This week, nature's trail leads us to the southwest, in search of the black Harris's hawk. Here we find dry desert bordered by mountains. A clear blue sky brightens the arid landscape.
Perched atop a tall saguaro cactus, a hungry male Harris's hawk surveys his surroundings. His keen eyes search the sage and rabbit brush for an unsuspecting mouse, lizard or small snake to satisfy his hunger. The cactus needles don't seem to irritate his talons. He's a striking figure; black with rust-colored shoulders, long yellow legs, and white-tipped tail feathers.
Slightly smaller than a red-tailed hawk, The Harris's hawk is also a member of the family of hawks known as Buteos. These large-bodied hawks have broad, rounded wings. They often soar high above the ground while hunting for prey below. The Harris's hawk is unique in that he has the physical attributes of another family of hawks, known as accipiters, which includes the Sharp-shinned hawk, the Cooper's hawk, and the Goshawk. These hawks too have longish legs and toes for grasping other birds in flight. The Harris's Hawk, like these strong and quick flying hawks, also has the ability and speed to catch feathered prey.
The Harris's hawk makes its home in the treeless desert landscapes of southwest Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. The giant Saguaro cactus may provide the only good perch for a hawk or an owl. These stately cactuses can grow up to 50 to 60 feet tall. Their branches resemble arms held in the air, as if in response to "this is a stick-up" At the base of one of these arm-like branches, the hawk will build a nest of sticks and grass and lay 2 to 4 white eggs.
Most hawks live rather solitary lives, but the Harris's hawk is very social among his own species. It's not uncommon to see several of them hunting food together. Two or three Harris's hawks may be witnessed in hot pursuit of a desert cottontail, for example. They also may be polyandrous, meaning that two different males may bring food to the young hawks in a single nest. In the winter they may gather in flocks at a site with abundant food, and they often will hunt in pairs.
In the harsh environment of the desert, many animals are lost for a single moment letting their guard down. The Harris's hawk, like other survivors here, has a special role in the desert ecosystem.
Back in the present in southwest Wisconsin. I'm spending this overcast, windy day at my drawing table, close to the familiar warmth of my old woodstove. At the window feeder, just a couple feet away, chickadees and nuthatches fly about with sunflower seeds clutched tightly in their little beaks. I'm distracted by a Downy woodpecker who decided to peck her sunflower seed open on the windowsill. She has no trouble finding her reward inside the black shell, but she makes quite a racket in the process.
While watching the little woodpecker, my eye caught something moving in the sky high above the treetops. It wasn't a bird that caught my eye, but a long brown corn leaf. Gusts of wind pushed the leaf around and around, higher and higher. I looked up the valley and noticed there were lots of corn leaves in the sky. The nearest cornfield is up on the ridge above my house, half a mile away, so it's a pretty powerful wind.
The weatherman says the wind could blow in some snow tonight, which I would like. I'm ready to see a different color of landscape, to wake up to everything covered in white. New snow always brightens a winter's day.
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