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.