Updated: Jul 15, 2022
An old cottonwood tree next to the creek died some years ago. It was in the slow process of decay when a wind storm blew its top off creating a 20-foot tall, blunt snag. Located at the north end of the property and standing alone with no other tall trees in its near vicinity, the blunt snag gives any bird perched there a commanding look out over a 3600 field of view and the entire northern aspect of the pasture and hayfields. As one might expect, raptors often seek this outlook as a perching spot.
Redtail; kestrel; eagle
A local Redtail hawk frequently uses the snag as a hunting perch. On many occasions, I have seen the redtail launch off the snag and fly to the ground to capture a vole or some other small mammal. These are not high-speed stoops but, rather, controlled approaches to the eventual strike in the grass and can be some distance away from the snag. That the hawk can see the little gray rodent in the thick, grassy cover at such a distance is a testament to the acuity of its vision. Sometimes the hawk flies from the snag to a fence post to reconnoiter up close before making the ground strike.
Cooper’s hawks and Sharp-shinned hawks use the snag less often than the redtail but they do perch there from time to time. These accipiter hawks have less need for a hunting perch than the redtail because they are more interested in preying on birds in flight rather than on small mammals on the ground. Accordingly, they often hunt while on the wing. So, I imagine they use the snag as a temporary respite from the vigors of the aerial hunt. As they reset on the snag in preparation for the next aerial foray, they use the vantage from the snag to survey the hunt territory in front of them.
American kestrels are not as common on the farm as the hawks mentioned above but when they do appear in the farm’s air space, they often go to the snag as the most attractive perch in the vicinity. On rare occasions, I have also seen a merlin on the snag. I assume the kestrels use the snag as a hunting perch although I have never seen a kestrel deliver a ground strike from that station.
Bald eagles are common farm visitors. When they perch in the neighborhood, it is often in one of the tall conifers or cottonwoods that surround the property. But occasionally, an eagle will perch on the snag. When an eagle goes to the ground from the snag it is usually to gather nesting material rather than for striking a prey subject; although in one instance, I did see an eagle dismember and eat a prey subject while standing on the broken top of the snag. It is likely that the feeding eagle caught the subject in the near vicinity, maybe as a result of a strike from the snag perch. In fact, eagles have played a role in shaping the snag which is barren of protruding limbs except for one looping overhang that extends out from 2 feet below the snag’s blunt, broken top. Most of the other dead limbs, which were previously sticking out of the bole of the snag, have been broken off by the eagles. Often when an eagle visits the farm in the early spring, it will fly at the snag with sufficient speed that when it strikes a limb with its feet it will hit with enough force to break the limb free from its attachment to the bole. The eagle will then fly off with the broken branch in its talons and carry it to its nest. I have never seen an eagle fail to break a limb off when it attempted to do so but I wonder what would happen to the eagle if the limb didn’t break.
Woodpeckers are a second bird that has played a role in shaping the snag - the snag bears scars from several woodpecker excavations. At least one of the holes on the backside leads into a nesting cavity. Starlings are raising a brood in one of the cavities. A clutch of ten wood duck ducklings was photographed by the beaver-pond trail camera just under the snag. A male-female pair of wood ducks were often photographed on the pond prior to the picture of the ducklings. It is likely that the wood ducks nested in the snag. The snag’s location with its base in the waters of the pond and with woodpecker cavities high up on the bole makes the snag the archetype wood duck nesting spot.
In the spring, when goose visitations to the farm have transitioned from flocks to pairs, it is not unusual to see one member of a visiting pair perched on the snag while the second member grazes on the grass in the pasture below. One guesses that it is the gander performing lookout duty that sits on the snag while the female goose, whose internal egg-making processes put her in greater need for nutrition than the gander at this time of year, grazes.
From time to time, any among the multitude of birds found on the farm may be seen perched on the snag. These are occasional perches and not a characteristic habit of the individual birds as are the incidents mentioned above.
While birds perching on the top of the snag are easily observed, the animal life at the base of the snag, which is hidden by the surrounding brush, goes unnoticed. We rely on the trail camera, which is mounted on a stake in the beaver dam, to record the faunal activities that we cannot see. Reviewing these photos reveals that more activity occurs at the base of the snag than takes place at the perching spot on the top. Pictures of Mallards and wood ducks on the pond are commonly obtained. Robins, Cedar waxwings, Song sparrows, House finches, and Juncos have all been pictured in the brush and on the limbs sticking out of the beaver dam. And, beavers and otters, which would never be seen on top of the snag, are often photographed plying the water around the snag. While the otters are seen by the camera during the day, the beavers work to build and maintain their dam primarily at night. I have not taken the time to investigate the amphibian and fish life found in the pond but I suspect that such an examination would reveal some surprising results.
From top to bottom, the old cottonwood snag is a lively place and one of the farm’s most notable landmarks.