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Sharp-Shinned Hawk

Does birdwatching have the reputation of being a somewhat nerdy, boring hobby? Don't believe it. Nor is it hard. You need binoculars and a good field guide. And a little patience. But it can be unexpectedly intensely exciting.

So there had been a mystery bird in the yard. The light was awful that Saturday, a glary monochromatic gray. I planted parsley. I thought about the mystery bird of the previous weekend and did not even hope to see him. I forgot about him.

Mid-afternoon, Craig was fussing with a possible hot water tank leak. I escaped to the back porch. Suddenly I saw a flash of the large bird I had been glimpsing, but this time he was in hot pursuit of a house sparrow, who beat his wings for his life. The little bird dove for cover and seemed to escape. The hawk, for now there could be no doubt he was a hawk, swooped up into the oak by the patio.

I'd been frozen in my tracks by this moment of drama. I thought, I will never be able to do this. But I snatched up the camera from where I had it ready on the back porch and headed for the southeast corner of the yard, trying not to look up too much, hurrying, but trying to seem nonchalant (I think birds are very sharp about noticing sneaky behavior).

There was movement from the oak to the tall elm in Norma’s yard. I thought, now I’ve missed him! But then I saw that he was low in the elm, not more than twenty feet from the patio. Quickly, I shot a couple of pictures. I stepped forward quietly and then shot a couple more. He did not move away. I spoke to him. I told him he was beautiful as softly and casually as possible, and that I did not mean him harm.

HawkHe then proceeded to grant me an unlimited photo-op. I got as close as I could. I shot away until my card was full. He turned this way and that, ignored me to look for birds, looked back at me every so often. I took 20 pictures including five close ones. (But like I said, the light was awful.)

Then he moved to Norma’s big oak, not far away, but it was a better perch for his purposes: looking for birds to pick off.

I ran to the house and told Craig the mystery bird could be seen. Craig brought binoculars – so much better than that paltry 3x zoom on the camera and we stood with the field guide and studied the mystery bird at leisure.

The rusty colored barring across his chest narrowed the field considerably, especially considering the long narrow tail. He was either a sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper’s hawk.

The book says that Cooper’s is here all year, whereas it looks like the Sharp-shinned is a winter bird. I had the impression this was a winter visitor, a newcomer making waves. Both inhabit woodlands and wood margins. The sharp-shinned is much more common, so that right there made it likely that’s who it was.

“This smallest accipiter preys on small birds up to the size of pigeons...” (Golden Guide, Robbins, Bruun, Zim, p.68.) Tough customer! This little hawk is no bigger than a pigeon himself.

The Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks are often confused. The key difference is in the size, but apparently the size of each varies enough that the species overlap. The mystery bird is a bit large for a sharp-shinned but too small for a Cooper’s. All things considered, I decided to call him, with only the smallest measure of doubt, a sharp-shinned hawk, a new bird for Pommelhouse.

Continue: Hawk vs. Dove


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Sharp-Shinned Hawk
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