I could worship raptors. Just watching birds of prey, in flight or rock still, takes my breath. When we lived riverside, we were blessed to have nesting ospreys, large "fish hawks," as stunning neighbors. From our living room we'd witness aeronautics that rivalled Blue Angels' airshows. Black and white feathered rockets would plummet to the river's surface, then soar up again with squiggling fish in their talons. Then, gliding above the river, they'd tilt their Zorro-masked heads to zero in on more fish that would be dinner.
Hard workers, they'd carry stick after stick to the six-foot wide nest perched atop the power pole along the river. When their young hatched, we'd get to watch balls of grey fuzz morph into clumbsy "tweens," screeching at their parents for more, more, more food! The kids would then trade their geeky-looking outfits for sleeker feathered garb and we'd be treated to their pre-flight tests: perched on the edge of the nest, they would teeter and flap their wings with increasing speed and fervor. Little hops looked like dress-rehearsal take-offs. Then one day we'd look out and the nest would be empty. The whole family was out and about. Awhile longer, and they would all have moved out of the neighborhood.
Bald eagles would fly over our yard on occasion, typically frigid January days, searching for succulent, accessible prey. Red-tailed hawks soared high above throughout the year. Their ease of movement, without appearing to flap a wing, was astounding. Seems they could ride thermals for hours. Sometimes smaller hawks, like merlins or Cooper's hawks, would swoosh through our yard, intent on capturing one of the hundreds of song birds our feeders drew in. The place was an edenic birding spot and we never tired of our raptor friends.
Living now in town, with no river close by, I'm not treated to these sightings so often. A kestrel will sometimes drop by and, on some sultry July afternoons, a red-tailed hawk will be a ghost high above the house. My raptor treats now, sadly, are too scarce.
So I was thrilled this week to find, as I drove to a cabin in a small mountain town, the route flush with raptors. Red-tailed hawks perched in tall cottonwoods all along my route. Puffed up to ward off the nasty January weather, they looked huge. Their distinctive bibs were quilted down vests. The birds seemed a bit surly, as though they wanted to grab a bite to eat and were annoyed that their preferred small mammal entrees weren't out. Cowardly avoiding the inclement conditions, the fuzzy little meals were hunkered down in toasty burrows. So the red-tails just sat, scowled, and stared.
Other hawks, probably Swainson's, were working to find some fast food. And one beautiful harrier, a marsh hawk with its distinctive white band above the tail, swept across a field like a fighter jet, its zips showing off the bird's amazing speed and agility. A stealth fighter, the marsh hawk is a superior mouser in tall vegetation because its rounded face, much like an owl's, directs very slight mouse sounds to her ears, allowing her to surprise the unsuspecting prey. (I once watched a harrier hunt for almost two hours...fascinating show, just enthralling.)
On this trek, brave little kestrels patrolled the highway itself, sentries alert for any ground squirrels or voles who needed to be "taken out" for the good of the planet. Most were fluffed nearly a third bigger than normal, insulating themselves against the chill of wind and snow. One bold kestrel cruised over my car and lit on a power line, its four-legged furry banquet dangling. Dinner was almost served.
When I arrived at the cabin, I gave thanks, thanks for the chance to see these incredible predators working, waiting, watching. Better than any in-car DVD, these raptors made an enjoyable drive something quite precious, even sacred.