Today D. and I went to Hawk Hill north of San Francisco to hear volunteers from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory give a "hawk talk." Now is the autumn migration, and because these birds prefer to fly over land rather than water, migrating raptors are squeezed by the Bay on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west as they approach the Golden Gate from the north, funneling together right over Hawk Hill. Every autumn, thousands of birds pass through the area, and volunteers are there on the hill (weather permitting) with their binoculars and spotting scopes to count hawks per hour and identify specific species.
The talk lasted about 45 minutes and explained which species of hawk are most commonly seen in the region, and how to identify the birds by looking up at their basic silhouettes as they soar overhead. Some hawks are adapted to forested regions, so they have shorter wings and longer tails to help them maneuver in between tree trunks. Other hawks prefer to soar over open grasslands, so their shapes are different: longer, broader wings and stubbier tails. Some hawk species are almost impossible to tell apart, even up close at arm's length. But since each species occupies its own unique ecological niche, its body will have certain adaptations and thus certain physical characteristics that can be a good shortcut to identifying it in the field.
The most exciting part was at the very end, when they released a recently banded hawk. Passing hawks are trapped, banded, measured, and released to continue their journey, all within a few minutes. Today the bird was a juvenile female red-tailed hawk (my favorite), probably only 3 or 4 months old. One of the docents carefully held the bird and showed us the characteristic markings on the wings, chest and tail that make red-tails unique. The bird was remarkably calm during all this (except for one brief moment when she tried to nip the man, but he deftly avoided her beak). Then she was released at the edge of the hill, and she flew up and away, soon to be lost in the fog pouring into the Golden Gate from the cold Pacific.
On the way back into the city we took the scenic route through the Marin Headlands, past old WW II bunkers and Army posts by Fort Cronkhite, and spent a few minutes at nearby Rodeo Beach. We noticed the brown pelicans and black-necked stilts in Rodeo Lagoon were already in their winter plumage. The autumn hawk migration has begun. The seasons are turning. Summer is waning. The days are growing shorter, and autumn will be here soon.
Bon voyage, raptors!