Wednesday, December 9, 2009

One Less Junco

As I was tapping away on my laptop this morning, I caught a movement out of the corner of my eye. As I looked out at the falling snow, a gray hawk was suspended in midair in front of the feeders, its tail and wings spread broad. A second later it swooped down to the ground about 30 feet away.

The bird -- an accipiter -- set about plucking feathers. An hour later, after surveying the dining spot, I determined that we had one less junco in our yard.

Remains of the Junco
(click on photo to enlarge)

We watched the accipiter feed for an hour. Steady snow and screens on the windows blurred our vision some, yet we could still see its reddish barred breast, gray head and back, and banded tail. This was a Cooper's or a sharp-shinned hawk, but which one. My first thought was a male Cooper's hawk, because it was not the bigger female Cooper's nor the smaller male sharp-shinned. But could it be a female sharp-shinned? As all the bird guides note, these two birds - male Cooper's and female sharp-shinned - are very difficult to distinguish.

After a half hour, the accipter paused to rest. I thought it was finished, but after 10 minutes it resumed feeding. This gave me time to set up the spotting scope and focus in on its features. After peering at the bird, looking at several bird books, and reading Tricky bird IDs: sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk at Project Feeder Watch, I concluded that our accipiter was a female sharp-shinned hawk. Here is why:
  • Square tail -- clearly seen while it was feeding on the junco; Cooper's have a rounded tail
  • Reddish color below eyes and around to "cheeks" -- this is a lighter color in Cooper's
  • Relatively small head and beak
  • Broad chest - center of gravity high; this was particularly evident when it was resting between meals and facing us
Both Cooper's and Sharpies are known for their regular visits to bird feeders. In past years a Cooper's hawk has swept in for a meal or two. We are happy to add a sharp-shinned to our yard list of bird diversity.

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