Looking for Hawk Nests

March 11, 2015.  I am in the woods near the South Cedar Creek Landing by 6:20 AM. It’s still quite dark and quiet. Official sunrise, daylight savings time, is an hour and twenty minutes away at 7:40. By 6:45 the eastern sky is lighting up a tad, and a leopard frog chorus begins from a nearby slough, full of water. The guttural croaks and rasping calls are bizarre and un-froglike. At 7:00 the dark has lifted at ground level, and at 7:08 I hear the first bird song, coming from a cardinal, of course. The steady frog chorus has quieted down but picks up a little later, but only intermittently.

By 7:20 it has become light enough for me to write these notes without the aid of a headlamp and to see a single bat flying low through the open forest understory. At 7:30 a red-shouldered hawk calls near its nest in a cypress tree on the banks of Cedar Creek. The frogs have quit calling for good. The day promises to be warm, and a few mosquitoes are already buzzing around my ears, fortunately without much enthusiasm.

There are still lots of robins in the swamp, but I see no berries anywhere for them to feed on. At this time of year they have moved from the trees to the ground, where they are tossing and turning mounds of dead leaves with their large yellow bills, searching for animal food and perhaps any remaining holly berries. Some of the robins have noticeably dirty beaks from where they have been probing the dark, damp earth.

By now it’s 9:00, and I have moved from South Cedar Creek to the low boardwalk. The red maple samaras have grown quickly (each female flower produces a pair of seeds), with many now an inch or more in length. Some of the American elms have also proceeded from the flower to the seed stage while their distant cousins, the water elms, are still in flower.

A tufted titmouse is on the ground where it finds part of a laurel oak acorn but quickly discards it. Then it finds a complete acorn which it carries to a nearby twig on the ground, and begins pounding the acorn with its small beak while holding it between its feet. A red-bellied woodpecker suddenly swoops in low, drives the titmouse off, and appropriates the acorn for its own use.

Several squirrels are busily foraging on the ground and leaf litter for any food they can find. Two, however, have other things on their minds and are tussling and rolling together on the ground. The action moves to a nearby tree trunk, where they continue to wrestle and enjoy each other’s company.

Signs of spring! a female falcate orangetip butterfly by John Grego.

I walk over to Hampton Pond to check on the red-shouldered hawk nest I found there last year. At my approach to the pond I am greeted by two croaking great blue herons that fly off, and one silent great egret that only flies to a nearby tree on the edge of the pond with the idea of apparently waiting me out. The egret eventually wins. I find the hawk nest, high in the crotch of a cypress, but it doesn’t appear to be active. I eventually hear one calling nearby; perhaps the raptors have relocated elsewhere.

On the way back to the parking lot I pass through the clearing at the old hunt cabin site on Cedar Creek and see, of all things, a blooming wild Bradford pear, its seed brought in  by a robin or other bird that had consumed the tiny, marble-sized “pears.” This is one of the more unusual exotic plant escapees I’ve seen in the park, an unintended consequence of the Bradford pear craze a few years ago. It prefers old fields, hedgerows and other upland sites where it often grows in dense, thorny thickets. An even more interesting, and benign, exotic near the pear is a small cluster of daffodils, planted by some garden-minded member of the Cedar Creek Hunt Club many years ago.

The afternoon has turned quite warm, in fact tying a record for this date when it makes it to 85°. I expect to find butterflies flying about sunny places along the Sims Trail but only see two – both the color and size of either commas or question marks; the butterflies are flighty, however, and do not pause long enough for me to get a decent look.

More spring on the way – a question mark butterfly by John Grego.

I check out the red-shouldered hawk nest by the low boardwalk and again see no activity. However, as I continue walking toward the parking lot I happen to see a stick nest in the crotch of a large cypress about 300 feet away from the other nest. With binoculars I see the head of a red-shouldered hawk sticking up from the nest! It’s now clear why I have not seen any hawk activity around the old nest – after several years of use, the raptors, for whatever reason, decided it was time for a move, although they must have liked the neighborhood.