My second excursion of the Great Backyard Bird Count weekend was a second outing into a cold, dreary landscape. My bird watching partner decided against joining me outside and many of the local birds appeared to be following her lead. At midday, the temperature was hovering near forty degrees Fahrenheit, as the Texas winter held us in its last grasp.
I started by sitting on our deck and staring at our feeders—one filled with sunflower seed and two filled with thistle. In contrast to the typical feverish avian activity in our backyard, all I saw was a solitary Black-crested Titmouse—his usual companions absent. After fifteen minutes watching this fellow eat all by himself, I decided to venture out into the neighborhood. If the birds would not come to me, I would have to go to them. As a further benefit, going for a walk would help keep my feet from going numb.
Sure enough, the walk revealed a few more birds—but only a few. A Western Scrub-Jay was hanging out on the side of the road in front of our house. A lone male Northern Cardinal perched not far away. Far off the distance, a vulture of indeterminate species soared.
Most of the local birds were clearly not going to show themselves to me this day. Where were the Carolina Chickadees? The House Finches? The White-winged doves? The Northern Mockingbirds? The Golden-fronted Woodpeckers? Trying to shelter themselves from the unusual cold, no doubt.
Shortly after I turned into the overgrown alley that headed back to our yard, a mystery bird materialized, hunkered down with its feathers puffed up at the top of a leafless oak tree. Was it a robin? I hadn't seen many of those this winter. Repositioning myself to see it from the front, I could tell it had no red breast and so wasn't a robin. After a few minutes puzzling over its identity, it flew and revealed itself as another Scrub-Jay. Perhaps the same one I had seen earlier.
A minute later, a small bird in showed up in a cedar immediately to the side of the alley, just a few feet away. It moved around constantly and was hard to identify, but I persisted and eventually pinned it down as an Orange-crowned Warbler.
A few more dozen feet down the alley, nothing else had appeared. My circuit was nearing completion. Oh well, I thought. It's brutally cold for this area and the birds aren't active. I have an honest, if modest count, of a single individual of several different species.
I was back to our property line, just a couple hundred feet from the house. The alley was now surrounded by dense growths of cedar trees. As I resumed walking after another fruitless scan of my surroundings, I heard a loud rustle to my left. Stopping abruptly, I peered into the tangle. I ducked down to get a better view under the branches. That's when I saw it.
A hawk! On the ground, barely five feet away from me. It hopped a few more feet into the brush as I watched, but then stopped again. I shifted slightly to get an unobstructed view. The hawk had a dead, gray, fuzzy rodent of some sort in its talons. It had dragged this prey behind him as he hopped in its initial attempt to retreat from me.
The hawk had ragged vertical streaks on its upper chest, black and brownish crosswise stripes on its tail, and a prominent yellow patch at the base of its beak. Its back and wings were mottled and dark reddish brown. As I watched the hawk, it held its wings out and spread its tail to form an umbrella over its prey—a not-so-successful attempt to keep the carcass out of my view. Perhaps the hawk thought me a threat to its hard-won meal. It took a few more hops into the woods, dragging its meal along with it. I shifted again to keep my view, but soon decided to leave it alone to eat, and returned the short distance home in excitement.
After exploring field guides and online photographs, I am fairly confident that this hawk was a juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk. When we've seen hawks in our yard in the past—always either flying over or perched high in a barren tree—they've been adult Red-shouldered Hawks. Seeing a juvenile was a first for our home bird watching; seeing a bird of prey in the midst of a meal was also a first. If it hadn't decided to try to drag its prey further into the woods as I walked past, I likely would not have seen it at all. Perhaps adult hawks are more careful about making noise when we walk past one of their meals?
The next day, the weather had warmed up a bit, and I took my partner out to inspect the scene of the crime. She was hoping to spot some bones or other evidence of the kill, hoping that the victim had not been the rabbit she calls "Hippity" that commonly browses outside our windows.
The scene was not hard to relocate. Amidst the monotony of overgrown cedar, just a few feet off the road, was a neat circle of gray fur. From a distance, it resembled a pelt. Indeed, this must have been a rabbit, she said. After poking around the undergrowth, we could find nothing else remaining.
As it turned out, "Hippity" showed up that evening at twilight, as usual. He had survived to eat another day. A relative of his had not been so fortunate.