Sunday, February 3, 2013

Really, you must look up!

The other day I wrote about the unexpected pleasures that can be gained simply by stopping and looking at the world around you, and especially about the delights of looking up, looking up at our marvelous sky:

Today while driving home from my morning singing, of course I was scanning sky, trees, and fields for birds, particularly raptors. (Raptors are particularly easy to spot during the winter.)

As I passed an office park, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk soaring over a near-by field:

Then I realized that there were two hawks – a pair – in a courtship flight display:

It’s easy to identify a pair of hawks, and to differentiate male (smaller) from female (larger), though their plumage is the same.

Courtship in early February? Yes, many raptors – hawks, eagles, and owls – begin courtship in late winter. For birds that mate for life, such as Red-tailed Hawks, the late winter courtship is a time to renew and strengthen pair bonds, repair nests that have been battered during winter storms, and prepare to mate and lay their eggs. Some owls lay their eggs during February. And these birds need to get an early start, for it takes months for a newly-hatched raptor to develop the size, strength, and skills to survive on its own during the following winter. 
I’ve written about the noisy summer “flight school” for the Red-tailed Hawks that live in my neighborhood:

And about why that flight school was silent in 2012:
The Red-tails’ courtship flight is a beautiful dance. The two birds climb independently, then soar together in ever-smaller circles, till they are almost wingtip-to-wingtip, hundreds of feet above the earth. Often they will dive steeply and swiftly, in much the same way as they do when they stoop at prey. It’s really a thrill to see this behavior.

Red-tailed Hawks are the most common raptor in our area; you’ve probably seen them, perched in trees or on the tall lamp posts at the side of the highway, scanning the ground for prey.* If you look up once in a while, chances are good that you can watch one soaring and wheeling, its rusty-red tail a sure field mark. (The immature birds have greyish tails.)

As the pair of red-tails danced against the clounds, I wanted to get a closer look. I pulled into the parking lot and parked way off to the side, overlooking the field, where I could enjoy the show. I watched the two birds ascend, ever-circling, to the apex of their flight, after which they dived and swooped low over the field next to where I was parked.

As I watched, I could see that they were calling to each other. I put down the truck window and leaned my face into the fresh air, listened to their harsh cries. They came so close to the truck that when I listened carefully, I could hear their wings cutting through the still air.

Suddenly their cries became louder and more frequent. I looked up (!!) and saw an interloper – a third Red-tailed Hawk, this one a younger male. In this photo of the three hawks, you can see that the female is the largest of the three, near the bottom of the scene.

The young bird tried to “cut in” to the dance of the mated pair, making an obvious bid for the large female, and trying to assume control over their territory, as well. The female’s mate, screaming loudly, engaged with the newcomer in mid-air, circling high, diving, attacking, and eventually chasing the second hawk away.

While all this was happening, a fourth hawk, a gorgeous Red-shouldered Hawk, tried to get in on the action. (Red-shoulders will occasionally mate with Red-tails.) The two male Red-tails were so deeply engaged in their dogfight that they hardly seemed to notice the Red-shoulder, and the female Red-tail had eyes only for her own mate. The Red-shoulder flew off to the west (into the sunset, as it were) and I lost sight of it.

Soon enough, the invading male Red-tail had had enough, and he, too, left the scene, none the worse for wear. The paired Red-tails continued their dance in the sky, circling higher and higher.

How glad I was that I had looked up and seen this marvelous little drama.

I was reminded of Thoreau’s thought’s on the uplifting feeling we get when we watch raptors – read it here:

What did you see today?

Read more about the raptors I see in my neighborhood:

To see really drop-dead gorgeous photos of Red-tailed Hawks, visit this site, which chronicles the story of the most famous Red-tailed Hawk on the planet, Pale Male:

* While it’s always a thrill to see the big Red-tailed Hawks (and occasionally a slightly-smaller Red-shouldered Hawk) perched by the roadside, it’s actually dangerous for them. Why? These “roadside raptors” prey on rodents that are feeding on the garbage that so many people throw from their cars. Unfortunately, they are often struck by cars when they swoop down on their prey. Please — don’t throw garbage or trash, even biodegradable food items, from your car.


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