Red-tailed hawk graces N.J. walk

Posted Dec. 18, 2009, at 6:53 p.m.

I’ve often written about my trips back home to New Jersey and what delightful bird sightings I have while there. This last trip proved no different.

As always, I had returned to my favorite local birding place, Lenape Park in Union County. My very first treat was an up-close-and-personal view of a red-tailed hawk.

This buteo was immediately obvious as it flew low over a sunken, wet meadow, lifting upwards to land at the very top of a telephone pole, which was covered in dry, leafless vines. This perch gave the raptor a great vantage point from which to spot prey in the grass below. It appeared to be unfazed by the busy road nearby and the comings and goings of joggers and dog-walkers. I was able to get pretty close — within reason — without distracting the bird.

It was interesting to watch the bird as it surveyed the surrounding grounds, most likely looking for small mammals such as rodents. It probably would not pass up the opportunity to catch a small bird, but birds are not its primary prey. In fact, a few rock doves perched nonchalantly on the telephone wires nearby. They were fully aware of the hawk’s presence but must have realized they were safe from pursuit.

However, if it had been a raptor that specialized in hunting other birds —- such as a merlin, sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawk — it would have been another story entirely. These birds of prey are known for their impressive speed and maneuverability, as well as dogged determination to hit their intended target.

After watching the red-tailed hawk for awhile, I continued on down the path that bordered more wet meadows and swampland. I got a strange sense of time being reversed; the day was unseasonably mild — balmy even for November in New Jersey — the sun felt warm on the bare skin of my forearms, and birds were everywhere. The place was chock-full of robins, many of which were singing their familiar spring songs. Song sparrows and white-throated sparrows were abundant was well, the white-throats singing a few wispy versions of their “oh sweet Canada-Canada-Canada,” melody.

Cardinals, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, and tufted titmice also added their own voices to the chorus, but suddenly a unique song stood out. Its clear, melodious whistles seemed to carry for quite a distance. Locating the direction of its source, I focused the binoculars on a high shrub and was delighted to find a Carolina wren.

While probably a common sighting in New Jersey, Carolina wrens are not listed as have a summering or wintering range in Maine. Apparently nobody has told the birds that. They’ve frequently been reported in many areas of the state, from York to Camden to Skowhegan to Orono, with many sightings including pairs of birds, as documented on Mainebirding’s Bird Alert list.

These pert songbirds seem to be on the move, as is also noted by “The Birds of North America,” species account. The BNA states that “as climate has warmed, this species has expanded northward substantially since the late 19th century. Cold winters with ice and snow can have devastating effects on local populations, but they often recover within a few years.”

Considering that the Carolina wren’s primary food is insects and spiders, it is little wonder that extreme cold and snow could have an adverse affect on them. However, researchers have also found evidence of other food items on the menu: the seeds of bayberry, sweetgum, poison ivy, and sumac, among others, as well as acorns and fruits.

It seems this wren is nothing if not opportunistic. It is a cavity nester, but near human habitation it picks a variety of odd places to nest: in mailboxes, empty flower pots, glove boxes of abandoned cars, and coat pockets, to name just a few. My sister, who lives in Maryland, once sent me a photo of a Carolina wren that had built its nest in a folded-up lawn chair.

As I watched the wren in New Jersey, I was struck by its beauty. Unlike most of our other eastern wrens, which have subdued plumages by comparison, this wren stands out with its bright, white eye stripe outlined in black, deep rust-red upperparts, and light, cinnamon underparts. It is also larger than our other eastern wrens.

I continued along the path and was rewarded with its sweet, clear whistled tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle, song in the distance. I was sure I’d see or hear this bird again soon, back in Maine.

bdnsports@bangordailynews.net

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