What an exciting morning I’ve had. I was busy doing household chores when I realized the birds had gotten quiet. As I have discovered the reason often lies high in the trees, I looked up: yup, a shadow…very high up in the Cottonwoods. Now, I generally wander around my house sans the glasses that I need to watch television or to drive…I don’t need them for close-up work, after all. However birding, when one can’t see things at a distance, is iffy at best…all I knew was that I was looking at a very large bird. I was thinking Golden Eagle or Great Horned Owl, both frequent this area.
But no, looking through my little binoculars, I realize the bird is neither an owl, nor an eagle…but it was much larger than the little Sharp-shinned Hawks I’ve seen in my yard. These fast, little Accipiter hunt regularly in my yard; I’ve been startled by the rapid blur, moving just a few feet off the ground, racing through my yard and around the corner of the house; clearly chasing a bird that had been at my feeders. I don’t mind this at all; hawks have to eat too.
The bird I watched in the tree this morning was even larger than the Red-Tailed Hawk I watched rise up off my lawn yesterday, after hearing a rapid ‘thump, thump, thump’ on the window…something I just don’t hear since draping the windows with bird netting that moves in the breeze. While I didn’t see what was in its grasp, it clearly had a successful strike and likely had either an Eurasian Dove (they feed here, two to three dozen at a time), a Red-Winged Blackbird or one of the Grackles that hangs with them; they all feed on the corn I toss for them. They come in great numbers, I’ve counted close to fifty on the ground at one time…I’ve also found feathers in nearly the same place I watched this Hawk fly up in my direction, distinctive red-tail what I noticed most.
Buteos like to hunt from the big trees around my yard, I’ve watched one in the tree where I watched this bird, but this bird was larger yet, though it had what looked to be the short, fast wings of the Buteo. I studied this big bird, noting it had a grayish head and darker back; yet the throat and breast were quite light. The tail was not at all red and there was little to no streaking on the breast, either. For that reason I checked to make sure I was not looking at an Osprey, which I’ve seen in this area though closer to open water. No, no funny little cow-lick at the back of the head, nor that dark eye-mark Ospreys show. Finally I looked away and grabbed my Sibley Field Guide; I was watching the first Swainson's Hawk I’ve ever identified. I’m so tickled with myself. LOL (I also crack myself up...for the longest time I insisted it was a Ferruginous Hawk, which clearly it is not!)
Finally I took a chance to go outside and try for a photograph. I’ve decided my 7-year old digital camera (Canon PowerShot G3), telephoto lens or no, is just not equipped to handle subjects at such a distance…and the height where this bird was sitting increased the distance a good deal. Of course, then there is the fact that I’m trying, blindly, to learn how to use the camera to my advantage. I don’t want to always leave it on automatic…but maybe I should. So many of my shots turn out so badly, it’s disappointing, to say the least. And I want a spotting scope, too!
I have been studying a marvelous little book, Finding Your Wings: A Workbook for Beginning Bird Watchers, by Burton Guttman. The book teaches the way I learn. It includes information regarding how to look at birds and offers activities and quizzes that help learn what to look for when watching them. Probably the best thing I’ve learned so far is to study the field guides before I go out to find birds; study silhouettes, learn to look at beaks and recognize size and shape as a clue to the kind of bird you might be watching, learn to note wing and tail shapes and finally particular markings or colors the bird exhibits. Also studying how a bird lives, how and where it moves and when it might be in an area in a particular season.
Having done my homework, I also think I got another first-bird while watching the hawk. An unusual flash of color pulled my eye higher up the tree where I spied a small bird alone in the treetop. I could not clearly make it out other than to note the color that drew me to it; a red head and bright yellow breast. My first Tanager? This would be their breeding season, they do come through this part of the country about now and they like high tree-tops. What other bird could this be but a Western Tanager, all by itself in my little woods?
Yes, it was a beautiful day. I even got a better shot of that Yellow-headed Blackbird! (such as it was through the window). I'll get better ...I mean it, too.