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Cori Brown: Spring drama alive and well in the swamp

Cori Brown: Spring drama alive and well in the swamp
Red-tailed hawks like this one are frequent visitors to the swamp. (Cori Brown photo)

It’s been an action packed few weeks in the wetlands across the road from the house.

Frogs are in overdrive with their mating calls. One recent night was so loud that I couldn’t sleep. Wood frogs, spring peepers and American toads tried to outdo each other for hours on end. As obnoxious as they were that night, I am grateful that the swamp as I call it, is healthy enough to sustain their thriving populations.

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Day time is no less dramatic. In a first for me, four different kinds of raptors are hunting in the swamp, some at the same time. They include eagles, red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks and kestrels.

Eagles sightings are not as rare for me as they used to be but seeing them hunting and scavenging in front of the house is. Both sightings occurred late in the day under totally different circumstances.

It took a chance meeting with a neighbor to explain the presence of first eagle. It turns out he was in scavenger mode due to a deceased deer by the stream. Of course, he had some turkey vulture groupies hanging out with him. Like the eagle, they never pass up easy pickings.

Eagle sighting number two came as quite a surprise. It was almost dark (7:30 p.m.) and overcast. As I opened the front door to let the dog out, I noticed a large black lump in a dead tree (I call it the hunting tree).

At first, I thought it was the usual red-tailed hawk, but upon closer inspection I noticed a flash of white on the head.

The race was on to grab the binoculars and camera. It’s a miracle I didn’t trip and break a leg in my rush to confirm this mirage! As the beady eyed binoculars brought it into view, it was staring right at me (I don’t think anything wants to be on the receiving end of those fierce eyes). He probably thought who is this bumbling idiot anyway?

He commanded an excellent view of the swamp but whether he got anything I don’t know. I snapped a few fuzzy pictures and then off he flew into the cloud laden night.

This Red-shouldered hawk always keeps a wary eye on his bigger cousin, the Red-tailed hawk.
This Red-shouldered hawk always keeps a wary eye on his bigger cousin, the Red-tailed hawk. (Cori Brown photo)

Fortunately, the eagle and the red-tailed hawk did not meet each other that evening. They are not exactly on friendly terms.

No doubt the eagle would have chased it off. As top tier predators, neither wants the other to move into its territory for nests or food. In fact, eagles and red-tailed hawks can and do fight to death for territory. Though this would be fascinating to watch, I prefer peaceful arbitration as in you go your way, I’ll go mine!

Such is the case, too, with the red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. In another first, I recently watched both of them hunting at the same time in the swamp. I paid particular attention to the red-shouldered hawk since his raptor cousin typically weighs at least a pound more than him. It could be my imagination, but he seemed a bit nervous.

The tables can turn quickly in nature as the pint-sized kestrel knows. It’s unusual for me to see kestrels on a frequent basis in the swamp but this spring has been an exception. Though they are raptors, too, kestrels are members of the falcon family as opposed to the hawk and eagle tribes.

Red-tailed hawks, among others, can spell trouble for the kestrel, as he could end up being on their dinner menu.

Small in stature, big in attitude, this windblown American kestrel frequently hovers above his prey.
Small in stature, big in attitude, this windblown American kestrel frequently hovers above his prey. (Cori Brown photo)

As much as I love the hawks and eagles, kestrels may be my favorite raptor. They weigh in around 3 to 6 ounces (think one to two king-sized Reese’s peanut butter cups) and are similar in size to mourning doves.

If kestrels were boxers, they would definitely be in the featherweight division (pun intended). Once you see one, you remember it for the vertical black slashes on its face and slate blue, rust and cream-colored body speckled with black dashes and dots.

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But that’s not all that makes this raptor special. He can hover like a helicopter above his prey, then drop like a bullet to pick it up. His hunting technique reminds me of the famous Muhammad Ali quote, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”

I’d like to think kestrels have a little bit of royalty in them, too. If you look at their cream-colored breasts sprinkled with black dots, they remind me of the ermine robes royal families wear. They are small but mighty kings and queens of the sky.

The drama is cranking up now that spring time is here. I expect to see many more theatrical moments in the swamp as the season progresses. From the ground below to the sky above, it’s sure to be a great show!

And don’t forget Earth Day is coming on April 22. This year’s theme is Protect Our Species. Find out what you can do to protect the wonderful plant and wildlife species we have right here at home and around the world.

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