Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Photo of the Month: Autumn Slab of Gold

Friday, December 04, 2020

Nature Awareness: Bird Language and a Cooper's Hawk in Glacier National Park

As I was going through pictures from this summer's trip to Glacier National Park, a series of shots of a Cooper's hawk reminded me of our last day in Glacier. I'll share more about the trip later, including lots of fishing stories, but the bird pictures reminded me of the importance of nature awareness. While this is a story about birds, it could apply to fishing quite easily. In fact, a great fishing tip is to simply slow down and let the fish tell you what to do. I know that's easier said than done, but you won't ever know if you don't slow down and pay attention to the details. 

This story about bird language goes back a few years to when I was working on a Master's in Outdoor Education from SAU. One of the required classes was "Nature Study Skills." A major focus of one semester of nature study was on bird language. One of our main texts was a book called "What the Robin Knows" which walks the reader through the process of learning bird language. The basic premise is that birds are the sentinels of the forest, and by paying attention to what the birds are doing and saying, we can know what is going on in the woods around us. For birds, the things happening around them are generally a matter of life or death. As you can imagine, they generally pay better attention to their surroundings than we do.

My first time noticing a pair of Cooper's hawks in the woods that really registered happened during this class. We were required to do sit spots (I had to get a total of 90 hours of nature observation over the course of the semester) as part of the process of learning bird language. One day, while I was hanging out at the edge of a small clearing near the house, a flock of robins flew up and landed in the grass close by. I was sitting stock still and they continued feeding closer and closer. Some came within 6 or 7 feet as they hopped this way and that, looking for worms or other goodies. Suddenly, I realized that all the birds had frozen in place and were making a high pitched call unlike anything I had ever heard before from a robin. I later found the same call labeled as the hawk alarm call or some such thing on my bird app. There is a good version of this under the "alarm" call on this page

Suddenly, a pair of Cooper's hawks burst out of the woods from my left (south) at what looked like great speed heading generally north. They zoomed quickly out of the woods before turning west and back into the woods on the other side of the clearing. Moments later, all the robins started moving again and going about feeding like nothing ever happened. How did they know the hawks were coming? Clearly, something further back in the woods had given the alarm and while I had missed it, the robins didn't. This life or death communication happens constantly all day for the wild birds and other critters.

Moving forward, I've had a lot of intriguing bird language moments, but I often find myself too busy with the hustle and bustle of life and have to purposefully slow down and listen when I'm in the woods. One of the best places to see things is while out on the water. People ask me all the time if I see bears while fishing. In general, the answer is actually no. The reason? Because I'm too focused on the water. That isn't all bad, of course, but it does leave me missing out on some neat interactions. Occasionally, however, the birds are so insistent that I have to take notice. 

One such interaction happened a few months ago while on the Clinch River on a wade trip. I was guiding my friends Roger and Brady and was working with Brady while Roger fished just above us. As we were working some fish, I noticed the birds on the far bank were making a fit. Casually, almost offhand in fact, I said half jokingly to Brady that there must be a snake or maybe even a cat over there. Then I forgot all about it. I was focused on putting him on fish after all! Moments later, Brady said, "There it is!" I almost stupidly asked what he was talking about, but quickly remembered my comment based on the birds talking. When I looked up, I couldn't believe it. A large bobcat was working along the far bank, hunting slowly along the shoreline. This is the third or fourth time I've seen a bobcat hunting along the river. On this occasion, I probably would have missed it if it wasn't for the birds telling us about it and Brady looking around to see if he could spot what was bothering the birds. In other words, paying attention to bird language can add tremendous value to your time in nature.

The next memorable bird language moment brings us back to my story from Glacier National Park. My wife and I took a big vacation this summer to Glacier National Park and also into northern Idaho to do some fishing and camping and of course lots of hiking. It was a much different vacation from what we had originally planned. Due to COVID, many of our plans had to change including where we camped. We ended up staying most of the time in a private campground outside the west entrance called Glacier Campground. Our original plan had included Many Glacier, but the National Park Service cancelled our reservations when it was determined that the Park wasn't opening access to the east side of Glacier for 2020. We were originally quite disappointed as you can imagine, but with everything going on, we just felt fortunate to be able to travel at all. Glacier Campground ended up being a fantastic place to camp and we even had huckleberries in the woods around our campsite. 

On our final day in Glacier, we were taking down camp and preparing for the move over to Idaho for the rest of our trip. I was excited to get more serious about fishing, having done a little in Glacier but the Idaho part of the trip was all about fishing. We were nearly packed when I noticed the birds around camp making an absolute fit. When I finally noticed, they had actually been complaining for a few minutes, but I had been too busy to pay attention. It finally clicked, though, and I remembered that this had actually happened a few days prior and turned out to be due to some hawks back in the woods. Once I looked at the closest robin that was complaining, I could tell exactly where to look for the hawks. The robin was staring intently at something back in the woods, and I just had to look where the robin was looking. Sure enough, there was a Cooper's hawk with another one lurking further back in the woods. 

This time, instead of getting caught up in watching the birds, I quickly grabbed my camera which thankfully had the zoom lens already attached. Creeping back in the woods, I played a game with the hawks of how close I could get before they got uncomfortable. These were the pictures I just came across while editing pictures from our trip. I was happy with how they came out. I've been wanting to get a good picture of some Cooper's hawks and this one will probably be about as good as I can get. They tend to be shy I've noticed.

Cooper's hawk in Glacier campground near Glacier National Park


2 comments:

  1. David
    What a great post that deals with a subject I am really into, bird watching. I've noticed the same reactions when the birds in our back yard spot a crow or a house cat. Thanks for sharing

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    Replies
    1. Bill, if you haven't read the book, "What the Robin Knows," I highly recommend it!

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