Hawkwatching Rewarded!

My first hawk encounter of this spring was April 11. I’d just been photographing a pileated woodpecker excavating this year’s nest and had wandered back to one of my regular places, a cluster of fireweeds and blackberries where I’ve sometimes been lucky enough to catch hummingbirds gathering nest material.

I heard a loud “KEK,” and looked up to see a young female hawk perched on an overhead branch. She seemed remarkably calm and set to preening herself in the rare-for-this-season sunlight. I snuck quietly around to where I could see her from the front, then crept stealthily along the path so the hawk had only clear blue sky behind her (better than branches for photographing). But apparently my sneakiness was superfluous, because while I stood there taking pictures, people with dogs came by and said hello and the hawk just sat up there giving herself a pedicure.

Female Cooper’s Hawk (juvenile) with possible brood patch

When I got home and looked at the picture more closely on my computer screen, I was alarmed to see a red area on her breast. Had she been wounded in a scuffle? Was she seriously injured?

It took the better part of a day for it to occur to me that this bare area of her chest might be a brood patch—that bare area that incubating birds develop so that the parent’s body heat doesn’t have to get through feathers to keep the eggs warm. I ran the photos by some hawk-expert friends of mine, and although they weren’t sure whether the red spot was a brood patch or just some bare skin exposed after bathing, one mentioned that there was indeed a nest nearby.

The search was on! Hawks like to build their nests where they’ll be hidden from above by the overlying canopy (which may also protect the nests from weather), in forests that are pretty dense, with other trees evenly distributed around their chosen nest tree. That means, of course, that I’m not supposed to be able to find a hawk nest.

This is one of my favorite aspects of being a naturalist: trying hard to find something that’s intentionally really hard to find. You have to sharpen your senses, become attuned to slight movements out of the corner of your eye, watch for indirect signs like leaves splattered with poop that may indicate a nest above. When I’m searching for a hidden hawk nest, I am awake and alert, attuned; I feel more alive than ever.

The naturalist’s attention is something I’m really interested in. To me it’s a profound form of meditation, embodying both focused and diffuse awareness, which brings all the benefits of more familiar contemplative techniques. I’ll be writing more about this in coming weeks.

In searching for this hawk nest, I learned their calls and became familiar with their hangouts. Finally on April 30, at 1:20pm (thank heaven for digital photography that records the moment each picture was taken), I saw the female hawk fly to a mass of branches high up in a slender young Douglas Fir. Success!

Over the following weeks, I watched the hawks in their territory as they preened, tore apart the small birds that seemed to be their typical prey in this forest, brought each other food.

Male Cooper's Hawk with prey for female

Female Cooper's Hawk reaching for prey from male

For the past few weeks, she’s been pretty regularly on the nest. For a long time, all I could often see was the end of her long tail sticking out over the nest edge. She may be a teen mom, but she sure has been attentive to her nest! Then more recently, I began to see her tilted at nest’s edge, tail high in the air: the chicks must have hatched and she was feeding them. Sometimes I was lucky enough to get a glimpse of her arriving at the nest like an accipiter angel—and I’m sure her babies see her that way!

Mother Cooper's Hawk alights on nest

When she finishes feeding her chicks bits of prey, she’ll sometimes clean the used meal back out of the nest, launching herself out of the nest and swooping down over my path before heading off into the forest.

Cooper's Hawk leaving nest with prey remnant

Finally, a couple of days ago, we were watching the mother feed in the nest. After she flew off over our heads, I focused my binoculars back on the nest…and there was a tiny snowball face with two huge charcoal-dark eyes, looking off to where his mother had just flown.

Cooper's Hawk nestling

Here’s a zoomed-in view:

Cooper's Hawk nestling

I named him Gawain, referring to a little or white hawk. (And when he grows up, he can be a Knight of the Round Table!) With the backlighting haloing his subsequent lovely long wing stretches, he looked almost as angelic as his mother had.

Cooper's Hawk nestling stretching his wing

My hawk-expert friend estimates Gawain’s age to be about 16 days. According to Cornell University’s wonderful allaboutbirds.org website, the nestling period for Cooper’s Hawks lasts about a month. That means I can look forward to about two more weeks of nest-peeking before he wobbles out onto nearby limbs. I’ll keep you informed!

Links to websites I used for hawk research:

http://www.nps.gov/pinn/naturescience/accipiter.htm

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/coopers_hawk/lifehistory

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