Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Act Two: Action on a Pond

Nov 9, 2017 ... Oregon

It was supposed to be showery and cloudy today, but at midmorning there was a teaser of sun.  We quickly gather our cameras and my sketchbook and head out to grab a few minutes of sunshine.  Morning is great – thousands of starlings and about 200 crows shift back and forth between a yellowing vineyard and a bucolic pasture. I spend an hour savoring the dampness, the constant chatter of crows, and constant calling from the flocks of starlings as they swoop and swirl back and forth.

Dark, rain-filled clouds sweep in during early afternoon, but the rain is holding off.  We decide to stay out a little longer, to check a little pond that might have some hooded mergansers. 

As we come over the rise and get our first look at the pond I realize we just missed Act One.  The curtain is rising on Act Two.  Blackberry bushes are shaking on the far side of the pond.  Seventeen hooded mergansers have swum over to the commotion.  A great blue heron flies in too, takes a good look, and quickly flies off, squawking as he goes.  The mergansers just don’t know what to make of the spectacle.  All have their crests well fluffed, even the hens.  A few of the drakes even rear up in typical courtship behavior.  They are as excited as we are. 

The bush continues shaking.  Finally we get a clue.  A wing pops out of the green leaves and quickly disappears into the shrubbery again.  A hawk is caught in the blackberries!  Ouch! We finally see him.  He pulls and tugs, one leg stretched out behind. 

He isn’t caught! He has done the catching.  The hawk holds a fairly large prey item, and is now trying to untangle it from the blackberry bush. It is an awkward tussle. 

Success at last.  The hawk breaks free from the blackberries and gathers himself together into a semi dignified pose. He has something clutched in his foot.  For now he just wants to rest on the steep slope. Now that the excitement is over, the mergansers drift off and start fishing for their own dinner.  The males are such ‘Dapper Dans’.  The hens are just as beautiful, but in a quiet way.  Over on the far side of the pond the great blue heron fishes too. 

I’m trying to figure out what kind of hawk and what did he catch.  First impression is that it is an immature red-tailed hawk.  It is just a little far away to tell for sure.  The prey us mostly hidden but has some orangey-yellow and is quite large. 
It’s a huge bullfrog!  It is the grand daddy of all bull frogs.  We’ve seen redtails splash into shallow water before to catch frogs … and salamanders.   No wonder the hawk looks wet.  Is the frog too big to fly with?

Act three

The hawk doesn’t seem in any hurry to go anywhere and we’ve got plenty to watch while we wait.  The merganser swim together, feeding along the far shore line.  They tend to all dive at once, each one rolling into the water with a little splash.  Then, one by one, they pop up like inflated balloons.  Usually at least one is just finishing gulping down something – a minnow? A dragonfly larvae?  I can’t tell.  Meanwhile the heron is getting nearer to us.  He pauses and looks around.  Head high and neck long, he slowly wades. 

Something catches the heron’s attention.  His body eases forward; his neck lowers and settles into an S curve, coiled, ready to stab.  Out darts his neck.  Bam!  Splash!  Into the pond goes his head.  A quick flick and he swallows another little fish. 

After a good half hour the hawk is finally feeding, pulling and tugging on the bullfrog.  It is a slow process.  We stay and watch for another 45 minutes.  It gets dark early at this time of year.  Finally the hawk lifts off and disappears into the nearby Douglas firs.  I can't see if he carried any remains of frog. 

After we got home and could look at our photographs on the computer, Dale realized the hawk is an immature red-shoulder hawk, not at red-tailed hawk.  They are much smaller.  The frog still looks big near the red-shouldered hawk, but perhaps not the grand daddy of all bullfrogs.