February 5th – A Deadly Game

Whew! Busy morning. Where to begin….? Let’s start at the beginning:

Just after putting out the cut corn and traps, the sun cracked the horizon and bathed the snow in all directions in rosy pink. It also bathed the 200+ Snow Buntings that were sitting in a roadside tree and on the telephone lines waiting for me to finish. I was no more than 10’ from the traps when they began to drop in behind me to feed. [I was thinking that sitting in a tree must be quite a novel experience for a bird that spends a great deal of its time above the tree line.]

We were catching birds hand over fist in the first 2 hours but then the wheel fell off – Merlin! Now, normally I’d be happy as anything to see a Merlin up close, but this one is getting to be a pain as the buntings become VERY wary when it’s around. The Merlin now sits on the top of a telephone pole about 100 m away and waits for me to release a freshly banded bird out the car window. As soon as I do, it takes right off after it. We saw numerous chases this morning. On release, the buntings give a call note and then start to climb as fast as they can go. The Merlin closes in at great speed but over 15 times this morning we saw the prey bird dodge at the last moment, barely eluding the falcon’s outstretched talons. The Merlin peels off (usually, although we saw it make a couple of attempts on the same bird a few times) and heads back and down to its perch. I’m thinking it must be a young (and, by now, very hungry) Merlin. The last chase was kind of interesting: the Merlin was in hot pursuit of a bunting but missed. The bunting dropped quickly down into the front yard of a nearby house. The Merlin turned and looked like it might follow the bunting but then took off after a Cooper’s Hawk that was just passing by. The Merlin was immediately joined by an American Kestrel to help drive the big Accipiter away.

Around 11:00, 25 cars pulled up behind the Buntingmobile and a gaggle of birdwatchers filed out and along the shoulder to look for Lapland Longspurs. I was taking birds out of the traps at the time. I could hear the trip leader say: “There’s a Laplong Longspur in the feeding flock!!” I think most of them were more impressed by the one I had in my hand. They all got a good look.

Just before their arrival, Nancy got a call from home that her husband, Mike (who is a raptor bander), had just caught a Rough-legged Hawk and was going to band it at their home. So Nancy took visitor Ruth Kinzie with her to get some pictures of that feat. There was a lot going on today…..

Banded: 79 Snow Buntings, 1 Horned Lark, 3 Lapland Longspurs

Retrapped: 4 Snow Buntings, 10 Lapland Longspurs

Some photos of the day from Ruth Kinzie:

And a video created by Ruth:

Thanks to Ruth for sending these pictures and video!

3 thoughts on “February 5th – A Deadly Game

  1. Thanks for a great day! I was just going to stay for 90 minutes or so, but with all the action, 3 hours went by very quickly indeed.

  2. Attention birders: At any time, you are welcome to open the Ruthven gate and drive up to the banding station. Enjoy !

  3. Thanks for posting my pictures. I just want to point out that the picture of the Merlin and Snow Buntings on the line is a composite of two superimposed photos. Snow Buntings are much smarter than that!

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