one female Downy Woodpecker, and up to three Northern Flickers. These birds have no part to play in my story because so far they have been ignored by the killers or have evaded them so successfully that it’s unlikely they will be caught.

Also faithful to the feeding area are California Quails (up to 40), Eurasian Collared Doves (up to 5), Mourning Doves (up to 37), Dark-eyed Juncos (30), Song Sparrows (4), House Finches (8), American Goldfinches (5), and House Sparrows (20). The quail and the doves are of much interest to the Cooper’s Hawk and the sparrows, juncos, and finches clearly fascinate the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

On 15 Dec. 2016 the Cooper’s Hawk appeared in the maple early. It was a gloomy morning, valley fog over the North Okanagan, and the hawk blended well into the shadowless murk. With his gray back to the line of California Quail that were slowly infiltrating the lilac hedge off to the hawk’s right, he must have been harder than usual to see. Whatever the reason, the quail seemed not as wary as usual.  At 10:51 the hawk suddenly leaned right, propelled himself off his perch and with two or three power flap peeled around the end of the hedge and struck a female quail on the back. His momentum carried him on top of her, and though she struggled he kept at least one large foot clamping her body to the snow.

Fig. 4 - Cooper's Hawk has taken the California Quail into the skimpy shelter of the lilac hedge.
Fig. 5 - Halfway through his meal.

Fig. 6 - Almost finished.

Fig. 7 - 52 minutes from the time of capture, the hawk takes his first break from plucking and eating.

Once on his prey he looked around intently probably to make sure that he was safe from attack or interruption. Keeping the quail gripped with one foot, he peg-legged his way into base of the lilacs and began plucking his prey. Fortunately the hedge was thin enough so that I could see the hawk and his prey quite clearly from a living room window. He began plucking the quail only about 3-4 minutes after seizing her. In Figure 4 the quail is on its belly, its head buried in the snow as the hawk grips it on the lower back beneath the wing.

Plucking and eating the quail took about 50 minutes. At which point the quail died I do not know. I hope it expired almost immediately, but some tell tale shifting of the hawk upon its prey suggests that the quail may have struggled a few minutes even while in the hawk’s grasp.  This led me to the question, how does a Cooper’s Hawk or other accipiter actually kill? I found an answer in Leslie Brown’s classic text Birds of Prey. Referring to high speed photographic studies of striking raptors studies carried out by the ironically named G.E. Goslow, Brown describes the strike of the Cooper’s Hawk and that of a Northern Goshawk:

                  Both accipiters attacked in essentially the same way. They first gained speed by vigorous flapping, [then] ceased flapping, the Cooper’s Hawk at 3.5 to 4.5 metres and the Goshawk at 7.5 to 9 metres. Still closer the hawks swung the body upwards to bring the pelvis beneath the head, spreading the tail to brake, and at the same time threw the feet forward hard. At the actual instant of strike, the feet were traveling towards the prey at almost or more than twice the speed of the head. In the Cooper’s Hawk, the relative velocities were 4.8 metres per second for the head and 11.4 for the feet…by thrusting the pelvis and feet forward, the striking accipiter delivers a violent blow at the prey and does not just grab it with outspread feet…To kill their prey these accipiters used a kneading action of the talons, something like that of a contented cat on a lap. Pp 123-124.

Although his final simile strikes me as not quite appropriate, I think you understand a little more clearly now how a Cooper’s Hawk strikes and kills.

From about 10:55 to 11:47 the Cooper’s Hawk plucked, tore apart, and swallowed the quail bit by bit. The area immediately around the hawk became feather-strewn. He paused only once to watch the neighbours leave in their vehicle and twice to scrape particularly bothersome feathers from his beak. His first real break from eating came at 11:47 when he sat for 3 minutes in the centre of the feathery circle, presumably fairly replete. (Fig. 7). 

A nosey Black-billed Magpie approached the hawk within 2-3 metres. The hawk peg-legged out onto our lawn (for a clear runway) and flew with the tattered remnants of the quail still in his grip to the maple and a few seconds later into a dense Douglas-fir hedge. The magpie lost interest and flew off. About three minutes later at 12:06 the Cooper’s Hawk returned without the quail skin to the maple, where he perched, crop bulging, for an hour and a half before flying off for the day.

Figure 8 - The Cooper's Hawk resumes his perch in the maple and begins to digest his meal. Note the bulge in his crop. 

The Birds of North America revised account of the Cooper’s Hawk describes three  methods of attack. Cooper’s Hawk sometimes stoops from high flight, like a Peregrine might do. This has to be a fairly rare hunting technique. I say that because I don’t know of anyone who has seen such an aerial attack. In the second method, a Cooper’s Hawk puts on a sudden burst of speed as it leaves its perch. This describes the kill that I had witnessed. Finally a Cooper’s Hawk can hunt on foot, entering even thick shrubbery after birds, an approach toward securing prey also employed by the Cooper’s smaller cousin, the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

My Sharp-shinned Hawk showed up in the yard on 6 January. For his first few visits, I saw him only as he briefly passed through the yard, but finally on 13 January he stuck around to try some hunting. In my ebird entry for that day I called his hunting technique “drop and hop”.

Like the Cooper’s Hawk, at first the Sharpie perched in the maple, but there the similarities between hunting styles ended. When he spotted potential prey, usually among the juncos, finches or House Sparrows, he did not push off in power flight, but simply appeared to drop the few metres down to the lilac growing beside the feeding area. Invariably some of the songbirds bolted into the many stemmed lilac around which the Sharpie now fluttered. He would perch on slender ends of branches then fly in a tight circuit around the bush, wingtips almost brushing the twigs. Frequently he dropped to the snow and half hopped half flapped around the base of the bush, reaching between stems trying to snag one of the small birds sheltering within the bush’s base.  If small songbirds dream, their nightmares might feature a surprisingly long slender leg ending in a long-toed foot armed with wicked talons able to reach through even the tightest cage of stems and grab at them.

Fig. 9 - Sharpie, eyes on the prize,  just about to drop and hop. 

The Sharp-shinned Hawk made far more hunting sallies per day than did the Cooper’s Hawk. While the Cooper’s Hawk waited sometimes hours before attempting a hit, the Sharp-shinned Hawk was willing to try his luck whenever small birds gathered at the feeder. However, his success rate was nil at least while I was watching. All of half dozen or so attempts that I witnessed over the next few days failed until 8:59 AM, 15 January 2017 when he dropped, hopped, and plunged through the twigs to pin to the snow a White-throated Sparrow that was just too slow to avoid him. Through a kitchen window I was able to snap one picture of this capture before the hawk flew away with his prize in his talons.

My attitude towards raptors was tested very briefly. Normally as when the Cooper’s Hawk caught the California Quail, I thought that I remained objective, neither pro-hawk nor pro-prey. I dressed my supposed neutrality in reasoning that death by hawk was Nature’s way. That’s why there were so many quails and so few Cooper’s Hawks. In the grand scheme, quails were hawk chow. However, when the Sharp-shinned Hawk snatched the only White-throated Sparrow ever to attempt to overwinter in my yard, my single thought was, ‘What! You nailed the White-throated Sparrow! You couldn’t grab one of the common species? Come on, Sharpie. That’s not fair!’

Fig. 10 - The White-throated Sparrow was just too slow trying to get away from the base of the lilac bush. 

My indignation didn’t last long though. The thought intruded that far from being neutral about the life and death struggles in my yard, I had been pro-raptor all along. After all, there was nothing natural about my feeding station. It was an artificial concentration of seed, attracting a concentration of quails, doves and other species unlikely to occur in such high numbers without human intervention. Lots of avian activity attracts accipiters according to scientists E.L. Dunn and D. Tessaglia. 

However, their study of Project Feeder Watch also expressed the idea that successful kills are quite rare. And, for me, truth be told, the sight of a hunting accipiter, buteo, harrier, eagle or falcon quickens my pulse as no quail or sparrow ever can. Let me be clear: I am not feeding birds just to feed raptors. I like having ALL species around the yard, but if I am going to continue feeding birds I might as well be honest about my feelings.  Raptors, whether they are Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawks, or Pygmy Owls, kill birds coming to my feeder so rarely that I don’t think I am upsetting anything in any major way. But each of us who feeds birds must make up his own mind about the effects of feeding birds in the backyard, a backyard that can become the setting for a life and death drama.


Bildstein, Keith L. and Kenneth D. Meyer. 2000. Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus), The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America. DOI 10.2173/bna. 482

Brown, Leslie. 1976. Birds of Prey: Their Biology and Ecology. The Hamlyn Publishing Group, Middlesex, England.

Curtis, Odette E., R.N. Rosebfield and J. Bielefeidt. 2006. Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii), The Birds of North America (P.G. Rodewald, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America; DOI: 10.2173/bna.75

Dunn, Erica L. and  Diane L. Tessaglia. 1994. “Predation of Birds at Feeders in Winter.” Journal of Field Ornithology 65 (1) 8-16.