||Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton
In the Cold, Everybodys Hunting
And now there came both mist and snow,
And it grew wondrous cold:
And ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834),
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
There has been nothing green as emerald hereabouts for the past 10 days or so; everything has been white. Snow white in the air, on the ground and covering much of Stoney Creek, where it has grown wondrous cold.
What started out as an exceptionally mild winter turned the opposite; first the cold, then the snow; then more cold and more snow. What Marylanders might call an old-fashioned winter appears to please waterfowl hunters on the creek, seeing the last several days I have heard much shooting from their rig at the big pile of boulders not far away.
Look, Im a supporter of shooting sports; after all, Ive made an enjoyable living writing about hunting and fishing for ages. But every time I hear another barrage, I cringe. Mallards predominate on the creek, so I fear that the greenheads targeted by the men in camouflage are the ones I virtually hand-feed on my lawn in spring as they move inland for the mating ritual. Theyre practically tame.
The past couple of weeks, things have been tough enough for the waterfowl of the creek without someone shooting at them. Ice and snow complicates their quest for food, so theyve got to be a bit hungry. Even with all that insulating down, one wonders how comfy they can be when temperatures drop to single digits and the waters in which they swim turn to ice.
Im writing late Saturday afternoon, with the last shots of the season to be fired at sundown. Within the hour, the surviving ducks will have nothing more to worry about from the camo-clad shooters. Tomorrow morning, Ill head down to the pier and scatter corn on the ice for their breakfast. Doing that during the season is a no-no; it would be considered aiding and abetting, seeing that by feeding them while theres shooting nearby I would be enhancing hunter success.
In legalese, Id be baiting - and Ive got enough to worry about on that front in a different way these days. You see, Im in a perplexing predicament. Ive more than a dozen songbird feeders in the back yard, but Ive become hesitant to fill them with sunflower seeds, thistle and cracked corn.
Hawk on the Prowl
It had to come sooner or later. Now a Coopers hawk has taken up residence hereabouts, choosing not to winter over more to the south as some hawks do. Previously, hawks of various species showed up every now and then, and the songbirds would flush safely to the brush and trees of the cliff that drops to the creek. Then, finding the pickings slim, the predator would wing elsewhere. Within a few hours, the birds would return to the feeders.
But the past six weeks or so, this opportunistic hawk has almost daily perched on a tall, barren tree not much more than a hundred feet from the bird feeders. There it sits motionless in wait, hour after hour, for an easy meal. With all the snow on the ground and in the background, a hungry flying or feeding bird would stand out more prominently than the proverbial sore thumb.
So high is the hawks perch that it pays me no heed as I wave my arms, shout and bang the cat-shaped dinner bell in the garden. It realizes I can pose no danger. In mid-January, daughter Heather called me on her cell phone from her car as she pulled up in front of the house. She wanted to alert me that the brazen hawk was on the grass alongside my car parked in the driveway, which is on the opposite side of the house from its usual haunt overlooking the bird feeders.
Ive seldom seen a hawk on the ground, and as I sneaked the storm door open, I must admit I harbored hopes that this bird of prey was one sick bird, deathly sick. I appreciate that within the scope of nature there is a niche for everything, even hawks. But this one is depriving me of the pleasures of backyard birdwatching; more importantly depriving cardinals, doves, finches and all the snowbirds of nourishing meals in what has become an inhospitable winter.
So Im selfish; sue me. But I can sure do without that hawk around, and I would welcome whatever it takes to send it elsewhere, alive or the alternative. Alas, I noted there was nothing wrong with my adversary as I got a good look at it from 50 feet away. Soon it detected my presence, and off it flew - you know to where. A few minutes later, it was back to its high perch on the tree.
It was there again this afternoon, overlooking feeders that hosted no birds. Only the squirrels seem willing to take their chances for cracked corn and sunflower seeds. Is it that the bushytails dont detect the presence of the big bird? Or is it that the big bird prefers its meal in feathers, not in fur? Maybe a squirrel is a bit big for a Coopers hawk unless its very hungry. Ive yet to witness one of the smaller hawk species carrying off a bushytail - though Im the first to admit that in nature a lot goes on that I havent yet witnessed.
Caught by the Laws of Nature
There seems to be no dent in the backyard squirrel population. How, I wonder, can a squirrel distinguish a hawk big enough to pose a problem from one that isnt when said hawk is 100 feet up in a tree thats 125 feet away? As for birds, its difficult to gauge the impact of the hawk on their numbers because so few come to feed anymore. Also, Ive seen no telltale signs on the snow that the predator has scored.
If I feed the birds liberally as in past winters, I would be doing the same for the hawk as I would have done for the hunters in the creek had I put out corn for the ducks. Who wants to bait birds to the talons of a hawk?
Ive been deliberating the pros and cons of sprinkling birdseed in the bushes under the trees at the edge of the lawn, but whenever Ive tried that I noticed a few feral or free-running domestic cats lurking nearby. Whats the difference between being pounced on by a cat or a hawk?
Mother Nature is indiscriminate; there is the hawk above in daytime, and the cats if the birds feed on the ground. At night theres the owl that hoots from the trees a few hours after dark and who can detect any movement by its hoped-for prey. So Im in a pickle. I want to obey the laws of nature and the land that fully protects such things as hawks. Yet I know my birds are enduring a tough winter.
Anybody out there got any ideas? But please dont advise me to let nature takes its course. Ive a personal interest in the birds that provide so much pleasure, and I feel its my responsibility in turn to safeguard their visits.