Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bird Happenings

Yesterday, Ella and I were working in the garden, and heard a ruckus of hawk calls in the forest right next to the garden fence. The calls were coming closer, but the hawk was remaining just out of view behind the trees. It stopped right near us, still out of sight. There was more than one bird, at least two, maybe three. We waited quietly to see if we could SEE them, but they flew away before we caught a glimpse.

Today, while I was again working in the garden, I heard it once more, and had visual confirmation of at least three individual hawks. They were flying fast, up and down the riparian corridor, just below the treetop line. I believe it is a pair or single parent teaching juveniles to hunt. I had limited time without Ella, so I didn't want to go get my binoculars, but I finally succumbed to the temptation just before I left. I was assuming they were Sharp-Shinned Hawks, or Cooper's Hawks, with their tree hunting strategy, and though I hadn't seen them very clearly, I had noticed a striped tail. By the time I was standing with the binos, the hawks were down canyon by the old oaks, below my line of sight. I decided to take my binoculars with me, in hopes of getting a better view.

I have also been hearing woodpecker drumming down in the creek lately, and I have been wondering which woodpecker is working on drilling holes. As I dropped down the hill, I heard a very loud drum, and saw the birds flitting around the large, old willow along the creek. I got a good look at at least four of them, seemingly arguing over territorial issues.

By the time I arrived at the neighbors, I now had two bird questions. Jeremy is a skilled birder, having spent at least one summer doing bird surveys as a biologist, and his 7-year-old daughter has begun collecting her "life list". Maple brought me her Peterson's Guide (and her lens cleaner for my binoculars), and I first looked up the woodpeckers. At this moment, I remembered the difficulty in distinguishing the Downy (Picoides pubescens) vs. the Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus), which have the same markings, except for the fact that one has a larger bill, and one is larger in overall size than the other. Without this knowledge in my mind while observing, I don't think I can say which bird I was looking at!

The hawk proved equally difficult, as the mind has a tendency to fill in blanks inaccurately once you are looking twenty paintings in a bird guide showing the underneath plumage of soaring birds. As Jeremy and Deva were inquiring about details, I realized how quickly I make assumptions when dealing with the birds. Their line of questioning was getting at the general classification, buteo or accipiter for example, (an important distinction!), whereas I went right to thinking it was a particular bird. None of the pictures suited my memory.

At last, while I was crossing the first field behind their house on my way home, I caught sight of one of the hawks again, noisily calling about. I realized quickly how large it was, ruling out Cooper's and Sharp-Shinned Hawk. Looking through my binoculars, I could see the striped tail, mottled wings with a white bar running front to back of the wings, and, oh yes, I see a rusty red head. But as I explore my Sibley Guide, I still am not sure which hawk we are looking at. I will need to continue observing, looking for details I keep missing, like what color is the leading edge of the wing? I'll keep you posted.

Lastly, I heard a mystery bird while at the outhouse at dusk a few nights ago. It was reminiscent of a Varied Thrush, but it was different. Not sure what it was, but certainly curious to find out.

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