Who remains?

I spent my summer getting to know and growing fond of the Cooper’s hawk triplets born and raised around my home.  Their antics and constant company allowed me the opportunity to know each of them, to know their personalities and to recognize them with ease.  And the many months we shared had me feeling like a surrogate parent: always watching, always monitoring, always worried that a day would come when I might not see at least one of them.

Yes, my fear in October centered on the inevitable: saying goodbye when the youngsters eventually moved on.  After all, this territory belongs to their parents, two capable and comfortable adults who live here all year.  In the company of red-tailed hawks, red-shouldered hawks, American kestrels, black and turkey vultures, and a horde of other avian predators living at or visiting White Rock Lake, I felt certain the triplets would be forced to move on no later than spring.

This past Friday I realized it had been a few days since last I saw one of the juveniles.  Though I had no guarantee of seeing all three of them every day, I did have a guarantee of seeing at least one of them every day, if not two of them.  Hence a few days without seeing one could only mean they migrated for autumn, many months earlier than I had hoped.  In less than a week the area had become empty in a way, a home with all the children gone.  I took some comfort in the presence of the parents.

Adult Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched in a tree (2009_10_24_033537)

They won’t leave.  They never leave.  As accipiters go, the lake belongs to them.  So long as the adults remain, I thought, I might have a new bundle of juveniles to watch next year.  And the adults know me.  When I approached the female for some photos, she glanced at me a few times without worry.  In bright morning sunshine she preened, scanned the meadows, enjoyed the comfortable weather.  What she didn’t do was flee, even when I stumbled around beneath the tree in which she sat, sometimes standing so close beneath her that I could have touched her with the camera lens.  Despite the ongoing companionship of mother and father, however, realizing the triplets probably were gone forever left a chasm in the world.  I found I missed Trouble the most.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) standing on a fence (2009_10_12_031544)

What antics!  What a mischievous, meddlesome, monstrous little devil!  What an entertaining neighbor!  Never before had I seen crows so happy to leave a hawk behind.  Never before had I seen a raptor so intent on causing mayhem in the local wildlife population.  Somehow Trouble had reached me more deeply than the other two.  Though I cherished and adored each of them, Trouble had become my undeniable favorite, the young one who I hoped beyond hope would stay behind when the others left.

Standing on my patio searching the sky for any sight or sound that would indicate the presence of one of the triplets, I found at nightfall that I came up empty.  I thought with all three gone I would never see them again.  But perchance there was hope someone else would get to know them, get to see the personalities I had come to recognize with ease.  Maybe, I figured, just maybe they each would settle where another appreciative soul would take notice, would take over my surrogate parenting, would stand watch each day to see one of these magical beasts fly across the sky.

A few days later I returned home after a brief absence.  I spent an hour or two greeting The Kids, letting them welcome me home.  After settling in a bit, I stepped outside to take stock of the world.  Immediately my eyes were drawn to something on a distant balcony, something noticeable, something familiar.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched on a balcony railing (2009_11_07_037567)

Could it be one of the triplets?  Certainly this had been their territory, most notably Trouble’s, and use of the buildings and flora in the immediate area had been that delightful creature’s domain, its purview for causing chaos.  With afternoon sunlight in my face and the bird perched in shadow, only the longest lens on my camera gave me a look at this juvenile Cooper’s hawk.  And in that near yet far off glimpse, I recognized it.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched on a balcony railing (2009_11_07_037581)

Of all the triplets to remain behind when the others left, Trouble had chosen to stay at the lake.  My heart raced like a parent seeing a child returning from a year away at college.  And it had only been several days.  How silly of me to experience such relief.  Or maybe not so silly.  These children had a place in my heart even before they were eggs in the nest, when their parents set about starting a family early this year.  Because they nested so close to my home, I watched their progress with enthusiasm and joy.  Then came bringing food to the nest.  And finally the triplets appeared.

Juvenile Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii) perched on a balcony railing (2009_11_07_037589)

So wouldn’t I be overjoyed to see one of them had remained when the other two had gone to begin lives elsewhere?  I couldn’t think of a reason not to be thrilled.  That it was Trouble who stayed…  Icing on the cake!  Even as I watched the bird repeatedly poking its feathered stick into the wildlife anthill, an uncontrollable smile took hold of my face.  This winter had taken on new life, a new warmth.  There still remained a chance that one of the triplets would be around until spring.

A few days after I watched Trouble create havoc from that balcony, I again went to the patio to watch the joyous deluge of creatures who gift me each time I step outside.  I already had accepted that I would probably see the hawk every few days.  Nevertheless, that was better than not seeing any of them again.  So I leaned against the fence with the tree gracing me with its shadow as the afternoon sun bathed the world in warmth.  And I watched.

Several minutes passed without any sign of Trouble.  But I knew the bird was around, was somewhere in the area.  Nothing stirred.  No birds sang or flew, no squirrels ran around or barked from nearby trees, no wildlife moved.  Out there, just beyond the patio fence, hiding in that devilish way it loves to do, I knew Trouble was around.

Then suddenly a flash of brown feathers erupted from shrubs across the way, a flash of streaked breast and belly, yellow eyes glaring into the air.  The hawk exploded from the bushes and flew at full speed, all manner of birds scattering in its wake.  I watched in awe: Trouble was flying right at me, right at eye level, right toward the tree behind which I stood.

In the briefest of moments, a spot of time measured in less than a second, the young Cooper’s hawk covered a distance of 30 yards/meters and landed on a branch right in front of me.  I could have reached out and touched its beak.  My breath locked in my chest, my eyes dared not blink, my heart slammed like a madman with a drum…  For what seemed an eternity, a whole universe measured in the eyes of a raptor staring into my own, Trouble and I faced each other, measured each other in a way visible only through the soul’s windows.  With less than an arm’s length separating us, neither of us flinched.

[all photos of Cooper’s hawks (Accipiter cooperii): the first is an adult, the rest are a juvenile]

4 thoughts on “Who remains?”

  1. Jason, I love these extraordinary photographs of the Cooper’s hawks, your descriptions of their lives and characters and your evident pleasure in watching them. A pair of buzzards nested and reared two young on our property last year, and I too took inordinate delight in the antics of the youngsters. Once they cannon-balled out of the tree line, one in pursuit of the other, as clumsy and out of control as teenagers undergoing a growth spurt. They collided with me and we all ended up flat on our backs in the Summer grass, eyes wide with astonishment. No-one hurt, and we all three gathered what was left of dignity and went our separate ways!

    But today I thought of you when I had another bird-encounter-of-the-closest-kind. Birds frequently fly into the house when the doors are open. They usually find their way out again or if in trouble, I catch and release them into the garden. Suddenly a wren whirred through the kitchen in a state of panic. It plummeted into the window and tried to escape through the glass. As I approached it flew up to the ceiling and landed on the far side of the room on the plate rack running high along one wall. With no real hope of catching it in such an open position, I stood on a chair and gently raised my hand to take it. To my astonishment as my hand drew level it hopped onto my index finger and perched there. I barely breathed. Very slowly I climbed down from the chair. Still it perched. And it continued to perch calmly while I walked through the house and out into the garden, up the steps to the rose terrace and on into the orchard. There I rested my hand on top of a high hedge, and finally the tiny bird flew away. Nature never fails to bring me up short. Encounters like these leave one feeling rather strange. Touched and perplexed.

    1. Thank you, Clive. I admit I wasn’t terribly happy with the balcony photos, but then again I didn’t expect them be exceptional given how far away I was from the hawk. When I took them I aimed more for a record showing Trouble was still here rather than hoping for a masterpiece.

      I love the wren story! Very cool. And I wholeheartedly agree: nature continually surprises me with such encounters. I’ve learned after decades of observation that nothing should be assumed; nature can always reveal a new depth we never expected.

  2. Jason, I used to work with birds as a wildlife rehabilitator. Accipiters were regarded as the most high-strung of birds. It’s nothing short of amazing that these birds trust you.

    This is a remarkable story, beautifully told!

    Clive, I enjoyed your wren tale, too!

    1. Thank you, Jain!

      You gave me a good chuckle by calling accipiters high-strung. My first thought was “You got that right!” “Rabidly antisocial” also seems a nice way to describe them. The biggest piece of the puzzle in this case is that the birds live in an urban park where people are always around, hence they’ve developed a minor acclimation to human presence which translates into a slightly subdued apprehension of us.

      I’ve been around the Cooper’s hawk parents for about ten years. I’ve made a point of approaching them when I can, always without threat or commotion, and I’ve spent time just being near them without showing interest. That’s helped quite a bit. (Interestingly, the male remains flighty while the female seems partially at ease with me. I can get close to both depending on what else is happening, yet she seems less likely to panic.)

      Trouble is the one exception out of this year’s three juveniles. The other two, Scruffy and Silence, never showed tolerance for people. That never surprised me since they are young without the longstanding experience of their parents. Trouble, on the other hand, seems intent on facing down the world at large, even people, though the bird still avoids humans most of the time. I was shocked when it landed so near me and stared intently at me. The encounter lasted only about five or six seconds before the bird slowly turned and swept out of the tree, but it lasted a lot longer than I thought possible. I’ve been staying close to them since they fledged, so I wonder if that created at least a minor familiarity…

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