Monday, August 16, 2010

Held Breath

These are the dog-days of August, the lull between the high activities of summer proper and the fall semester looming ahead. Usually, these are hot and even sultry days, but this year we awaken to leaden, fog-cold mornings and wait impatiently, bundled in sweatshirts, wool socks and fleece, for the heat of short afternoons.

Slow, even listless days. The very air is still; the campus silent with quietness of a held breath. No students chattering in the courtyards or calling across the quad; no bustle as throngs troop down the hallways, no lines (savor that!) at Charlie’s or Toast; no bands blaring at noon.

Walking along Salazar Hall, I miss the squeaky, buzzy swallows, their mud nests for the most part empty except the few hardy couples double-clutching, raising a second brood. The rest of the swallows, oldsters and youngsters, have decamped to begin the long trek to South America for the winter. Midday, I take the path over the little knoll to sit on a wide bench at the top edge of the Alumni Amphitheater grove just as the fog thins to blue. I welcome this lull, this silence, this held breath. Even the poplar trees are merely whispering in the faint occasional lackluster stirrings of air.  

Juv. Cooper's hawk, photo: Becky Olsen
All last month, though, this small grove of poplar, pine and oak, was a noisy nursery for a clutch of Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii) fledglings. Becky Olsen in Financial Services had been keeping an eagle (ooops) eye on the nest since mid-spring, when a pair of hawks had taken up residence the large oak. One day last May, on a bird walk about campus, she took several of us to the south side of Salazar.  “Stand right about here, “she said, directing our binoculars to the top of the majestic oak, “look into the middle of that dark section there.” And there it was, a very large collection of sticks and twigs, the work of several seasons. Truly, if you did not know the nest was there, it wasn’t.

After that, I planned my walk-about routes to pass by it.  Several times, I saw the swoop of a parent hawk, mostly brown from my viewpoint, bringing tidbits to the nest. And every so often, I would see one perched on the branches of nearby trees, as still as could be. And then, in early July, I saw a fuzzy, white something poking over the edge of the nest: hatchlings!

Juv. Cooper's Hawk. Photo: Becky Olsen
By mid-July, they were fledglings and were hopping around the branches of the oak (known as branching); then, as they got the hang of flight, in nearby trees. And not just one, three! Quel surprise! Each day, they flapped a bit further, all the while begging keee!kee!keee! for tasty morsels. The parents were having a time of it, reminding me of the endless grocery runs when there were teens in my house. The Cooper’s hawks certainly picked their nest-site well. Their market is right next door, under the eaves of Salazar,  for the main prey of Cooper’s hawks are small birds, though they are willing to vary their diet with little mammals and lizards if the opportunity presents itself, or if necessary.

The Cooper’s hawk is one of three species of Accipiters, the long-tailed, blunt winged, forest-dwelling group of hawks. They are swift, agile birds, designed to dodge through trees after their flying prey. Elegant and dignified in adulthood they are, with a slate-gray back (lending them the nickname big blue darter), ruddy-brown and white ribbing underneath and bright red eyes-though I have yet to see those with my own peepers. The young begin as those outrageous white puff balls that morph into yellow-eyed juvies, with barred brown-and-cream plumage

It’s thrilling to see these hawks on campus; they are every inch dignified and regal birds. And they have skirted the edge of extinction several times. They were once the bane of farmers, who thought they were drawn to chickens (thus dubbed “chicken hawk”) and thus hunted to dangerously low populations in the late 1800’s. In the mid-1900’s, they (along with so many other birds of prey), suffered from the ravages of DDT, which led to fragile-shelled eggs and the loss of several generations. Now they face loss of habitat as the wild woodlands are leveled or logged.

But they are doing their best to adapt. Once considered reclusive, to be found only it forests far from human habitation (gee, I don’t know why) Cooper’s hawks have been seen scouting and snacking at suburban bird feeders and even in urban parks.  So it’s not that surprising that they nest here, in this park-like setting, with a ready supply of swallows, and people who leave them alone.
And though the bird-parents are done for the season, resting on their laurels, enjoying the peace and quiet, we will be faced with all the human fledglings, due to arrive in a week. Maybe they'll bring some hot weather with them.

more details on Cooper's hawks:

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Noise makers!