At dusk last night I was hiking the beach at Kye Bay here in Comox, getting ready to do the three sites I am surveying for owls in the forest bordering the beach. It was a glorious evening, with spectacular white clouds against a deep blue sky, a calm sea, and the tide just beginning to drop enough to expose the vast sand beaches that Kye Bay is famous for. The light in the sky was starting to dim, but the stars weren't out yet, and the clouds were still lit from a sun that had already dropped behind the mountains to the west.
As I was plodding along the sandy beach, I noted a stick up ahead, partially buried in the sand, the only shape to break the flat bare expanse. I thought it looked a little bit like a bird. Maybe a cormorant sitting on a beach with it's head straight up? Or a hawk perched atop it's unfortunate prey maybe? I thought about all the times I have stopped walking to raise my binoculars to look at a bird-like shape in the distance, only to see a bird shaped stump, rock, or branch. I didn't stop, and I didn't raise my binoculars.
Now 100 metres closer, I glanced off to my left at the bird shaped stick in the sand, only to be brought to an immediate halt. It was a bird. I saw it move. I turned and focused on it in the dim light. Whoa. It was a hawk, and it had something! I walked about half the distance closer, careful to look away so as to reduce the feling of threat to the bird. Now I was only about 50 metres away. It was clearly a Sharp-shinned Hawk, sitting atop a Red-breasted Merganser! I looked again, and raised my binoculars to be sure. No doubt about it. But how in the world........?
The Sharp-shinned Hawk is a small accipiter, with males averaging a bit smaller than a crow, and females only slightly larger. This was clearly a male. It was quite small, even for this species. A bird like this would generally prey upon sparrows, starlings, or maybe an American Robin if it was feeling particularly ferocious. But a Red-breasted Merganser? To begin with, this bird would outweigh the hawk by more than double it's weight, and there is no way even a female Sharp-shinned Hawk could carry a duck like this in flight, or even drag it on the ground very effectively. While Sharp-shinned Hawks spend most of their time hunting in forested habitats, and rarely venture out into large openings, especially over large bodies of water, Red-breasted Mergansers spend the entire winter in marine habitats, rarely, if ever coming ashore, and often being well out into the open sea. So how did these two come together for a dinner that I'm sure the merganser did not have in mind? The only idea that made any sense, was that the merganser must have been weak or near death, and washed up on shore, attracting the unwanted attention of the hawk. The predator did appear to be a first year bird, and juveniles are known to go after odd prey items, and to eat whatever they can find in their first difficult winter, still trying to learn to be efficient predators. Still, this all seemed odd, with the duck so far out on the open beach, away from the forest edge.
After watching the bird plucking neck feathers for a minute or so, I lowered my binoculars and went to step away, to leave the bird with it's meal. I must have spooked the hawk, because it leaped into air, and shot past me towards the forest with an impressive burst of speed. I felt bad for flushing it, especially a young bird probably looking forward to a long cold night with a bit of food in it's belly. I looked again at the merganser. It was alive! It raised it's head from the wet sand, and dropped it again. I ran over to see how badly it was hurt. It was bad, and I knew the bird was close to death. The feathers were not in good condition, indicating the bird was either, ill, starving, or had been battered badly and possibly injured in the recent storms. Blood dropped from wounds to it's neck, staining a patch of sand a deep red. The head sank back down, and with supreme effort, the bird tried to place it's head under it's wing. I thought briefly about ending it's suffering, but thought better of it. I turned away, and walked on.
After I had walked on for another 5 minutes, thinking on all of the unique and varied ways that death can find us, I turned back around for another glance at the unfortunate merganser. There was the hawk again. It was perched atop the lifeless body, it's sharp little hooked bill tearing out the feahers of the merganser, and throwing tufts of soft down into the air, where they floated off to the west in the rapidly fading light. I turned away, and walked on.