As I was winding down my day while traveling in southern CA recently, I had the pleasure of watching a showdown between a juvenile red-tailed hawk and an adult Cooper’s hawk (likely a female). When I got back to the house where I was staying, I noticed the juvenile red-tailed hawk perched in a relaxed manner on the peak of the house next door, watching the sun go down.
This hawk is most likely about 1 year old, quite an accomplishment to have survived its first year (raptors have mortality rates in the first year as high as 70%!). Juvenile red-tailed hawks lack a red tail, often have lighter colored eyes than adults, and have some spotty patterns on the belly band (versus more streaking in adults). It seemed relaxed as it faced the setting sun, evidenced by its fluffed-out feathers and its left leg lifted up into its belly feathers. You can see on the right leg, there appears to be a band on this bird – possibly it was caught and banded during the migration last year.
I relocated to a second-story balcony which afforded better views of the bird, and as I stood there watching suddenly another raptor appeared on the scene! On a power line at about eye-level to me, an adult female Cooper’s hawk alighted and assumed a similar relaxed pose to the red-tail, with one foot up as it surveyed the area.
Cooper’s hawks are part of the Accipter genus of birds in the Accipitridae family, and can be extremely difficult to discern from their close relative the sharp-shinned hawk – a smaller version of this bird. Most raptor species exhibit reverse sexual dimorphism, meaning the females are larger than the males. What makes the identification of a Coopers versus a sharp-shinned hawk especially difficult in addition to very similar plummage is that a male Coopers can be about the same size as a female sharp-shinned hawk. In the above picture, there are some really helpful features that help key this bird as a Cooper’s hawk.
rounded termination of the tail feathers (versus more straight across in sharp-shinned)
dark “cap” on the head feathers (versus more of a full hood on a sharp-shinned hawk)
eyes are placed more towards the front of the skull (sharp-shinned hawks’ eyes seem almost in the center of their skull when viewed from the side)
thicker tarsus, or leg bone (sharp-shinned get their name from having an incredibly thin tarsus)
I am not 100% certain that this bird is a female, but that is my initial guess based on size relative to the red-tail (which I thought could be a female based on her large size – but again, no great scale for reference).
The Cooper’s hawk didn’t remain relaxed for long – as soon as it spotted the red-tailed hawk perched above it became much more alert, dropping its leg down and staring intently (though, to be honest, all these birds seem to only have a single facial expression – and if there is one word for it, it is “intense”).
She relocated to a place on the power line closer to the red-tail to get a better look …
In the above picture, you can see the white feathers that protrude below the tail on its ventral side. This is a helpful feature to identify accipiters in the field from a distance, but one needs to be aware that Northern harriers have a similar white patch that appear on their dorsal side.
Finally the Cooper’s hawk decided to move in on the red-tail – likely it has a nest in the area and did not like the red-tail hanging around too close. The Coop flew up on top of the chimney, and the showdown began. You can see the size difference fairly well in this photo (with the Coop on the right).
At this point, the red-tail took notice of the Coop but still had a leg up (no pun intended) and was facing away from it. In what had to be some sort of bird statement, the red-tail proceeded to slice (poo) in the direction of the Coop!
Casually, the red-tail then turned to face the Cooper’s hawk, then took off right in its direction flying just to the north of it. The Coop jumped off right after the red-tail and pursued! At first the red-tail tried to do some circles and gain altitude, but it eventually became a full on chase. There wasn’t much actual contact, but the Cooper’s hawk made its point and the red-tail seemed fine with relocating to a tree not too far away.
Awesome to see these birds and witness this close encounter!
Once again, sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time. Two days in a row seems pretty good, eh? Though for all I know while I took pictures of this coyote and golden eagle together, there was a mountain lion dancing with a wolf just down the road.
I had been watching a golden eagle that was perched on a low sign along the snow-covered road in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for some time. There is something special about a close encounter with a golden eagle, and my breath leaves me every time I have an experience such as this. They are HUGE animals. Golden eagles can take down small deer! In other parts of the world where the eagles are slightly bigger and the wolves are slightly smaller, they kill wolves. This is an animal that is at the top of the food chain. An apex predator.
A beautiful one as well.
After observing the eagle for some time, it sliced (pooped) and took off to start hunting in the treeless wetlands around the wildlife refuge. Those wings!!!! Incredible to see an animal this size take flight.
After it took off, a quick movement caught my eye on the other side of the reeds along the snowy dirt road on which I was positioned. The roads are raised on levies to allow navigation through the wetlands. Most of the water is frozen though, and what I saw was a coyote moving away from me parallel to the road. Once my eyes locked onto it, it sensed it and increased its speed, changing from a trot to a full-on bounding gait as if I were in pursuit! I am willing to bet there are hunters out there that take shots at them.
Eventually it stopped running, being sure to look back at me as if to say “I see you and don’t think for a second I am not watching you, two-legged.” It started to move at a fast trot along and through the reeds on both sides of the road, often crossing it. It appeared to be hunting, possibly trying to flush prey or looking to scavenge a meal. Or, it was following another coyote trail and marking its territory. There are coyote trails all over the place out there. The prolific amount of prey there in the Klamath Basin attracts more than flying predators.
Eventually the coyote disappeared, so I started driving down the snow-covered road again. In just a hundred yards or so, I stopped because I saw the golden eagle again, hunting about 20 feet off the ground over the wetlands, almost like a Northern harrier. I slowed to a stop to watch the hunt, and not long after, the eagle landed on another short road sign just ahead of me.
Suddenly, I caught sight of the coyote again, briefly, and then it disappeared into the reeds on the other side of the eagle – then re-appeared right next to the eagle!! I couldn’t believe it. The eagle did not seem the least bit surprised to see the coyote, even as it passed directly by it not five feet away. Nor did the coyote seemed surprised or concerned – despite them being well within striking distance of each other!!!!! The coyote paused near the eagle, and the eagle sliced (almost on top of the coyote), then the canine came out into the roadway, shot me a glance, smelled a fresh coyote scat (confirmed once I drove up there after the encounter), then disappeared back into the tule reeds by the eagle.
As I approached in my vehicle, I passed the eagle and we had a moment of looking directly at each other. It is an experience that is intense and humbling. After I passed, the eagle took off, and I was able to
take a look at the scat and tracks. The coyote continued to hunt along
both sides of the road for a few hundred yards until finally it
continued south over a large berm.
As mentioned in my last blog post, while I watched an otter consume a duck, a northern harrier came gliding down the canal and dropped down on a small bird in the vegetation on the side of the canal just 10 feet from the otter!
The whole time I’m shooting this scene the otter is just eating (and occasionally napping) away just 10 feet to the right. It was just ridiculous the amount of activity happening at this particular location.
One thing I noted while driving was that small birds were flying very close in front of my vehicle. I actually struck one of them, sadly. I’m wondering if their reaction time is slowed by the cold weather and if that gives an advantage to predators (who are primarily using gravity to drop down on their prey). Interesting to hear if anyone else has experience with this.
There is a lot of wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and not all of it has feathers.
Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and this was certainly one of those instances. With the incredibly low temperatures that were present for the last few days, there was almost no open water around – it was all frozen. One canal had some exposed water around an outlet pipe, with ice starting to encroach but enough open water to attract a small flock of water fowl.
I was out of my jeep watching a small group of pintails, green-winged teals, mallards and grebes in the small bit of open water, suddenly they “gently” flushed – they didn’t fly, but they walked out of the water. I didn’t flush them, but I couldn’t figure out what did. I turned for a moment to grab something in my jeep, when I looked back I saw what appeared to be a mallard duck struggling to get out of the water and onto the ice. Then I realized that it was actually the duck’s rear end that was out of the water! As my mind struggled to put the vision before me together, the duck slipped under the surface of the water. A few seconds later, a huge river otter popped up out of the water onto the ice with the (now dead) duck in its mouth!
I watched it consume the duck for almost an hour, occasionally it would retreat under water (sometimes with its meal!) when other people drove by or came too close (which unfortunately some did come too close).
There were times that the otter appeared to nod off after so much eating, but he wasn’t about to stop – he just needed some dinner naps. I’ve been there.
Otters are such a joy to watch, their behavior is always fascinating. Such beautiful, fun creatures. I’m sure the ducks felt differently.
During the time I was watching the otter, a northern harrier floated down the canal in the air and made a successful strike on a small bird – just 10 feet from the otter! I’ll put the series of pictures from that in the next blog …
The show wasn’t over though. After that a prairie falcon came in and made an unsuccessful strike on a small duck in the canal behind me! This place was a hot spot!
The other water fowl seemed to realize the otter was satiated, as they came back into close proximity of the otter as it was eating and even afterwards while he was still in the area. After the otter finished, another harrier moved in to scavenge the duck as the sun set.
I imagine it wasn’t long after I left that the coyotes I heard howling nearby moved in for the rest of the scraps. Their tracks were all over the Basin area, and I saw four of them during my two days there, moving at a rapid pace through the preserves as they hunted.
A ranger that I told about the encounter had been at the same location earlier and saw a bobcat. It was likely no coincidence that this spot was so active – the open water attracted the water fowl, which in turn attracted the predators.
Such a fun day. I stayed out past sunset watching everything unfold, and the temperature dropped quickly. I was happy to get back to town that night for a warm bed. Unfortunately I had some camera malfunction issues, so my shots aren’t as good as I’d hoped (auto-focus issues) – I learned the hard way to test new equipment more thoroughly before being out in the field! That is minor though – WHAT A DAY!!! It’s not often that you see this kind of show!! Very grateful to have the opportunity to be up there and that there are people protecting it. Check out KS Wild, one of the many groups helping the cause.
These pictures are dedicated to LB and West County Hawk Watch – much love and respect for your passion, dedication, mentoring, generosity, trust and expertise. One of the first FEHA’s that I ever saw was with Larry, and to this day, every time I see one, I think of you my friend.
These birds have arrived to take up residence for the winter from their summer breeding grounds in the plains, and I am always excited to see them – largest of our native hawks.
i ran into another old friend on friday … a dark morph (or rufous/intermediate morph) red-tailed hawk that has spent the last few winters in berkeley. it’s fun when i get to know an individual animal, and this one has been around for a few years but i just saw her for the first time this season about a week ago. i was happy to see her again.
when i first saw her we gave each other a little wave (ha!)
right about the time that i saw her, a huge flock of crows was moving through the area and it didn’t take long for some of them to spot her too. crows love to harass red-tails, and today was no different. first one or two took up the chase, and soon there was a flock of close to 50 crows escorting her out of the area.
i’ve mentioned this before, but there are some corvid researchers (i can’t remember who) who say that this mobbing behavior could be a corvid “right of passage” – which makes some sense to me because there is very little reason that i can think of for the birds to do it other than fun or to establish social ranking.
Sunday was a warm and clear day on the coast, strange weather for January – it felt like summer (well, summer anywhere besides the coast and the Bay area). We started the day by witnessing some interesting behavior by a couple of deer that caught our attention. The deer, which appeared to be doe and a yearling (nearly the same size), were standing with heads raised and their focus on something in the chaparral to the north of us. The yearling took off trotting, then bounding, right towards the path we were on, seemingly unconcerned with our presence. It then stopped and turned around, bounding back to its mother. The two of them then started a slow walk in the direction of the threat, with the mother in the lead. Shifting our position back down the trail, we were able to see what was causing the concern …
I was only able to catch the tail-end of the bobcat as he disappeared into a coyote bush (for the moment now a bobcat bush) – a large male that uses this particular territory who’ve we’ve tracked and seen around here before. Although I think it’s rare for bobcats to take down full grown deer in this area, fawns are fair game. This particular young one is probably big enough to be safe, but given the respect that the deer on this day showed towards him, and on another occasion when I witnessed his presence disturb them, I’d say he is still viewed as a threat. He seems to be a large bobcat based on his tracks and scat.
The most interesting part of this whole interaction was when the deer started to FOLLOW the bobcat – the doe literally walked right to where the cat had disappeared, and she seemed to be chasing HIM out of the area! Good stuff.
On the way in to the lagoons, I spotted an American bittern in a small pond along the pathway – I’ve seen one on the far shores of the larger lagoon, but never one so out in the open here. It was shaping up to be another good day, with lots of live animal sightings. Later in the day on the return trip it was still there and posed for some pictures in the beautiful light.
As we approached the lagoon, a resident great-blue heron was hunting in the shallows.
There were quite a few sets of trails and tracks on the dunes, but the striped skunks were most prevalent. This is their mating season, during which they really seem to be wandering around outside of their normal areas with higher frequency – sadly it is also marked by the large number of road kill skunks at this time of year. Notably absent was the female bobcat that usually patrols this area. It is also breeding season for the cats, so her daily patterns are likely interrupted by the breeding impulse. I also spotted at least one golden eagle soaring above the hills, only the second time I’ve seen one in this particular area. Along with a ferruginous hawk sighting (a somewhat rare winter visitor in this area) and the great view of an intermediate morph red-tailed hawk, we had some great raptor and other bird sightings. During the day at various times the family of otters was visible on the upper lagoon, but I never really was close enough for any pictures. Just their presence is a joy, watching them even from afar is so fun.
As we were resting by the lagoon, a pie-billed grebe made it’s way out of the shallows by the cattails with quite a prize – after straining to identify what it was, we realized it was a small bass! The grebe paddled around with the fish in its beak for at least five minutes, occasionally shaking it and twice losing it in the water, but diving down and quickly recapturing it. Finally, after almost ten minutes, it downed the fish whole!!
Another great day out there, I’m so thankful for that place and to be able to wander in it. Thanks also to Richard Vacha and everyone who participated in this Marin Tracking Club excursion for making it a fun and educational day.
All across the Bay area baby birds are taking flight, and many of the peregrine falcon nests in the region are already empty. Last week, the three peregrine falcon nestlings that are in a cliff side nest a few hours north of San Francisco were practicing their flapping when we stopped by. Tightly gripping the left-over sticks from the old raven nest that makes up their eyrie high on the cliff, they they pumped their wings as if ready to fly into the sun.
I always find it to be such a profound metaphor of our own developmental processes in life. In what ways are we flapping our wings but still clinging to the nest, afraid to let go and fly? To use our wings for their true purpose, to allow us to fly in whatever way is appropriate for the unique feathers that we each wear?
The winds were blowing hard, as they often do in that area by the ocean, but the fog was attending to its business far out at sea so we were treated to a rare sunset right into the waters as we sat with the birds and the thousands of small sand hoppers that had erupted to take over the tidal zone of the beach.
Saturday when I stopped by, one of them had fledged. I learned later that it was the male (based on his bands, the birds had been banded earlier to help track them – there is one male and two females). He had positioned himself on a nearby ridge to the north, but when the female brought food into the nest, he had a strong incentive to battle the high winds and make his way back. It’s an endearing sight to see the perseverance of this little being who is still trying to figure out how to work his own body, and I find myself cheering him on as he awkwardly makes the short journey in little flights and hops from one ridge to the next, then up the cliff face. It’s comical at times, because they are like toddlers learning to walk – and with the strong winds, it made the effort that much more challenging.
After a few stops and breaks, he finally made one last noble attempt, leaving the safety of the cliff side and doing a few circles in the air to gain some altitude to get into the nest for his final meal of the day. Just before he took off though, he seemed to gather himself in a dignified manner and assume a regal pose just before he leaped. Again, I was struck by the analogy to moments in our own lives, when we gather ourselves closely around that light inside us and recognize having the strength, courage, and belief in ourselves to make that leap. I was grateful to bear witness and share that moment with him.
One of the adults, it looked like the female, came into the scrape to join them for dinner as I was leaving for the evening.
It’s quite a privilege and a gift to get to witness this, and to photograph it and share it is an honor.
On this picture you can see the owl-like facial disk that Northern harriers wear:
Northern harriers are found in open grass and marsh lands (historically called the “marsh hawk”), and they tend to fly low over the landscape in search of small mammals, insects and lizards which are one of their main sources of prey. They have a small facial disk, similar to owls, and it is believed they use this to use focus sound when hunting in the same way that it is said that owls do.
Males and females are sexually dimorphic, meaning in this case that they have very different adult plummages. Males are white and gray with black on the wingtips of the primary feathers, while females (and sub-adults) are dark brown overall with a cinnamon or pumpkin coloring on their underside (sub-adults tend to have more of a cinnamon coloring). One of their features that is helpful for in-flight ID is their white rump patch, seen on all of them. They also tend to hold their wings in a slight dihedral (v-shape), while gliding low over the ground.
Interesting, these birds nest on the ground.
They are fun to watch, as they glide over the landscape almost like butterflies teetering in the wind.