I am wondering why all the best birding encounters I had this winter fell on days of mind-numbing cold. A beautiful February morning blossomed with partly cloudy skies, a freezing arctic wind lingering in the breath as the day progressed at beautiful Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
As I walked towards the feeders looking for purple finches and white-winged crossbills, a group of hybrid mallards and American coots were actively taking off and landing as if they had a taxiway of their own.
The clouds played hide and seek with the skies and the activity in the feeders was in full swing as house finches flew back and forth, a downy woodpecker hung upside-down while enjoying a full course meal, and white-breasted nuthatch crawled over the tree trunks moving up and down the tall trees.
As I was training my eyes on the feeders, a Carolina wren popped into the binoculars’ view with its bold white eyebrows and rusty brown body. After a brief appearance, he disappeared behind the feeders to where the finches had made their dinners.
After few more clock ticks the feeders became motionless. The icy arctic winds became intense, and there were no signs of any birds around. Ironically, the serenity of the place lifted up the spirit with its dead silence. I tucked in my jacket and leant on one of the trees letting the silence sink in. As the mind tuned to the rhythm of such gorgeous silence, the silence was broken by a loud outburst of alarm calls from a score of bluejays. A passage of inactive silence shattered by a sudden burst of alarm calls is a sure-shot indication of an approaching predator. I leapt up grabbing my binoculars and scanned the tangled twigs and leafless trees.
It was then that I raised my eyes up into the sky and got a glimpse of what could have been a hawk. The bluejays had toned down, which could mean the predator had either settled down with a kill or was retreating to plan a better strategy.
I moved slowly back and forth through the area around the feeders looking for the hawk. Within a few minutes, activity in the feeders resumed. The signs were now confusing and my mind was reluctant to think the hawk had actually gone. I continued scanning the trees, taking small steps in the direction of the wind.
It felt like I saw something pretty close, in a low-lying branch of a tree, almost camouflaged by clumsy twigs. The hooked beak and powerful eyes were unmistakably those of a hawk. Bulky body, long tail with a rounded tip, pale reddish barring in the breast fading towards the belly, thicker yellow legs – this accipiter was the Cooper’s Hawk. The silence breaker of the day.
Although my hands went swiftly onto my camera, I felt the need to understand what he was doing; he might be injured. Approaching an injured bird is never a good idea. But there seemed no sign of injury and he looked quite at ease. Seeing a hawk so low and close was not something that happened often. But the Cooper’s Hawk is known to perch low and patrol feeders looking for prey.
I stepped forward cautiously; one step at a time, as any quick movement could easily alarm him. Making sure not to scare a bird away by understanding and respecting its comfort zone is all a part of good birding etiquette. After a few record shots, I moved a bit to my left trying to avoid the clumsy tree twigs. He twitched his head in a fit of hasty staring, prompting me to back off a few feet.
After giving him a minute to settle down, I stepped ahead a few steps and started composing a few shots again. After several minutes, he took off soaring into the fading light with no kill for the day.
The sun was long down and the winds were picking up as I packed up my gear on what had turned out to be an extremely cold but exceptionally productive day of photography.