December 29, 2011
Cooper's Hawk adult in flight
Cooper's Hawk adult in flight

A winter’s day.  In a deep and dark December.  Even though it is Arizona, and with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel.  It is cold and cloudy, presaging an approaching Pacific front and the first fireplace log of the season.  I sit at the kitchen island, eating lunch, reading.  One of the interesting little nuances I’ve noticed about growing older is that sudden, unexpected noises startle more than they used to.  Absorbed in my article and my sandwich I jump as I hear a loud, hollow “thunk,” seemingly right in the room with me.

I look first to the window, see nothing amiss except the darkening sky, then stare at the counter full of dirty dishes, half expecting to see . . . what?  The sound does not repeat, but it resonates in my brain with vague recognition.  I know it came from right there.  Perhaps a fork falling on Tupperware, perhaps an indented water bottle popping back to form.  I watch for movement.  A mouse under the sink?  A passing car misfiring?  The gloom of the impending weather has set me on edge.

I’m perplexed enough that I rouse from my chair and start toward the window.  Then I hear it, the cacophony of small bird alarm calls outside the window finally piercing the shroud of disconcertion in my head.  Instantly, though still in disbelief, I realize and recognize the sound I have heard.  I throw open the front door (which opens into our kitchen) and knowingly look to the ground beneath the window to my left.  Nothing.

Mixed feelings of relief and disappointment vanish in a heartbeat as the Cooper’s Hawk flies up from the ground on my right and lands in the massive Olive tree above our water fountain/birdbath.  There are no feather puddles beneath the window or in the yard.  Perhaps the Coop is a young one, still inexperienced in the hunt.  It is perched sideways to me, and behind a branch.  I can see its head and its tail, but not its body, so I cannot discern whether the breast pattern is horizontal rufous bars (adult) or vertical chocolate drops (immature).

Just as I think it might sit while I get my camera (immature raptors are far less wary than adults), it flies out at eye level toward the house next door, dives on a dove, misses, lingers on the neighbor’s lawn, looks my way in disgust, then launches out of sight.  It is our first accipiter in seven years in this house, a winter yardbird we’ve always felt long overdue since we enjoy a large diversity of small birds at our water and feeders.

Accipiters are bird specialists, and there is always a winter influx of Cooper’s and Sharp-shinneds into the Valley where they prey on the small passerines that congregate at backyard feeding stations.  In setting the winter table for the neighborhood birds we inadvertently set the table for those who prey upon them.  The Cooper’s, “our” Cooper’s, has apparently been unsuccessful this time, but it must have been a close call for whichever small bird flushed into our window in its panic to escape the hawk’s first foray on the fountain.  I must admit to that small feeling of disappointment.