Cooper Hawk

The past 24 hours have been pretty dismal here in northern New Jersey, with oppresive humidity relieved only by spells of steady drizzle. The rain finally stopped midday, though, and southwest winds and chokingly soggy air notwithstanding, I set out to Clarks Pond to see what I might see.

Woodland passerines were, no surprise here, tough to come by, but I was happy to find that there was some genuine vismig going on overhead, no doubt birds stalled by the nasty weather eager now to have a meal and move on. Barn swallows and chimney swifts were never out of sight, and the afternoon’s highlight was easily the three purple martins that passed over at a height clearly meant to put the lie to the “vis” in “vismig.”

Raptors were moving, too. Not in big numbers by any means, but I wound up tallying half a dozen species, including single representatives of the black vulture and red-shouldered hawk. The final bird of my hour and a half out and about was a juvenile Cooper hawk, hunting the ball fields behind the middle school and being mercilessly harried by American crows. This is far and away our most abundant accipiter, winter, spring, summer, and fall, but always well worth looking at, especially so big and so dashing a bird as this female (she was exactly the bulk of the crows next to her, impressively large even for a hen).

As usual, the bird was not shy at all, hunger obviously overcoming whatever apprehension she may have felt in my presence. I took the opportunity to get great looks as she moved from backstop to fence to bleachers, and was struck above all by the pattern of her under parts.

Famously, juvenile Cooper hawks can usually be distinguished from their smaller (and their larger) congeners by the fine streaking of the breast and belly; sharp-shinned hawks and goshawks are characteristically blobby and blurry beneath, in the former species sometimes even creating the impression of adult-like barring.

By no stretch of the imagination could this afternoon’s bird be described as “pencil-streaked.” Instead, from every angle, she was clearly coarsely barred on the flanks and lower breast, more heavily marked on the sides and center of the upper breast. I cannot recall ever having seen a juvenile Cooper hawk marked like this, though, of course, some individuals are more broadly streaked below than others, and a quick “image search” finds birds not dissimilar.

Still, a nice reward for venturing out into the tropical stickiness.