I am sitting at my desk on a conference call. I have been working on a spreadsheet for hours and, as I listen to the call and tweak numbers, I suddenly start seeing double. I take off my glasses, rub my eyes, and then look out the window at the sweeping view of downtown. Something between me and the city moves across my line of vision. I look and recognize one of the hawks I’ve been seeing in the park across the street for the last few days.
There are two mounds in the park. According to the sign, the mounds were created as part of the process to contain hazardous waste. Not exactly comforting, but they look nice. The mound on the right has low-growing plants all along the sides that flop over and create lots of little dark hiding places for rodents that scurry through the plants whenever someone walks by. Pat and I have been trying to get a good look at exactly what lives on that mound for a long time. We know it’s grayish brown and larger than a mouse or mole. We decided they were voles after getting a quick glance at one, but part of me secretly fears they might be rats.
Whatever it is that lives on that mound, a pair of hawks discovered the colony the other day and seems to be returning regularly for an afternoon picnic. I’m relieved to see the hawks. Not just because they will help control the rodent population, but because I miss seeing birds from my window. Other than the house sparrows and starlings who seem to have an ongoing war over who will roost in the crevices above our windows, most the birds hang out in the park and are too small to see from my desk. However, I’m confused by this hawk. It looks to be on the small side, but it has very bright reddish coloring around it’s head, chest, and shoulders. I would normally assume it was a Red-shouldered Hawk, but it looks awfully small. It’s also more vividly colored both in the red areas and in the strong contrast in the spots on its back.
When I see the same pair again that evening, I spend some time looking up Red-shouldered Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks trying to determine for sure what it is. Now, most people who have any interest in birds do not have trouble telling a Red-shouldered from a Cooper’s. I, however, am wired to perceive connections and similarities. This is probably due to some genetic misfortune in my brain that causes me to see commonalities that may or may not exist, but others rarely see.
This same feature of my perceptions causes me to mistake people I’ve never seen before in my life for people I know quite well. I had to start applying a rule of probability in deciding whether to enthusiastically greet someone or not in order to avoid frightening complete strangers. The rule of probability takes into account the likelihood that the person I think I’m seeing would actually be where I am. I will say, though, that I did run into a co-worker once when both of us unknowingly took vacations in Scotland and then happened to end up waiting on our completely unrelated groups outside of Edinburgh Castle at the same time. What are the odds?
Fortunately, I did not fail to greet my co-worker in that case because I heard his voice and knew definitively it was him. Similarly, with the hawks, if I could hear them calling, I would know for sure which species I have the pleasure of watching. If they are calling, the traffic noise drowns it out and there is no hope that I will ever be able to use their voice for identification.
But, back to comparing Red-shouldered hawks and Cooper’s, in my defense, a young, molting Cooper’s Hawk can look like a Red-shouldered Hawk if they turn a certain way, stand in direct but muted lighting, and the viewer has a vivid imagination. Plus, the size of these birds seems more like a Cooper’s to me than a Red-shouldered.
However, after looking at pictures of both in various settings, I have to go with Red-shouldered. I continue to be puzzled by their size. I manage to get a few shots, although I struggle with focusing with my long lens pointed out the window. It’s a pretty good distance to the bird, so I’m not surprised that my shots are disappointing. I leave the camera set up just in case I have another opportunity the next day.
In the morning, I start watching for the hawk as soon as the sun is bright enough. When I get too busy to look, that’s when movement catches my attention out of the corner of my eye. I look out and there is one of the hawks, hunting on the hill. She has something in her talons that she carries to a light post to snack on. I cringe when I see it’s a rodent with a long tail. I really didn’t want to see any evidence that those voles really might be rats. I say a quick thank you for the presence of the hawks and hope for some owls, too, while I’m at it.
When I go for a walk, I see the hawk in the park again, only this time I am looking up at it. I realize it’s size is correct for a Red-shouldered hawk after all. I’ve been looking down at it from a distance. Now that I am standing on the ground looking up, I remember the old trick in photography that says if you want your subject to look bigger, get down and point up at it. If you want your subject to look smaller, stand above it and shoot down at it. Apparently it is this phenomena that has been at work on my perception.
Now that this is settled, I can move on with my life. Next step: learn how to shoot the suckers so that they are in focus and doing something interesting. For now, the sky is cooperating more than the hawks, so I switch from shooting wildlife to shooting clouds.