the chase is on!

We tend to see a lot of songbirds, especially warblers, sparrows, flycatchers, thrushes, vireos, etc., migrating south at this time of year. But September is also prime time to see a lot of raptors as they fly down the ridgeline above Duluth and follow the rivers past the Twin Cities.

Last year at this time we visited Hawk Ridge nature reserve on Skyline Drive west of Duluth. On any given day, tens of thousands of hawks pass over this ridge gaining altitude to soar effortlessly south.

I just happened to be at Sucker Lake in Shoreview one morning when some of the local, or perhaps it was a few of the migrating raptors, tried to cash in on the numbers of jays and robins that had just arrived.

First up was a Merlin (a little falcon smaller than a peregrine but which quite likes to eat small birds). I found him far away in a tree being harassed by Blue Jays. Then he turned on them and tried to catch them, chasing them off their perches. But this excitement was all taking place too far away to get any good photos.

Merlins exhibit the typical falcon profile, but they have dark brown stripes down the breast, and a heavily barred tail.
I’ve highlighted the Merlin as it takes off. It was surrounded by 4 Blue Jays squawking loudly and a Pileated Woodpecker just minding its own business — but all of them are risking an attack by this fast-moving falcon if they get too close.
The Merlin made a dive at one of the Blue Jays and just narrowly missed it as it kind of tumbled down. Merlins are agile and FAST flyers with their swept-back wings and flared tail.

Next up was a smaller raptor, a Kestrel (sparrow hawk), which would have preferred to dine on smaller prey like goldfinches or small sparrows, rather than the Blue Jays that were dive-bombing it. All I got was a look through my binoculars before the Kestrel flew off and took refuge in the pines to hide from the jays.

And then a large Cooper’s Hawk flew onto a low perch and took a look at the jays but ignored their squawks, focusing on something much bigger — the Pileated Woodpecker, still minding its own business.

This is a juvenile (hatched this summer) Cooper’s Hawk, and it’s hungry! I watched the bird make half a dozen attempts to catch something as it flew back and forth from tree to tree.
A female or juvenile Pileated Woodpecker, very far away, but completely oblivious to the Cooper’s Hawk eyeing it from about 100 yards away.

The Cooper’s Hawk made no attempts to nab the Blue Jays encircling it wherever it perched, and instead made several dives at the woodpecker, trying to pluck it right off the trunk of the tree. The action looked something like this:

A quick take-off…
Followed by a few wing flaps, as the Cooper’s Hawk quickly makes its way from one set of trees to another.
The hawk returns and is now flying directly at the tree where the woodpecker is working.
You might think the Woodpecker would try to fly away at this point — but perhaps he is actually more vulnerable flying. Woodpeckers aren’t the fastest flyers as they flap, flap, glide over the landscape.
This is looking a little more dangerous for the woodpecker! Hawk in full attack mode.
The hawk puts on the brakes, flaring its tail and dropping its wings to slow down. It might have tried to knock the woodpecker off its perch, but the woodpecker seems to have turned to face its attacker. And Pileated Woodpeckers do have a pretty fearsome weapon to defend themselves from this kind of frontal assault — a very large and sharply pointed bill.

I think the woodpecker won this confrontation, and eventually the Cooper’s Hawk flew off to pick on some, other less formidable prey.

Mrs. Pileated, foraging on the tree right outside my porch windows, showing off her sturdy beak that can pound holes in hardwood trees with ease.

10 thoughts on “the chase is on!

    • Thanks, Mike. You know the birds were so far away, everything at infinite distance was in focus. Following the hawks through the trees, now that was a different matter, and a lot of the time I lost them through the branches.

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