Thursday, April 16, 2015

What's That?

A clamor in the trees around the parking lot indicated something newsworthy in the crow world, something that took form within a tangle of brush as I approached my car. Fifteen feet away a bird appeared so large, dark and sinister-looking that I decided it was an eagle--in a Peabody industrial park.

It must have been hunting in that thicket, not disabled, because it extended massive wings, flapped a few times and soared to a utility pole down the street. I pursued it through a series of photo moments and crow complaints.

Perhaps the crows could say specifically what it was, or perhaps they only generalized it as a threat. But I was a curious human with a zoom lens.

Surprisingly, even with pretty good photos I couldn't decide from Peterson's Field Guide what I'd seen. I did scale back my first impression--conceded it was a large hawk--that the 'eagle' reaction came out of being startled at close range by a large brown bird with a nasty-looking beak.

In comparing my photos to the field guide, red-tail hawk seemed the most logical  if uncertain conclusion. Red-tails are a common enough sight hereabouts. But they should have red tails, and at a distance they appear much smaller than this guy did. What to do but ask Mass Audubon's Chris Leahy? He's an approachable expert if you don't mind exposing the thinness of your knowledge. 

For instance, last fall I had sent Chris this picture of a swept-winged raptor sailing over Halibut Point. I had asked him which falcon it might be. Chris had sent a sobering reply.

"Are you sure it was a falcon? The length and shape of the tail, the 'chesty' look in contrast to the elongate rear end and the heavily barred primaries suggest a female (big) Cooper's Hawk to me. Travelling accipiters often fly with their wings folded back like this making them look pointed. If it was a falcon, it must have been a Peregrine, but that wouldn't have been my assessment from the photo. It's a great example of how with raptors, shorebirds and other 'critical' groups, 'jizz' (seeing the 'whole bird') is crucial."

Sure enough, a second photo gave emphasis to the field marks he has assimilated into mental flashcards. 
Returning to my puzzle, I submitted my current photos to Chris. He pronounced it an immature red-tail, which doesn't acquire distinctive coloration until the second or third year. But my photos obscured the definitive diagnostic feature--a dark "belly band" of streaks.

I went back to another picture of the hawk that gave a clearer view of the belly band, as well as its business-like talons. Chris had been able to make the call in part from factors of experience beyond plumage details, from a larger pattern of shape, site, timing, size, season--from "jizz."

The scenario took me back to 1979, early  in my landscape interest, when I signed up for a course in Native Tree Identification through Dogtown College, a locally-founded learning forum. Its idea was to match knowledgeable people with seekers in curricula without walls, degrees or exams. I was the only student in the class with Louis Catalini, Essex Aggie grad. 

As Louis and I were driving down the highway he would distinguish between white pines and hemlocks on the horizon, by their color, location, and silhouette. Nothing to do with needles, cones and bark descriptions in the field guides. He said he just knew. 

Over the years I've gotten to be pretty good at that myself. I'm looking at the landscape all the time. To borrow from the birdwatchers' lexicon, I've absorbed some "jizz" factors in my own walk of life.

Learning begins with curiosity, with asking "What's that?" Thinking back on the emergence of Dogtown College here on Cape Ann prompts me to sound out a few of that gang for next week's posting.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Martin,
    Thanks for the new word. I had no idea. Wonder if it's like jazz in any way. I spend a lot of time just watching birds and their behavior, often without binoculars, which give you a good "overall" look. Thanks for the new word!