I see her perched in bright morning sunshine, so I step from the trail and approach. She looks at me, a direct gaze measuring the man who invades her space. At no time do I fool myself by thinking the raptor is unaware of me.
In a show of forbearance much unlike what one expects, she goes back to preening and surveying the area, an interesting combination of morning bath and morning hunt wrapped up in a single perch. Noisy and clumsy as I stumble through waist-high grass and wildflowers with unsure footing knocking me off balance, she allows me to come close with only a few glances in my direction, an act of patience and tolerance that would shock many. But this is no ordinary Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) and I am no casual visitor to her realm.
Even as I stand within a stone’s throw of her location, she does not respond. One could say she ignores me, but it’s more than that, it’s less than that, it’s different from that. She no more ignores me than we ignore a barking dog running toward us. The difference is she knows me and she knows I’m no threat, the same as if we stood watching that barking dog with full knowledge that it would leap upon us, shower us with licks and nuzzles, pounce on us with all the adoration of a lifelong companion.
She looks beyond me, watches the passing joggers and cyclists who enjoy their early exercise. Occasionally she issues a warning call to any who slow and look, who appear to impose upon our encounter.
Even still, I move closer, lean against the tree in which she perches, stand within easy reach of her with but a simple hop. Nevertheless, she remains unflinching, unafraid, unworried. We go way back, she and I. Accipiters are exceptionally high-strung: her mate, who I have also known for many years, tolerates me being within eyesight of him yet becomes edgy when I approach; on the other hand, she demonstrates an unreal comfort with me, allowing me to approach to within a few steps, even letting me hunker down beneath her perch where I am close enough to touch her with the camera lens (something I would never do, mind you).
I have watched her raise young each year for almost ten years, and I have lived in her territory for all that time and have focused heavily on wiggling into her world as much as she and her man will allow.
Her public name is Baket after the Egyptian hawk-goddess. I use a different name when I’m around her, alone in her presence, one I repeat constantly so she identifies it as coming only from me. She no doubt recognizes me in ways I can’t comprehend, but speaking to her and sharing a private moniker at least makes me feel like I’m doing my part to reinforce the trust she shows.
And trust it is. While I’d like to say we share some measure of camaraderie—dare I say friendship?—I won’t insult our interactions with senseless anthropomorphisms. What she thinks of me will never be known. That she trusts me goes without challenge, however, and that is a trust based not on feeding and baiting and other manipulative actions but instead on years spent together, and time spent together, and slow and thoughtful approaches shared, and conversations only we know, and spaces only we occupied.
It can bring me to tears being in her presence, being so near, having her look at me without fear no matter how close I get. Of all the souls I have encountered in nature, hers is the one most tightly intertwined with my own.
But lest you think our relationship one of profound interspecific relevance, let me show you that we still have our moments of disagreement.
She pauses to scratch an itch on her head. I meanwhile ramble on ad nauseam about the weather or how nice her plumage looks today or why I feel such disappointment in her mate’s continued avoidance of me. When I notice the sudden foot-in-the-air motion, however, I stop long enough to snap a quick photo.
And when she hears the shutter click, she slams her foot down on its ligneous perch and stares at me with a gaze that can only be described as one of consternation and upset.
While she might allow a captivating level of understanding between us, she obviously has no intention of allowing me to show her in anything less than a dignified light. Believe me when I say I got the message loud and clear.