I See Change

Everyone sees change over their lifetime. I certainly have.

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

The main house and, to the left and partially hidden by some trees, the guest house (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

This year was my 45th living on our mountaintop property in central Pennsylvania. My husband Bruce and I also celebrated our 54th wedding anniversary. The three sons we raised on this mountain are middle-aged and we are old.

During our tenure here we have seen many changes, both good and bad. Now that the trees are leafless these bleak December days, every time we drive our mile-and-a-half hollow road, we notice how close to death the hemlocks are that line the stream.

Since we moved here in August of 1971, we have lost a couple tree species, first a scattering of butternuts, followed by American elms. Now our hemlocks and ashes are succumbing to the insects and diseases that have come from abroad.

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Dead mountain laurel in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Once Laurel Ridge had a thick understory of mountain laurel shrubs that provided nesting habitat for a variety of songbirds, especially wood thrushes, as well as cover for white-tailed deer. Every June we had a glorious wild garden of blooming mountain laurel that stretched for miles on the ridge, but now many of the shrubs are twisted skeletons with few or no leaves clinging to them, dying or dead of a leaf fungus.

Other native shrubs and tree saplings are white-tailed deer preferred food, and like well-trained botanists, they are able to tell the natives from the invasives, rejecting Japanese stiltgrass, barberry, privet, and garlic mustard, for instance, and browsing on maple-leaf viburnum, wild hydrangea, rhododendron, red-berried elder, oak, black gum, and flowering dogwood seedlings and other natives. Our son, Dave, encloses every native shrub and tree he plants in his yard and ours with a fence until they rise above deer level.

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Orange jewelweed (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Those are the bad changes, but we still have over 200 species of wildflowers, 150 of which are natives. Wood nettle, which first appeared back in 2006 along our stream, has rapidly spread in the woods, creating a thick cover that keeps stiltgrass out. Jewelweed, also called touch-me-not, does the same where it is allowed to thrive. And the tree species that are still disease-free, including white and red oaks dating back to 1812, are growing larger every year.

Since we moved here, songbird numbers have been cut in half throughout the continental United States. Even though we provide nesting habitat for at least 71 songbird species, we have far fewer of most species, such as wood thrushes, or have lost golden-winged warblers despite perfect habitat at the edges of First Field.

Habitat loss both on their nesting and winter grounds has been and continues to be a major problem. In the heavily populated eastern United States, roaming domestic cats, window strikes, and lately the many wind installations on mountaintops and along the Great Lakes where the birds migrate are big killers of birds.

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome

Little brown bat with white-nose syndrome (Photo by Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The wind farms are even worse for our dwindling bat population, especially our cave bats, which are already dying from the dreaded white-nose syndrome, brought here from Europe less than a decade ago where the bats have built up a resistance to the disease over many centuries. Not many people care about bats because they are ignorant of their amazing mosquito-killing abilities. Just last August our son Dave and his partner, Rachel, were lying out in First Field watching a meteor shower. Rachel is highly allergic to mosquito bites and was delighted that three bats continued to flutter above them eating mosquitoes.

Last summer I had the opportunity to educate one woman, who owns an old, Victorian mansion she has turned into a tea house and bed and breakfast, about the disease. She and her husband were tender-hearted enough to shoo the occasional bat out of their house instead of killing it but had no idea about the disease killing them. When I gave her the statistics though—99% of most bats dead in their hibernating caves and the disease spreading rapidly across the United States and Canada, she was appalled. When I added that a female bat has only one pup a year, she understood why most scientists believe it will be 500 years, if ever, that cave bats will recover the numbers they had before the disease, and that some of the already rare species, such as Indiana bats, soon may be gone forever.

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

The hacking tower on Haldeman Island in 1989 (Bruce Bonta photo)

Still, through all this litany of loss I have seen terrific success stories here in Pennsylvania over the years, and many are due to the work of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Back in the nineteen seventies, eighties, and even nineties, seeing ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles were rare and treasured experiences. I remember visiting Haldeman Island and watching the workers feed the young bald eagles they were raising before releasing them in the hope that they would thrive and return to breed in Pennsylvania. I also talked with and watched biologists monitoring peregrine falcons breeding on bridges over the Delaware River.

Today you can watch peregrine falcons nesting in our cities on webcams and seeing osprey and bald eagles is possible in many areas of our state. A couple summers ago, while hiking at a nearby state park, Bruce and I watched an osprey catching fish in the lake. And a pair of bald eagles now nest at the other end of our mountain. This raptor-recovery from the DDT years has been an unexpected pleasure for those of us who sit on mountaintops in fall and watch a steady procession of them heading south.

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

A porcupine in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

When we moved here, we observed what we thought were a wide variety of mammals—woodchucks, gray squirrels, eastern chipmunks, porcupines, raccoons, gray and red foxes, white-tailed deer, striped skunks, opossums and several vole, mice, and shrew species.

Then, in 1983 we had our first black bear sighting and in 1989 our first eastern coyote. In this century both species have become far more common, breeding and living on the mountain year round. Bobcats have always been rare but present. Our sons saw one in the 1970s as they walked up our road from school, and I glimpsed another in January of 1990. I long for a better view of this elusive species, but several of our hunters sitting in their tree stands have had longer sightings of bobcats.

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

A beaver near our house in Plummer’s Hollow, February 2000 (Photo by Bruce Bonta)

Although we’ve never seen an otter here, despite the successful increase in their population due to Pennsylvania Game Commission biologists, during the winter of 2000 we did have an enterprising beaver swim up our flooded, first-order mountain stream a mile and a half, probably in search of a new home. This century we have also seen an increase in mink, long-tailed and short-tailed weasels, but I never suspected that we would see fishers on our property when I visited with the PGC researcher back in the nineties and she took me on a whirlwind tour of northcentral Pennsylvania where the PGC had recently released the animals.

The fishers were supposed to stay north of Interstate 80, but apparently they didn’t know this, so imagine my disbelief when I spotted one beside our stream in September of 2005. Since then our caretaker family and I have had several more sightings of these beautiful animals.

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Our north-facing access road on January 28, 2008 (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

“I See Change” is the name of a website you can access and record the changes you have seen in your natural world. In addition to the changes I have seen in our plants and wild creatures, I’ve also noticed a change in our seasons. For more than two decades, all the leaves were off the trees by the first of November, and winter began near Thanksgiving with the first snowfall. Shortly after that, I did not drive down our north-facing access road until the beginning of March when it melted.

In this century, the oaks hold their leaves until mid-November, and cold weather and snow comes as late as Christmas or even early January. Then spring, instead of starting slowly in March, doesn’t start until April except for a warm spell that prematurely brings out tree blossoms and then freezes again. Finally, May warms up quickly to summer temperatures and early June ushers in true summer. Spring is my favorite season, and it seems to be shortened on either end, whereas autumn goes on and on often through rifle season and beyond.

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Spring beauties (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr)

Even though the seasons seem to have shifted by two weeks or more in both late fall and early spring, 1988 still remains the hottest summer we have ever experienced here and the winter of 2014-15 one of the coldest and snowiest despite its late start.

I know all this and more because of the detailed nature journal I’ve been keeping since 1971. I don’t only see change, I know change. On balance, our years here have been a joy despite the loss of tree species and bats and the increase in invasive plants. Every time I see a bear, coyote, fisher, or bald eagle, I am grateful for the positive changes. I look forward to more years of nature-watching and close encounters with the many creatures with which we share our mountain.

 

Coyote America, by Dan Flores

Here is a review of the book Coyote America which I wrote for the November/December 2016 issue of The Gnatcatcher, published by the Juniata Valley Audubon Society:

If you, like me, are a fan of coyotes, this book will both delight and sicken you.  Subtitled A Natural and Supernatural History, Flores covers every aspect of coyotes’ lives, present and past, the Native American fables and stories that feature Coyote, and the western settlers as well as present day Americans’ approach to these amazing and resilient creatures.

coyote-america-coverTheir story begins in the American Southwest 3.2 million years ago when coyotes split from gray wolves.  While wolves crossed into Asia and Europe, coyotes remained here and eventually became the heroes of Indian folk tales.

Early American explorers called them “prairie wolves” and seemed to admire them.  But the farmers, ranchers, and hunters of the late nineteenth century demonized them along with larger predators such as wolves.

Our “Hundred Years War,” as Flores calls it, against these animals, has been subsidized by taxpayers beginning in the early twentieth century up to the present day.  Unlike wolves, which are pack animals and were easy to kill with poison bait, coyotes are known for what scientists call their “fission-fusion” adaptations in which they can be either pack or solitary animals, depending on outside pressures and are not as easily drawn into bait.

Despite killing more than six and a half million coyotes from 1945 to 1971, the Animal Control Board, renamed the Division of Wildlife Services in 1997, under the Department of Agriculture, has continued their war against coyotes, most recently killing 512,710 coyotes from 2006 to 2011. But coyotes can adjust their population, having as many as 20 pups if they are persecuted or as few as two if they are not.

They also began their incredible expansion to the East and as far north as Anchorage, Alaska and lately have discovered the safest places to live are cities where they are not hunted and there is plenty of food.  So while a coyote requires 10 square miles of territory in the country, it only needs 3 square miles in a city.

Flores covers the many human heroes in Coyote America as well as the villains.  Mammalogists such as Olaus and Adolph Murie, who studied coyotes in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Yellowstone back in the 1930s.  Olaus concluded that coyotes were not arch predators of game animals but omnivorous generalists that mostly ate mice, gophers, and hares and that only fed on elk carcasses.  Adolph agreed and added grasshoppers and crickets to their diet as well as the weakest mule deer fawns and antelopes.  But coyotes are opportunists and in the cities they not only prey on the occasional pet, especially cats, but they also eat the eggs and young of Canada geese and white-tailed deer fawns.

Still, despite the championing by informed mammalogists, the killing continued unabated.  It took an unlikely person, namely Walt Disney, to begin a sympathetic portrayal of coyotes that reached the general public.  In 1961 Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color ran a six-part series entitled “The Coyote’s Lament.”  At the time federal poisoners, bounty hunters and state trappers were killing between 250,000 and 300,000 coyotes a year.  Disney ended his series with, “When the time comes when you can’t hear the song of the coyote, the West is going to seem a mighty dull place.”

Since then more and more people are opposed to the war on coyotes.  Still, that war has brought bigger coyotes to the East.  Scientists now claim, based on genetic studies, that coyote hybridization with gray wolves began 550 to 950 years ago in the Great Lakes region and have resulted in as much as 20% wolf genes in Great Lakes’ coyotes and 40% in Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park.  They also claim that the South’s red wolves are a hybrid of southern gray wolves and coyotes that began 290 to 430 years ago.

And so the coyote, fact and legend, has become larger than life.  As we know here in Pennsylvania our so-called eastern coyotes are bigger than those of the West.  They continue to evolve and adapt to us and our ways.  For instance, studies of urban coyotes find that fewer and fewer are killed by cars every year.

But, as Flores wonders, will we adapt to them, stop killing them and allow their populations to stabilize?

White-throated Sparrows

A white-throated sparrow in Quebec

A white-throated sparrow in Quebec (Photo by Cephas in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

By November most of our songbirds are gone. But at least a few white-throated sparrows, which nest farther north and have been migrating through here since late September, elect to stay instead of heading to the southeastern United States to spend the winter.

Not only do they stay, but they continue to whistle their plaintive “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody” song throughout the winter, a distinctive song that has led to many nicknames for this sparrow such as “Whistling Sparrow,” “Peabody Bird,” “Poor Kennedy Bird,” and “Sweet, Sweet, Canada bird,” among the literally dozens, in both English and French, that were unearthed by W.L. McAtee back in 1957.

To hear an example of their song, see an excellent video by naturalist and photographer Lang Elliott of some white-throated sparrows.

Our 37-acre First Field is especially popular with white-throated sparrows because of their fondness for grass and weed seeds as well as the fruits of wild grapes, dogwood and sumac during the fall and winter. I’ve also heard and seen them at the smaller, but equally overgrown Far Field as well as along Bird Count, Greenbrier and Ten Springs trails, all of which are in the 26-year-old, poorly logged, brushy area of our property.

Although a couple white-throats come to our feeder area, others are able to sustain themselves on wild foods during most winters. Only when the winter is particularly harsh do more white-throats, eager for oil and shelled sunflower, millet, milo and cracked corn, appear in our feeder area. Using both feet, they scratch up seeds that I throw below our back steps.

A white-throated sparrow in the snow

A white-throated sparrow in the snow (Photo by Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, USFWS, in Pixnio.com, in the public domain)

Here on our mountaintop we don’t have the wintering numbers of white-throats that stay in the valleys and lowlands of Pennsylvania, especially in the warmer southeast Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions. And when I studied my old Project FeederWatch records dating back to the winter of 1988-89, I was surprised to note that there were no white-throats until 1995-96 and then they only averaged 1 to 1.6 per visit to the feeders each winter until 2004-05 when the average shot up to 4.4 and 2005-06 when it was 5.6. After that, the feeder numbers averaged between 2 and 3 until the frigid winter of 2014-15 when there was an average of 6.7, the highest number ever. Last year’s mild winter pushed their average back down to the more normal 2.2.

Checking my journals, I also discovered that we have always had wintering white-throats in brushy, wet areas as well as the drier brush of the Far Field. Furthermore, I rarely see them during my walks, but I know them by their songs and their scolding “clicks” even as they remain hidden from me.

When they feed in flocks during the winter and even in feeder situations, they maintain a discreet distance from others in their flock, probably to avoid aggression with other white-throats. As a species, they give up space and food to blue jays, eastern towhees, northern cardinals, fox, song and most white-crowned sparrows but will dominate swamp and field sparrows and chickadees.

A white-throated sparrow on a bird feeding platform

A white-throated sparrow on a bird feeding platform (Photo by John Flanner on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

In white-throat winter flocks, males, old birds, and those that have returned winter after winter to the same area are dominant. They sing the most, feed close to protective cover, and are not often interrupted in their feeding by other members of their flock. Their winter home ranges are small, and they remain there even through midwinter when food resources dwindle.

My only time to study them is at the feeder area when they are out in the open. And it’s then that I can plainly see the two morphs or forms for which they are famous among researchers. Both do have white throats as well as yellow lores or spots in front of their eyes and grayish bills, but those with white and black stripes on their heads are known as white-striped morphs and those with tan and brown stripes as tan-striped morphs. Because each morph mates with its opposite, these differences remain from generation to generation.

A brown and tan striped morph of a white-throated sparrow

A brown and tan striped morph of a white-throated sparrow (Photo by Cephas in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Not only do they look different, they behave differently. White-striped males sing more, are more aggressive and are more likely to mate with other females in addition to their mates. Tan-striped males and females and white-striped females provide more parental care than white-striped males. White-striped females sing and help defend territory, but tan-striped females do not.

Here in the eastern United States, white-throated sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) and their close congeners white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys) can be mistaken for each other. But white-crowns have brighter white crowns edged with black, pink or orange bills, and no yellow lores. Still, all white-crowns have grayish-white throats and immatures have dark red-brown and light buff head stripes that resemble tan-striped white-throats, but the latter still have those distinctive yellow lores. Both species also have white wing bars on brown-streaked wings, backs and tails.

Except for their unique polymorphism, white-throats are much like other sparrow species. Although they breed mostly in the boreal coniferous and northern hardwood forests of Canada and the northern United States, northern Pennsylvania is the southern edge of white-throat breeding in the East, especially in the forested wetlands and shrub lands of northern Susquehanna and Wayne counties, the juncture of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Carbon and Monroe counties, on North Mountain in eastern Sullivan and southeastern Wyoming counties, along the border between Wyoming and Bradford counties, and in or near the Allegheny National Forest in McKean County according to Nicholas C. Bolgiano in the Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania.

“The White Throated Sparrow, from Pensiluania, and the Yellow Butterfly, from Carrolina,” plate 304 in Gleanings of Natural History (1758) by George Edwards (In the public domain)

“The White Throated Sparrow, from Pensiluania, and the Yellow Butterfly, from Carrolina,” plate 304 in Gleanings of Natural History (1758) by George Edwards (In the public domain)

White-throated sparrows were first described back in 1760 in G. Edwards’s “Gleanings” and was based on a specimen from “Pensilvania,” so the species has a long association with our state. No doubt there were many more white-throats then when our state had a larger coniferous component in our forests, the climate was colder, and we had many more wetlands. Between our first and second atlasing periods, breeding white-throats had declined and were found in 33% fewer blocks, suggesting, Bolgiano writes, “that the White-Throated Sparrow may be contracting into a few core areas in Pennsylvania,” most notably North Mountain of Sullivan County, which he calls “an important stronghold for this species” in the commonwealth. He mentions our warming climate and the maturing of our forests as possible causes.

Today white-throats begin appearing as spring migrants in Pennsylvania the second or third week in March in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas and the third and fourth weeks in March in the rest of the state with peak numbers from the third or fourth week in April to the second week in May. The last date I have for them here is May 15.

Since white-throat females winter farther south than males, males usually arrive on their breeding grounds a week or two ahead of the females and experienced males earlier than novices. Here in Pennsylvania breeding white-throats appear in mid-to-late April. They search for mixed forests with openings that have low, dense vegetation where they can hide their nests on or near the ground. They also establish and defend their 1.9 to 3.2-acre territories from other males.

Once the females return, they pair up and couples forage together, with the males protecting or perhaps guarding the females from other intruders. The females probably choose the nest site. They also construct their open cup nests of bulky materials such as coarse grasses, twigs, pine needles, and roots and line them with finer materials including fine grasses, rootlets, and deer hair.

A white-throated sparrow nest with eggs

A white-throated sparrow nest with eggs (Photo by Kent McFarland in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

When their nests are finished, they lay on average four pale blue or cream-colored boldly brown-spotted eggs and begin incubating on the day the fourth egg is laid. Usually the females incubate the eggs for 12 days.

The young are born mostly naked and their eyes remain closed for the first three days. Their mothers do much of the brooding and shading of the nestlings, and they remain mostly still until they are seven days old. Then they call as their parents approach the nest with a selection of insects and spiders.

Both the eggs and nestlings are especially prey for red squirrels, eastern chipmunks, and eastern garter snakes. Other possible predators are red foxes, short-tailed weasels and short-tailed shrews. Predators on adults include merlins, sharp-shinned hawks, and short-eared owls as well as the mammalian predators.

An immature white-throated sparrow

An immature white-throated sparrow (Photo by Jeremy Meyer on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The young leave the nest on foot at seven to 12 days of age, but they need another week before then can fly. Their parents continue to feed them and to defend them from predators by distraction displays such as a slow flutter-flight above the vegetation, a wing-drooping run while calling loudly, or a wings-up-walk where the parent seems to fall to one side while holding up one or both fanned wings.

The parents care for their young for at least two weeks after they fledge and sometimes even after the females begin incubating a second brood. But not much is known about how the young disperse.

Still, by September adults of both sexes and immatures have flocked together and begun their long, slow migration south for another winter in warmer climes.

Winter Hawks

It’s October and folks are perched on mountaintops throughout Pennsylvania watching the raptors parade south. Even on our mountain, I can sit for hours on a breezy October day and count dozens of raptors flying past.

A red-shouldered hawk in flight

A red-shouldered hawk in flight (Photo by Gouldingken in Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

Officially, fall raptor-watching begins in mid- August and doesn’t end until mid-December, but the largest numbers and diversity of species usually occur in October on our westernmost ridge in Pennsylvania’s Ridge-and-Valley Province.

Sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks are the most common and numerous raptors here and on other hawk watches as well in October, but there are also plenty of Cooper’s hawks, American kestrels, ospreys, northern harriers and even a few bald and golden eagles then.

A red-shouldered hawk hunting

A red-shouldered hawk hunting (Photo by Camron Flanders on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

But here and there among the red-tailed hawks, I occasionally see its smaller congener Buteo lineatus, more commonly known as the red-shouldered hawk, soaring or flapping on its own as it too heads south, mostly to the southeastern United States, to spend its winter.

Even at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, where folks are counting raptors throughout the season, they average twice as many red-tails (603) as red-shoulders (306) most years, and peak migration for red-shoulders are the last two weeks in October at many hawk watches statewide.

This is a beautiful hawk as I learned on March 8, 2015. On our way to see short-eared owls near Gettysburg, we stopped at Lake Kay in Fairfield to look at waterfowl. Perched on a nearby powerline along a back road was a red-shouldered hawk. It was absolutely still as it peered down on the roadside in search of prey.

A red-shouldered hawk looking down from cables directly overhead

A red-shouldered hawk looking down from cables directly overhead (Photo by Richard J. Kinch on Wikipedia, Creative Commons license)

It paid us no attention as we quietly exited the car for a closer look, first through our scope and then, as we crept nearer, our binoculars, and finally our naked eyes. I was thrilled to see close-up a bird I mostly have seen flying past or once, in late April, circling low over First Field and flaring its handsome, black-and-white striped tail. But on that March day, I had an eye-popping view of its rufous upper wing “shoulders,” hence its common name, and rufous breast and belly, the latter with light barring.

I wondered if the adult bird had spent the winter there in Adams County or if it had returned, as many do, in early March. However, it was nicknamed the “winter hawk” years ago because it often winters as far north as New England, and here in Pennsylvania it has been an occasional winter resident, preferring open lowland areas in the southeast and northwest areas of the state.

According to recent Winter Raptor Surveys, red-shoulder numbers have been increasing, reaching a high of 101 in 2014, since the 2001 beginning of this annual survey. Furthermore, most wintering red-shoulders appear to be in the south-central and northwest counties. In a paper Greg Grove and Nick Bolgiano wrote for Pennsylvania Birds back in 2013, they point out that both Christmas Bird Count and Winter Raptor Survey data “suggest that the number of wintering Red-shouldered Hawks has increased in Pennsylvania during the past decade.”

A red-shouldered hawk perched in a pine tree, Nov. 28, 2015

A red-shouldered hawk perched in a pine tree, Nov. 28, 2015 (Photo by Kelly in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Second Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania shows that red-shoulders also nest in many of those wintering counties, and Grove and Bolgiano suggest that some of those birds stay on their territories year round. Adams County is on the top ten wintering counties list, so the red-shoulder we saw may have been a year-round resident.

Although red-shoulders prefer lowland mature mixed deciduous forests interspersed with marshes and swamps as well as forested valleys in the mountains for breeding, they occasionally adapt to old suburban areas with large trees and water.

Red-shouldered hawks mating

Red-shouldered hawks mating (Photo by Bill Majoros in Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Red-shoulders appear to use the same nesting territory every year and even to reuse their old nest or build a new one in the same area. Returning to Pennsylvania by early to mid-March, these monogamous raptors are already paired. However, they engage in courtship displays, both the so-called “circling flight” and “sky-dancing” between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. for about 18 days. Usually after “sky-dancing” they mate.

During courtship, they also establish and defend their 225 to 500-acre territory and work on their nests. Those nests are primarily in deciduous trees that are larger than others in the same area and are more than halfway up in the crotch of the main tree trunk. Usually, their nests are near water and are built by both parents. They use bark strips, dead and live twigs, dried leaves, lichens and live evergreen sprigs. If they are constructing a new nest, it can take four to five weeks but they can refurbish an old nest in a week.

A red-shouldered hawk on a nest

A red-shouldered hawk on a nest (Photo by Bill Majoros on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

An average of two to four dull white eggs with an “endless variety of types and colors of marking,” are laid, ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent once wrote. In Pennsylvania this happens in April or May. Both sexes incubate them, beginning before the clutch is complete. Because the female has a large incubation patch and the male little or none, she incubates most of the time, and the male brings in food for her.

It takes 28 days for the eggs to hatch and the nestlings emerge covered in light brown down with wide open eyes. They grow rapidly and by two weeks of age, they stand up, lie down, and flap their wings. At six to eight weeks they can climb on branches nearby and fledge which occurs in Pennsylvania in June and July. Still, the parents continue to feed their offspring for another six to eight weeks before they are on their own.

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in a nest

Red-shouldered hawk chicks in a nest (Photo by Bill Majoros on Flickr Creative Commons license)

The primary foods for both adults and young red-shoulders in the northeast United States are eastern chipmunks, mice, voles, and shrews. Other mammals include rabbits, muskrats, opossums and skunks. But they also prey on frogs, fish, toads, snakes and crayfish, hence their preference for riparian areas.

Back in 1890 in Pennsylvania, ornithologist B.H. Warren examined the stomach remains of 57 dead red-shoulders and discovered that 43 contained meadow voles, a few other small mammals, grasshoppers and other insects (mostly beetles). Nine others had frogs and insects, two had snakes and frogs, and two others small birds, small mammals, and a few beetles. None had poultry even though they were also called “hen hawks.”

A red-shouldered hawk carrying a squirrel to its young

A red-shouldered hawk carrying a squirrel to its young (Photo by Andrea Westmoreland on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

They have their own predators. Great horned owls and red-tailed hawks may take over both red-shoulders’ occupied or empty nests. They also, along with raccoons, peregrine falcons, and fishers, may kill nesting adult red-shoulders, their eggs or young.

Even though their nests are well-hidden from our eyes, as we discovered one April when we were at Yellow Creek State Park in search of waterfowl, we entered a section of woods near the water to be met by the loud “kee-aah” cries of a red-shoulder that went on and on. We never did see it despite straining our eyes and tramping through the entire area.

A red-shouldered hawk feeding its baby

A red-shouldered hawk feeding its baby (Photo by Bill Majoros on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Red-shoulder populations seem stable now, according to a 2008 continent-wide study during autumn migration counts, although they have not attained, here in Pennsylvania, their pre-DDT numbers, probably due to the loss of riparian habitat and large blocks of contiguous mature forests. Furthermore, the breaking up of these forests into small blocks favors their primary predators, the larger and more aggressive great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. Still, between the first and second atlas of breeding birds in Pennsylvania, red-shoulder numbers increased by 55 % and Breeding Bird Surveys in the commonwealth estimated a 3.6% increase per year.

Nevertheless, red-shoulders remain a species of Maintenance Concern in Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Action Plan because of their reliance on habitat that continues to disappear particularly in northwestern and north-central Pennsylvania, areas that have remained breeding hot spots for these still understudied magnificent raptors.