Wednesday, July 14, 2010

kites in flight

Close to my home, there's a trail that runs alongside a creek that I once thought equal to the Silk Road in its length and difficulty. When you're a seven-year-old with abysmal hand-eye coordination and short legs, even the smallest rise can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. But now that I'm older (and to my bitter regret, not significantly taller), the trail isn't terribly exciting. It's fairly level, doesn't branch off, and leads to the top of a dam where you can picnic and realize, belatedly, that you've probably trespassed onto someone's backyard.

It's a popular destination for octogenarian hikers and dog lovers, which in and of itself should be a huge turnoff. My dog has the unfortunate tendency to pick fights with any dog that's over 35lbs and breathing. Hiking this trail with Zap the quintessential Aussie cattle dog usually brings the threat of severe damage to my camera and binoculars as I attempt to pull Zap---lunging with hackles bared---away from oncoming canine traffic.

What continually lures me back to this trail is not just its proximity to my home (though that does score huge points because paradoxically, I am lazy but like to bike), but also its scenery and wildlife. The creek feeds into dense thickets of Coast live oak trees and meadows of grasses and prickly forbs. The combination of water, grass, and trees means that on any given day I can see warblers (Townsend's in the winter), flycatchers (like the Pacific-slope flycatcher), woodpeckers, and even the occasional heron or egret. There seem to be quite a few rodents as well, judging from the wide scattering of burrows and runways.

This plentiful base of songbirds and small mammals supports a wide range of raptors. Mark H. is an excellent local birder who can even distinguish the calls of male and female house finches, and for years, he's been monitoring the breeding effort of White-tailed kites. The kite is a meadow specialist. Thus, its reproductive success reflects the health of our local grassland habitats. Lately, Mark has been seeing an alarming decline in the number of White-tailed kite breeding pairs, but one of the pairs has consistently nested in the vicinity of the trail.

Generally, I have a tough time identifying raptors, so to my inexpert eye, the White-tailed kite looked less like a hawk than it did the lovechild (lovechick?) of a seagull and a tern. It even forages using a fluttering flight similar to that of a Caspian tern. 

I've been keeping a loose eye on the pair over the past month, and they appear to have fledged several chicks. The kites favor a sycamore snag as a perch for preening and calling to each other. Recently, I captured one of the adults mid-flight approaching the snag.

Shortly thereafter, the adult settled down onto its snag lookout:
The adult kite had been flying with a juvenile (ostensibly its offspring), so when it perched, it looked around and called for a bit. Like most sulky and unresponsive teens who have perfected the art of selective hearing, the juvenile was nowhere to be found and refused to show up.
What was amusing was that there were two juvenile kites perched on the snag with a young Cooper's hawk in a nearby sycamore. But when the adult kite approached, both juveniles decided to book it. Unlike their parents' minimalist black and white wardrobe, juvenile kites have a rusty, buffy necklace running across the top of their chest.
On this unfortunate bird, the rusty coloration looks more like last night's meatball sauce spilled all over a bib. The juvenile Cooper's hawk had a much more impressive appearance with its sharp vertical mahogany streaks down its snowy chest. It seemed pretty pissed that I had the effrontery to approach it, and kept calling to another Cooper's hawk in the distance.
This is a brilliant example of the stink-eye, which I will try to emulate the next time a driver almost sideswipes me while I'm biking. I don't expect to be nearly as successful. If only I had a ferocious-looking yellow iris...


Nina said...

Great pictures! Thanks for sharing your bird adventures!

Unknown said...

you look like you are having so much fun! But I think the question on everyone's mind is, "what are you eating?" keep up with the awesome bird photos, but make sure to throw in some of your concotions next time!

kristin fukushima said...

char you are the bestest.