Scanning for dinner in the marsh below, a Red-tailed Hawk perched atop the Eastern Point Lighthouse for a moment before resuming the hunt.
This juvenile Red-tailed hawk was perched in a tree on the roadside running along the Great Salt Marsh. She was hunting a squirrel that was half hidden in the leaf litter below. This is the second time in the past several weeks that we’ve seen a Red-tailed Hawk hunting and eating a squirrel. The first was in our neighbor’s yard, perched on the stone wall, eating a Gray Squirrel. The Red-tailed flew overhead with the squirrel in its beak and landed on the lattice of our outdoor shower enclosure. My husband stood beneath the shower ceiling and watched for a bit as the hawk finished off his meal.
The Red-tailed Hawk’s diet is highly variable, consisting of small mammals including voles, mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels; other birds including bobwhite, starlings, blackbirds, ducks, and pheasant; reptiles such as snakes and frogs; fish; insects; bats; and carrion. They are colloquially called “chickenhawks” however, they rarely take a standard-sized chicken.
The Red-tailed Hawk is the most common bird of prey found in North America. We saw several in Mexico on our trip to Cerro Pelon in early March. They are found from the interior of Alaska and northern Canada to as far south as the West Indies and Panama.
He perched for a moment on a nearby limb, turning his head in all directions, hungrily triangulating the landscape for a tasty meal. Next he flew to a nearby telephone pole, and then over the houses towards the Harbor.
A few minutes later the Red-tailed reappeared, followed by several crows noisily haranguing and giving him the business, in no uncertain terms!
Parker River National Wildlife Refuge Part One
Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk listening for prey
I am in the midst of doing research for the Piping Plover film project and have found the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to be a great resource. Recently I met a terrific warden there, Jean, and she gave me a copy of the historic brochure written in 1947 by Rachel Carson about the refuge. The brochure was reprinted and if you inquire, they may still have some copies in the back office. You can also download it at this link: Rachel Carson Parker River Wildlife Refuge brochure
The brochure provides an early history of the refuge and is a fascinating view of mid-century conservation. And, too, it is a tremendous example of Carson’s thoughtful and thought-provoking style of writing.
Barred Owl hunting – The refuge provides over 300 species of migratory and resident birds with vital habitat.
Some interesting facts about the refuge —
Located along the northeastern coast of Massachusetts, the Parker River National Refuge includes lands that lie within the three towns of Rowley, Ipswich, and Newbury. We think of Plum Island as the heart of the refuge. The wildlife refuge also consists of a range of diverse habitats and geographic features; over 3,000 acres of salt marsh, freshwater marsh, shrub lands, a drumlin, cranberry bog, salt pannes, beach and sand dunes, and maritime forest. The land is not conserved to revert back to a wild state, but is intensely managed in order to preserve and maintain the diversity of wildlife habitats.
The original warden’s headquarters
Unlike our national parks, which preserves parklands and historic buildings, and are designed for people, a national wildlife refuge is established first and foremost for wildlife and their habitats, not for people. The preservation of wildlife is the number one priority of all our national wildlife refuges.
The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1942 to help species of waterfowl that migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. There were three sharp declines in waterfowl populations in the early half of the 20th century, notably the American Black Duck, and national wildlife refuges all along the Atlantic coast were created in response to the precipitously low numbers.
As we can see with our local Niles Pond, Henry’s Pond, and Langsford Pond shorebirds, waterfowl, and myriad species of wildlife thrive where they have easy access to both fresh water and salt water. The three bodies of fresh water that you see in the refuge look like ponds but they are actually manmade impoundments, created by dams and are highly controlled by a series of dykes and pumps.
Salt Island Impoundment Pump
Parker River provides pristine habitats for a wide variety of mammals, insects, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Hunting birds such as owls, hawks, osprey, eagles, herons, and egrets find an abundance of food at the wildlife refuge. Whenever at Parker River I never not see a raptor!
Red-tailed Hawk Preening
Transfixing Owl Eyes
Because owls mostly hunt at night their eyes are very efficient at collecting and processing light. To protect their extraordinary eyes, owls are equipped with three eye lids; an upper and a lower lid, and a third lid that diagonally closes across the eye. This action cleans and protects the eye.
More about Parker River National Wildlife Refuge to come.
ALERT: Please skip this article if you are feeling the least bit squeamish.
Click on the Read More tab below the text to see all the photos.
Looking for Snow Buntings while walking alongside Niles Pond, I came around a bend in the road and noticed from a distance the head of a large bird pecking at something on the embankment. Hmmm, a hawk, that’s why there weren’t any birds to be found. Hawks swooping their territory overhead quickly clears the woods and puts the kibosh on photographing songbirds.
Inching forward, baby step by baby step, the hawk was broad and large, and with its beautiful rust-red tail feathers, I thought it was most likely a female Red-tailed Hawk. The females are 25 to 30 percent bigger than the males, and because this bird was definitely on the larger size, for the sake of our story, we’ll refer to the hawk as a female.
She was intently devouring a freshly killed bird and if she had not been very hungry, I doubt she would have allowed me to move in so close. At one point, after having nearly eviscerated the entire bird, she tried to lift and carry away the carcass with her claw-shaped talons (one of the last photos in the batch). She did not succeed and finding more body parts, continued to eat.
After a bit, some boisterous folks came up from behind, startling both the hawk and myself, and off she flew to the far side of the pond. I found a stick and turned the dead carcass over onto its back. The head was missing, but by looking at the black webbed feet as well as the chest and belly feathers, it quickly became apparent that the victim was a Great Cormorant. I am sad to say that I think it was the very same juvenile Great Cormorant that had been living at Niles Pond for the past month as I have not seen another since.
Red-tailed hawks are extraordinarily adept hunters and highly variable in their diet. Eighty percent of the Hawk’s prey is comprised of mammals. For example, mice, voles, squirrels, chipmunks, rats, and rabbits. Records indicate that they also eat songbirds, pigeons, shorebirds, and unbelievably so, female Wild Turkeys and pheasants. Now we can add Great Cormorant to the list. Red-tailed Hawks weigh approximately between 1.5 pounds to 3.2 pounds, female Wild Turkeys average 9 to 10 pounds, and Great Cormorants weigh 5 to 8 pounds.
There were birders in the neighborhood earlier that morning, the morning of the winter solstice, December 21st. I wonder if they saw the Hawk kill the Cormorant, or if the Hawk came upon the freshly killed bird and it had been taken down by another predator. If you were one of the birders watching the Hawk out on Eastern Point near Niles Pond, on December 21st, please write. Thank you so much!
MORE PHOTOS HERE