Field Notes: All Cooped Up

Earlier this week – huddling groggy behind the sliding glass door waiting for the dog to conduct his business – I caught the flutter of feathers descending from across the fence into the silver maple out back. No sooner had I slid the door ajar to lean into the mute morning grey then the culprit – the neighborhood Cooper’s hawk –  startled from her perch and again took flight, exchanging the naked limb for one in the skeletal tree in our next door neighbor’s yard.

IMG_0662-27web Cooper

Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii)

Over the past few years, my family has come to know this Cooper’s hawk from our occasional run-ins with her here and there. My first encounter occurred one afternoon throwing a tennis ball for the dog in the front yard. Surprised by the sudden approach of wings, I looked up from my play with the flagging dog in time to catch one of my neighbor’s domestic pigeons careening toward and then around me like a child seeking shelter behind his parent’s legs. No sooner had the pigeon swung past then my gaze was transfixed by a second bird  – the Cooper’s hawk – fast approaching me at eye level with unparalleled purpose. Today, all I can recollect of that instant is the feeling of looking down the barrel of a gun before she too was gone. She must have pulled up and out of that dive abreast of me like a top gun pilot to avoid the living room window and the towering sycamore in her flight path beyond. By the time I had gathered my wits about me, she was disappearing behind the roof tops with a little less purpose, her quarry having escaped with me as accomplice.

Our sightings of her continued: atop telephone poles shortly after sunrise, or herding pigeons during their afternoon recess. Last year, my wife called me at work to say that the Cooper’s hawk had made an appearance again on the front lawn. Called to the door by the dog’s incessant barking, it took my wife a moment to realize that it wasn’t the mailman or a passerby that had caught his attention, but the Cooper’s hawk on the front lawn with a pigeon pinned to the turf. Flustered no doubt by the barking dog, followed by the appearance of my wife at the front window, she fumbled in her attempts to launch herself into the air with her prize, until at last she let loose the frightened pigeon in a blizzard of breast feathers and gave up the chase. Two hours later, downy feathers still danced lazily on the lawn when I arrived home.

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Western screech owl (Megascops kennicottii)

The fall we moved into this house, however many years ago that was, I stepped out from behind that same sliding glass door one morning as the dog – at that time still a pup – was pushing leaves with his nose under the pretense of conducting his business. That morning, I caught another raptor in the back yard. This time, our visitor was a western screech owl. Remembering my wife’s camera on the dining room table, I somehow reached back into the house, fumbled the camera on, and slipped into the back yard in time to snap three photos before the owl had had enough of my insolence and slipped off into the inky morning. Several weeks later, eying the silver maple a little more closely late one afternoon, I happened to remark to my wife that a certain cavity looked like the ideal spot for nesting birds. Retrieving my binoculars from my field bag a few minutes later, we were both surprised when none other than the screech owl appeared peering back at us from within the hollow.

The screech owl became an autumn staple, making the dead branch her evening roost over several weeks that year and the next. But after the rotting branch succumbed to a winter storm, despite the nest box lined with wood chips I built and hung in the maple that summer, the owl hasn’t been seen since.

Although the Cooper’s hawk’s appearances are fleeting and the owl has moved on, I still have the lesser goldfinches, house finches, dark-eyed juncos, oak titmice, and chickadees that parade around the feeders to keep me company. California towhees scratch in the leaf litter below the feeder. The black phoebe returns each year to perch on the handlebars of my son’s tricycle or, now, the lawn chair beneath the maple. And the Anna’s hummingbirds that nest in the neighbors-across-the-back-fence’s yard still return throughout the year to trapline the salvias and flowering maple that line our side of the fence.

Which goes to show it isn’t always good fences that make good neighbors. On a cold winter morning, while all of us wait for spring, such friends make fine neighbors indeed.

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