Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Garden of the Trees: The Hawk About Town

       Red-tailed hawks are the consensus pick for "most common hawk in North America" and are found throughout the country. I'm pretty sure they're common in Quincy, Massachusetts, because that's the kind of hawk I keep running into in the green places where I walk near the ocean. 
       Red-tailed hawks are large hawks with what one authoritatively titled source ("All About Birds") calls "typical Buteo proportions: very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail."
           They make a bulky presence perched on a leafless branch in winter, particularly the 'wide' lower half, that strikes me as one of the bulkier proportions on a creature that aspires to fly under its own power. In fact, red-tailed hawks fly like the wind. All About Birds comments: "Large females seen from a distance might fool you into thinking you’re seeing an eagle. (Until an actual eagle comes along.)"

           I've never seen an eagle in Quincy, but lately I've been seeing either a lot of red-tailed hawks or a lot of the same red-tailed hawk. Last week on a sunny day pretending to be early spring, though the city-owned salt marsh near Wollaston Beach where someone laid out a snug nature trail right along the border of a hummock with trees rising above the winter-flattened Spartina grass of the marsh. The path was still sodden from the melt-off of snow that fell earlier this month, so I was picking my spots for each footfall. 
            Coming around a slight bend where the footing was passable and a new perspective afforded every couple dozen feet, I looked up and spotted a large presence amid the branches of the bordering trees (top photo). It was good perch for keeping an eye on the open landscape of the marsh. I suspected, having had similar experiences before, that whatever was sitting in that tree would be worth looking at it, but the hawks and other large birds who choose to spend time in these outposts don't necessarily wait around for your inspection.
           This one did. He let me walk up to his perch and photograph him as much as I pleased. I passed directly under the branch where he sat viewing the world about 20 feet above me, then turned around and took his picture from the other side. The hawk appeared content with the entirely correct notion that I was not about to climb a tree 20 feet up to disturb him and that whatever object I was holding up in his direction could not hurt him. I was tempted to start a conversation.
            Two days later on an even brighter day, I visited another 'nature spot' a mile or two northward along the coast where the landscape was also still drying out from the same snow melt and was, if anything, even a little wetter. That same impression of something in the middle distance at the edge of the trees greeted me as soon as I stepped out of my car on the shore side of expansive and almost entirely empty (as always) apron of pavement that serves as parking for Squantum Point Park. 
           The walking trail was drawing as many visitors as I've ever encountered there. The park is mostly used by residents of the bordering Marina Bay development to walk their dogs. So it was that afternoon. People were walking their dogs. A few dogs appeared to be walking themselves. Some dogs were permitted off leash. Dog walkers encounter other dog walkers and talk about their dogs. Otherwise, little birds flutter and scatter through the thickets, not much concerned about dogs. Wading birds, however, keep their distance. I see heron flying overhead on some occasions, but they don't land near this trail.
             No one, to my surprise, lifted their eyes to the trees and stopped to look at the hawk. No one, as far as I could tell, lifted their eyes once from the earthbound drama of dogs and mud or showed any sign of registering so palpable a presence as a hawk sometimes confused with an eagle. 
            Nor did anyone pay any attention to my fumbling efforts to photograph the big bird. It took me forever to get a decent shot because in direct sunlight that bright the viewfinder of my camera turns into a mirror. I tried shading it with one hand, fumbled, aimed the camera randomly, while the hawk permitted me to pay court beneath him about twenty-five feet off as long as I wanted. I finally walked about 180 degrees around the copse to get the bulk of my body between direct sunlight and a hawk perched on his branch to get a clear image in the viewfinder and snap a shot.
              The image greatly reminded me of the hawk I had snapped a couple days before. The color differences in the two images you see here (the first one in the salt marsh; the second in Squantum Point Park) are illusory; the product of different light, different skies, different angles. 
               I'm concluding this hawk gets around, though so far he has shown affinity for Quincy. That must be why we keep running into each other. 
               I'm also posting a few others I took of the bay and the Boston skyline under a dazzling sky.