It was an cold and wet weekend. Pouring rain alternated with a light drizzle, and the temperature hovered in the mid-fifties. Perfect weather to suck the warmth right out of your bones.
You could tell the little brown birds – sparrows, finches, goldfinches and a few chickadees – were feeling the weather. Probably twenty little birds jockeyed for position at our feeding station. They packed our feeders, with waiting lines for the birdie buffet extending onto the stair railings. When they weren’t eating, they huddled next to the house for warmth and to stay out of the rain.
I see mostly these same neighborhood birds in our backyard, but once in a while something new shows up. Hummers are coming through now, and last year we had juncos and towhees.
So I keep watch on the bird feeders, alert for anything unusual. Something outside must have caught my eye – probably the little songbirds taking off en masse. When I glanced up, I saw a pair of yellow talons and barred wings and tail screaming over our roof towards the bird feeders.
The hawk crashed into the swirling mass of panicked birds. To my amazement, and its frustration, it passed through the scattering flock without snagging anything.
I snatched my camera, handily sitting on the kitchen table, to snap this picture of the accipiter hawk looking back over its shoulder at all the snacks on the wing that got away.
Accipiter (ak CIP e tor) hawks are a group of smallish woodland hawks with short, rounded wings and long rectangular tails. Accipiters thread their way through heavy woods in pursuit of the songbirds they hunt. We have two types of accipiters in Colorado: Sharp-shinned hawks and Coopers hawks.
Sharp-shinned hawks are robin-sized steel grey birds with reddish breasts and a square-tipped tail. Sharp-shinned Hawks earned their name because of their stick-like legs. In Colorado, their favorite forests are the spruce-fir ecosystem in the mountains and on the Western Slope; and in urban and suburban yards like mine. Young sharpies leave the nest in time to prey on songbird fledglings (birds just learning to fly).
Cooper’s Hawks are crow-sized slate blue birds with rust breasts and a rounded tail. In Colorado, they prefer dense wooded habitats, especially piñon-juniper and riparian (stream side) ecosystems of the mountains and western slope. Coopers hunt song birds, Passenger Pigeons (until their extinction) and farmyard fowl (until chicken raising became an indoor industry). They were called chicken hawks for this last prey preference, and were heavily persecuted for their predation of poultry.
My overall impression of either sharp-shinned or Cooper’s hawks is of a bird with broad wings and a long tail gliding through a forest or open woodland about ten to twenty feet over my head. As they pass over, I can see that they have lots of medium strips (“bars”) across their wings, chest and tail. You are considered an “expert” birder if you can tell a Coopers from a sharpie when they are lying next to each other.
For those of us who are NOT experts, my recommendation is to simply declare with confidence “Look! There goes a Sharpy!” Who’ll disagree? By the time everybody else figures out what you’re talking about, the bird will be lost in the trees.
The little birds returned to our feeders later in the day, but remained jumpy. Every time a raindrop hit them they startled, and look around for the accipiter hawk. And rightly so. The day after the accipiter missed snagging a feathered lunch at our feeders, I saw him perched high in our cottonwood, waiting for another chance.