Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Of Intermittent Sightings of White-tailed Kites in the East Bay Hills

Not long ago, poking around in a back stretch of Sibley Volcanic Regional Preserve, fortune rewarded me with a first-ever sighting of a White-tailed Kite ( Elanus leucurus). Make that White-Tailed Kites, as in a nesting pair! What elegant, stealth flying machines they are, possessing an unsurpassed evolutionary competitive edge in hunting prowess and survival skill. Nearly driven to extinction in California in the 1930s and 1940s by an even badder predation machine - the trigger-happy, egg-collecting human - their ranks have rebounded nicely since those days. In California, White-tailed Kites are found in just a handful of specialized habitats, including the San Francisco Bay Area. Actually, this unique accipiter is pretty scarce outside of a small swathe of the world, inclusive of California, stretching from southern Texas to eastern Mexico.

In all my word botchin' days, I've never seen a White-tailed Kite! Fascinating how they seem to preen, almost vainly, surveying their vast domain from the snag of an old tree. I watch their every move from a mere fifty feet away, magnified 10x. For an easy twenty minutes, I watch them engage in all sorts of White-tailed Kite behavior. One of them goes off hunting, disappearing for a few seconds, then returns to deftly circle-hang over the meadow, suspended in the embrace of a thermal updraft, before suddenly drop-diving to snatch up a rodent and bring it triumphantly to the roosting snag and, without regard to her partner, begin to tear it apart and eat it greedily.
From my own perch on a rise of ground above a hidden labyrinth, I can look eastward and see ever-dominant Mt. Diablo, and northeastward to take in Brionesland, and west across the shining bay to Mt. Tamalpais. Behind me is the blown out caldera of a ten million year old volcano – yep, right here in the Berkeley Hills. People – who and when precisely is not known – built several complex circular walkways up in Sibley, as offerings (?), gifts (?), geodetic spiritual markers (?), a magical mystery tour to the center of the cyclone (?). . .

The two kites are gorgeous, specialized hunters, decked out in white chests, black shoulder streaks on gray white plumage, with sharp yellow talons and slanty piercing black eyes. I’m struck by their air of kingly superiority, calm detachment, and utter control over their dominion. The one begins to tear apart her mouse, pecking, jabbing, fiddling with it, dropping a stringy piece of gut and slurping it up like a noodle, then more picking apart in stabs and jabs, more gobbling down, all the while ever vigilant, looking around in head-swiveling 360 degree surveillance, all the while seemingly totally enjoying herself, the one feasting.

Her partner, evidently, is unsated, and goes off searching for his own morsel. He takes off to hunt in the low open country of this small but expansive canyon. I watch as he hovers, balancing with his long fan-shaped tail, as sunlight glints off outspread wings. His death swoop is exhilarating – he disappears for a second then veers back up and heads to the tree snag in an amazing several seconds of inhuman maneuvering to join his mate still licking her chops and ruling the roost.

But I don’t see anything warm, furry and dead in his clutches. Where’s dude’s meal? Before I can answer my own question, I do a double-take through the binoculars as the hawk stretches upward and splays opens his big, plumy breast in a series of flapping histrionics to reveal, like a magician, voila -  a little vole. Did I really just see what I think I saw? Which is him flying back with a rodent stashed in his breast plumage and then unfurling it back on the roost. I’ve not found anything written on the subject, and as such would be an easy thing to refute, especially given my questionable IDing talents. No matter, this is truly a special moment to witness my very first ever White-tailed Kites doing their natural thing.

On another day, I’m exploring the intricacies of a lagoon in the John Muir Nature Area in Briones Regional Park. I love the natural setting and remote feeling of Briones, despite its manifest “ills” –  rude mountain bikers, cows and cow shit galore. In this fenced-in sanctuary, you look east and see the rising bulwark of beloved Mount Diablo, and all around you’re surrounded by big, rolling hills. The lagoon is a seasonal body of water, sometimes full and other times desiccated to a slathering layer of cracked mud. Today, plenty of water attracts teeming frogs and swarms of red-winged blackbirds; splashy ducks and nectar-happy hummingbirds. Up there - can it be? - a White-tailed Kite? Yes, it’s her roosting in the snag of a dead tree. It makes me wonder – is the kite new to the area or am I just now noticing her presence after at least a dozen visits to this very spot.

My other White-Tailed Kite sightings have been in the biotically rich Berkeley Hills. From my 1250 ft. purview atop Wildcat Peak in Tilden Regional Park, I once saw a kite in a pine tree 100 ft. below – a striking white figure against the evergreen. Another time, I watched an elegant specimen patrol over low hills in Wildcat Canyon up on Nimitz Way at the Conlon Trail turn-off. And then there was the time finishing up a bike ride on Wildcat Canyon Road, near the five-junctures, when I just happened to look up and see a beaut circling and swooning. I pulled over to watch that huntress ply her trade for five minutes adjacent a residential area above a small hillock off the busy road.

Such are the unexpected treasures to enjoy and cherish right in your own back yard. But, as my dear ol’ departed dad used to always admonish, “keep your eyeballs peeled” if you expect to see anything.

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