Morning Reflections

Young Redtail

This morning I went for an early morning walk. This young red-tailed hawk was perched in a tree beside the road, and it was easy to spot. The morning sun struck its white breast and it seemed like it was emanating light.

Actually, it was sharing a few moments with a sibling, as I saw when I got a little closer.

Neither has a red tail yet; that won’t come till their first molt. But they both appear healthy, learning to shift for themselves in this first autumn on their own.

It’s always exciting to me to see these regal birds, and there was nothing on my walk that really compared. Just the usual suspects — chickadees and nuthatches, titmice, crackling leaves and squirrels, deer crashing away with a flash of white tail.

Breakfast time

But as always it was an internally productive way to start the day. As I walked, praying periodically about this or that as things came to mind, I got to thinking about the hawks again.

Last fall, I dreamed of getting a photograph of a hawk in a tree. The sight of a perching hawk on a bare branch seemed a symbol of wildness to me, a glimpse of rugged but elusive beauty. I thought it was impossible for me ever to capture in a photo.

As it turns out, I’ve gotten all kinds of hawk pictures over the last year, some in trees, some in flight — some, even, on our swingset and bird feeder. It began with a seed of desire, and then the opportunities came.

Same with photography. I replaced our old point-and-shoot with a better one that had a zoom lens, and I began to notice nature. The more I noticed, the more I wished I could take better pictures.

Then, at Christmas, my husband surprised me with a completely extravagant, completely unexpected thing: a digital camera. A year earlier, it would have been meaningless to me. But it had started with a seed of desire, and then, there it was.

I have other desires, yet to come to fruition. In unexpected ways over the last year, my thinking has been both clarified and enlarged about God’s purposes for our family, and for me. What form they will take remains unclear, but it gave the morning a shaft of color and possibility to recognize a few of the good fruits of past desires.

I believe God prepares the ground before sending blessings. And though uncertainty characterizes the season of planting, and even of watering, it doesn’t last forever. Sooner or later, the first fruits are produced.

All this also comes from the Lord Almighty,
whose plan is wonderful,
whose wisdom is magnificent.

Isaiah 28

Hunting redtails, bathing sparrows, and birding humor

I couldn’t believe how close this hawk came to us in the woods today. It was amazing to see him hunting at such close range!

He seemed to catch something, floundered around in the leaves, then flew back up to his perch. Hunting is hard work. He never did catch anything while we watched, but he perched in several trees and continued trying. I have no doubt he satisfied his hunger eventually.

I kind of like the effect of the blurred wings in this photo, but sharp talons and beak.

We also saw a white-throated sparrow taking a bath.

You, sir, are one handsome bird!
His brood patch is there in the middle of his chest, I think.
Post-bath solar drying

He looks like he’d be so warm and soft to hold in the hand and stroke, doesn’t he?

“What does a white-throated sparrow sing when he takes a bath?” I asked my husband, expecting an answer like “Rubber Ducky” or “Singin’ In the Rain.” Instead, he whistled the white-throated sparrow’s song.

It’s great to belong to a family of bird fans.


It’s been an exciting few days at the Cornell hawk-cam. On Sunday, the first hatchling pipped its way out. Thousands of people watched as it worked all day trying to get out of its shell. Then a second egg pipped.

There was no sighting of the actual chick to signify completion of the task. Then Monday dawned snowy. It was kind of horrifying to see Big Red, who had apparently been entirely buried in snow at some points overnight, incubating in a snow fort. Not that snow is any surprise to a nesting upstate New York redtail… but what a day for a delicate hatchling to emerge into!

Finally, after a marathon period on the eggs, Big Red got a break when Ezra returned to the nest near 2:00, and viewers got their first glimpse of the new chick.

The second egg still hasn’t fully hatched, and no pip has been spotted on the third egg. Most of the excitement has been in watching the feeding sessions with the new hawklet. Amazing to see the tenderness of those large, fierce birds with their wobbly fluffball.

It’s been pretty captivating to watch. We’ve had the livestream feed on the computer most of the time so that we can keep tabs on what’s going on even as we go about our own daily business of feeding and teaching and “nesting.” As hawk fans and students of nature, it’s been a tremendous opportunity to see how another species meets the challenges of daily living with a devotion that’s nothing short of inspiring.

Nice job, Red and Ezra!

*Note: Images are screen captures I’ve gotten from Cornell’s web cam. Cornell encourages sharing, but to use such images commercially requires their permission.

First pip

As of tonight, the first pip — sort of a dimple in the egg where the chick is beginning to push its way out — has appeared in one of the Cornell red-tailed hawks’ eggs.

I thought of Rufous Redtail, an old favorite I reviewed awhile back. In honor of the first possible hatchling, I wanted to share the first few paragraphs of this great story:

Rufous was a little redtail hawk whose life started where the mountains are covered with forests, the roads are rough, and villages are small and far apart. His home was a huge nest high up in a pine tree that towered above all the others around it.

“I’ve got to get out of here. This little world is too small for me,” was the first thing he could ever remember thinking.

With that he kicked and pressed, and struggled and pushed with all his might and main. Finally he lost his temper and started pecking, rat, tat, tat, at whatever it was that bound him in so tightly.

I’ve got to get out of here,” he kept repeating as he pecked angrily at the boundary of his little world, where for twenty eight long, quiet days he had been comfortable and warm. “I don’t like it in here any longer. It’s much too small a place for a big fellow like me.”

Suddenly something happened. With a particularly hard peck he had pierced the smooth, hard boundaries of the world, and through a tiny jagged hole a dazzling light rushed in. Rufous’ eyes were tightly closed, but even so he could see the bright light. It was very unpleasant. Rufous didn’t like it at all. He stopped trying to get out and rested quietly for a long time, wishing the light would go away. But it was too late. For there was the tiny hole, and there was the bright light, and no matter how hard Rufous wished he couldn’t get rid of them.

After a long rest Rufous felt dreadfully cramped again, so he started to struggle once more. Rat, tat, tat; rat, tat, tat he pecked. Then he gave a kick, a push, and a slight turn, and then rat, tat, tat, again. Slowly he turned around from right to left in his wee world. Always in the same direction. More and more light came through the crack he was making, but by now Rufous was getting used to it. His eyes were still closed and he was cheeping noisily, but all that was in his mind was, “I must get out. I must get out.”

One more long rest to gather strength, then a kick, and Rufous’ world broke in half. What a surprise! With a wriggle and a wiggle, and a wiggle and a wriggle, he rid himself at last of his tight, crusty eggshell and lay all damp and limp in the bottom of the big nest. He looked as if he were dead, but his little heart was beating and he was breathing the fresh air of the wide heavens. Suddenly the world was dark again, but this time the dark was soft and warm, for his mother had returned and settled over him, covering him with her fluffy breast feathers. (Helen Garrett, Rufous Redtail)

Good luck, little hawk!

Cornell Pilgrimage Part 2: Hawks

Raptor Geek Squad minus one (I'm behind the camera...)

I shared in the previous post about our visit to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on Saturday. On the way to the lab, we stopped to observe the red-tailed hawks featured in their nest cam, Big Red (the female) and Ezra (the male).

We found the nest without much difficulty and had only just settled ourselves when Big Red flew from a tree nearby to roost on the light pole next to the one with the nest. Ezra was taking his turn sitting on the eggs.

Big Red is perched on the lefthand side of the lefthand light pole. The nest is on the righthand pole.
The hawk nest now in use is on the lower tier in the center. The one on the upper right is an old one. This pair has roosted here for 4 years. The one they're using now seems like it would provide better protection from the wind.

A minute later she flew to a nearby building. She had a ledge in a cranny of the building that protected her somewhat from the wind as she preened, stretched, and kept track of what was going on around her.

Probably a common sight for Cornellians.

She was there for perhaps 45 minutes. It was beautiful out, but chilly with the wind, and though we really wanted to see them switch places on the nest, we finally decided to set the limit at 5 more minutes and then we’d get back in the car. She must have heard us, and like true royalty, she graciously obliged.

I’m being excessive with the images, aren’t I? It was just a treat to get to see her in flight. The nest cam shows us the hawks only in the fascinating but limited situation of their nest. It’s in the air that their strength and beauty really shine. I never get tired of seeing the wings unfurl.

It was interesting to me that she stayed always within sight of the nest. She  didn’t go far at all, and she didn’t do any hunting while we were there. After leaving the building, she circled a few times overhead and then landed at the edge of the nest pole, waddled along the platform to the nest, and switched places with Ezra.

The lighting and the distance (and the amateur photographer) make for grainy photos here, but we were glad to see them make the switch! Ezra is skydiving off the nest in this pic.

He circled us, seeming to check us out before sailing away — probably to hunt. I remember reading in A Wing in the Door that the oil on their feathers absorbs the vitamin D from the sunlight, and when they preen they ingest it. Assuming that’s true, the hawks had a vitamin-rich day to soar.

So long, Ezra!

We couldn’t have asked for a better experience observing these two! Hopefully we’ll make it back after the hawk and heron eggs have hatched.

*Edited to add: I’ve created a fuller set of the day’s hawk photos on Flickr.


As the girls and I drove home yesterday along a busy thoroughfare, I saw this hawk perched along a popular walking trail. It’s a former railroad bed transformed into a sort of sidewalk, about two miles long, and it’s usually hopping with walkers, runners, bikers, rollerbladers. I had run there myself yesterday morning. But now it was afternoon, and this hawk, visible as I drove along the nearby road, was a very unusual sight.

We pulled over into a restaurant parking lot and watched it for awhile, then went on to do other errands. An hour or more later, I was seized by the urge to go back and see if it was still there, and it was. I decided to park and walk up the trail to see if maybe it was injured… and it was. It was propping itself up with the twigs of the tree it was perched in, and its left leg, as it struggled to fly away, was hanging uselessly.

Since it did manage to fly a ways away, we went home, and I looked up a wildlife rehabilitator. He told me that sadly, there was nothing he could do as long as the hawk can still fly. We would have to wait till it was “down,” and then he could pick it up and take it to a bird rehab. He told us to watch for it and call him if we see it again.

It’s hard to think of it suffering, but we will keep watch. The girls and I have read a couple of books about wounded and rehabilitated hawks — Arrowhawk, and Hawk Hill, both of which remind us that many injured birds pull through with human assistance.

Yesterday evening, my husband and I saw another hawk. It posed a stark contrast, plunging and soaring and wheeling in the evening sky for, it seemed, the sheer joy of it.

He flew over us, then climbed the invisible stair till he was a mere speck. We watched him for awhile, provoking some crows. He would descend to the tree where ten or so of them were perched, taunt them to rise up in pursuit, and then fly off to the west with a cloud of crows in his royal train. Occasionally, he would turn and dive into their midst, scattering them. He did it several times. We joked that he was the Tom Cruise of the hawk world, enjoying the thrill of flying with an enemy on his tail.

The contrast seemed significant this week. One creature, made for flight, and glorying in it; another, equally intended for the heights, but wounded and earthbound, fleeing help. The injured bird needs someone to intervene on its behalf before it can be restored.

Is it too much to hope that the first hawk might end up like the second hawk? Is it too much to hope that I might be able to help? It seems too incredible to think of. Yet it was incredible to have seen the bird at all. Countless people were walking past it, no more than ten feet away, and they never saw it. I, driving past at 50 miles an hour, happened to notice it. So I’m hoping to see the hawk again, hoping to be a part of its restoration. Far more mysterious and wonderful things have happened before.

Red-Tail Observation

Our family has been enjoying the Cornell University red-tailed hawk nest-cam this week. We even participated in the contest to name the male red-tail, suggesting “Romulus.” I thought it was pretty great, but alas, we didn’t make the cut for vote-worthy names. (Sigh…)

In any case, we decided to incorporate it into our nature study with some journal pages.

2nd grader's page
5th grader's page
Mom's drawing...
...and observations.

We had a good time drawing together. Drawing the female hawk was our first attempt to capture a live subject (virtually live, anyway), and she shifted positions on us a few times.

Things should get interesting in April, when the eggs are expected to hatch. Maybe we’ll do another observation page then. Meantime, I’m submitting this to the Outdoor Hour Challenge, scheduled for March 31.

Red-tailed Hawk Nest

My husband has challenged us to find a red-tailed hawk nest to observe this spring. So far, we’ve had no luck finding one… till today, when the announcement of a live nest-cam at Cornell University appeared in my inbox. You can see “Big Red” and her as-yet-unnamed mate here.

As of today they’ve laid two eggs in their nest over the athletic fields at Cornell, and they’ll be keeping the eggs warm till they hatch in about a month.

The girls and I still want to find one around our neighborhood, but it’s pretty amazing to see them up-close and personal on the nest cam!

Learning Curve

I’m trying to learn how to photograph birds in flight. I’ve taken so many pictures, and few if any have turned out. Today I’ve done some reading on the subject and feel encouraged; there are some things I can do, some adjustments I can make, to improve.

Meantime, I’ve been reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World, so far a very satisfying book about cultivating a sacramental approach to life. She talks a fair amount about nature, and about the need to be willing to stop and pay attention. She sounds a little bit like Brother Fowles in The Poisonwood Bible when she writes,

Like anyone else, I do some picking and choosing when I go to my holy book for proof that the world is holy too, but the evidence is there. People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.

Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture.

I have been learning to pay attention with a camera, and it’s strange the hold it has taken on me. Who needs so many pictures of birds and butterflies and flowers and landscapes when we can look around and see them all with our naked eyes? I don’t know. But there is something about the camera around my neck that has improved my naked eyes — or improved the nerve pathways from eye to heart. I believe that God loves it when we admire his world, and I have reaped the benefit in sheer pleasure as I notice things I never noticed before.

It’s a learning curve of sorts — learning to see, and to capture what I see, and to read it. Yesterday I watched this young hawk for awhile, and it seemed to be experiencing a learning curve as well, navigating the breezes and trying to decide whether I was friend or foe. The pictures are not sharp, but even so they give the sense of the bird’s grandeur even in its indecision and awkwardness. Maybe next time, I’ll capture it better. Meantime, it’s a picture of young royalty — a red-tail whose tail is not yet red, whose instincts are not yet wise to humans, but whose symmetry and strength inspire all the same.