Trying to Cope

This post is not a lament of birding I haven’t done.

Disclaimer:  no bird was hurt in the processes described within.

Rather the title refers to the falconer’s definition of coping, to clip or dull the beak or talons of a raptor.  Although to struggle with is an apt description based on some of the stories I’ve heard.

As I’ve mentioned previously, the center I work for has two rehabilitated raptors: a Barred Owl and a Red-tailed Hawk.  Every season we have to cope the birds.  And they have to cope with us All The Time.  They dislike this process of coping immensely and who can blame them?  They are trussed like chickens and chopped at like suey.

For the owl, it’s a two person process.  Yes,  it requires two people because it involves wrangling.   My boss and I tackled the owl first.    The first task is to lay the owl on it’s back and then wrap a towel around the body.  Like a horse, if the raptor can’t see, then it’s less likely to make a fuss.  Also, so long as you have a firm wrap, the wings can’t get free and beat you.  Or worse yet, allow the bird to fly away.   Once the wings are secure, you need to readjust the grip of the feet.  This is where I came in: my responsibilities were to hold the feet and to keep the towel in place.  It may not sound like much, but if I failed, we would have had an owl on the prowl.

Once the owl was down, we checked the jesses and decided to swap them out for new ones.  A bold move because at this point should the owl break lose, it would truly be free – the owl will not step onto a glove for love nor money, nor mice.  The transfer went successfully, then we trimmed all four talons on each foot; inspected the feet for abrasions and treated them with a bit of vitamin E.   For trimming we basically use the same sort of nail trimmer you would use for a dog or cat.  Following this, Mitzi did get a wing free and made the rest of the process slightly more difficult.  The next step was to cope her beak.  Surely you know all the joy and excitement one experiences from a trip to the dentist.  Mitzi can empathize – especially that moment when the dentist approaches, the machinery is humming and you realize that thing is going into your mouth.  We do the same to Mitzi. For coping the beak, we use a dremel which files down the beak.  We also have a file and can use which ever seems more appropriate at the moment.  Beaks like talons grow continuously.  In the wild, most birds naturally wear this down.  Captive birds need a little assistance.

Before unraveling the owl, we checked her keel.  If you think of the keel of the ship – straight line down the bottom of the ship’s middle – lowest part – dead center, the keel on a bird is very similar.  It’s a large protruding bone from the chest – where our flat sternum is.  The keel is essential for flight as it’s what the flight muscles anchor to, allowing the bird to become airborne.   I got to feel her keel.  I had felt the feel of some small winter bird – titmice or chickadees back in 2010 during a visit to the School of Conservation, but it was definitely a difference experience to feel a keel on a raptor because it’s much harder to miss.

The last step is to weigh bird.  First one frees the bird.  She baits.  She settles. Baits again.  And then perhaps a person can convince her to step blindly backwards onto the perch screwed to the scale.  You then hope she perches long enough for the scale to get a read.  Then you return her to her box.  With relief, she dives in and proceeds to very audibly scold you for the torture season.

I don’t have any pictures of this process since it was a two person job and two people were present.

The Red-tailed Hawk comprised Act II.  As a larger bird, she requires three people.  In this case, one person to hold the towel over her and the other to worry about keeping the talons separated.  I remained on talon duty and we called in the front desk to hold down to fort over the wings.

She was very well behaved as we put her through the same processes of checking and caring for her feet, her beak, and then checking her keel and weight.  Her keel had a very different feel.  It was very…. plump.  Ruby’s not a lightweight.  In fact she clocked in at 4.6 lbs which is heavy for a Red-tail.  She put on 0.5 lbs since the last coping.    Imagine balancing 4.6 lbs on your non-dominant wrist/hand.   Mitzi remained at 1.6 lbs.

Interested in learning more?

The Bird Skeleton.  Avian Anatomy and Morphology.
.  The Modern Apprentice.
Foot Care
. The Modern Apprentice.
Falcon Beak Coping Part 4. Canadian Bird Nerd (note: we don’t sedate our birds)

So the Story Goes…

Typically the story goes boy meets girl…. girl meets fantastic time traveling doctor… this is a different story.

Once upon a time there was a bird feeder. Upon finding the feeder many birds were pleased and were content to return. The food was refilled frequently, the squirrels chased away, the feral cats didn’t hunt them. This was a good place.

Then migration began and there were more birds. The food was still good. The squirrels and cats still stayed away.

But one day the sky darkened and in swooped a new bird. This bird was not content to eat seeds. This bird was an eater of birds. A bird of prey. So in swooped the Sharp-shinned Hawk and made off with the Red-winged Blackbird. In this story there is no rescue. No pompous cardinal to pontificate at the Hawk, no questionable murder of crows to resort to trickery, just a snatch and grab with a few feathers left behind to tell the tale. Well feathers and a video!

MVI_3925 a video by birdworthy on Flickr.

And The Hits Keep Coming

The 19th season of fieldwork kicked off on Wednesday!  This was the beginning of my fifth season with a long-term American Kestrel nest monitoring program in Warren and Sussex counties in NW New Jersey.  The NJ study is significant because there are few long term research projects out there due to the nature of grants and the publish or perish mandate. There is a longer monitoring program run by Hawk Mountain – since the 1960’s I believe, but I read the research on that a few months ago, so don’t quote me and certainly don’t cite me!

What does Kestrel research entail?

The most important thing is probably a sense of humor because weird and unexpected stuff always happens. In all seriousness though it requires the willingness to jump in,do whatever is needed, and the ability to slug it out for 10-12 hours in the field at a go.

On the first trip out, we need to check and prep each site for the upcoming breeding season.  This entails emptying out old nests and putting in new wood shavings – Kestrels are messy birds!    Occasionally it involves some repair or trimming of vegetation.

Return visits are done to monitor which boxes are in use by kestrels, or other native birds.  Unused nests and other animals are evicted (unless immatures are present, then they can stay until fledging or maturity).  If a box is used, then we monitor to ID the adults.  Are they returns from earlier seasons?  New individuals to NJ?  We determine nesting date, and then we return and band the nestlings before they fledge.  We have about 100 boxes across the two counties, so it’s a full day in each county.

On Wednesday, the high was in the upper 30’s/40’s, with a 10% chance of rain.  Much better than Tuesday or Thursday’s forecast.  Mind you the wind blew; it rained; it even dared to snow!   There were three of us in the field – an undergraduate participating for credit, my adviser who has run the program for all 18 previous seasons and myself.  Yet we persevered.

No Kestrel sightings (historically the first sighting is always in Sussex), but collectively we identified by sight or sound 39 species of birds.  We had a false alarm of a Red-headed Woodpecker which would be a lifer for me, but in retrospect it was likely a weird sounding Red-bellied Woodpecker.

But I did get a new life bird!  As we visiting a box near the Alpha Grasslands, the professor generally climbs the ladder to monitor each box while my job is to spot for Kestrels and record all data observations.   From the ladder, the professor called down that he thought he heard Snow Buntings!  I had my binoculars up within seconds because this bird has eluded me all winter.  I’ve gone to at least 3 places where they were reported without any luck.  I found three floating around the field – playing freeze tag.  They’d abruptly fly to the next spot, then freeze on the ground making finding them again nearly impossible.   So I didn’t even blink until the professor was off the ladder and on the birds.  Then I handed my binoculars over to the undergrad so she could take a peek.  I ran for my camera, but got back just as they departed for a distant field.

So that was pretty cool.  Of course day 2 of fieldwork had to top day 1.  The professor and another graduate student spotted a Black-legged Kittiwake in the Walkill NWR and got to band a Eastern Screech Owl.

Then on Thursday, I got to see 3 Brown-headed Cowbirds at the feeder while working on a term paper!  So two new bird species for the year and one new life species!

A Camera in Hand…

…is worth two in the car.

After finishing up at work, I had almost three hours before I had to be somewhere so I booked it to Morris Plains to follow up on an RBA.  It’s not often that RBAs are in my part of the state! Usually they’re down the shore. I got there however, figured out which parking lot I was supposed to be in, and found the last of the day’s birders as they were packing up – just in time to see the bird in a borrowed scope (Thanks, Billy!).  Silly me, in my excitement, I forgot to grab my camera.  I did run back to the car, and in the fading light, I can proudly present bird #82 for the year and #161 for the state:

Pacific Loon visiting Corporate America.  Odd choice, but lovely bird nevertheless.

Pacific Loon visiting Corporate America. Odd choice, but lovely bird nevertheless.

Pacific Loon!  Both the weather and the loon were uncooperative once I got my camera out. (To be fair both cooperated before the camera was out.  The loon was present; the incessant rain stopped.) Once the camera was in the hand, the loon refused to turn and face me, hanging out as far away as possible.  The wind howled and shook the camera.  I had tears streaming down my face from the wind battering my straining eyes. I did however, get another photo, horrible quality, but that’s precisely why I love it.

My Van Gogh rendition of a Pacific Loon.  No photo editing used - just natural skill!

My Van Gogh rendition of a Pacific Loon. No photo editing used – just natural skill!

Cure for the Birding Blues

The weather recovered quickly.  Two days above 50, most of the snow is gone and I may have my first sunburn of the year. So, highlights:

Got home from work yesterday, decided to walk to my favorite birding patch.  It’s a mile down the road all along one of the Hudson River Tributaries so the entire walk has the potential to be a lovely bird experience.  The walk goes nearly halfway across the Hudson River and is a bird mecca, or at least a frequently birded place by local Audubon outings. In the summer, with the shimmering heat, it’s like walking through VanGogh’s mind.

Birds at the Pier yesterday: Canada Goose, Canvasback, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Ring-billed Gull Mourning Dove, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Northern Mockingbird, European Starling, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, House Finch, House Sparrow.

A bit disappointing – normally there are more ducks… hello Mallard? There was a stiff wind.

So, I decided to head back there this morning.  The Pier is a lovely combination of woods, river, and wetland.  Watching ebird, I know people bird it in the morning and have fantastic luck (Iceland Gull, Common Goldeneye).  So I was out there, and, boy, was I surprised to find it was flooded.  The flood waters up to the road on the way in should have been an indicator.  Possibly some combination of high tide and wind.

So instead of walking the mile out and back, I contented myself with wandering past the dogpark and into the woods where I met a man walking his Napoleon-complex-dog.

Birds at the Pier this morning: Canada Goose, Mallard, Ring-billed Gull, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, Carolina Wren, American Robin, White-throated Sparrow, Northern Cardinal, Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle and others I couldn’t identify, including these:

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?

Closer, closer, closer, but who are we?  Click on image for a closer look.

My guess is Red-tailed Hawk based on (1) size, (2) location – have personally seen Red-tails here although others have seen Bald Eagles, Coopers, and Marsh Hawks, (3) have seen Red-tails pairing up recently, and (4) they look just like the Red-tailed Hawks I photographed yesterday.  My biggest reason why I’m not confident on this ID is the pale rusty-orange tinge of the leg feathers.  It’s in multiple photos.  It could be a product of poor lighting – they were out where the water was and I couldn’t get to a better view despite my best efforts.

New visitors to the yard over the last few days have included: Red-winged Blackbird, Common Grackle, Wild Turkey, and American Tree Sparrow.


The turkey looks so majestic with those bold colors, and also, so reptilian.

As I was finishing up at work today, one of our members/volunteers stopped in to record a sighting on the grounds: Hermit Thrush.  So of course, once I locked up the building I had to go have a look-see.  While I was out there making my way around the pond, the Belted Kingfisher was going berserk.  Sounded like a bee in his bonnet.

TNC birds: American Black Duck, Mallard, Hooded Merganser, Northern Harrier, Mourning Dove, Belted Kingfisher, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle, and…. Hermit Thrush!

Now you see me! Now you don't! The Hermit Thrush bustled about.

Now you see me! Now you don’t! The Hermit Thrush bustled about, too busy for photographs.

S’No Way!

I have really bad luck when it comes to traveling for spring break (or when it comes to finding pink churches in Spanish-speaking countries).  When I went to the Great Smoky Mountains, it snowed.  When I went to the Grand Canyon, it snowed.  So if you want snow, invite me to visit during spring break.

Then, I gave up traveling for spring break.  It stopped snowing.  This year, I hope to get in a few day trips during my furlough.  But it snowed this year, suggesting maybe it’s my outdoor/birding attempts that bring out spring snows.   Which means, I have been cooped up with no birding for a week now due to prepping for midterms and presentations!  Wanted break my birding fast with an afternoon outing either Thursday or Friday afternoon, but snow has postponed those plans.   Was also supposed to go with Dad to Wild Birds Unlimited so we can do some grandiose landscape to attract more birds each season.  Snow has also postponed those plans.  Mind you, I was going stir crazy last weekend without an outing.  Prognosis is not so good!

So hopefully birding next week, fit in around my work-schedule.  No sunrise birding unless it’s Wednesday.  But I might have time to checkout Sandy Hook or the Meadowlands.  I’ve heard lots of good things about birding in the Meadowlands, particularly Disposal Road.  But visiting the Meadowlands is more convenient  as I drive through there frequently, so perhaps I should head out to Sandy Hook on the ocean.  I birded there once, three years ago.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Immature Red-winged Blackbird investigates the feeder in hopes of food.

Field season in Warren county for American Kestrels kicks off Tuesday, Sussex date hasn’t yet been finalized. It should be before the month is out.

Haven’t seen the Wood Duck again, but I did have a Red-winged Blackbird checking out the feeder the other day.  I’m assuming it’s immature because it has the epaulets, but it’s back isn’t fully black.  (You can see a hint of red.)  When I found him, he was actually up on the feeder.


Finishing Up February

As I walked back to my car on Tuesday night following class I was very excited to hear vocalizations coming from the construction area/playing fields.  Considering the time and the season, I was hopeful it was the American Woodcock.  When I had a chance, I verified on ebird that the American Woodcock had returned to the area. I haven’t heard woodcocks since I was an undergraduate crossing Skelley Field.   And that’s been years!   I listened to the vocalizations on Cornell’s All About Birds site.  Vocalizations aren’t my thing – I have permanent audio amnesia, so songs and calls are challenging.  Cornell’s vocalization file seemed promising and so I was filled with hope.

Alas, it was not to be.  Arriving on campus Wednesday morning, I learned the true identity of the noisy, new arrival.  Approaching the soccer fields I found a standoff between the disinterested soccer team beginning practice and the indignant Killdeer protecting the goal.

So February wrapped up with a last minute addition to the month list of Killdeer for a total of 5o species, and 34 checklists and a new lifebird, the Monk Parakeet.  Bird sighting I was most excited about:  American Robin.  Seems silly, but they portend spring for me, so it was super exciting to see.  Most vindicated sighting of the month: Brown Creeper.  I knew they had to be around the house, it was only a matter of finding it and I did.

Now, back to studying for Tuesday’s exam!

Spring break is approaching!  So hopefully I will get a chance to get out and bird more as the migrants begin arriving.