Friday, March 26, 2010

Get in the Zone

Yesterday was good
Why? I saw a Zone-tailed Hawk
Circling o'er the hills


It's amazing what you can see if you climb a hill with a telescope--raptors coursing over distant hills, pelicans circling miles away, people innocently going about their business in their homes...

In reality, I dragged my scope over to Holy Sepulcher Cemetery just up the road from my house purely for the former reason. The back side of the cemetery offers panoramic views of the adjacent Villa Park Flood Control Basin as well as the lower foothills. My foremost target bird was Swainson's Hawk; small numbers of these elegant raptors pass through the county in the spring, though a heavy dosage of luck is needed to score a sighting.

Yet again, I came up empty.

I'm not complaining, though, since I saw a bird on par with Swainson's, if not better: Zone-tailed Hawk. A few of these wide-ranging hawks have been wintering in the county's foothills this year. Infuriatingly, one has been spotted several times a mere half-mile away from my house at Irvine Regional Park. I was lucky enough to see one several miles away near Orchard Hills (possibly the same bird--if it is, he patrols a very large territory!), but missing a bird so close to home is like losing a home game.

I've kept my eyes skyward, checking every Turkey Vulture, but every Turkey Vulture turned out to be a Turkey Vulture. So, my heart accelerated when I noticed a big, blackish raptor that didn't look quite like a vulture, circling over the hills just north of Irvine Regional Park...

Groping for the zoom ring, I cranked up the magnification on my scope and peered at the circling bird. Big...and black...like a Turkey Vulture. It just didn't feel right...

For one thing, its bill looked yellow. Vultures have pale bills, but they look whitish from a distance. Also, I couldn't see its red head. True, it was distant, but I could make out the naked heads of vultures at similar distances. Zone-tailed Hawks have a bright yellow cere...

Then in banked. It still looked like a vulture--though I caught a flash of its yellow legs. Vultures have dull grayish-flesh legs; Zone-tailed Hawks have yellow legs...

My pulse began to race for real. Carefully scrutinizing the lazily gliding and circling bird, other characteristics began adding up: slimmer wings, more square tail, but something else, too, something that I can't explain. It must be that I've looked at so many Turkey Vultures that my brain was subconsciously detecting minor differences in flight behavior and structure, because I knew with certainty that this was no Turkey Vulture. It was a charlatan, it was a...

Zone-tailed Hawk!

1 comment:

Larry said...

Congrats on the Zone-tailed Hawk Neil! I really enjoyed your narrative with the explanations of why this was not a TV. This would be yet another lifer for me.