In the last few days, I've had the chance to visit the Hawk Ridge raptor banding station. While our job at the count platform is to tally every raptor that goes by, the folks at the banding station want to get up close and personal with just a few (but the more the better!). If we see birds from the count platform that are flying pretty low and seem to be heading in the direction of the banding station, we radio the station and they start "fishing" with their lures.
When a raptor sees what it thinks is an injured bird on the ground, it often can't resist the possibility of an easy lunch. Frank Nicoletti, the banding director, traps the birds as they come in with one of three types of nets. Dho gazza nets collapse over a bird when it hits them. Bow nets can be sprung to swing over a bird on the ground. Then there are mist nets, similar to the kind used to catch songbirds. Mist nets are made of fine black cord, and they are almost invisible to a bird. (Judging from the number of times I have nearly walked into a mist net, they're almost invisible to humans, too.) When the bird flies into the net, it gets tangled in the loose, baggy netting and can't get out.
Regardless of the type of net, banders know how to carefully and gently extract the bird so it doesn't get hurt, at which point they can weigh it, measure it, and put a band on it. The process is pretty much the same for songbirds and raptors, except that raptors are much bigger and have extremely sharp beaks and talons. If you get pecked by a songbird while taking it out of the net, there's usually no serious harm done. Getting pecked or "footed" by a raptor is a different story. The valiant banders and trainees at the banding station sport scratches all over their hands and an uncanny ability to ignore the blood dripping down various parts of their body.
But I'm exaggerating things a bit. The banders know what they are doing, and Frank was kind enough to show me around the station the other day. Here I am holding an adult Sharp-shinned Hawk, which banding trainees Reed Turner and Alan Moss taught me how to handle safely, gripping it in just the right place to avoid getting footed.
Here's Alan with the sharpie, showing off the bird's short, rounded wings, long tail, and the beautiful reddish barring on its chest.
We can tell this bird is an adult because of that reddish color on its chest, and because of the red eye and the slate gray color on its back, as you can see here.
The way that I'm holding the bird in the first picture is called the "popsicle hold" for obvious reasons. Alan is demonstrating the "three-quarters hold" which is used to show the bird's wing.
These photos were taken during a slow period at the banding station. But for a while during my visit, it was pretty busy, and I'm not referring to humans. The banders sit in a blind (a small hut painted brown and green to at least sort of blend into the trees) with the nets in front of them in a field. Raptors come in from over the trees in front and stoop to catch the lures. Alan told me that's the coolest part of his job: while they don't see as many birds as we do at the count platform, the ones they do see are diving in close at amazing speeds. I got to watch at least three Sharp-shinned Hawks and one Northern Harrier come into the station and get banded.
On Monday, the banding station caught a juvenile Northern Goshawk. A goshawk belongs to the same genus, Accipiter, as the little sharpie in the pictures above, but it's bigger, bulkier, and just plain scarier. (British author Helen Macdonald recently wrote a very good book about training a goshawk, which is packed with descriptions of the ferocity and beauty of this legendary bird. It's also well-written and filled with interesting history, and I'd recommend it to anyone, birder or otherwise) This goshawk was the first I had ever seen, and it hurtled low over our heads at the platform like a missile. We barely had time to reach for the radio and yell "Hawk watch to banding station: GOS!" before it went down below the trees and was caught in their nets. And since it was my first goshawk ever and only the second one caught at the banding station this year, I got to go down and see it.
When I walked into the banding station, the bird was screeching its head off, and the intimidation factor was high. I have frequently heard the calls of kestrels, Merlins, and Sharp-shinned Hawks, and most birds will vocalize when they're caught, out of alarm and in attempts to scare whoever's holding them into letting them go. But this goshawk was something else. It's a very large bird and has a voice to match its size, and within the confines of the small banding blind, it was deafening. While she measured and banded the goshawk, Karen Stubenvoll (Hawk Ridge board chair and volunteer raptor bander) explained how dangerous goshawks can be, and how she has learned to be cautious and extremely respectful of the bird's size, power, and sharp talons while she handles it. I listened in fascination from a safe distance, until she asked if I wanted to hold the bird.
I did. Oh, yes, yes, yes, I did. Those talons looked very, very sharp, and the bird was very, very big, and I couldn't have been more excited.
Karen held it first. She looks so calm.
I held it next. I look calm, too, but I assure you I was feeling like doing a little screaming of my own.
The bird was warm and solid in my hands, and strong. As it called, its whole body shook, and I felt my hands slipping lower down the sleek feathers. As you can see from the picture, my two hands together barely fit around the bird's body. Eventually, the bird worked a wing free, and I let go, because I could tell that trying to readjust my grip would only result in pain, blood, and screaming. (This is why Karen held the bird first.) The goshawk took off into the forest and perched on a tree, shaking its feathers.
The first time doing anything is special, and holding this bird was no exception. It's not every day that you get to hold your lifer (in birder slang, a "lifer" or "life bird" is a new bird species for you; one you've never seen before). It was awesome to have felt this bird's heart beating and to have watched it fly free, knowing that I may be one of the few humans who will ever touch it.
But if doing something for the first time is special, then doing it over and over again diminishes how intensely we experience it. I'm glad I got to hold this goshawk, but I'm equally glad that I don't hold goshawks every day. Already, up at the hawk watch, I catch myself zoning out as the hawks stream by, ticking off a sharpie on the ridge, two sharpies on the lake, a kettle of fifty broad-wings, no big deal. The sheer number of birds makes us forget that each one of them has a bill and talons and powerful wings, each one has a voice to fill a banding blind or strike terror into the heart of a flock of crows, and each one has a heartbeat.
Jump to a Post
Welcome to Hawk Ridge
A Massive Migration
A Happy Birdthday
Photos from the Week
Visiting the Banding Station
A Watched Kettle Never Streams
Food, Part 1
The Big Picture
Last Weeks at the Ridge
Belize, Part 1
How to Look at Birds, A Guide (or: Belize, Part 2)
All Creatures Great and Small
Kids and Language, Again
More Photos from France
Food, Part 2
Building Nests in California
Please Do Not Pet the Woodpecker
Condors and Creatures in Big Sur
A Day at Hastings
I am a high school graduate taking a gap year before college. I’m interested in birds, biology, and the natural world, as well as history, foreign languages, writing, and reading.