Mission: To promote the appreciation of wildlife and increase harmony between humanity and nature.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Walk on the Wild Side

Walking in the Washington Park Arboretum can be beautiful and relaxing. 

This time of year there are flowers and cherry blossoms to be seen.

There are also beautiful birds to watch.

However for the creatures who live in the park it is not all sweetness and light.
Earlier this week while walking in the park I stopped to take photos of the Hooded Merganser in the prior photo. While doing so a Hawk flew out of a small tree near the waters edge. Apparently the Hawk was watching this same group of birds. 

The Hawk flew over the mallards, mergansers and coots and landed on their opposite side in a tree on Elderberry Island. Surprisingly, the potential prey simply continued to circle and feed undisturbed in the water below. From its new perch the Hawk alternated between watching intently...

...and nonchalant stretching.
In the photo above the Hawk appears to only be stretching its tail. However since the tail is fairly long this creates a rather large and beautiful fan of feathers. This is also a good time to notice the relatively large claws.

When stretching the shoulder muscles the effect is completely different.

As crows began calling in the distance and moving toward our position the Hawk turned to watch, revealing the "dark cap" on its head.
Last year Connie Sidles pointed out that a Cooper's Hawk has this type of cap while a Sharp-Shinned Hawk does not. The two types of birds look very similar and the small male Coopers and and large female Sharp-Shinned Hawks can be virtually the same size. To see a comparison of the two types CLICK HERE.  This bird was too large to be a Sharp-Shinned hawk, but the dark cap removes all doubt, so we can be sure it was a Cooper's Hawk.

It turned out that the crows were harassing a Red-Tailed Hawk. The group of birds came closer until the Red-Tail started circling and rising higher and higher into the sky. The crows apparently felt safer, or did not want to work as hard as the Red-Tail, in either case they quickly calmed down and dispersed.

The size of the Cooper's Hawk caused me to suspect that it was a female. Another interesting feature of this bird is its eye color.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says immature Cooper's have yellow eyes while adults have red eyes. (Click here to read more.) This bird has orange eyes. The questions that come to mind are, Is this a bird whose eyes are in the process of turning from yellow to red? or Do mature Cooper's Hawks in our local area have orange eyes instead of red? or Does the angle of the sunlight change the perceived color?


Update:                                                                                                                   3-16-2013

Yesterday Ed Deal sent in the following information:


You are quite right in your assumption that orange eyed accipiters are in transition between juvenile yellow eyes and adult red eyes. I have banded hundreds of accipiters. Unfortunately there is no set time on how many years the color transition takes. Most birds in their second or even third years of life will have an orange eye. In older birds the eye can darken beyond red to a deep red garnet color.

Ed Deal
Licensed Raptor Bander


In any case while still focused on the Cooper's a third hawk swooped into the picture. It came in from high above the tree, diving it passed about 10 feet in front of the Cooper's at a high rate of speed. The new Hawk then passed over the water between Elderberry Island and the mainland and landed in the branch of a cottonwood about 50' above the water.
This bird was considerably smaller. It sat on this branch for quite some time. In the meantime 3 canoes full of people circled Elderberry Island and scared away the water birds and the Cooper's Hawk. Just after the canoes passed a small, sparrow-like bird flew in the bushes directly below the third Hawk. The small Hawk dove straight down with its wings and tail forming a somewhat compressed "W". It came within inches of catching lunch. Missing it turned and flew to the top of another more distant tree. 

In this position with the sun behind it the photos became silhouettes.
Still this photo reveals skinny little legs and tiny little claws which along with its small size makes one think this was a Sharp-Shinned Hawk. In any case three different hawks on one walk, while actually standing in one place, was amazing.

Returning the next day my thought was, the size of the birds claws may indicate the size of the branches on which a bird is comfortable sitting. So I while scanning for hawk-sized, branches my eyes were startled by this site.
It appeared to be the same Cooper's Hawk I had seen the day before, but this time it was standing on top of the trunk of a broken tree. The top half of the tree has fallen over without breaking free from the lower half. The result is a living tree in the shape of an inverted "V". The Hawk was standing at the apex, on the largest possible flat spot it could find in the tree, which totally blew my theory about comfortable perch sizes.

Somewhat stunned, by nature's uncanny quickness in correcting my logic, I snapped this fuzzy and poorly lit photo. A moment later a young man appeared behind me, said "Excuse me", stepped around me and proceeded to walk directly under the tree. I am not sure if he even realized there was a hawk in the tree. In any case the trail does pass directly through the inverted "V" so I must admit it was the logical thing to do. Still his passing disturbed the Hawk which caused it fly deeper into the woods. 

As the Hawk flew I noticed it was carrying something.
I got close enough to catch this last photo without causing the Hawk to fly again. I left it at this location with its lunch in hand, wondering what it was eating. I went back to the "V" and found additional feathers on the ground. The feathers were non-distinct, greyish-brown on one side and a lighter, whitish colored on the under side. In the photo above the prey has small white feathers, longer grayish feathers and even small brown and white striped feathers. Please let me know if any of these clues give you an idea what type of bird this was. It is not obvious to me.

In any case, "A Walk in the Park" can be about so much more than pretty flowers.

Watch carefully. :-)



  1. Thanks, Larry, for the discussion on eye color, including Ed's comment. I was wondering how long the transitional color was in play. I still have difficulty with the Coopers-Sharp-shinned IDs, but every ID mark helps.

    1. Maybe someday I will have photos with all the various shades of eye colors. That would certainly be a fun post. Even better would be all the eye colors for both Sharpies and Cooper's. There I go, dreaming again. :-)

  2. Thank you for the photos and descriptions. Your blog is so helpful and a joy to read. Now I am certain it was a Cooper's I interrupted mid-lunch in Yesler Swamp the other day, and a Sharp-shinned on my windowsill in February. I swear, those two are the hardest birds to ID!

    1. You are welcome! I think it is actually really cool that they are so similar, because it forces us to pay closer attention. My theory is the more we pay attention to nature the more we will do to protect it. I just came back from watching a raccoon sleeping in the tree where the Sharpie picture above was taken. I think there is much more around us than we usually see.

      Were you able to see what the Cooper's was eating? My post last year of one attacking a wigeon was from Yesler Swamp, the wigeon seemed a bit big, but apparently not too big for the Cooper's.

  3. I didn't see what the Cooper's hawk was eating. I was looking for a hummingbird nest I'd recently observed under construction when something exploded right in front of my feet and flew up high into a tree. I can only guess that it was noshing on something awfully good, or it would have sensed my presence a lot sooner! I spent the next 15 minutes or so watching it watch me as I tried to get a decent ID. It perched there for quite a while with tail fanned out (much like your photo above).

    A few days later I was in the YS again and stopped to watch a yellow-rumped warbler. Sitting perfectly still and less than 6 feet off the ground in a nearby bush was another small hawk, maybe another Cooper's (?). He was well-camouflaged and I never would have seen him had I not been watching the warbler. The first one had more rust-colored feathers, this one more gray-brown mixed with the white. Both had the dark hood and orange eye.

    Thanks again for keeping us all in the loop re: Union Bay!

    1. Thank you for the follow up and detailed description.. I keep pushing myself to go a little slower and look a little more closely. It is amazing what we can see when we stop and look. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Great post! I can't believe how many years I spent commuting without noticing the birds. Since I started bird watching I see interesting birds all the time. For instance, I don't think I've gone a day in the last few months without seeing a hawk or eagle during my commute (the next step will be to leave earlier and with binoculars so that I can stop and ID the light-pole sitters!). Just after your Belted Kingfisher post a couple weeks back, I was able to spot one here while riding the bus - my first sighting of one in WA. Quite a treat.

    1. Excellent! Thank you! With summer coming and longer days we are getting more and more opportunities to get out and about.

      By the way someone just mentioned the heron rookery on the UW campus (near the chemistry building) once the leaves come out the nests will be hard to see. But for the moment it could be fun to stop by and take a look at all the preparations that are underway.