I hear the high-pitched kweeeeeee, kweeeeee — and rush outside and look up. There they are. Our Swainson’s hawks have returned from their winter in Mexico or Chile. Our local hawks go to both places.
I watch as they fly, circling higher and higher. Then they dive down in a rapid descent. Once again, they circle, high and higher and higher. It puts butterflies in my heart and a smile on my face. It looks like play. Actually, circling and dives are part of the mating display.
There were three hawks. One looked much lighter. Perhaps I was watching two adults and a light juvenile. Swainson’s hawks come in light, intermediate and dark morphs. And both light and dark plumages can occur within a brood.
For the past eight years, neighbors have watched the Swainson’s hawks nest in the Canary pines in the Commemorative Grove on the North Davis Greenbelt between Cabrillo and Balboa. They hide the nest amazingly well in that skimpy stand of trees.
Usually, you must stand in a very specific spot to see the nest. There are two to three chicks, and a couple of years we have rescued one that has fallen or been pushed out of the nest. Rescued chicks have done well at the California Raptor Center at UC Davis with an injured, surrogate mother Swainson’s who cannot be released, but is willing to mother a hawk of any species.
Hopefully, once again, we will have our annual sighting of the nest, the first white chick head peeping out of the nest, the chicks as branchers and finally, first flights will happen in August. It is a long, long process with this threatened species.
Though our Swainson’s are just arriving, many hawks have recently departed.
Over the past few months have you noticed the incredible number of hawks on telephone poles, in trees and flying over fields?
It is a brand-new discovery that here in the Central Valley, we have the highest winter raptor abundance and diversity in North America, slightly higher than the South Texas plain. And winter is an important time for raptors because half of raptors do not make it through their first year. So our region is crucial habitat for raptors, especially the species of concern that are declining.
I attended a Sacramento Audubon program presentation by Ed Pandolfino, bird activist, researcher, teacher, trip leader. Along with Zachary Smith, he had noted in the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count data that our Central Valley had the highest winter raptor abundance. These counts are important citizen-based science contributions.
There is little data on what habitat specific species are using. Knowing that we are transforming our valley at an incredible rate, Pandolfino and Smith set up surveys with study objectives. They mapped out 19 routes of 25 to 50 miles in length and noted the specific habitat every half-mile. So later, when volunteers did bird identification counts and noted the location, it could be determined which kind of habitat that hawk was using.
The 19 survey routes extended from Shasta County in the north to Kings County in the south. They collected data for three consecutive winters.
Think of the various habitats in our valley. We have grasslands, row crops, rice, orchards, urban areas, pastures, savannahs, alfalfa, vineyards and wetlands. Rough-legged hawks, prairie falcons, golden eagles and ferruginous hawks have had a significant association with grasslands. Kestrels were in alfalfa fields.
Usually when volunteers counted, they would average about 10 species. They found that
the worst habitats for raptors are orchards, urbanized areas and vineyards. And what are we doing to the land? We are converting grasslands to orchards, vineyards and housing developments, and the grasslands are disappearing.
We need to understand specifically what kinds of grasslands are preferred so that conservationists can create high-quality grasslands. Pandolfino and Smith crunched the data in numerous ways to glean so much information. They have papers in review that probably will be in “Western Birds.”
Raptors are hard to identify. However, if you see a large hawk, much of the time it will be a red-tailed hawk. They are here all year around and in various habitats. You can be right with that guess 95 percent of the time. Our Swainson’s hawk is a small hawk but with a wingspread greater than that of a red-tailed hawk.
Quick! Get over to the UC Arboretum while the redbud is flashing its magenta display. On March 9, I was highly entertained by Warren Roberts, former Arboretum superintendent, on his monthly walk. Each month he chooses a different section. He leads a walk at noon on the second Wednesday of each month.
On April 13, take a walk with Warren viewing California wildflowers. Meet at the Buehler Alumni & Visitors Center. He is a great storyteller with knowledge of plants, California history, music, you-name-it and he interweaves it all in his walk/talks.
Take note of all the birds in their best breeding dress before they get all quiet in their nests and hidden behind foliage. At my feeders, the male house finches are so bright orange that they look like parrots. The American goldfinch is bright yellow.
But most outrageous is the color of the male turkeys, the toms, the gobblers. Have you watched them while they display? When they get excited, which is happening all of the time now, they fan their tail feathers, drop their wings, expand their chests. The featherless head changes. A fleshy piece called a snood becomes engorged with blood and drops down.
The red throat and wattles on the throat and neck are red. His head turns blue. The face puffs up. The transformation is amazing. I see this happening daily in North Davis. If you don’t have a flock in your neighborhood, google “turkey display” on YouTube and watch an amazing display.
It’s wildflower time in our region. Google Yolo wildflower hikes or watch the newspaper for hikes for wildflowers and vernal pool tours. It all happens quickly. Don’t miss out. Happy spring, everyone.
— Jean Jackman is a Davis resident. Her column appears monthly. Got a story, question, correction? Reach her at JeanJackman@gmail.com