Raptors and More

Some of the most interesting places for a naturalist to visit might not seem the most likely to provide surprising insights into the secrets of nature. One such place is Hathaway Park in Charlotte County, primarily considered a place to fish and launch a kayak into Shell Creek (.https://www.charlottecountyfl.gov/services/ParksRecs/Pages/park.aspx?Map_Key=33). Yet it has a pretty nature trail and provided some pleasant surprises when I recently accompanied a group from Peace River Audubon Society on a birding walk there led by Eleanor Marr.

It turned out to be a red letter day for raptorial birds. As my wife and I approached the turnoff into the park along Washington Loop Rd, I was astonished to see two resident caracaras. They were doing what these uncommon large falcons often do- eating roadkill. They are more suited to feeding on dead mammals in fields in company with vultures but also feed on small prey on the ground. Indeed caracaras specialize in stealing food from black vultures and even have a similar wing pattern (light patches on the tips of black wings). The fancy name for this is “kleptoparasitism” and this is a trait shared with bald eagles that steal food from ospreys, and frigate birds that take food from gulls and terns.

As we walked the nature trails, a spectacular swallow tailed kite suddenly appeared overhead. These beautiful raptors are just returning in March from wintering in S America. They are an aerial predator that swoops down on insects, birds and small reptiles. Some consider them one of the most beautiful birds despite their intense predatory nature. A fellow naturalist/photographer Deb Peterson snapped this great photo while I was looking open mouthed at this beauty.

A very common predator in this area is the red shouldered hawk. Its distinctive call is heard more often than they are seen as these raptors perch and watch for small prey on the ground or bushes, especially near wetlands. They are also commonly seen soaring overhead in a rising column of warm air.

Note that these three co-occurring raptors each have a different primary method of catching prey- the caracara as a ground predator and scavenger/parasite, the kite from the air, and the red shoulder from a perch. This is a classic example of how species with possibly over-lapping prey choices can minimize competition.

In addition to sightings of about 38 bird species, we observed two spectacular cardinal air plants in bloom. This epiphytic cousin of the pineapple (bromeliad family) has become very rare due to the depredations of the introduced Mexican “evil weevil” beetle ( https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdffiles/IN/IN31800.pdf0. Since these two plants were blooming, we hope that many seeds will be produced and germinate to perpetuate this vanishing species.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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