The best time to enjoy nature is now

“There’s a hawk in the backyard,” my wife hollered from the other end of the house. I rushed to where she was. The bird was on the ground near the line of evergreens that divide our yard from a neighbor’s.

It was the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk. I had seen it before swooping low over homes in search of its favorite target, songbirds that frequented backyard feeders. I had briefly seen it in our backyard before.

The hawk’s blood-red eyes shown even from that distance without my binoculars. It was too big for another similar accipiter, the stealth sharp-shinned hawk. This beautiful Cooper’s had made a kill and was ripping it apart with its sharp, hooked bill.

I hurried to retrieve both my binoculars and my camera to watch the unfolding drama. I need not have rushed. The hawk remained in the same spot undisturbed, devouring its catch for nearly an hour.

At first, I thought the Cooper’s had captured one of the many grey squirrels that frequent our yard in search of food or to drink from the birdbaths placed around the exterior of the house. As soon as I lifted the binoculars to my eyes, I knew it wasn’t a squirrel.

I could see feathers scattered on the ground around the hawk. It had captured one of the mourning doves that come to the feeders or roost in our trees.

I wasn’t sad, nor did I think the scene gruesome. Neva and I had witnessed the balance of nature in progress, “survival of the fittest,” as some refer to it. Just as the dove needed food, water, and shelter, so did the hawk. In this case, the dove was at the wrong end of the food chain.

Empath that I am, I felt a little sorry for the poor mourning dove, but not that sorry. After all, the Cooper’s hawk needed to eat, too. That’s the way of nature.

I try to not get too attached to birds and other wildlife that I encounter. Instead, I just try to enjoy them and their various antics. Each one seems to have a personality all its own, behaviors that set it apart from others of the same species. The riotous European starlings might be the exception to that observation.

I marvel at how nature unfolds, sometimes at her own expense. Once, while watching sandhill cranes walk toward me in Florida, I heard a commotion behind me. A bald eagle had snatched an American coot from a channel. The eagle landed in a large tree where black feathers flew as the eagle ripped apart its breakfast.

Songbirds like this Indigo Bunting devour weed seeds.
It’s important to remember the big picture when it comes to nature. Where would we be if birds didn’t eat insects or weed seeds or other animals? That alone is reason enough for humans to take better care of planet earth.

I watched the Cooper’s hawk off and on for the duration of its dining. It ate judiciously, pausing every now to check its surroundings. It would return to its meal, pulling sinew, flesh, and bones from the carnage.

After it flew off, I went out to inspect the crime scene. All that remained of the mourning dove were two circles of feathers. One fanned out where the dove was snagged, and the other only inches away from where the hawk dined. The hawk had eaten every other part of its victim.

That is the way nature works. It is a joy and an honor to admire her at each opportunity that she affords.

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© Bruce Stambaugh 2020

The saga of an interrupted lunchtime

sharpie, lunchtime

By Bruce Stambaugh

For years, my wife had to endure me jumping up from the table morning, noon and night to respond to emergency calls. I served as a volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician in Holmes County, Ohio for 27 years.

I can’t tell you how many times I must have interrupted a meal to respond to an emergency. Neva always understood that someone else needed my assistance more than our family, at least for that critical moment.

mourning dove, Ohio
Mourning Dove.
Now we’re both mostly retired, and I no longer respond to fire and EMS calls. I look forward to her delicious cooking, salad to dessert. However, pleasant surprises still occasionally interrupt our meals. Birds are usually the cause.

Recently Neva announced from the kitchen that lunch was ready. I knew to be prompt. I hadn’t even taken the first bite when I spied through a window some commotion. A hawk had perched on a thick pine tree branch in our backyard.

I raced for my binoculars as if I were answering a fire alarm. Even without the optical aid, I could see the feathers flying as the hawk plucked its prey. The hawk was having lunch, too. I watched the small accipiter briefly and then grabbed my cameras. I clicked and filmed away.

By its size and features, this beautiful bird was either a Sharp-shinned Hawk or a Cooper’s Hawk. Both are notorious for stealth flights in search of unsuspecting songbirds at backyard birdfeeders.

Clearly, I had just missed the capture. The hawk focused its full attention on plucking the feathers from its victim. Other birds gradually returned to the feeder buffet, oblivious to the hawk’s presence.

I consulted my favorite bird guide and compared my photos with the renderings in the book. All the while I continued observing the bird of prey. The bird’s physical characteristics best fit a Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks are tough to identify in the field. I had the advantage of perspective, comparing the bird in the pine with the branches around it. Its size appeared too small for a Cooper’s Hawk.

I checked other identifying markers, too. The bird’s rather flat head made its eye look large. The bright yellow legs were pencil thin. The brown streaks on its breast also said juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk.

I posted one of the photos I had taken of the bird on the social media’s Facebook’s Ohio birding page. Others, including the author of my guidebook, confirmed the ID. It’s always nice to get affirmation from an expert like Kenn Kaufman.

Not surprisingly, my wife’s delicious homemade butternut squash soup had cooled. Neither of us complained. We were mesmerized by the aviary activities outside.

Satisfied with the photos that I had taken, I returned to my meal. From where I sat eating, I could still see the young hawk pulling at the meat of its capture. Though seemingly gruesome, it was an everyday act of nature, and we got to see it.

Sharp-shinned Hawk
The Sharpie returned.
I took another slurp of soup, looked up, and the hawk was gone. After I had finished eating, I went out to verify my suspicion of what the hawk had had for lunch. The feathers I found were indeed from a Mourning Dove.

Timing is everything. Had I not responded to the call for lunch when I did, I might have missed the unfolding action outside.

I didn’t mind this lunchtime interruption at all. I imagine the poor Mourning Dove would strongly disagree.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2016

Taking my breakfast with the birds

Cardinals galore by Bruce Stambaugh
A flock of Cardinals at one of my feeders.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Some people might think that breakfast is for the birds. I’m not one of them. I never miss breakfast.

Breakfast is one of my necessary routines. I’m not much of a cook, but, despite the fact that I am a man, I can certainly pour cereal into a bowl and juice into a glass. Along with some fruit, that is my usual morning feast, day in and day out.

I seldom dine alone. If the backyard birds are feeding, I often stand at the kitchen window and enjoy my morning meal as my feathered friends peck at theirs. This particular morning, I was seated at the breakfast bar, where I can still view the hanging feeders.

Goldfinch family by Bruce Stambaugh
The hanging feeder by my kitchen window is usually busy with birds, like this family of American Goldfinches.

I had just begun to crunch my mini-wheats when I heard the flock of birds outside the window take flight. The Mourning Doves were especially noticeable, with their thrashing wings and eerie, frightened call.

Clearly they had been startled. My first inclination was to blame the local Cooper’s Hawk. The feisty bird of prey makes frequent surprise raids on neighborhood feeders.

I suspected that the small hawk was after its breakfast as well. I checked the ground around the feeders. The ice-covered snow was void of any birds. A lone Mourning Dove sat frozen in fear next to the hopper feeder on the old porcelain-topped table beside the back porch. That told me to keep searching for the hawk.

I scoured the stately sugar maple where the hawk had been known to perch, waiting for any unsuspecting songbird. The dormant tree branches were bare.

I quickly scanned the row of white pines. No hawk visible there either. I headed to the front window, thinking the Cooper’s Hawk may have tried the feeders in the front yard. There it was.

The Cooper’s Hawk sat on the snow about 20 yards beyond the Colorado blue spruce that shelters the feeders. Beneath the hawk was what looked to be a Mourning Dove. Feathers from the hawk’s victim were scattered in a broad circle around the hunter and the hunted.

Cooper's Hawk with kill by Bruce Stambaugh
The young Cooper's Hawk held its kill to the snowy ground.

The Cooper’s Hawk kept looking around, wary of any predators that might try to steal its avian granola. I put the long lens on my camera as rapidly as I could, and shot several pictures.

All the while, the hawk squeezed its prey with its sharp talons. At one point, it shook loose some feathers that had stuck in its equally sharp bill. From time to time, the wounded Mourning Dove would wiggle its tail in a futile attempt to escape.

Between camera clicks, the hawk flew west with its catch. I rushed to the sliding glass door that leads to the back porch. There, beneath one of the pines at the edge of our property, the hawk sat with the dove still tightly clenched and pressed to the cold ground.

Before I could raise my camera, the accipiter launched low to the south with its catch and was instantly out of sight. I wondered if it had sought refuge in the pines or continued into the small deciduous woods on the other side of the neighbor’s.

Either way, the crafty hawk was likely enjoying its fresh, nourishing breakfast. I returned to mine, sorry for the dove, but glad I had been witness to the way the biological world really works.