Friday, November 29, 2013

Nemesis Birds

Journeying to Johnsonville for our traditional Thanksgiving gathering with family from far and near, we were treated to an absolutely brilliant day for travel. Apparently the crystal clear skies and brisk temperatures were perfect for hunting as well, judging by the number of red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks we spotted during the relatively short drive. It seemed that every likely perch near an open area along the roadway was occupied by a large buteo. With laps full of sweet potato casseroles and baskets of piping hot biscuits, it was nigh unto impossible to stop for photos, so the handsome raptors, perching and in flight, went undocumented.

However, the experience reminded me of a few recent unshared encounters with smaller hawks, several of which are "nemesis birds" for me. While I am quite adept at identifying large raptors, I sometimes have a difficult time distinguishing the small woodland hawks which prey on the songbirds in our neighborhood. 

Much smaller, and occupying a different genus than the larger buteos, the accipiters are fearsome predators of the open woodlands in local neighborhoods and parks. The Cooper's hawk pictured above has captured a young gray squirrel, while its smaller lookalike, the sharp-shinned hawk, preys almost exclusively on birds, often ambushing them at backyard feeders. When Hunter recently spotted a small hawk across the street from our house, I assumed it was a probably a sharp-shinned. But it was not.

It was so small we decided it must be an American Kestrel, from genus Falco. But one clear glimpse of its coloration ruled that out. Finally, after taking a few pictures and consulting all our field guides, we've settled upon a tentative identification of Merlin, also from genus Falco, which would be a first for both Hunter and me. The Merlin is an occasional visitor to our area during the fall migration, and we count ourselves lucky to have finally met one. Most of the merlins should have passed through our area and moved further east and south by now, but should one pass our way again, hopefully we'll be quicker to recognize it.

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