Friday, July 6, 2012

Of Sharp-shinns, Red-shoulders and Harlan's Dark-Morph - Rare Hawk Sightings in Unexpected Places

An impossible encounter in the urban jungle of North Berkeley? Or merely an improbable (near) tete-a-tete? How else to explain a recent sighting of an exquisitely beautiful Sharp-shinned Hawk, adorned in fine white splotched plumage with a sublime orange toned breast, perching there on a branch, statuesque at 11 inches high,  appearing suddenly, alighting like a phantasm in the 100 year old Interior Live Oak gracing the side yard. I'm chagrined to have to run into the house to get my binoculars, but when I return, she's still there, in full view, about twenty yards up and away from me. I watch her every twitch, her every move with rapt(or) attention. She's very attuned - tuned in! - to her surroundings. A car door slams in the distance, and she jerks her little head in slight shock, what passes as verifiable concern. A crow cackles loudly, and she cocks inquisitively. She preens a bit, and hops from one leg to the other before finally settling on a stance that makes her appear to be standing one-legged. She rotates her head at one point and glares at me with fierce yellow eyes. What an interesting and intense bird! The guide book says they're "widespread but thinly distributed," which, echoing the root question, translates into a rare sighting sans encore any time soon. I casually mention the sighting to a neighbor who "yeah-yeah-yeah-yeah-yeahs" it off as though it's an everyday occurrence to spot an elegant Sharp-shinned Hawk in your side yard tree in the city, up close and personal. I can feel the moment slipping away; after what seems like a two-minute interval of intimate observing, she flies off in fine fashion carving a sharply delineated trajectory and demonstrating amazing dexterity and athleticism on her raptorian slingline through a dense maze of tree canopy and foliage lining Codornices Creek in our back forty. Sharp-shinns, you soon find out, are keen urban raptors who prey on the lovely little cosmopolitan songbirds that bring me so much simple joy throughout the day. All that dexterity and athleticism to better wage its shock and awe campaign of terror through the songbirds' boroughs as he swoops in and down in a blitzkreig of hunting prowess in search of several tasty chickadees or bushtits. My feelings toward this powerful top of the food chain bird? (Who eats a Sharp-shinned?) Admiration. Respect. Awe. Wonder. Despite their highly evolved proclivity to stalk and kill small, cute, helpless and innocent songbirds. There are human beings on this planet who stalk and kill endangered songbirds for food purposes as well. I guess there's no second-guessing or wishing away nature's "red in tooth and claw" reality. IIWII. It is what it is.

One recent afternoon, riding in the Berkeley Hills near Inspiration Point in Tilden Regional Park, I pull off for a moment and notice, about ten feet down a little incline, what turns out to be a polymorphic Harlan's Dark-Morph (Western Adult) - a variety of Red-tailed Hawk. At first, I'm thinking - who the heck? This one's an unsual bird, seemingly a bird in distress. Not a whiff of fear or concern about my presence. Even when I approach to within five feet, the dim-witted bird just stands there perched on a skinny branch, stupidly alert but conscious, oddly incapacitated, maybe I begin thinking, almost as though toxified by a recently eaten mouse or rat killed by some well-meaning person intent on ridding the environment of vermin but whose unseen collateral damage is death by the thousands to birds of prey. I watch and watch, wave my arms, make noises, throw a clump of dirt off to the left, but ol' Harlan doesn't flinch. He stands his ground, which is a barely supportive branchling poking off a scruffy three foot high bush, an almost comical impression on his face as he bobs up and down on the thin branch with commendable dexterity despite his malingering condition.

Harlan's mouth is strangely crooked open, revealing a slender pink tongue and yellowish maw. (First time I've seen the mouthparts of a hawk so close up.). I can't figure out if Harlan is sick or just silly, or maybe distracted. He's definitely exhibiting odd behavior, at the very least his not being ruffled by my presence. I wave again, fake a caw, and he rears his head back and stares me down, a mean-looking thing with a beady inquisitive eye bulging out like an eruption. He remains ensconced on the pathetic perch, occasionally fluffing up his feathers. It doesn't seem right that he's not getting scared or annoyed or flying away like any normal bird would under the circumstances.

After about ten minutes of observing ol' Harlan, I suddenly become aware of a high-pitched screech - the hungry mewling of a juvenile raptor. I look up into the eucalyptus tree, and about fifty feet up (in full amazement mode) I watch an adult Red-shouldered Hawk hammer away at a snake - a really cool sighting in my pantheon! I watch her deftly pin what looks to be a fairly large gopher snake against the branch and jab at it repeatedly with her blood-sotted beak. I watch her flip the snake up and catch it mid-air, gobbling down her tight gullet a couple of hefty morsels of flesh. I watch her famished little minion scream for his share. I watch Mama Hawk fork over the half-eaten snake, still two feet long, to her hungry little juvenile. (Mistake, I'm thinking.) I watch the nervous little guy awkwardly chew, bite and attempt to slurp it down like a spaghetti noodle. I watch the bloodied carcass being carelessly dropped from his jaws into the brush below. I watch the noticeable chagrin of Mama Hawk. I half-expect her to dive down and retrieve the tasty slim-jim, but she stays put. I watch her peck at her kid in a manner to suggest she's mad. I'm amazed at how much I'm able to watch ("just by observing.").

Just after the snake carcass goes spiraling down fifty feet in the brush, ol' Harlan makes his move. I watch him fly off his precarious perch. I watch him land clumsily, almost drunkenly, in a branch fifty feet away. I watch him stabilize. I truly believe the old boy's been poisoned.

The question remains, too, if today's sightings of a deranged Harlan's Red-tail and two snake chomping Red-shouldereds are separate but related events, or related but separate events. What does it mean to simultaneously witness two rare sightings? Or is what I saw rare? Perhaps these sights and events in "unseen" nature are happening all the time, everywhere, simultaneously, and I'm only just beginning to pay attention. That's what birding does. It makes you pay attention. It connects you more deeply to the magical and mysterious workings of Mother Nature.

Photos courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

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