Monday, February 23, 2009
WATCHING THE WATCHER
Winter continues to linger along the river. We received another dusting of snow during the night. Just after dawn, the temperature registered a chilly 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of taking breakfast at the dining table, I carried my bowl of steel-cut oats and mug of black tea to the great-room’s opposite corner. There I could cozy comfortably by the fire in my favorite rocker, which faces the sliding glass deck doors and allows me to watch any goings-on at the island across from the cottage. Sometimes I see deer over there, or one of the fat resident fox squirrels. Yesterday it was a mink. In the past I’ve watched muskrats, beaver, and raccoons, among others. The island is also the home for a pair of pileated woodpeckers—huge and astonishing with their flaming red crests and pterodactyl-like semblance. I’d just finished my meal when the red-tailed hawk landed in the top of one of the island’s huge hackberries. The bird was perhaps 80 feet up and 175 feet away from where I sat, so seeing as how I don’t own a 600mm telephoto, this admittedly inferior photo was the best I could manage. Sorry… The hawk was not actively hunting, but was instead doing exactly what I was doing huddling beside the fire—getting warm. Only in the red-tail’s case, this was accomplished via solar energy—which entailed pointing its chest at the morning sun and poofing out its feathers. As I watched through binoculars, the big hawk began preening, using its sharp beak and equally sharp talons to “comb” its feathers, pulling, poking, plucking, working from head-to-tail. A raptor version of a morning bath. This preening business went on for at least a half hour, with an occasional pause to look around—right, left, forward, behind, down, head swiveling as if on a turret—until the job was apparently accomplished to perfection. Then the hawk simply readjusted its position slightly, better to catch the now-higher sun, and settled back for an additional half-hour of sauna therapy; a thorough warm-up before hitting the skies for a breakfast hunt. The many birds working the various feeders, all of which were in plain sight of the tree-top hawk, seemed to know they weren’t in any present danger. The sunning red-tail would give them a cursory glance from time to time, but the looked lacked any real malice aforethought that’s so noticeable in a look harboring real predatory intensity. The feeder birds kept their eye on the hawk, in case the situational mood changed. But everyone seemed to understand the other’s intentions and be willing to accept a momentary truce. An hour after it landed in the hackberry, the red-tailed hawk shook itself a few times as if awakening from a doze. Then it looked around, scrutinizing every quadrant of earth and sky, hopped lightly off the limb—and caught its fall on broad, outspread wings. The hawk’s movement and sudden flight drew the eyes of the feeder crowd, some of whom made a hasty departure. But the hawk still wasn’t interested—at least not at the moment. A couple of minutes after it deserted the island hackberry, I saw it began a slow spiral into the morning’s blue sky above a field well beyond the far side of the river. No longer the one being watched, the red-tail had again become the watcher.