Sometimes you can wait for hours, poke into thorny bushes, hike through snake-infested fields, get tired and dusty, become overheated or risk frostbite—and never find the rare bird you’ve come to see. And other times, you park the car, climb out, look for the crowd with binoculars and floppy hats, and know you’ve hit the jackpot. On Saturday, my friend and I were blessed to not only see the rarity, but to get up close and personal.
We knew that a young Common Black Hawk was being seen at Manitou Lake, about five miles north of Woodland Park, Colorado. Native to Mexico and Central America, the species only ranges into the U.S. in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. I had already seen an adult Common Black Hawk just south of Sedona, but for Debbie it would be a lifer—a mere 45 minutes from home. It was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.
Due to work schedules, we had to wait for the weekend, hoping and praying the bird would hang around that long. A Common Black Hawk this far north would be sure to migrate soon. Finally, we pulled into the parking lot at 6:45 and immediately spied a promising sight: a crowd gathered on the dam, binoculars all pointed in the same direction. As we hurriedly assembled cameras and lenses and locked the car, one of the viewers waved her arms at her spouse, who was loitering by the cars, and screeched, “Honey, hurry up! It’s right here!”
As you might expect, the bird bolted. By the time we could see the branch it had been perched on, it was long gone.
Frustrated, to say the least, we decided to go bird the other end of the lake. Something else of interest might pop up—the marsh was a known hangout for Soras and Virginia Rails. I’d been there just a few weeks earlier and enjoyed American White Pelicans, Yellow Warblers, and an assortment of swallows. Now all the summer birds were gone, and it was very quiet. In fact, the best “bird” we found was an adorable mink! It took one look at us and dove into the reeds. Bye-bye photo op.
Heading back to where the hawk had been, we passed a pair of Belted Kingfishers sitting on the railing of the fishing pier. One immediately flew away, as is typical for that species, but the other gave us a glance and then ignored us. As the path we were on passed right by the pier, we wondered how close we would get before the bird flew away. Surprisingly close. And then it merely flew up into a nearby pine tree. Debbie wondered if maybe this was a young bird who didn’t yet know it was supposed to avoid people.
It was time to try for the hawk again. This time, when we arrived at the dam, the hawk was in back in place. We quickly snapped off “insurance” photos and Debbie did her lifer dance. Success!
Now to see if we could improve on our initial shots. After a while, the hawk must have gotten hungry, as it flew down below the dam to look for crayfish. We hiked downstream for a better view, stopping under a large ponderosa some distance away to take some pictures of the bird feeding.
Suddenly, the hawk launched itself into the air and made a beeline for the very tree we were standing under. As it flew straight at us, I quickly went from thinking “grab a photo!” to “Augh, look out!” I could feel the wind from its passing as it swooped onto a low branch right in front of us. Wow! We had to backpedal a bit in order to compose some close-ups.
I should mention that we would never have approached the bird that closely. It’s important to keep one’s distance to avoid harassing and repeatedly flushing any wild bird. But when the bird chooses to approach us, that’s another story.
We heard from friends who visited the lake on Sunday that the hawk was nowhere to be seen. Maybe the shortening days—or the crowds—finally convinced it to move on, hopefully to a warmer clime.
One thing I’ve noticed—first year birds tend to be bolder than their more experienced elders—they haven’t yet learned that humans are dangerous. We often call unidentifiable sparrow-like birds LBJs, which stands for Little Brown Jobs. Perhaps we need a new acronym—FYB, or Fearless Young Bird.