Another Family in the Neighborhood

18 04 2014

I start each day with a short walk. House are dispersed along our road in what was once open farmland.  Some of the fields remain while many large plots have been divided into building lots. This is a typical scenario for this area in Central NY. We lived in another location a little farther north for many years and I was concerned when we moved that I would be giving up the wildlife that I was used to spending my days with. I was pleasantly surprised and often remark how lucky we are to live in such a wild place. The road, yards, farmland, and streams create a variety of habitats and edge zones where wildlife is plentiful.

This morning I saw a many different song birds species, a pair of wood ducks, and a hawk at then end of the road perched on a tree stump. This stump is a favorite perch and I often see raptors sunning there in the morning. As I stood contemplating and observing the hawk you see below I wasn’t 100% convinced that I was looking at a female Northern Harrier. Her back seemed a little dark and I couldn’t see the distinctive facial disc or the white spot at the base of the tail.

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Female Northern Harrier Preening

My question was soon answered when I saw a flash of white in my periphery. It was a male Northern Harrier and I anticipated that he would in some way interact with the hawk on the perch so I focused the camera there and was glad I did when he swooped in, landed on her back, and they mated. The following sequence of photographs shows how precarious mating can be for birds as one balances on a rather small perch and the other balances on her back. It is kind of like watching a clown walking a tight-rope. There are lots of exaggerated movements to allow the male to stay in the correct place and successfully mate with the female. (Note: To see a larger version of any picture click on it or go to my Flickr photostream.)

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Male Northern Harrier Approaches

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Getting Closer

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The Landing

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The Balancing Act Begins

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In order for the cloacae to touch and sperm to be transferred the female must move her tail to the side while the males stays on her back and puts his own tail in position.

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Positioning

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Keeping the Balance

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Strong feet hold the pair on the perch.

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The male departs and female soon follows.

Here is a link to a Cornell Ornithology Lab webpage that gives information about these rather “unusual” hawks. I find it fascinating that a male will mate with up to 5 females in a given area and provide food to all of them while nesting. I wonder how he keeps track of who has eaten.

 





Early Spring a New Beginning

10 04 2014

The days grow longer, the temperatures get warmer, and we all begin to feel a shift within us, a lightness. We can smell spring in the air and everywhere we look subtle and not-so-subtle things are happening to remind us that soon there will be an explosion of color as our landscape transforms and the lusciousness that is now hidden beneath the surface is revealed. Before the leaves push their way out of the buds in Central NY we are able to see the transformation in the birds. Birds, whether they have been here through the winter or are returning home from a southerly vacation, are looking for mates and building nests so they can raise young and continue their species. Last Sunday a unique opportunity to witness this presented itself while I was on my afternoon pilgrimage to explore and connect with nature.

Everywhere I look these days American kestrels are perched on wires, in trees, or flying overhead. These robin-sized falcons are master hunters and very agile fliers.

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As I drove down the road a small hovering bird caught my eye. Based on the size and behavior I immediately thought it was probably a kestrel so I pulled over. Like a butterfly suspended in air the kestrel flutters it wings to remain stationary over the ground while searching for prey. In this case there was more to this aerial display than hunting.

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After hovering this male kestrel flew to a nearby tree and perched. Within a minute another kestrel landed in the tree. I was amazed! What was the chance that I would get the opportunity to see two kestrels in the same tree and photograph them? Once the second bird flew in front of the male and bowed down a little I began to understand that it wasn’t chance that brought these two birds together, it was mating.

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The male flew over and gently landed on her back.

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She moved her tail aside and mating occurred as the two openings to their reproductive tracts briefly made contact to transfer sperm in what is called a cloacal kiss.

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Then the two birds fluffed their feathers and took to the sky. This pair probably has a nest cavity picked out and soon she will lay 4-5 small eggs. After about a month the chicks will hatch and the parents will begin the very demanding task of feeding many hungry mouths.

After observing the kestrels I was no longer amazed that these birds had come together in the same tree because mating is a critical part of the cycle of life and it happens every spring. I was, however, amazed and quite honored that I got to witness it. Being a naturalist often feels like being an investigative reporter and the paparazzi. I am constantly on the lookout for the next big story. I observe, record my findings, try to take pictures of interesting and/or intimate moments, and research to back up what I see. I am always on a quest to deepen my understanding and deepen my connection with the natural world.

To learn more about American kestrels visit http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Kestrel/id. You can watch a kestrel nest cam at http://cams.allaboutbirds.org/channel/17/American_Kestrels/ once it is up and running for the season and on this page there are plans for building a kestrel nest box if you would like to encourage nesting in your area http://nestwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Am-Kestrel-Screech-Owl-N-Saw-whet-Owl.pdf

 

 

 

 








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