Lots of activity (and one very curious owl mystery) in one Lowcountry backyard

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comSeptember 9, 2013 

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Thanks to Dianne Faucette of Hilton Head Island for sharing her appreciation for Lowcountry nature.

"BACKYARD WONDERS"

By Dianne Faucette

Our backyard in Palmetto Dunes is a "Certified Wildlife Habitat," and the birds know it.

Three bird feeders, six birdbaths, and a variety of birdhouses welcome our feathered friends, and we benefit from free entertainment (unless you count the cost of 40 pounds of seed and peanuts a month). By the way, we use the "deluxe blend" bird seed at Wild Birds Unlimited.

This summer has been the most active of our 14 years living on Hilton Head Island.

Most of the birds nested in places we have yet to find, but the evidence has flooded our feeders. Young fledglings of several varieties have been in training on our deck. We have observed them being fed at the feeders by their parents, landing on the feeders with wings shuttering to help them balance, flying from point to point and missing their target but making a soft landing on our bushes, and tuning their baby squeaks into adult songs.

Parents and juvies call to each other between the trees. We've enjoyed seeing the blue jays begging their parents to feed seed to them. Some of the cardinals are actually bald before their red feathers pop out. The red-bellied woodpeckers have found the feeders this year since we started adding peanuts to the mix. Their young have no red on their heads yet, except for a stray tiny feather here and there. They have been showing their long needle-tongues as they dig out a nut.

SQUIRREL CHASE

One day we got a call from the Tillers next door to look out at the hawk in their backyard chasing squirrels. I hurried out in my bare feet and watched not one, but two red-tailed hawks flying from limb to roof, to deck, to limb, diving straight down, trying to catch a squirrel. The hawks appeared to be not-quite adults, as their chasing was in vain. They were outwitted by the squirrels. The hawks paid absolutely no attention to the four humans gawking or the camera snapping. One flew within inches of my face, which was covered by my camera, and I never saw just how close it was.

THE LAGOON

Each year a pair of green herons nest in some low-hanging branches over the lagoon. They outsmart us by hiding the nests quite well, and also changing the nest location from year to year. One year a young one paid us a visit on our deck and wasn't even afraid of me standing a few feet away snapping photos.

These herons are smart fishermen. The adults will often stand on a low-hanging limb and let their bills dive into the water for a fish while still hanging onto the limb with their feet. Of course, if the fish aren't at the water's surface, the heron will drop something into the water to get the fish to come up within its reach.

A small, dead tree leans over the water nearby, and a female anhinga has made that snag her permanent residence. Almost every time we have looked over there for the last several weeks, she has been on "her" perch. She is still there until it's almost too dark to see her, so we suspect she sleeps there. One day I was worried about her when I saw a male osprey on "her" limb. But he was just visiting while she was out fishing. She returned shortly thereafter.

CURIOSITY

I have learned this year that hummingbirds are curious animals. There is one tiny female that visits our deck several times a day. She first tastes the nectar of almost every flower bloom we have, then comes to flirt with the hummingbird sun catcher we mounted on our glass door. She hovers about two inches away trying to get its attention. Then she moves from door to door trying to peek inside. Sometimes this lasts a few minutes.

TRAVELERS

During the migration period, we had some very special birds land at our house.

A male rose-breasted grosbeak discovered our feeders and came to visit us on five different days. On his last day he brought his mate with him -- a real treat for us. Of all the birds ever to visit our feeders, the grosbeaks have stayed the longest, about 30 minutes at a time and several times during the day.

One day we noticed a female American redstart playing in a puddle on our deck under the fountain. It was a shady and cool place for her to chill out.

Another day a male black and white warbler was trying to find some insects in the grooves under our sliding glass door.

Some robins visited our birdbaths after raiding our holly tree. Robins rarely visit us because we don't put worms in our feeders.

A great crested flycatcher started nosing around our gourd that housed a Carolina chickadee nest. Not once but repeatedly. The flycatcher hopped all around our deck for several days looking for insects.

A pine warbler and Northern parula also paid us quick visits.

FOOD CHAIN

A beautiful raptor, the Cooper's hawk has been keeping watch for its dinner by perching on our roof and even on the bird feeder hangers. Fortunately, the birds know to scatter most of the time. As much as I am saddened on the few occasions when the Cooper's hawk wins, I admit it needs to eat too. They're all part of the food chain. Now that I've taken a few photographs, though, I don't mind waving it off so the little birds can come back.

A MYSTERY

One day recently, I noticed a dead blue jay in our side yard. Lying a few feet away was a dead great horned owl. Sadly, I imagined a collision of the two birds may have happened the prior night. A twig was in the owl's beak, as if the owl had charged at the jay on a limb. The owl's talons were empty, although slightly intertwined.

There was nothing we could do except wait for a nocturnal predator. The next morning, both birds were gone without a trace -- no feathers, bones or disturbed ground. So, apparently it was not a fox, alligator, coyote or feral cat. All I could assume was that another large owl had lifted them with its talons, although it's still mysterious to me. Nature is full of surprises.

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