Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: It takes a real hawkeye to figure out the species

STACEY COLE February 14. 2014 8:39PM

How does one correctly identify a bird when one or more species look very much alike? This is particularly so in the case of the Cooper's hawk, the sharp-shinned hawk, and upon occasion, the merlin. It should be noted that although the Cooper's and the sharp-shinned hawks are members of the Accipiter family, the merlin is a member of the Falconidae family.

One of our Manchester readers had this problem as outlined in the following letter: "The pictures enclosed were taken in my neighbor's yard just behind my house on Monday, Jan. 14th. My wife and I came home from a walk to see this magnificent bird standing over its prey with no intention of being spooked by someone taking pictures about 30 feet away. It stayed for a good hour watching for intruders and tearing its lunch apart. We missed the hawk's exit as we had to leave.

"At first I thought it was a red-tailed hawk because we see our share of those in the air over the house. Yet, this one appears to be a Cooper's hawk, but I am a novice at identification. Can you help us with this one? Quite a spectacle for us!"

Two excellent photos were enclosed and, it appeared to me after a careful examination, that the bird's long tail was rounded, thus my answer agrees with that of the writer. I believe the hawk pictured is a Cooper's hawk.

On identifying these two hawks, the NH Audubon Society published the following information: "A hawk at the feeder is often one of these two species. The difference between the sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper's hawk is subtle and it is difficult to tell them apart, even in some photographs. Both species feed on small woodland songbirds and look identical, both as immatures and adults. In general the Cooper's is larger than the sharpie, but the female sharpie can be the same size as the male Cooper's. Both species are Accipiters with rounded wings and a long tail, although the Cooper's tail appears rounded and slightly longer. Merlin are also easily confused with these two species but they are very rare in winter in New Hampshire and do not typically hunt at feeders."

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One of our long-time readers from New Boston wrote: "While traveling along Route 13 between Goffstown and New Boston, beside the Piscataguog River, I saw something quite amazing to me. Out on the ice I saw something moving so, as we got closer, it turned out to be a red fox, possibly after a drink. As I looked at the woods on the other side of the river a bald eagle was sitting in a tree. It was quietly surveying its surroundings including the fox. We wonder if there are any fish in the river in winter, or if the eagle was hoping that Mr. Fox would catch something it could confiscate for its dinner. I have lived in New Boston all of my 86 years and never before have I seen an eagle here. Earlier this winter we saw a weasel crossing the road."

Yes, there are fish in the river in winter, and bald eagles search any open water for the opportunity to catch one. Mature bald eagles have all-white heads and some folks occasionally mistake an osprey for an eagle as it has a large white patch on the top of its head. In winter, both species fish open water in rivers, but use different techniques. Bald eagles catch the fish they spot near the surface of the water with their hooked talons without getting very wet. On the other hand, Ospreys plunge into the water feet-first, frequently beneath the surface, and grasp their catch with their hooked talons. Occasionally both birds lose their grip and drop their catch when attempting to turn the fish so that they can carry it away headfirst. When both species are fishing close-by, ospreys, being somewhat smaller in size, occasionally attempt to purloin an eagle's catch, and many times succeed.

With respect to weasels, according to my good friend, the late Hilbert "Bandy" Siegler, in his book "Nature Notes," published in 1962 by Equity Publishing Company of Orford: "There are three kinds of weasels in New Hampshire — the long-tailed weasel in the extreme northeastern part of the state, the New York weasel which is fairly common in the southern half of the state and the small Bonaparte's weasel, which is common throughout the state."

Each of the three species of weasels are referred to in some texts as "ermine." According to "The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals": "In the northern part of their range, weasels' coats turn white in winter; but to the south, within a 600 mile-wide transcontinental belt, some molt to white while others remain brown."

Stacey Cole's address is 529 W. Swanzey Road, Swanzey, 03446.

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