A red-bellied woodpecker, the top of his head flaming red in the sunshine, clung to the bark of the walnut tree outside my kitchen window. Motionless, he hung there, pressing his head and body flat against the bark; not another bird was in sight. There's a hawk in the yard, I thought.
A day or so later, I glanced out the window to see a lone brown creeper in the same frozen pose, flattening his tiny brown-and-cream body against the bark. Definitely a hawk, I thought -- the birds that can are flying away while those that didn't flee soon enough are trying to be invisible.
One morning after Christmas as I drowsed in bed, a dozen or more commanding calls rang out from the trees behind the house: KEEE-ya, KEEE-ya, KEEE-ya - clear and fierce, with the first syllable louder and the second, descending in pitch. It was certainly the voice of a hawk and probably a red-shouldered hawk, but just possibly a northern goshawk. The species is not common here, but a smattering of goshawks, big cousins of the sharp-shinned hawk, have been reported since mid-December in central Pennsylvania and Maryland. (The name is pronounced goss-hawk; there's no "gosh" in it.)
Neither the redshoulder nor the goshawk is a bird you would expect to haunt the feeders in your yard. Hawks at feeders are usually the smaller bird-eating hawks (sharp-shinned and Cooper's); sometimes, they're the smaller falcons (kestrel and, much less often, merlin). But any bird of prey may take the opportunity to pluck a careless songbird from a feeding station.
Barbara Schalick has learned that lesson this fall at her weekend home in Fortescue, N.J., where her songbirds are being preyed upon by a couple of northern harriers (also known as marsh hawks). By rights, the harriers should be sailing low over the marsh behind Schalick's cottage and hunting for rodents, but the feeders have proven a tempting distraction. "I hardly have a dove left," Schalick mourned.
Her landscape provides everything a songbird needs to escape the hawks, with shrubs and dense evergreen trees available for shelter. If your yard is bare this time of year, a pile of discarded Christmas trees near the feeders will give birds a place to dive when a hawk appears. Once you've provided shelter, the best you can do is sit back and enjoy the hawk -- a magnificent bird in its own right. Remember, from the hawk's point of view, your feeding station is just a dandy hawk feeder.
If your children (or other adults, for that matter) object to the hawk, please explain that this bird, like the songbirds, is protected by law as an important part of our natural environment. It deserves to eat, too.
Schalick's harriers are handsome creatures. One, a female or a juvenile bird, is brown and streaky; the other, an adult male, is a beautiful soft gray. Both display the harrier "taillight," a large white rump patch that flashes conspicuously as the bird flies and as it hovers, kestrel-like, examining the ground below. With a wingspan of 42 inches, these are spectacular creatures to see in the yard, even if they do want to eat the other birds.
As for me, I plan a pile of Christmas trees on the lawn near the feeders. Once that's in place, the songbirds are on their own while I try to get a look at my hawk -- hoping against hope it'll turn out to be a "gos."
The events below are public, and free unless otherwise noted. Where trip leaders are named, please contact them to confirm arrangements, get directions and let them know you're planning to attend.
n Saturday, Jan. 7 - Head start on your 2006 bird list, a full-day field trip sponsored by Delmarva Ornithological Society. Meet at 7:30 a.m. at Boyds Corner Park and Ride, U.S. 13 and 301 in Delaware. Leader, Frank Rohrbacher, 302-475-5771 or ROHRBAF@aol.com.
n Saturday, Jan. 7 - Eastern Neck National Wildlife Area and Chesapeake Farms full-day field trip, sponsored by Cecil Bird Club. Meet at 7 a.m. in the Dunkin Donuts parking area at Big Elk Mall. Leader, Parke John, email@example.com.
n Every Wednesday -- bird walk, 8:15 a.m. to 10:15 a.m., at Tyler Arboretum, 515 Painter
Road, Media, 610-566-9134. Leader, Tom Reeves; bird walk is free with arboretum admission; $5 for people ages 16 and above, and $3 for youngsters ages 3 to 15. No registration required; take binoculars and a bird book.
u Frances Hamilton has written about birds in Chester County since 1968. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.