Saturday, December 24, 2005

Backyard visit

Forty-seven years on Eastridge Drive, and I never ever saw a hawk in the backyard. Owls, yes, but a hawk, no.

Dad and I have shared a week of memories and good meals, with Mom always in our minds. Much of the time I sat in her chair looking out at her swing in the backyard, watching the squirrels.

One morning I put disc one of this cd in the player. When a dearly demented friend shared this recording with me, it seemed to give my buried grief a powerful, beautiful escalator to a higher level.
Dad had gone to run errands. My plans to read were detoured as the music demanded my full attention. As the Elgar Concerto for Cello in E Minor shivered my timbers, I glanced up to see a large hawk fly low from around the corner of the house where I sat across the backyard to land on the down-curving branch of the locust tree. Supremely formed and informed in gray feathers with a prominent eyebrow, it glared down at a surprised squirrel in the grass and laser-beamed the cosmic pronouncement, "You are so lunch."

My heart expanded with joy, awe, and a profound connection to my mother. This was her force and focus, her opinion, discerning eye, and discipline. This was the Mom we did not cross or disappoint.

The gray hawk continued to glare as I raced down the hall to get the camera, and just as I centered it in my view finder it took off in a low swoop up the hill into the next yard. My photo is an empty branch.

Later, I got out Mom's bird guidebooks. Hawk, gray, eyebrow, low swoop and perch...Northern Goshawk? Harrier?

The harrier has the uncharacteristic flight: Description - This long-winged, long-tailed hawk is usually seen gliding unsteadily over marshes with its wings held in a shallow V. The rump is white and the wing tips black; the male has a pale grey back, head and breast and the female and young are brown above and streaked below. It is a usually silent bird but at the nest it utters a "kee-kee-kee-kee" or a sharp whistle. Distribution - The Northern Harrier occurs throughout all of North America, breeding as far south as California and wintering from South America to British Columbia. It prefers marshes and open grasslands. Biology - This bird hunts its prey, which includes mice, rats and frogs, by flying close to the ground and taking these small animals by surprise. They lay 4 or 5 pale blue or white eggs on a mound of dead reeds and grass in a marsh or shrubby meadow.

Paul Johnsgard's guide to Nebraska birds keeps me wondering if the bird was a goshawk or a harrier:

Northern Harrier -- Circus cyaneus A common migrant and permanent resident throughout Nebraska. Although in cold winters most birds may leave the state, in most areas and years the species can be regarded as a resident. It is probably most common as a breeder in the Sandhills. It breeds locally almost throughout the Plains States, and is a regular throughout during migration. Migration: Thirty-nine initial spring sightings range from January 1 to June 2, with a median of March 13. The wide spread of the records suggest it is a resident over much of the state. Thirty-six final fall records are from September 14 to December 31, with a median of December 9. Habitats: This species occurs in open habitats such as native grasslands, prairie marshes and wet meadows. Nesting is done in grassy or woody vegetation ranging from upland grasses and shrubs to emergent vegetation in water more than two feet deep. Comments: Northern harriers are graceful predators, that are usually seen sweeping low over marshes and fields, and showing white rump patches in both sexes. Adult males are otherwise silvery gray with black wingtips, whereas females and young males are mostly chocolate brown. Breeding Bird surveys between 1984 and 1993 indicate that the species has undergone a significant population increase during that period.

Northern Goshawk -- Accipiter gentilis An occasional winter visitor and spring migrant nearly statewide. Probably less common now than earlier, but there have been recent observations from Box Butte, Cherry, Custer, Saunders, and Lancaster counties according to Game and Parks Commission records. The only areas of breeding in the Plains States are the Black Hills and northern Minnesota, but it is a migrant throughout. Migration: Forty-eight spring records range from January 1 to June 1, with a median of March 15. Half of the records fall within the two periods January 1-11 and April 14 to May 16, suggesting this species is both a winter visitor and late spring migrant. Twenty-two total fall records are from September 16 to December 31, with half of the records occurring within the two periods September 21-October 17 and December 25-31. Habitats: Throughout the year this species is rarely found far from wooded to heavily forested areas. Comments: The Latin name of the goshawk may suggest it is "gentle", but the name really refers to the royal nature of the bird. The common name goshawk refers to the species' ability to attack and kill geese and similar sized birds. Breeding Bird surveys between 1984 and 1993 indicate that the species has undergone a significant population decline during that period.

A full day later, I realize the backyard hawk was the real life model for the Japanese scroll print that has hung in the bathroom for thirty years. Fritzi no longer frets about the condition of the dark green and peach bath towels and wash cloths. I won't either.

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