May 23, 2018
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Snapshots of birding experiences

By Chris Corio, Special to the News

I’ve had a few interesting birding experiences recently, so here are a few snapshots.

As usual at this time of year, I enjoy writing about nocturnal migration. It is a phenomenon that never ceases to amaze me and which I never tire of writing about.

The alert had gone out over the Maine Birds e-list around 10 one night: A massive songbird migration was taking place. I rushed out to my deck and immediately heard the almost constant call notes raining down from above — there was a river of birds passing overhead, most times unseen except by radar.

That night the moon was nearly full, and I had learned a technique that would allow me to see at least a few of the birds as they winged their way south. Simply, you take either a spotting scope-telescope or a good pair of binoculars, focus on the moon and wait patiently (or sometimes not so patiently). The moon allowed me to see the silhouettes of the birds as they crossed that sphere of light.

This is something I do at least a few times every fall, but I still get goose bumps every time I see those small forms flitting across the moon. To see even a quick snapshot into such a migration — the scope and breadth of which are hard for sedentary creatures such as us to imagine — feels like a great privilege. At the same time, it is deeply humbling.

Meanwhile, an innocent morning walk yielded intense drama recently. As I passed a huge oak tree, a blue jay’s yells caught my attention, but not quite enough to investigate the cause — I was too accustomed to hearing them constantly around the neighborhood. However, it was joined by the short, staccato alarm notes of a crow, and out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the ebony birds flash through the air, right on the tail of a Cooper’s hawk.

While it is normal for crows to mob and harass birds of prey, I thought this particular crow was taking an enormous risk in being so persistent and bold. It literally was almost on top of the hawk; and a few times the hawk canted sideways, almost flipping upside-down, aiming its deadly talons at the kamikaze corvid.

I’ve seen crows and other birds mob a perched raptor, eventually causing it to take off, at which point the mobsters will trail behind the bird until it leaves their territory. Sometimes one or more birds will attempt to dive-bomb the predator, but I’ve never seen a bird take the chances this crow was taking.

The two birds swooped in and out of the trees and around the buildings of the nearby college campus. At one point their positions were reversed, and it was the hawk that was right on the crow’s tail — and I thought for sure that was it for the crow.

Accipiters such as the Cooper’s hawk are specialized bird hunters; their rounded wings and long slender tails give them maximum maneuverability around obstacles and through thick cover. They may not be as swift as a peregrine falcon, which has been known to reach diving speeds of more than 200 mph, but they have been known to stoop (dive) on their prey midair.

However, the element of surprise — the hawk’s most likely successful strategy, according to the “The Birds of North America” species account — was definitely not in the raptor’s favor. In addition, the first crow was soon joined by a second, and the hawk soon vacated the area altogether.

I wondered whether this hawk was a young and inexperienced bird, as it had seemed to waste valuable energy jousting with the crow. Hawk migration has been going on since last month, so this could have been a migrant that was stranded in the area until weather conditions were more favorable for travel.

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