Saturday. March 24, 2012. How? HOW is it possible that there are four right-hand work gloves in the house but only one left-hand one? I think mice must carry the left ones off, thinking they’re being funny.
Gloves or no gloves, I had one of my favorite chores to do this morning. I loaded up the wagon with yard waste for a trip to the town dump.
Technically, the dump isn’t a dump. You don’t dump things there. It’s a large clearing in the woods down by the river where you take your trash and recyclables and place (or toss, drop, lob, sift, sluice, or artfully scatter, it depends on how full the skids are and how much of a hurry you’re in, but you don’t dump) them into the designated skids to be hauled away to recycling centers and environmentally conscientious landfills. So, like I said, not a dump. But its official name, the transfer station, sounds too industrial and in conversation always requires explanation even with town residents who take their trash there. Dump doesn’t have the pastoral connotations the place actually deserves, but it gets the point across.
We have roadside pickup so I don’t have to make weekly trips. I generally get out there only a few times in the fall and spring after we’ve done a cleanup of the yard. It’s a pleasant drive. The road follows close by the river and the houses along the way are big, old, and handsome or small, snug, tidy, and cute. Somebody used to have a llama ranch out there, which added some visual comedy to the view, but the llamas were given the hook several years ago. Geese are the only comedians on the scene now and, I hate to admit this but, I don’t always get their jokes.
At any rate, around eight-thirty this morning, I’m out there at the dump, pulling bags of leaves, hedge clippings, and trimmed and, fallen branches from the back of the wagon, tossing---not dumping---them onto the compost heap, my hands protected by the one pair of work gloves I was able to put together from what the mice left us, and suddenly I heard a shriek like a banshee with a smoker’s cough close overhead. I looked up to see a red-tailed hawk dive-bombing me from out of a tree.
She swooped low enough that she could have snatched the cap off my head if she’d wanted, pulled up, and flew off to another tree some distance away across the gravel drive, where she sat, glaring back at me. I don’t know if she was mad because I’d scared off a meal---from a hawk’s point of view, the dump is a gastronomic delight, a huge smorgasbord offering rodents of every sort and size---or if she was defending her nest. Red-tails are fiercely protective of their nests.
I’m assuming she because I’m assuming the nest, but my Stokes Guide to Bird Behavior tells me I shouldn’t assume. Mated males and females build their nest together and share the duty of guarding it. They also take turns incubating their eggs.
Red-tails are typically monogamous, but they’re not fanatical about it. They’re not like swans. A couple will stay together year in and year out until one of them dies, but this seems to be a practical arrangement, and outside of breeding season they give each other a lot of space.
When it’s time they tend to come back to the same old nest, if it’s still there or if it hasn’t been taken over by an owl. Red-tails and great horned owls often hunt the same ground and the owls don’t build nests of their own. Protective and aggressive as hawks are, if a red-tail couple returns to an old nest and finds that an owl has moved in, they move on to another tree without making a fuss. Owls have more trouble from crows than from evicted hawks.
Hawks are a regular sight around here and I’ve watched them in flight over the dump many times before, but if I’d known I’d be getting a closer view of one this morning I’d have checked in with the Stokeses before I set out. If I had I’d have been warned. Not about the threat of a snatched baseball cap. Protective as they are and as fierce as they look and sound, red-tails are easily spooked. Humans give them the heebie-jeebies. Interrupt them while they’re building a nest and they’ll desert it and fly off to start over somewhere else. Give them a scare during after they’ve laid their eggs and they’ll abandon the eggs or the hatchlings. The book doesn’t say if they’ll come back, but even if they do it’s probably not good for the nest to go unattended for any length of time.
You wouldn’t think a hawk thirty, forty, or fifty feet up in a tree would worry about a human down on the ground. Songbirds nest in the bushes and shrubs outside our front door---sparrows, robins, catbirds---and although they often make a fuss and scold us when we’re coming and going, they don’t leave the premises for even a minute. And they’ve never made any lunges at my hat. But I guess hawks have learned over the millennia that humans put them in the same category as eagles and owls, regarding them as threats and totems full of powerful medicine, and we prize their feathers as talismans and trophies. They know we can climb and that we don’t always need to. We can put sharp objects into them from a distance and that we will kill things we won’t bother to eat just to brag about it. The red-tail at the dump might have thought she was luring me and my bow and arrow or gun away from her nest. She couldn’t know that when I reached into the front seat of the car I was only going for my camera.
By the time I had it in hand and pointed in her direction, she had flown off. I waited for a while but she didn’t return.
Cloudy this morning. Warm, though, and bit muggy. There’s enough of March gone that I’m beginning to think threat of a late winter blizzard is past. The trees along the road out to the dump and back seem to agree. Hawthorns and magnolias are flowering. And the forsythia are in full lemony bloom.
Red-tailed hawk photo by Rich Reid, courtesy of National Geographic. Gloves and bushes by yours truly.