... But friends are even more reliable. And yesterday, they really came through.
It was my last day of banding for the year. The flow of hawks through the Marin Headlands has slowed to a trickle as migration winds down and birds settle into winter territories. Still, there's always a chance of one more hawk stopping by to pick up a bracelet, and that was reason enough to spend a clear winter day on the hill.
One of my blindmates brought a guest, a co-worker who was interested in this whole up-close-with-hawks thing. We knew that the odds of catching a bird at this late point in the season were a little iffy, so when one of the other blinds caught a bird about half an hour into the day, it seemed like a good idea to take him up to see it since there might not be another opportunity. I escorted him, both to show him the way and because they'd trapped an adult bird, and I'm always interested in looking at molt.
Their bird was a really beautiful adult female Cooper's Hawk. Usually, we can age them a bit more specifically - to say that it's a second-year bird because there are still a few juvenile feathers left, or that it's after second-year because any old retained feathers are adult feathers, meaning it's molted more than once. This bird gave us none of those clues - she was absolutely pristine, with all new feathers everywhere. Really a gorgeous specimen. Her lighter orange eye suggested that she was probably a younger adult (maybe a second year) but there was just no way to say for sure.
Our human visitor was rightly impressed with our winged visitor. We headed back to our blind after she was released. Not too long after our return, we had a redtail come into the site on a really nice stoop, but at the last moment it changed its mind and moved on. That was our blind's only close encounter with a hawk all day.
Our banding team tends to nosh pretty well throughout the day; we have some accomplished bakers, and I've traditionally provisioned us with good chocolate (there are superstitions behind many of our foods). So when one of the other blinds got on the radio shortly after 3pm to say "mmmmm... chocolate", at first I thought they were talking about the awesome mint brownies. But what they actually said was "mmmmm... chocolate bird". They'd just picked up a juvenile dark morph redtail. Would we like to come see it?
Our visitor wanted to, of course; I wanted to see it because I'm such a plumage geek; and the third bander wanted to see it because this was most likely going to be the last bird of the year for our team. Our visitor's host stayed behind and ran the blind solo while we made the trip to see choco-birdie. Those of you east of the Rockies probably don't get to see dark redtails often, if ever. They're a little more common on the west coast but, even here, dark/rufous redtails only make up about 5% of the population. It's always a treat to see one when we're out birding, and even more to see one up close. Instead of the typical juvenile's white breast, this bird's was almost solid brown with just a little bit of chestnut color mixed in. One of the most prominent field marks for redtailed hawks at any age is the patagial mark - a dark bar along the leading edge of the wing - but on a dark morph bird the rest of the underwing feathers are also brown, so the mark blends in and disappears.
The bird's tail was interesting, too. I can't remember ever seeing a tail with such sharply pointed feathers as this. Also, there is normally a 1/4" white terminal band on their tails (both adults and juveniles), but there was just small patch of buffy color near the ends of some of the feathers. I would love to see what this guy looks like when he gets his adult plumage. Not that he's anything short of stunning already...
The hawk was released and we headed back to our blind to prepare for shutdown. We hadn't trapped any birds for the day, but we managed to see two great ones up close and personal anyway, thanks to our fellow banders.
As we crested the hill on our way back, we noticed one of our warning signs had fallen down and was laying beside the trail. A coyote left a calling card - "I got yer wildlife study right here" - a humorous note to end the season. I can't wait until 2012.