Dear Jane and Fellow Bird Travelers,
It seems that both of us, Jane, have been shuddering a little at the predatory behaviors of the notorious COOPER’S HAWK, the “bird hawk” that prefers small birds over all other foods. You can tell when a Coopers’ is in the area because there will be an initial wild chorus of alarm calls and then absolute silence. Just yesterday I experienced this right in my backyard – one moment a chorus of bright song, and then, as if the birds were of one mind, total silence. It was eery. I immediately suspected a Cooper’s Hawk, especially since my neighbor Bob has been reporting to me that one has been hiding in the dense foliage of his Cape Honeysuckle hedge (next to the River) for about two weeks now. Earlier this week Bob came out his front door, only to recoil when he saw an insouciant Cooper’s Hawk feasting on the remains of a dead CALIFORNIA TOWHEE. It saw Bob but casually consumed the last morsels before it flew off. Bob has had a very hard time forgiving that hawk!
Here are some photos I was lucky enough to capture of their cousins, the SHARP-SHINNED HAWK, taken on the River last November during migration season. Sharp-shinned Hawks are smaller, but equally fond of dining on small birds, and equally clever at catching them. For all I know, the Coopers’ Hawks that Bob saw, and that I saw, could have been Sharp-shinned Hawks. They are difficult to tell apart, except for the size.
Isn’t it amazing how the special small wing structure and long tail of these hawks allow them to successfully negotiate what seem almost impenetrable tree canopies, canopies that deny entry to our bulkier Red-tailed and Red-Shouldered Hawks. It continues to amaze me how each species finds it own way of adapting to the environment in order to survive. I can’t help but wonder if some of the many juvenile HOUSE FINCHES that I wrote about, and pictured in my last blog, were the victims of the Cooper’s predations. I hav been noticing that the numbers of finches at my bird feeder has lessened rather dramatically this last week and I’ve read that these hawks are drawn to backyard bird feeders. That makes me squirm. Should I keep feeding my birds? More power to the KINGFISHER that you saw chase off a Cooper’s last week, and to the AMERICAN CROW that I saw do the same thing this week. Be it said that the Cooper’s Hawk did not give up without quite an aerial dust-up.
Well, the good news is that – according to the bar chart in eBird, click here the Coopers’ hit their fall migratory peak from mid-September to mid-October as they return from their breeding grounds further north and in the interior. They are pretty much right on schedule! According to the range maps, they are, for the most part, not regular residents in coastal California, living mostly inland. So let’s “enjoy” them as best we can during their short visit and then, on behalf of the small birds, wish them a rather grateful farewell.
I hate to admit that I have been wondering lately why I never see male COMMON MERGANSERS these days, only the brown-headed female. As I watched seven ‘females’ resting on a sandbar this week, I imagined a matriarchy of female mergansers. Then I imagined males too proud to hang out with females. Silly me – always making up anthropocentric stories!
I finally, and sensibly. turned to the Sibley field guide and was reminded that males are almost exactly similar in appearance to females (and juveniles) from July through October, until breeding season begins in November. We should be able to identify the males as males in a month or so.
Like the Mergansers, male MALLARDS will soon regain their breeding elegance – one month earlier than Mergansers, in October. It’s so funny to see them now, inelegantly coming into their own, their heads looking as if they were wearing threadbare green velvet bonnets.
As you pointed out, Jane, a few AMERICAN COOTS are also back. The will soon become the most commonly seen bird on the river, but right now it is special to welcome them back after a cootless summer. I actually enjoy their shenanigans all winter long.
I haven’t seen any Golden-crowned Sparrows yet, or Eared Grebes, but I read on the Monterey Bay Bird list that they have alrrived elsewhere in the County. I’m eagerly awaiting the Golden-crowned’s plaintive whistle, the official beginning of fall in my calendar. Click here to see my eBird post this last week.
News from the City Council meeting last week was sobering, especially what it included about my end of our River. Based on a City study of the heavy rains in 2017, it seems that the levees “may not contain a Corps-projected 100 year flood in certain reaches ot the flood control project (approximately Soquel Ave to Highway 1).” In its report, the City barely disguises its frustration when it writes in the report, “ The Corps acknowledged a possible change in levee performance but also indicated that their levee performance report finalized in 2014 went through an extensive process to complete and represents the Corps’ best estimate of the project’s performance at this time”. In other words, the Corps is sticking with an old study in spite of new findings! The Corps will cut off its contract with the City, returning full oversight and financial responsiility to the Santa Cruz. . The City must now go begging for money to implement something they call the Bankfull Project, which I think means some kind of supposedly less environmentally damaging variation on dredging to remove the sediment build-up between Water St. and Highway 1 that has heightened the risk of flooding. That, not to put too fine a point on it, is precisely where I live. I guess we human and avian residents of this riverine reach can expect a rough ride in a couple of years, as heavy duty machinery rips up the river bed. How dearly we all pay when we meddle with nature.
I have been so enthralled with the biography and writings of John Muir lately. He was way ahead of his time, in spite of his lacking academic credentials, in understanding how glaciers (and not a natural catastrophe) carved out the Yosemite Valley. He loved glaciers and wrote about them to a friend:
Quote of the Week:
“Man, man: you ought to have been with me. You’ll never make up what you have lost today. I’ve been wandering through a thousand rooms of God’s crystal temple. I’ve been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculptured figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon’s marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be!” John Muir
Muir goes so far beyond any writer I have ever read in his capacity for total ecstasy in nature.
May we all, including our City leaders, channel just a little of Muir’s ecstatic appreciation for the wonders of nature. Wouldn’t that be easier than grinding out all these Environmental Impact Reports?