Bird Language Field Notes: An In-Flight Mystery by Josh Lane
“Kee-er AH!! Keer-er AH!!” It was now, towards the end of the bird sit, that a tremendous commotion moved like a tidal wave across the landscape. A red-shouldered hawk circled and screamed overhead, with semi-transparent “windows” in the wings gleaming like crescent moons beneath the overhead sun – very hard to miss! The group had been sitting close to half an hour at this point, each person having spread out to their sit spots to observe bird language at the edges of a meadow deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Close to 40 people had gathered for the Essentials of Nature Connection workshop, coming from across the country and from places around the world to explore connections with the earth and with community. On this morning, as the sun climbed over the tops of the redwoods to warm the hillside, the day’s theme was listening to the language of nature – through the voices of the birds.
American robins, juncos and other birds were initially stirred up as the group dispersed to begin the sit, but had by this time resumed their feeding and territorial behaviors in many places. However, on the northwest side of the meadow, the edge of the forest grew quiet. Was there an accipiter perched somewhere, waiting for an opportunity to snag a bird? Something was brewing. Soon after, the shrill voice of the red-shoulder broke the morning air as the raptor wheeled over the meadow.
The source of the hawk’s agitation? The appearance of a mysterious falcon on the wing, barreling towards the hawk with pointed wings. The skirmish didn’t last long, but was enough to send a wave of alarm through the nearby songbirds, and certainly caught the attention of everyone sitting on the land.
Later, the group gathered to reflect on the morning’s observations. We discussed a variety of bird behaviors witnessed that morning; through looking at group maps made from everyone’s notes of the sit, patterns became apparent that may not have been as easy to see during the actual sit. It helps to have the senses of the whole group working together; pieces of the story fit together like a jigsaw puzzle spread across the land.
There was some debate as to whether the mystery falcon was a kestrel or a merlin. The bird flapped continuously with steady wingbeats, which is a merlin characteristic, and had been spotted sitting on a perch overlooking the meadow before the skirmish began (perhaps this was the cause of the silence that had fallen amongst the song birds in that area – merlins are notable bird hunters). Unlike kestrels, which are known to frequently pump their tails while perched, this bird kept its tail fairly still.
Either way, the event demonstrated how smaller birds of prey tend to harass raptors that are larger than themselves. This principle holds true across raptor species, so when you hear a bird of prey calling excitedly, check either for another bird of the same species nearby, or for a larger raptor in the area. Predators gain the advantage from surprise, so smaller raptors may benefit by driving away potential dangers when they have the chance, before the threat of a surprise attack occurs. This behavior could also ensure the smaller raptor with better access to game by driving away competition.
What birds of prey live in your neighborhood? Get ready for the spring migration as thousands of raptors begin the move back from their wintering grounds. Get a head start on your birdwatching by joining us for our California Bird Language Intensive.
About the Author
Josh Lane is an avid wildlife tracker and bird language observer. He contributed to the “How to Learn Bird Language” section of the book, What the Robin Knows, and developed the Backyard Bird Language online course. Josh is a nature connection mentor with 8 Shields in Northern California, and has presented bird language trainings at events around North America, including the 2013 National Audubon Conference.