We’re about a month into the field season here at GGRO, and it feels great to be collecting data. Now that we’re really seeing and handling raptors, the pace of learning has definitely picked up. And it’s about to get even busier as we start to head into peak season in the next few weeks.
Hawkwatch has been slowly building as more birds start to trickle through the area. I have yet to experience a truly busy day on Hawk Hill (the place where we conduct the count), but the slow start is helpful because we get to take our time looking at and identifying the birds. As much work as we’ve done with learning to identify birds from photos, there are many things that didn’t solidify until I got out to the field. I’m starting to immediately differentiate Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawks from miles away just based on the way they hold their wings: Vultures tend to soar without flapping, and hold their wings way up in a big V, usually called a “dihedral.” Red-tailed Hawks keep their wings very flat and often “still” in one place while they scan the ground for prey. Some of the identifying features that we learn about in ID classes become easier or harder out in the field. For example, Red-shouldered hawks have bright crescent-shaped light patches on the ends of their wings where the light shines through like a window. These windows are one of the best ways to ID them, but they don’t show up nearly as well in photos as they do in real life. On the other hand, an American Kestrel is so small and usually flies by the hill so quickly, that most of the specific ID features (like the striping on the cheeks) tend to blend together and become less important than overall shape, coloration, and behavior.
Hawkwatch is also a nice opportunity to get to know a lot of the volunteers, and since the whole team for the day is together on the hill at once (rather than in Banding, where everyone is spread out in different banding blinds), it feels like more of a group activity.
For me, Banding has been both the most exciting and the most boring part of the job. When you’re catching birds, it’s an exhilarating experience, but when you sit in the cramped, dark, cold blind for eight hours and barely even see a raptor, it gets pretty hard to stay awake. This early in the season, there are definitely slow banding days, and it’s entirely based on luck and weather as to what (if anything) you’ll catch. Because natural systems are wild and unpredictable, all fieldwork has some component of chance associated with it. I’ve already heard many banders say that this is a substitute for gambling, and I can certainly see that. But if my luck with Banding so far is any indication, I should stay far away from Vegas. I’ve only caught birds about half the time that I’ve been out, but those times have definitely made up for the others.
The first raptor I got to handle was my third time out when we caught a juvenile female Red-tailed Hawk. She was such a big bird, and felt so warm and substantial held close to my body. One of the first things I noticed about that hawk was her distinctive, almost dog-like musk that was rich and somehow comforting. I never even thought beforehand about how raptors must have a specific smell, just like most animals, but they absolutely do. It’s a very pleasant odor, though I’ve been warned that some of them do smell particularly skunky or like wet dogs.
That Red-tailed Hawk was very calm, and I surprised myself to realize that I felt so calm around her too, even as I was also thrilling in the experience. I loved watching her giant eyes dilate and focus on the world around her. She was a perfect bird for my first processing experience, because she held still for all of the measurements, but was also big enough that I had to be confident in my handholds.
Most of the birds I’ve handled so far have been juvenile female Cooper’s Hawks. At first, I thought I wouldn’t like these birds at all, because the first one I saw up close bit my Site Leader until she bled, and took some good chomps at my fingers too. While the beak of a raptor looks intimidating, it is really the feet that are its main killing tools. Because raptor feet and talons are big, strong, and dangerous, that is the point of the bird that is most important to control. This means that sometimes a feisty bird can bite banders with impunity anywhere it can reach, because they are focused on the feet. Many smaller birds take advantage of this, presumably because they know they don’t have as many other defenses, so they want to do as much as they can to encourage whatever is holding them to let go. Cooper’s Hawks especially have very long legs and are excellent at reaching out and “footing” things very quickly, so I always make sure I have a very, very good grip on the legs, which gives the beak a lot of leeway. However, it doesn’t hurt as much as I thought it would, and sometimes just letting a bird bite seems to calm it down.
Despite the biting, I really like Cooper’s Hawks. They are very focused and determined in the way they hunt, sometimes to the point of silliness. I’ve seen Cooper’s Hawks go after prey on foot, looking for all the world like a mini velociraptor.
The other raptors I’ve gotten to handle are American Kestrels. These birds are tiny, colorful, and vexing. They like to come up to the nets in the site and act like they are about to get caught, only to veer off at the last second, or even sit on the net support poles and call irritably while everyone in the blind silently pleads with them to just go into the net already. When we actually manage to catch one, however, they’re a lot of fun to process because they are so tiny and cute (I have also been told that they tend to bite more than Cooper’s Hawks, but I have yet to have a feisty one in hand). The tails on the females look like tiger stripes and I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of admiring their plumage.
With banding, I really get a close-up view of the birds and get to respect both their strength and their frailty, and admire their intense beauty. Most of all, I appreciate how every one is different—from plumage or measurements to personality and behavior. It’s fun to wonder about where they came from, where they’ll go next, and how (or whether) they will survive the long migration ahead of them.
Other interesting stories/thoughts from the past month:
The Steller’s Jays outside our house are very good at imitating Red-Tailed Hawk calls, and it gets me every time. In fact, as I was writing this blog post, one of them started doing it again, and I had to get up two times and go look before I was sure it was actually just the snarky little mimics fooling me again. They are such clever birds, it’s nice having them live so close.
We’ve seen a lot of Golden Eagles on Hawkwatch and it makes me wonder why there are so many compared with previous years.
In talking with some of the volunteers who also do raptor nesting surveys, it sounds like it’s been a pretty dismal year for the raptors nesting in the Bay Area. I wonder how that will impact the birds we see on Hawkwatch, or the health of those we catch.
I am having so much fun cooking on my own. I love looking up recipes online, or just throwing stuff into a pan and seeing what happens. I am rarely disappointed.
We can see very far from up on Hawk Hill. Since we’re so high up, we get a bit of a birds eye view ourselves, but it’s easy to tell that a lot of people on the roads and trails below don’t realize that we can see them. It ends up being a very interesting time to people-watch when the birds are slow. My favorite sighting so far was a man dressed as Santa Claus shaking peoples’ hands at one of the sightseeing pull-offs along the road. It seems a little early for that.