For the Birds Radio Program: A Perfect Fall Day
Tuesday, October 20, 1998, was one of those crisp fall days that make you glad to have five senses. I savored the sight of the brilliant blue sky and the feel of autumn chill on my face while the sun warmed my back, and the sound of juncoes twittering and yellow-rumps tsking and leaves rustling and falling. The smell of decaying leaves created exactly the right atmosphere for tasting apple cider and pumpkin pie. Of course, birds have more than just five senses with which to appreciate a day like this. Their internal barometer senses high pressure systems, ushering ravens and hawks skyward to dance on the wind and thermals. Even tiny kinglets and chickadees were restless.
I had to spend most of this glorious day at the computer keyboard, but every time a hawk winged past my office window, I felt increasingly restless myself, and finally couldn’t resist the temptation to go outside and enjoy them close up, at Hawk Ridge. Of course I brought my puppy Photon, and she had a jolly time playing with Frank Nicoletti’s dog Maggie, and with a lovely springer spaniel named Raider. Photon, Maggie, and Raider concentrated on one another and didn’t seem to notice the hawks winging past, but the humans among us watched Bald Eagles, Goshawks, Harriers, a Sharp-shin, and several Red-taileds. Then Photon and I took a little hike up the road a ways to look at dickey birds. I noticed a lot more chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers than Photon did, but even she spotted a Golden-crowned Kinglet that was curious enough to investigate us. Kinglets always seem so interested in and enthusiastic about the world around them. If Photon had been a male, kinglet might have been a good name for her. Queenlet didn’t sound quite right.
We checked out the pines about a half mile up the road from the main overlook, but no luck spotting the elusive Black-backed Woodpecker who sometimes hangs out there. On our way back, we spotted a shrike. Every little bird disappeared the moment the shrike flew in—these fiercest of all songbirds have a much more striking color pattern than Merlins or Sharp-shins, the two hawks that take the same prey. Shrikes have black and white wings that flash in the light as they flap, and their black face mask and white wing patches make them easy to recognize when perched, too. I often wonder why these birds don’t have cryptic coloration allowing them to hide from their prey like hawks. Shrikes hunt from perches, and this one seemed to be in full hunting mode, so no way were little birds going to scold this one. The only times I’ve seen chickadees and warblers mobbing shrikes, it was while the shrike was actually eating a kill. Apparently little birds understand that the shrike’s motto is, “A bird in the foot is worth two in the bush.” As a shrike gets close to the last mouthful of dickey bird dinner, the chickadees and other little birds mobbing it take their leave and don’t return until the shrike disappears.
I didn’t see this October shrike catch anything. I’m sorry as far as the shrike goes—it was probably hungry—but I was more glad than sorry. It was just too beautiful and light-hearted a day to see a chickadee or kinglet go down. The shrike moved on, the little birds reappeared and went back to investigating the world. Meanwhile, the hawks continued to fly, oblivious to any of the drama taking place below them. I wonder whether hawks and shrikes ever see the fear their presence arouses. The day was too pretty and my heart too light to ponder such heavy thoughts. Winter will have plenty of days for staying indoors wondering exactly how much birds with eagle eyes are lacking in vision.