Friday, September 9, 2011

Birds of Prey

Last July, my family spent a week on Mount Desert Island. The cottage we rented was a short walk from Seal Cove. We explored the cove on our first morning there.

Taken from my journal:
"We noticed some kind of raptor/bird of prey roosting in a dead tree. Because of it's proximity to an estuary and the fact that it was in a dead tree, we initially thought it was a juvenile osprey. It was backlit by the early morning sun so we couldn't discern it's coloration. We first noticed it by it's quick, high calls, 'eeww...eeww...eeww.' A resident asked if we knew what it was. When I suggested an osprey, she said it wasn't that and suggested it might be a red-tailed hawk. That didn't seem right because red-tails make a high-pitched noise like 'SCREEEeee' with the pitch falling as it calls. We went back to the books, literally."

The primary book we consulted was Raptor! A Kids Guide to Bird's of Prey by Christyna M. LaubachRene Laubach , and Charles W. G. Smith. This is a terrific book for the young naturalists in your home or classroom.

 My family and I spent the entire week observing these birds and trying to identify them. We used our powers of observation.

 Here are some things we learned:

  1. On day one we saw one bird. We thought it was learning to fly and noted that it flew from the dead tree to the same area in the woods behind the tree. We could hear other birds in that area and wondered if they were other young birds.
  2. Over time, as they each apparently learned to fly, we realized there were 4 fledglings. We later saw what we thought was a parent because it was larger.
  3. Initially, they flew from the dead tree to the area that seemed to hide their nest, and back to the dead tree.
  4. By day 2, all 4 were out flying. They were flying all around, landing in various trees, and even soaring occasionally. All the while they made a terrific racket. "Ewwww...Ewwww...Ewww!"

After about 24 hours, we thought maybe they were Northern Harriers or maybe Merlins. From the book we learned that Northern Harriers have a white rump so we set about to see if we could see a white rump.

We talked to the locals (As you know I am prone to do!) They told us the parents had appeared in April and no-one knew what they were. One neighbor told us they're not usually there and lots of the neighbors were puzzled. She had visited the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Guide and thought maybe they were Merlins. Merlins are very small hawks, so we weren't sure that was right either. Our main problem was that we were observing juveniles. Their size and coloration can be very different from adults.

When we were in Acadia National Park, we talked to a ranger to see if she might help us. Without photos to share, though, we had limited luck. The mystery continued.

We watched those birds every day. My kids would come running to tell me to get my camera out when they were passing overhead. Indeed, I ultimately got a few pretty good shots. Here's a sampling (click to make them larger):

Ultimately, we left without identifying them. Honestly, though, we had the most fun observing them and photographing them. Identification would have been nice, but we wouldn't have learned any more about these birds by reading books than by watching them ourselves.  After all, how do you think scientists learn what they learn?

As I've written before, naming a species is often less important than making your own observations. Many people stop paying attention when they learn the name of something and even stop learning about it. Or, they immediately refer to books, thereby turning over their learning to the "expert" who wrote the book. I encourage you and your children to practice becoming experts on the animals and plants in your own backyard, neighborhood, or rooftop. I'm a writer and educator, after all, so of course I encourage you to read books, but watch closely to see what you can learn on your own first.

So, what kind of birds are they? That's my question for you today. Does anyone know? 

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