Sunday, September 23, 2012


Today I took a walk around my favorite city nature park, Morningside Nature Center. I love it because it's a patch of sanctuary in our growing city. I can always be sure to see something special when I visit. I worked there as part of the teaching staff for several years and got to know it quite well. It is a special place and I try to go there often.

As I was walking along the new boardwalk in the Cypress Dome (it's beautiful and FULL of water for the first time in many years) I decided to focus my attention on listening. Weekends are really quiet there and I was one of about 3 people in the park, so I could hear tiny sounds and sounds from far away. Around the Cypress Swamp, the primary sound was buzzing. The cicadas buzzed from the treetops and the mosquitoes buzzed in the shade. I could hear the buzz and plop of the dragonflies dipping and laying eggs. I heard leaves drop into the water. A frog chirped from somewhere in the trees. Another plopped into the water. Soon I became aware of bird sounds and was happy that over the years I'd learned to identify a few of their calls. I'm not a super birder, but I'm enthusiastic and do know some of the calls. I tend to walk with my head down, looking at flowers and bugs, so if I hear a bird call that I recognize, it at least points my head in the right direction. Today I could hear the squeaky rubber ducky sound of the Brown Headed Nuthatches. Next I heard the White Eyed Vireo. Sometimes it sounds to me like it's saying "chick" followed by a gobbledegook. Other times is sounds like it's saying "Step to the rear, Jack" ("Or give me a beer, Jack"). In the bushes next to the walkway I could hear the Eastern Towhees calling "Shweep, Drink your teeeeeeeeea". When I hear tapping, I look for woodpeckers, but sometimes if it's a tiny tap, like today, I find that it's a Tufted Titmouse standing on a branch cracking open a seed. Listening opens my eyes.

After a bit, I heard a commotion. A bunch of crows. They were loud and calling from across the park. I thought there was a chance that they were mobbing an owl, so I followed the sounds. Crows dislike owls and will gang up on them to chase them away. Mobbing can be very effective and smaller birds like crows and bluejays can chase away a much larger predator or competitor. I once watched a single, tenacious mockingbird bother a great horned owl so much that it finally flew away. When I got to the source of the racket, I was happy to find that it was indeed an owl. A great horned owl was perched on a pine tree and a flock of crows surrounded it from the trees, cawing and diving at it.

Crow trying to intimidate a Great Horned Owl
This time, the mobbing did not work and the owl just sat there.

This Owl Ain't Budging!
Other kinds of birds were chattering in the trees. Everyone was upset about this intruder! I heard mockingbirds and bluejays. Then I heard the sound of a red shouldered hawk. I thought that it could just be bluejay mimicking a hawk. They actually do a pretty convincing impersonation. I've watched a bluejay clear the bird feeder out with a well placed call. But this time, it was real, and a red shouldered hawk flew into the tree to join the mob. I imagine that the crows, jays and mockingbirds weren't sure what side to take. They don't like hawks, either, for the same reasons that they don't like owls, and can often be seen mobbing them. (The bluejays and mockingbirds will mob crows for the same reasons as the hawks and owls, so this gets really complicated.) So when the hawk moved in, the rest of the birds quieted down and watched from the trees.

Hawk/Owl Stare-Off

Red Shouldered Hawk tries to scare the Great Horned Owl
The hawk repeatedly flew at the owl and tried to knock it off its perch. I heard the "thwack" of the hits. But the owl wouldn't budge. Then the hawk tried flying right in the face of the owl and spreading its wings to look bigger and more frightening. The owl stayed put. I watched the hawk go back and forth from one branch to another, flapping its wings, calling and flying at the owl. Finally the hawk flew away to pine trees nearby. I could hear it call. I'd been watching for about 20 minutes and my arms were tired from holding the camera, so I walked away. Of course, as soon as I was out of sight, the crows started up again. This time they were loud and furious, and I saw some commotion from the trees, so I think they were finally successful. I don't know for sure because I didn't see it, but the silence that followed spoke volumes.

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