Cactus Wren

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While hiking in a desert wash in Nevada I had my first-ever encounter with one of these boldly marked birds. Not only is it distinctive in pattern, but it also has a harsh, rasping voice.

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The Cactus Wren lives in a variety of low, dry habitats, but is mainly found in cactus, yucca, mesquite and arid brush deserts. This bird is very different from our other temperate-zone wrens. It represents a tropical group of large, sociable wrens, mainly living in Mexico.

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This is the largest wren in the United States. It is chunky, with a long, heavy bill, a long, rounded tail, and short, rounded wings. It is a speckled bird with bright, white eyebrows that extend from the bill, across and above its eyes. Males and females look alike.

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Male and female Cactus Wrens build large, football-shaped nests with tunnel-shaped entrances. These bulky nests are conspicuous in cholla cactus and desert trees. After the breeding season, the wrens may sleep in their nests at night.

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Cactus Wrens feed on a wide variety of insects, including beetles, ants, wasps, true bugs and grasshoppers. They forage on the ground and in low trees, probing in bark crevices and leaf litter in their search for food. The have been known to pick smashed insects from the front ends of parked cars.

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Unlike other wrens that tend to be inconspicuous and hide in vegetation, Cactus Wrens seem to have no fear. They perch atop cacti and other shrubs to announce their presence and forage out in the open.

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The Cactus Wren is the state bird of Arizona. It was super cool to experience this fine bird while on my travels through the Mojave Deseret.

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White-Throated Sparrow

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These days I often see these birds while hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail.

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White-Throated Sparrows have black-and-white stripes on the crown, a large patch of white on the throat and a yellow spot above each eye.

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In Ohio it is considered a common migrant, and in some years, a fairly common Winter visitor. Easily attracted to bird feeders, this species lives in woods and gardens with dense underbrush.

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These birds also freely sing as they migrate through Ohio. The song is a paraphrased “Poor Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.”

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Osprey

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While staying in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, I observed several of these fish-eating raptors. Sometimes known as a Fish Hawk, this very distinctive bird was once classified with other hawks, but is now placed in a separate family of its own.

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The Osprey’s head is distinctive, with a white crest and a face bisected by a dark eye-stripe. This bird has yellow eyes. Its feet (talons) are uniquely adapted for capturing and carrying fish; the surfaces are rough, and their toes can be held with three forward and one back, or with two forward and two back.

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Its habitat is along coastlines, lakes and rivers. Its distribution is almost worldwide. The Osprey can often be seen flying over the water, hovering, and then plunging feet-first to catch fish in its talons. After a successful strike, it tends to fly away carrying the fish so that its head faces forward in a streamlined position for transporting it through the air.

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When diving in pursuit of fish, an Osprey can completely submerge itself under water and still be able to fly away with its catch. it has Osprey a third eyelid (called a nictitating membrane, which is semi-transparent) that acts like goggles and helps the bird see clearly beneath the water.

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Most of their nests that I saw had babies, which usually number three. The female Osprey remains with her young most of time, sheltering them from sun and rain, while male hunts and brings back fish, which the female feeds to her offspring. This bird feeds almost entirely on fish that are less than a foot long.

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The Osprey was seriously endangered due to effects of pesticides in mid-20th century; since DDT and related pesticides were banned in 1972, Fish Hawks have made a significant comeback in many parts of North America.

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Although on previous trips to the coast I was able to see Ospreys from afar, this was the first opportunity for me to get a close-up look at them – and they were fascinating to watch.

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California Scrub Jay

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This is a fun bird to encounter while visiting the Golden State; it is both colorful and intelligent. Their behavior can be bold and inquisitive, and their calls can be loud and raucous. The California Scrub Jay is often seen in parks, neighborhoods and riverside woods near the Pacific Coast.

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Pairs of California Scrub-Jays are often seen swooping across clearings, giving harsh calls, with their long tails flopping in flight. This is a bird that does not migrate. Western Scrub Jays eat insects, fruits, nuts, berries, and seeds, and occasionally small animals. They are regular visitors to bird feeders.

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California Scrub Jays gather surpluses of food and store it in scattered caches within their territories. They rely on highly accurate and complex memories to recover their hidden food, often after long periods of time. Jays can also be quite mischievous when it comes to procuring and storing food. They will steal acorns from Acorn Woodpecker caches as well as from stores hidden by other jays, and then look around to make sure no one is watching before they hide their stolen prize.

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Recent research has suggested that jays and crows are among the most intelligent of animals. The brain-to-body mass ratio of adult California Scrub Jays rivals that of chimpanzees and is dwarfed only by that of humans.

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Western Scrub Jays appear to have “funerals” in reaction to finding a dead jay. They will screech over the body, attracting other jays, for as long as 30 minutes and stay near the body for a day or two. We often don’t think of birds as being as “brainy” as mammals, but crows and jays are challenging that mindset.

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American Tree Sparrow

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I often see these small birds while hiking on the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath. This is a northern species that visits the United States in the Winter. It can tolerate very harsh weather and low temperatures if it has a good food supply.

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American Tree Sparrows are mostly gray with a rufous crown and ear stripe. Their upperparts are streaked brown. There is one dark spot in the center of the breast; another good identification characteristic of this bird is its bi-colored beak.

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In the Winter, they are gregarious and form flocks, sometimes hanging out with other bird species. They mainly search on the ground for seeds, but they also may ascend on plants, to look for seeds, berries and invertebrates.

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Their preferred habitat is weedy fields with hedgerows or shrubs, usually along forest edges or near waterways. American Tree Sparrow often visit backyards, especially if there’s a birdfeeder.

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This species breeds in the far north and is rarely seen outside of northern Canada in the Summer. It is fun to watch, as it adds its color and song to our sometimes drab Winters.

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Henslow’s Sparrow

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Hiking in Bath Nature Preserve in Akron Ohio, I encountered a bird I’d never seen before. Though to me several species of sparrow look remarkably similar, the Henslow’s Sparrow can be identified by its combination of chestnut brown wings, intricately patterned olive-green head and back of neck, black and brown streaked back, and flat-headed, short-tailed profile.

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A grassland species, this bird historically bred in the tallgrass prairies. It now nests mostly in neglected grassy fields, where it dines on insects and seeds. This is a is a remarkably inconspicuous bird that very few people get a good look at. In addition, Henslow’s Sparrow populations have declined, and this species has been identified as the highest priority for grassland bird conservation in eastern and midwestern North America.

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Unlike the tuneful Song Sparrow, which it closely resembles, the Henslow’s Sparrow’s dry, thin, insectlike song is often described as a “feeble hiccup.” When it sings, it sharply throws its head skyward and then utters its quiet song.

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Though its call is unimpressive, it was a cool experience to observe this secretive grassland bird.

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Bald Eagle

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Ohio’s largest breeding raptor feeds largely on fish. A pair has been nesting near the Cuyahoga River in Cuyahoga Valley National Park for a few years now.

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The Bald Eagle was negatively affected by the use of the pesticide DDT and the numbers of our national symbol dropped severely in the 1950s and 1960s.

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By 1979 Ohio Bald Eagles declined to just four breeding pairs.The elimination of harmful pesticides has caused a dramatic comeback.

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At one time, the word “bald” meant “white,” not hairless. The Bald Eagle is the only eagle unique to North America. Its distinctive brown body and white head and tail make it easy to identify even from a distance.

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During breeding season, the male and female work together to build a nest of sticks, usually located at the top of a tree. The nests can weigh up to a ton and measure up to 8 feet across.

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Once paired, bald eagles remain with each other until one mate dies, then the surviving bird will find another mate.

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Immature birds have mostly dark heads and tails; their brown wings and bodies are mottled with white in varying amounts. Young birds attain adult plumage in about five years.

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The Bald Eagle has been the national emblem of the United States since 1782 and a spiritual symbol for native people for far longer than that. For me it’s always a thrill to see one of these majestic birds when hiking the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath.

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House Sparrow

I have seen these birds throughout my life, whether at my home growing up in Cleveland, downtown, or in my current residence in the suburbs.

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The House Sparrow is native to most of Europe, the Mediterranean Basin and much of Asia. Its intentional or accidental introductions to many regions, including parts of Australia, Africa, and the Americas, make it the most widely distributed wild bird.

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This bird is strongly associated with human habitations and can live in urban or rural settings. Though found in widely varied habitats and climates, it is rarely found away from human development. It is often seen in city centers, suburbs, farms and around isolated houses or businesses surrounded by terrain unsuited to House Sparrows, such as desert or forest.

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Their diet consist mainly of small seeds. They are attracted to corn, oats, wheat and other types of grain or weed seeds. These birds primarily forage on the ground.

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Males have black chin and bib with white cheeks and rust colored cap and nape of neck, while females are plainer, with a broad buff eyebrow, brown and buff-streaked wings and back.

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Because of its simple success formula of associating with humans, the House Sparrow is one of the most ubiquitous and abundant songbirds in the world today.

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Turkey Vulture

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Turkey Vultures are majestic but unsteady soarers. Their teetering flight with very few wingbeats is an identification characteristic. Their ability to ride thermals enables them to move from one destination to another.

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These birds occupy a diverse range of habitats like roadsides, suburbs and farmlands. They are found in forested as well as open environments; they can be found just about anywhere they can effectively find a carrion food supply.

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Turkey Vultures usually roost in large community groups, but search for food independently during daylight hours. They are talented scavangers with an acute sense of smell.

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They have a well-developed sense of smell and are one of the only species of birds worldwide that uses smell extensively. Their sense of smell is so remarkable that they can even locate a dead mouse under a pile of leaves.

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Several Turkey Vultures may gather at a carcass, but usually only one feeds at a time.This large bird species has a six foot wingspan and has been around since prehistoric times.

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Turkey Vultures act as nature’s ultimate garbage collector and recycler.

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Cooper’s Hawk

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While doing yard work this week, I noticed this creature perched on a tree in my front yard. Copper’s Hawks often visit suburban homes to pick off songbirds from feeders.

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I have also seen them in Brecksville Reservation – they among the bird world’s most skillful fliers – their short wings allow them to navigate through cluttered trees at high speeds in pursuit of other birds.

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Cooper’s Hawks are forest and woodland residents, but suburbs with enough trees are a favorite habitat as well.

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These crow-sized raptors mainly eat birds. Small birds tend to be safer around Cooper’s Hawks than medium-sized birds. They sometimes rob rodent nests and mammals are more common in diets of Cooper’s Hawks in the West.

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While they can soar in classic hawk fashion, when in pursuit of prey, their flight changes. It becomes becomes powerful, quick, and very agile, allowing the bird to thread its way through tree branches at top speed.

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Other common names for the Cooper’s Hawk include: big blue darter, chicken hawk, flying cross, hen hawk, quail hawk, striker, and swift hawk.

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