Young Hawks and Cars; Otters & Fast Cruisers: Living with Creatures and Mortality

With raptors, unlike some birds, their risk factors for death don’t diminish much once they leave the nest. The danger really just starts. They must learn to hunt and navigate any number of hazards. One of my neighbors, a male broad winged hawk of about 7 weeks of age met his demise in front of me, about a quarter mile from my house as I drove behind the pickup truck that struck him. I was on my way to visit an arborist and forester that wanted to look out our inventory software when it happened. The fellow driving the truck couldn’t have done anything, as the forest crowded up on the road, and it’s unlikely he would have seen the bird coming. The bird, in the midst of his being completely weaned from parental feeding, hungry and staring at some prey item across Route 132, launched into a stoop, not seeing the Ford F-150 moving south at 50 miles per hour. The blow was big enough that I imagined I heard it while following two car-lengths behind.

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I stopped. I expected to see a dead bird, but as I took a picture, I saw him revive before me. But he stayed down, so something was clearly wrong. I threw my camera back in the truck and grabbed some camouflage netting from the back and bundled him up to bring to the local raptor center. They rehabilitate birds, among other things. I called ahead to advise them and 20 minutes later pulled up in Quechee, at  the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences (VINS). Three staff were waiting to take the hawk. They were quickly able to establish that he had a massive compound fracture in the main bone in his right wing. It wasn’t fixable.

Before going on, I’d like to note that VINS is a fantastic non-profit and a great place to visit. Check out their site here. My kids love visiting the place, which has been adding exhibits over the past couple of years. Where else can you see a show where they allow Harris hawks to fly between the seated audience members? My five-year-old makes me go there at least once every couple months, and I always find I enjoy it and learn new things.

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Otters Head to Other Bank of Rappahannock

That broad winged hawk the day before had about a 50 percent chance of making it back to Thetford next year after the migration; with starvation, predation, disease, accident and the unintended hand of man all conspiring to make the odds challenging. Not having directly observed his nest I’m not sure how many siblings he had. I suspect he’s from the nest in the back woods of our neighbor, Alice, which I haven’t had time to view. I can say that on my return from VINS on the same road, I noticed another small hawk flattened on the road a few hundred yards beyond where I’d witnessed the impact. The roadkill being a week or so old and on a high traffic road, I couldn’t identify whether it was also a broad winged hawk. Broad wingeds are often edge hunters. They’re the ones that like to circle fields and belt out their kee kee calls, one of the few calls that – to me – actually sounds like how it’s written on the page. They, along with red tail hawks, like to sit on the lower wires by roadsides and pick off unlucky creatures. The adolescents among them aren’t terribly car savvy.

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Directly Over the Four Otters

The damage people do is seldom deliberate. Our roads are attractive nuisances, pulling birds into a danger their instincts haven’t had time to evolve around. Just last week I saw a different example of people living in a beautiful place (tidewater Virginia) unknowingly run over a group of river otters with a speedboat.

I think the otters scattered downward in time, but it was a close thing. I could count four on the way across the river, and four when they beat retreat back to the bank from which I was taking pictures. I was fortunate to have borrowed a lens from Canon that was large enough it required a tripod to maneuver. These are poor quality shots of the otters in part because they were taken about 7:30 at night, and partly because they were shot from a quarter mile away with an 800mm equivalent focal length through hot, dense, moist air at a low angle. Even with primary element the width of my head, wild river otters are terribly difficult subjects to capture.

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All Four Beat Retreat Back to West Bank

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Both in Virginia and here in Vermont, people pride themselves in trying to live in harmony with the neighbor creatures, but, still, the animals are the ones inevitably pushed out. At left, a loon parent  on a nest two weeks ago signals its stress as fishermen cast within the exclusion zone set up precisely to prevent this.

Below is a shot from last winter, when a mother bear risked taking her cubs near a house (mine) for the reward of being able to hoover up all the fallen apples from the orchard. This bear, called Clarky by the man who put a locator collar on her as part of ongoing bear behavior research, would be shot come the end of this past hibernation period when it found some local chicken coops unprotected by electric wire. Her two male cubs would survive, as they had grown large enough over the past year. One would be caught a few months later on a game camera we set up in hopes of capturing an image of the bobcat we suspected was pregnant this past spring.

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Clarky and the Boys

There’s not a lot we can do proactively to prevent the pressure our presence causes on wildlife, but there are a few things we can do, so they take on some importance. On an individual level:

  • Don’t feed wild animals
  • If you keep chickens, make sure there is an electric wire around the impoundment
  • Bring bird feeders in before the bears wake up
  • Respect exclusion zones set up around nests and rare habitats
  • Don’t allow pet cats outdoors

On a professional level – this is a site about forest inventory, arboriculture and habitat software after all – there are of course thousands of things we do to encourage sustainable habitats.

The very act of conducting a tree survey or forest inventory gives people the tools to make proper landscape-level decisions. That we need to be outdoors to do these things is one of the best parts of our jobs – and we hear that from our software users in our annual poll. Intentional or not, the people doing forest inventories are often the people able to best observe human impact on the lands and wildlife around us. Now that people are using iPads and other technology to keep track of this stuff, taking the opportunistic picture here and there is quite easy. Please do email us with images that you take showing interesting wildlife observations, especially interesting trees, or unexpected impacts of man on nature (or of nature on man). One of the fun things about our jobs is comparing stories with the people who forego bigger salaries and air conditioned desk jobs to put themselves out in a position to see such things.

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