Welcome to my world!

Backyard Birding in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas:
Surrounded by great birding destinations, our favorite patch is still the backyard (or the front), where we've seen more than 270 species of birds. Sit awhile, and watch the river and yard with us!

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Harris's Hawks and Mystery Nests

When I walked out to the end of the driveway a couple of mornings ago, I found two Harris's Hawks balancing on the electric wire, each of them grasping the thick wire with just one strong yellow talon.  What handsome hawks these are!  In addition to bright yellow talons, they have bright yellow ceres and eye rings that contrast with deep brown heads.  White feathers at the tip and base of the tail also stand out, and chestnut shoulders, wing linings and "leggings" add distinction to this striking bird. Next to the White-tailed Hawk,  which also has chestnut shoulders, these are my favorite neighborhood hawks. For years I could always see a nest at the top of a mesquite tree in an area of mesquite brush across and just up the the road.  Broken by Hurricane Dolly, the tree is now short and twisted and didn't have a nest last year. I don't know where the hawks  are nesting now.  I watched them watching the drive for a few minutes before they flew off across the cotton field and disappeared. 

 I seldom see Harris's Hawks flying or perching just one at a time.  Young hawks often remain with their parents for a few years and may even help raise new broods.  They  hunt together in twos, threes,  or small groups.  I've seen them hunting cooperatively  and then sharing their catch, perhaps a rabbit, ground squirrel, or wood rat.  Later in the summer,  when the young have fledged, family groups hunt in the fields across the river or across the road. Young hawks look like adults except for brown streaks on the breast, wings and tail.

Speaking of nests, Great Kiskadees are rebuilding one in a three-way fork near the top of an Ebony tree in our yard.  They built the large spherical grass nest last spring, but over the winter it was blown to bits by the wind.   About a month ago only a few pieces of grass remained,  but now it's almost as big as last summer's nest. Here's a picture I took yesterday.  The nest appears a  little loose and has gaps, obviously not finished yet. The bird in the photo sits on top of the nest instead of in it, but  when it's completed,  a side entryway will lead to an enclosed nest .

I've read that Kiskadees sometimes take almost a month to finish building these big football-shaped nests.  I can see how that could be--they keep taking time out to call loudly to each other, display their gold crests, and even tumble in the air as I saw them do yesterday.  Their name comes from their loud call of  "kiskadee!" but I think it just as often sounds like "oh, boy!" or "kiss, kiss, kiss a boy!  kiss a boy,  kiss a boy!"  The Kiskadee has also been called the Derby Flycatcher because of its black and white "hat."

Here's another photo, this one taken as a Kiskadee was calmly sitting on a branch this winter.  It seems they are never calmly sitting these days as they swoop up to their nest and down to the baths, calling and displaying the hidden gold crest at the top of their heads.  I like this picture because it shows that line of gold, the edge of mouth and the back beak which is bright gold, contrasting with the black beak and thick black eye line. 

The first time I saw a Kiskadee, I had first heard it calling loudly outside my classroom when I had just begun teaching at Harlingen High School.  Though in the middle of a discussion, I ran to the door, and saw two boisterous Kiskadees fly into an Ash tree in the courtyard.  Between classes I hurried down to the library for a field guide that identified the bright yellow and rufous bird with its black and white "hat."  We had only recently moved to the Valley,  and after seeing this spectacular bird just outside my classroom door, I knew we would stay here for the rest of our lives!  (I also begankeeping a field guide on the shelf beneath the classroom window and beside the window posted a list of birds seen from the room.  Over the years the list grew and I've had former students tell me they became interested in birds after being in my class. I didn't teach science, but literature --  but I guess if they see a teacher run outside at the call of a bird, they get an idea of how enthusiastic some birders can be.

Another large nest appeared suddenly in a Hackberry tree in December after the leaves had all fallen off the tree. Of course it had been there all along, but the leafy hackberry hid it well.   At first I thought it was a squirrel's nest because it was so large and covered with leaves, but the leaves that had apparently accumulated in our brief "fall" soon blew off, leaving a woven nest made of twigs and some palm fibers, not as messy as a squirrel's nest. (I'm not an expert on any nests, really, so I could be wrong about this.  I have never seen a squirrel near it, though,  so I finally concluded it was a bird's nest. Our squirrels usually nest in the palm trees or an owl box until we chase them out.) Anyway,  I don't know what  built the nest---and I'm surprised I didn't see it last summer since it is very near the upstairs back porch.  All winter, Green Jays stashed corn kernels in it (click on the photo if you can't see the corn),  but it has no inhabitants this spring. Could it have been built by Green Jays? So far, it's still a mystery.

Every winter when the foliage is thinner, I find nests and wonder how I missed them when they were inhabited.  I guess I'm not always a keen observer, not what you would call hawk-eyed.  About a month ago I found four nests in a small Brasil tree out near the end of the driveway, right underneath where the two hawks were perched yesterday.  Three of the nests were constructed of small twigs, probably  doves' nests, and one is a small woven one that looks a lot like the ones the Hooded Orioles build in palm trees. I've got an order in to Amazon.com for a nest guide book which should help my investigation into just who might have constructed these old nests.

This nesting season I want to keep better track.   I need to do a census of the inhabitants of our yard. That's a good resolution for today--April 1, 2010--Census Day. It's too early yet to do a nesting census, but  it's something I intend to do. I'll be careful not to disturb the nesters, but no nest will escape my keen observation:  I'll be hawk-eyed.


eileeninmd said...

Gorgeous photos, I would love to see the Green Jays!

Laura said...

Wow! Those are some fantastic photos of the Harris's Hawk!

Caleb said...

Nice pictures!