Frost was sparkling on the grass, dried shrubs and grasses as our small group set out on a birding walk in the local nature preserve. Water in the creeks and bog was frozen in pretty patterns and the air felt crisp (and cold).
At first, not many birds seemed to be around but soon we spotted Eastern towhees (Pipilo erythrophthalmus) and numerous sparrow species in the meadows — none really close by but still visible to those with binoculars and a zoom lens. Blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) were flying from very high treetop to treetop.
After seeing my familiar red-headed woodpecker (Melanerpes erythrocephalus), to whom I’ve given the name “young’un” as I’ve been following her/his progress since s/he was a brown and white juvenile, we saw some Eastern phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) and more sparrows.
In the woods, we saw a ruby-crowned kinglet and a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius). It was when we emerged from the woods into another meadow that we had our most spectacular encounter, however. I spotted a young red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) perched in a tree at the meadow’s edge gazing ahead.
After alighting, the bird began staring downwards very intently. We walked a little closer and stopped. The bird didn’t even look in our direction but continued to stare down with great concentration, occasionally looking out ahead.
We came closer and stopped again. Finally, we got right up even with the bird and looked directly at it from about 6-10 feet. It acknowledged our presence but continued to stare down and we couldn’t figure out what it was tracking. Other birds fluttered in nearby branches but it paid them no mind.
When our group began to walk on after taking many photos and admiring the bird’s sharp eyes and even sharper looking talons, I looked intently under the tree, too. And then I spotted the prey — a hispid cotton rat (Sigmodon hispidus), holding still as a statue on a log.
The hawk looked at us, yet kept the rodent in sight. On looking at the photos afterwards, I’m glad that the hawk didn’t decide to fly at us with those talons extended in order to drive us away. After looking at the rat, our group walked on as it looked to be quite a standoff; the rat had several smaller branches between it and the hawk which might make capture difficult.
As my fellow birders tried to spot winter wrens and purple finches, which they had heard, I couldn’t get the hawk and rat out of my mind. So as they went on, I returned to the dramatic scene. As I arrived, the hawk had risen on the branch and was crouching as it looked at me and the rat. It turned on the branch and I just knew that it was getting ready for an attack. Part of me wanted the rat to make it out of there and part of me felt the hawk deserved a meal after such stellar spotting from a distance and patience in watching the prey.
Those large wings were somewhat caught up in the small branches but it got the rat. It flapped about, perhaps securing a tighter hold on its meal-to-be and then flew up to a nearby branch (behind lots of vegetation so that I couldn’t get a good photo). It sat for a minute or so and then flew back over the meadow into the woods, leaving me with a few blurry photos as testaments of the final act in the drama.
My sympathy was certainly with the rat, whose last 30 minutes of life must have been filled with terror as it froze in the hope of escaping the predator. I had to admire the hawk’s concentration and focus, though — that bird was not going to let anything deter it from getting a meal, not even four humans standing a few feet away aiming cameras and phones at it as it perched on that branch. The hawk certainly gave us an unforgettable experience as we may never come so closely eye-to-eye with a wild raptor again.
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