We lost the birds in Marjorie’s garden this winter. They were there in the beginning, a flock of 30 goldfinches in drab winter dress taking every perch at the porch feeders just before the big snow. I remember thinking that they are the best forecasters of winter weather, while juncos and chipping sparrows scratched for millet seed on the ground and chickadees feasted on black oil sunflower seeds heaped in terra cotta pots on the porch rails.
They were there at the beginning of winter, through the first big snow, and then they were gone. The change was abrupt. We were in the routine of filling the feeders two, sometimes three times a day, buying more seed every Saturday, and then it all stopped and the only feeder that got any business was a sunflower feeder hanging at the border of the garden and woods. Chickadees and an occasional nuthatch still came to this feeder, and a few sparrows and juncos scratched beneath it.
We had our theories. My favorite was an abundance of natural food — I had seed birch nutlets scattered over the snow and I knew that the nearby firs had produced a bumper seed crop.
Then one morning, as I looked out on the garden from the porch door window, my focus shifted to a stubby branch on an old pine beyond the porch, something different about its familiar form, a new stub along its length that quickly took the form of a hawk. I grabbed my binoculars for a closer look and the bird obliged, staying put long enough for me to get a solid identification: sharp-shinned hawk.
Accipiter striatus, the smallest of its genus, small-headed, small-billed, dark blue-gray feathers on its back and coarse orange streaks on its breast. I watched it and remembered two days earlier finding several small gray feathers scattered over the snow along the footpath beneath the porch feeders. At the time I thought they were evidence of a junco’s collision with the windowed porch door, in spite of the numerous decals and ribbons we have installed to prevent such mishaps. Now I wondered.
The hawk soared from the pine branch into the woods as Reilly and Dixie bolted out of the house. In the days that followed, I looked for it, unsuccessfully, cataloging it in my mind as an infrequent visitor to the winter garden, just passing through. At the same time, as Marjorie and I talked about the absence of birds, we added predator to the list of possibilities.
And then, this past weekend, the mystery of the missing birds was solved, at least to my satisfaction. We were leaving the house for a trip into town and I had reached the bottom of the porch steps ahead of Marjorie who was just leaving the house. As I rounded the corner of the footpath beneath the porch, I stopped in my tracks, 20 feet from the sharp-shinned hawk.
It was perched on a large rock at the edge of the path, completely still, staring at the stacked firewood beneath the porch, a favorite winter home for mice. It had its mind on a meal; it was ignoring me. I heard the door close above me and called up to Marjorie, told her to quickly look over the porch rail. Despite my loud voice, the hawk remained fixed to its rock. Only when Marjorie’s head peered over the edge did it flush, gliding silently inches above the ground into the woods.
Never in 50 years as a birder have I been so close to a wild bird of prey.
The porch feeders still contain the same seeds they had two weeks ago; every so often I see a chickadee dart in to steal a seed. The feeder at the edge of the woods, however, gets more attention from chickadees, nuthatches and, recently, a male cardinal. No doubt they all feel more secure with the nearby cover.
I have not seen the hawk recently, not since our encounter a week ago. But I feel its eyes on me as I move about the winter garden.
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