Opinion Matters

With Gazette Opinion Editor Greg Peck

Greg Peck: Confirmation of a Cooper's hawk in my neighborhood

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Greg Peck
July 20, 2015

I was eating breakfast and reading The Gazette early Friday morning, facing our door to the deck, when something big caught my attention. A hawk had landed on the neighbor's fence separating our lots 20 feet from where I sat. It quickly hopped along that fence to behind our garage. I scrambled to grab my camera and attach a zoom lens. Then I crept out our front door, snuck around the garage and spotted the hawk sitting on the end of the fence, obscured by a neighbor's small ornamental tree. I slipped within about eight feet of the bird, still trying to get a clear picture, before it got nervous and flew into another small tree on the other side of the neighbor's driveway. I tiptoed in that direction and got off one shot—though the predator was still partially obscured by branches—before it returned to the opposite end of the fence.

I again quietly walked forward, shooting as I went. I got within probably 20 feet, clicking off another half-dozen or so shots, some with the bird's wings and tail feathers fanned out, before it took off again and flew out of sight.

Wow, I thought. In recent years, I've suspected at least one Cooper's hawk haunted our neighborhood. I had spotted one flying just a couple of days earlier on my morning dog walk. One winter years ago, one grabbed a bird in midair—leaving nothing but floating feathers—and landed near a snowdrift in our yard to have its meal. Once, one landed on the roof of a parked car just as I walked past. Last year, one flew into a tree I was about to walk under and landed 10 feet above my head as our dog, Molly, and I passed under it. The bird was munching on a small bird a block from our house. I hurried home to grab the camera, but breakfast was finished and the hawk gone by the time I got back.

I wasn't sure any of these was really a Cooper, however. As I wrote here last summer, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says the Cooper is among the world's most skillful fliers. It is a common woodland hawk that will “tear through cluttered tree canopies in high-speed pursuit of other birds.” The lab added: “You're most likely to see one prowling above a forest edge or field using just a few stiff wing beats followed by a glide. With their smaller look-alike, the sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper's hawks make for famously tricky identifications. Both species are sometimes unwanted guests at birdfeeders, looking for an easy meal (but not one of sunflower seeds).”

The thing is, I didn't really think what I photographed Friday was a Cooper. It seemed bigger than the other hawks I've seen, and its back seemed almost bluish in the morning sun—a tint my camera didn't capture well.

This weekend, I downloaded the photos from my digital camera and emailed one to Nancy Nabak. I met Nancy at a Wisconsin Writers Association convention. Nancy lives in Green Bay and is a board member and the historian for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

Her response came quickly. “Cool photo of a Cooper's hawk, Greg! Nice capture!”

I told her the coloring and size made me suspect some other type of hawk. But maybe it was just that I was seeing the bird so close that it only seemed bigger than others I've spotted. I sent her a couple other photos, and she forwarded them to Tom Schultz of Green Lake. Nancy says Tom has been in the state ornithology society “forever,” though he's still quite young. He's an artist focusing on birds and has done plates for the National Geographic Field Guide.

Nancy forwarded me his assessment of the first photo I sent:

“Yes, I'd be comfortable calling that a Coop. The tail's at a bad angle, but one can see that the outer feathers are a little shorter than the inner ones, and the white tips are pretty prominent. Also, the dark crown is fairly obvious on this bird (less so on Sharpies), and the bill seems pretty good-sized.”

After viewing the extra photos I sent, Tom wrote: “One can more clearly see that the outer tail feathers are much shorter than the inner ones. Also, this provides a great view of the crown/nape pattern, with the dark crown showing as distinctly darker than the nape.”

Like the expert at Cornell, Nancy noted that the Cooper is known for attacking backyard feeders.

“Did you see him get anything?”

No, I didn't, I replied—at least this time. I told her we have birdfeeders just a few feet from that fence, and our neighbor attracts lots of backyard birds with a batch of feeders.

Maybe my photographic efforts cost this predator his morning meal Friday.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or [email protected]. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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