Friday, August 8, 2008

Midnight Meadow Murder

August 6, 2008 The Chatterbox Betty Kaiser “Murder in the meadow by moonlight” is a summer avian mystery taking place on our property at Wilson Creek Meadows. The victims appear to be ravens. Their only remains are large coal black feathers completely pulled from their bodies and found strewn around the meadow at daybreak. A deadly predator obviously has invaded our previously peaceful bird population. After my husband and I moved from the city to the country in 1989, we discovered a fascinating new world in the treetops. Living where we do, in the middle of a meadow, across from a lake and a creek, there is no shortage of winged creatures. As city dwellers we had never heard Screech Owls hunting by the full moon or had a house finch knock on the window to fill the bird feeder! We quickly became fascinated observers of this new kingdom. Shortly after moving onto the property we noticed a parade of cars stopping across the street from us. Individuals would get out, train their binoculars on a fir tree where a huge nest rested atop a snag. Officious looking people from fish and game organizations would periodically stop, jot down notes and leave. Tourists and campers would often look up and take photos. Our neighborhood tourist attraction turned out to be an osprey nest. We had previously observed ospreys in Alaska where we were fascinated with their fish carrying techniques. Their modus operandi is to swoop down into the water, grab a fish with their long claws and position it with the head forward to cut wind resistance. The fish is then carried off to the nest to be eaten. Our favorite local osprey experience was the day we heard a tussle in the skies over the creek. Mom and dad were anxiously circling the nest. Newly hatched chicks were loudly squawking to be fed. Overhead was an Eagle looking for lunch. Suddenly the osprey parents dive bombed the Eagle, flanked him and escorted him down the creek away from the nest. The chicks were safe to grow another day. Amazing. After years of raising sometimes multiple noisy broods, our ospreys are suspiciously quiet this year. In fact, this is the first time in our 20 summers on the lake, that they are no-shows. This is a cause for concern because ospreys often return to breed in the area they were born. We wonder what happened. Where are they? Eagles suddenly seem rather plentiful. Early one morning we were walking our dogs at a nearby park when we sensed something watching us. Suddenly we heard a large swoosh! A Bald Eagle rose from the branches of a tall fir, checked out our dogs and flew out over the lake. No doubt he was looking for smaller prey. An immense variety of smaller birds congregate at our place. Recently, a visiting friend, formerly with the Audubon Society, identified nearly 40 varieties in and around our property. We have an amazing community of colorful finches, chickadees, geese, juncos, grosbeaks, mallards, nuthatches, purple martins, tanagers, spotted towhees, red-breasted sapsuckers, flickers and my personal favorite — the red-winged blackbird. Stellar Jays also populate our little corner of the bird world. One evening last month, a pair of jays was harassing me on the way to the compost pile. Jumping up and down tree branches, they seemed to be trying to head me away from something. Suddenly, our doxie puppy flushed one of our cats out from under a ladder propped under the eaves of our storage shed. Aha! The jays weren’t worried about me; it was the cats they were watching. Closer inspection revealed that the jays had constructed a nest high atop an aluminum ladder. The nest was about 18-inches across and mom was sitting on eggs. I quickly boarded up the ladder to detract predators and give the family some security. Large ravens, black birds and crows populate the towering firs along the creek. They sound as if they are incessantly squabbling amongst themselves. Caw. Caw. Caaaw! Their shrill penetrating voices are not to be ignored. One can only assume that they command a great deal of respect in the bird community. But something has been stalking and killing them at night. (And no, it’s not our cats. They are inside.) So back to our mystery: what is killing these large birds? An eagle or large hawk? Ground predators are certainly a possibility. Raccoons? We have many. Jeff, our visiting son (a self-professed night owl) has added another twist to the mystery. A professional musician who needs to “keep his chops up,” he often practices his trumpet outside in the evening (with a heavy-duty mute). His audience is an interesting mix of cats, dogs, birds and bats flying out of the nearby trees. Thanks to his late night concerts, he observes a wide variety of nightlife. About 2 a.m. one morning, a large owl flew slowly (and closely) overhead to check him out! Jeff said that it looked suspiciously like a Great Horned Owl and had a distinctive ho hoo hoo sound. “Sorry, mom, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup.” I looked up our visiting owl in Sibley’s Field Guide to Birds” and it says that Great Horned Owls “at night forage in woods, fields and forest edges for medium size mammals…” It also says that Screech Owls kill blackbirds. Hmm. The plot thickens. But hey! I’m a hybrid city girl living in the country. I can’t solve this mystery. Drop me a line or give me a call and let me know what you think. We can use a little help out here. Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. Read her weekly columns in the Cottage Grove Sentinel.