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.

Playtime in the backyard

Just as the daylight was fading in the backyard, I spied a young fox chasing a very immature, small rabbit around the backyard. This young fox wasn’t interested in eating the rabbit, but certainly seemed to enjoy the chase. All the better to hone its predatory skills. The rabbit did what prey instinctively do when threatened — sat as still as a stone, until the fox turned its head, at which point the rabbit tried to escape. It was quite comical to watch!

Half-grown fox dares the bunny to hop while it is spread-eagled next to it.
Maybe if I poke the bunny…”
“Maybe I’ll just ignore the bunny…”
C’mon, let’s play chase…”

the cutest killer

With their small bodies, short noses, pert ears, and bright, brown button eyes, there is no doubt that American Martens (a member of the weasel family about the size of a mink) are cute…


Cute enough to be a pet?

But these feisty little hunters will give chase to Red Squirrels, mice of all sorts, even Snowshoe Hares, and they hunt both day and night, depending on season and weather, being active as much as 60% of the day in the summer.  They are also important seed dispersers of the fruits that pass through their digestive tracts, some of which (e.g., Alaskan blueberry and huckleberry) will germinate far more easily having been treated with a little Marten stomach acid first.


A tree perch is a great place from which to scope out this marten’s next meal.


Hmm…what shall it be…


How about a nice plump chipmunk?

Although Wikipedia doesn’t mention chipmunks as possible prey of martens, they are rather slow moving, comparatively easy to catch, and also rather common in the birch-balsam fir forest in northeastern Minnesota that Martens also inhabit.


Sitting out in the open where some furtive predator (like that cutest killer, the American Marten) can see it might just be a fatal mistake.


Activity like this, with two chipmunks chasing each other, and running around on the asphalt walking path must make them very attractive to hunters like the marten.


Run away little chipmunk…

All photos by Steve Chaplin, who found the Marten by accident while trying to photograph a Ruffed Grouse in Grand Portage State Park in the northeastern most corner of Minnesota, while I was busy photographing waterfalls.

Red Fox redux — or why I miss the foxes in my backyard

The Red Fox kits seem to be thriving well in the Minneapolis backyard.  The Minneapolis paper ran an article on foxes in urban backyards the same day I published their photos on this blog!  Some city residents appreciate seeing “wild” creatures come into their backyards — others abhor nature and shoot foxes, even within the city limits.  So sad.

The following set of photos was kindly forwarded by a friend who lives quite near the fox den where we took the first set of pictures, and it illustrates very well why I (and some others) enjoy having foxes patrol the backyard and keep the rodent/rabbit population under control.

red fox kit with rabbit

Got that rabbit!  One of the red fox kits makes a kill.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

red fox kit with rabbit-

Shake it up, make sure it’s dead.  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

red fox kit with rabbit-

Enjoying a delicious meal!  Photo by Debbie Reynolds

As I look out my porch window on the backyard this evening, here is why I miss the foxes in my backyard.  We haven’t seen rabbits here for the last few years; either the Great Horned Owls or the foxes were taking care of them.  Now I see that the rabbits have quite enjoyed the herb garden, polishing off most of the cilantro and the dill and have now started in on the cardinal flower and other tender shoots in the wildflower garden.

rabbits in the garden-

They look like pretty easy targets to me, even with their big, widely spaced eyes trained on what’s around them.

eastern cottontail rabbit eating garden wildflowers-

Well, help yourself to a few of my flowers, then.

eastern cottontail rabbit-

Did you know that the placement of the eyes on a rabbit’s head enables them to see almost 360 degrees around their head, as well as above and below their head? They have about 30 degrees of binocular vision in front, 10 degrees of binocular vision behind their head!, and almost 180 degrees of lateral monocular vision from each eye. No wonder they are so hard to sneak up on.

The hunt

A red fox looked like it was hunting mice over in the neighbor’s yard this afternoon.

red fox hunting

Can he smell mice through the snow?

I tried to open the window to get a better shot without window glass reflection, but the fox heard me, and immediately raised its head and looked like it would run off.

red fox

I was probably 300 feet from the fox, but obviously my muted squeaky window was quite loud to the fox.

Although the fox turned and looked like it would run back into the woods, it suddenly paused, turned back toward my backyard and started creeping up the hill between our two yards. There were two gray squirrels nosing around for seeds beneath the bird feeders, but I don’t see how the fox could have seen them because it was downhill from them.

red fox-lying in wait for squirrels

And here is where the fox remained, squinting into the sun for about five minutes while the squirrels frisked about the bird feeders.

red fox lying in wait for squirrel

Oh, how I wish I could open the window (despite the -5 F temperature) to get a cleaner shot, but this will have to do.

And then…one of the squirrels made a move to visit another bird feeder, heading straight toward the fox.  And the fox made its move.

red fox-stalking a squirrel

Amazing how fast that fox closed on the unsuspecting squirrel. 

red fox-stalking a squirrel

Two giant leaps and he was on it.  Finally the squirrel took evasive action, but it was too little too late.

red fox-hunting squirrel

But of course the collision between fox and squirrel took place exactly where I had no window view. However, I was able to verify that the fox ran off up the neighbor’s hill with a big lump of squirrel in its jaws.


At first I was glad to see that the squirrel population was reduced by one because the backyard is overrun with them.   But if squirrels are what bring foxes to my backyard, then I should be happy the pesky squirrels are so numerous.


Backyard drama

I just missed the drama by seconds.  The lone wandering coyote that occasionally visits the backyard had just chased a squirrel up a tree, when I spotted him wandering over to the neighbor’s yard.  Since I missed the action, I’m not sure how this squirrel got injured, but it has sustained severe damage to its left front leg.

The squirrel waited until the coyote had left to come back down the tree and resume his foraging.  It looks like the left foot is broken, some fur is missing from  the upper part of the limb and the tail is a bit frayed at its tip.  He was lucky to escape, but might not be very nimble at this point.

The squirrel waited until the coyote had left to come back down the tree and resume his foraging. It looks like his left foot is broken, some fur is missing from the upper part of the limb and the tail is a bit frayed at its tip. He was lucky to escape, but might not be very nimble at this point.

Coyotes subsist on scavenging from deer carcasses as well as hunting rabbits and mice in the winter. Squirrels make up little of their winter prey, so it’s possible that the squirrel’s injury is the result of an encounter with another predator.  Perhaps the coyote noticed that this squirrel was injured and thought it would be an easy meal.

Listening for mice in the snow below...

In the neighbor’s back yard, the coyote paused to listen for voles (meadow mice) moving about in the ground below the snow…

There's definitely something interesting there, but the snow has frozen into solid ice blocks and is too hard to excavate.

There’s definitely something interesting there, but the snow has frozen into solid ice blocks and is too hard to excavate.

This hunt was a bust, so the coyote moves on.

This hunt was a bust, so the coyote moves on.  Looking back at what might have been a substantial meal.

Muskrat spring

Muskrats got active in the local ponds as soon as the ice melted.  One afternoon I saw an adult out in the middle of the pond diving for submerged vegetation, which it brought up and ate on the surface.

I expected the muskrat to roll over on its back to eat, like the sea otters do with their clams.

I expected the muskrat to roll over on its back to eat, like the sea otters do with their clams.  They propel themselves forward with the tail and hind legs, while using the forelegs to manipulate their food.

Just as I was about to leave to try to get a better shot of the adult out in the middle of the pond, I noticed another muskrat about half the size of the adult swimming right up next to the shoreline.  This little one was completely unaware of me and swam back and forth in front of me for several minutes.


To illustrate how close this guys was to me -- only 100 mm telephoto, and the animal fills the frame of the photo.

To illustrate how close this guy was to me — I used only 100 mm telephoto, and the animal more than filled the entire frame of the photo.

It looks as if they get completely wet, with the outer fur matted with water.  But muskrats actually have two layers of fur, and the inner layer maintains an insulating barrier next to the skin.

This half-sized youngster was probably born in late summer or fall last year, and has probably been kicked out of its cozy muskrat home.  It will be on its own to find its food, because its mother is probably busy with another litter already.  Muskrats are prodigious reproducers with short gestation times and large litter sizes.  A single female might produce 30 young per year.

With that many young muskrats trying to find a place to live in the limited wetland beyond my backyard, I imagine the foxes, owls, and hawks find some good muskrat meals back there.