Nature Connection: Watching Like A Hawk

By: Mary Richmond

Mary Richmond illustration.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a watcher. I’ve watched the leaves turn in the wind, the stars twinkle in an inky indigo sky and the butterflies sipping nectar from a summer flower. Watching nature is a quiet, mostly private activity that can be done at any time in any location. I’ve watched bluebirds flirt in noisy, busy parking lots, spiders build webs in the shower and mice steal kibble from a dog with no consequence.

Many people I talk with assume that one has to go far into the woods or miles down the beach to commune with and watch nature. If you have the time and inclination, those are great ways to see many things, expected and unexpected. Most of us, however, live in a workaday world that doesn’t allow for daily pilgrimages of many miles and hours.

There’s plenty going on all around us all day and all night long so don’t give up on being a nature observer if you can’t go for long hikes or be outdoors for the day. Just be alert and watchful. Get out for the long haul when it’s possible but enjoy the moments right in your own backyard or out the office window as well.

Just the other morning I was outside pushing snow off the roof and windows of my car. The sun was bright, and the backyard was full of birds flitting about and calling back and forth. A few dozen robins were busily feeding on berries in the big holly trees and I could hear them bickering and knocking the snow from branches.

Suddenly, everything got quiet. I looked up but no cause was readily apparent. There was a flutter of wings and the holly emptied quickly of robins. The sparrows and finches were silent and from a tree across the way a blue jay was watching, moving its head back and forth to get a better view. I had my suspicions, but I just stood and watched. Branches bounced and snow fell. Squirrels run through the hollies regularly and cause snow to drop but this seemed a bit different.

The shaking of branches moved around from one holly tree to the next. These are old, very dense hollies so I couldn’t see past the outer guardian branches.

After a few minutes everything returned to normal. The branches stopped dumping snow, the sparrows and mourning doves returned to feed on the seed on the ground and a few starlings took over the suet feeder while a red-bellied woodpecker waited for its opportunity to gorge on fatty goodness. Squirrels took up their usual positions and all seemed well in the world. I was done pushing snow off my car and went back inside.

As I reached my kitchen and sneaked a peek out the window a flurry of birds rose into the air and flew in all directions. Squirrels scampered, mourning doves hid in the spruces and jays erupted into the air, squalling their displeasure and a warning. A huge hawk, a red-tailed instead of the usual Cooper’s hawk, sailed low over the ground. The pass was unsuccessful, and the hawk flew up to perch at the top of a tree across the road. By this time the crows were raising their less than melodic ruckus and the jays were chiming in wherever they could, in typical disharmonious fashion.

A lone starling clung to the suet feeder. It must have been preoccupied when all its little friends left and now it had no choice but to stay put and hope for the best. Starlings can’t discern the difference between a hawk that mostly targets small mammals from a hawk that eats birds, so it was laying low, at least while the hawk was on watch. A wise move, considering the fact that all hawks can be opportunistic. I’ve seen a mammal-seeking red-tailed hawk take a robin and a bird-eating Cooper’s hawk take a mouse, so they don’t have exclusive diets, just preferences apparently.

A squirrel poked its head out of the holly trees. I suspect the shaking branches had something to do with a squirrel and the hawk playing hide and seek in the tree. If not that squirrel, one of its buddies, maybe even more than one since they have a leafy home hidden deep in those trees.

It was only a few moments, time I was spending brushing off my car. It was a small drama but one that enriched my day. If I hadn’t been watching what was going on around me, I would have missed the branches shaking, the birds going quiet and the hawk flying low over the yard. I don’t know if the hawk succeeded in catching its breakfast in my yard or elsewhere because I had a schedule to obey. I had to drive to work, watching as I did so, for whatever might show up along my way.