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Family Adventures: Rapturous over Raptors
By Janis Cooke Newman
A woman with a bear-claw design tattooed on the tops of her feet is holding a hawk in a coffee can. Beside her, a man with a small bird of prey embroidered on his polar-fleece jacket is flipping through white cards printed with silhouettes of hawks and falcons that look like ornithological Rorschach tests.
"Buteos have wide tails and broad wings," the man explains, "whereas accipiters have long narrow tails. This hawk," he points to the striped tail feathers sprouting from the back of the coffee can, "is an accipiter." The tail feathers twitch irritably.
The woman with the bear-claw feet is Simone Whitecloud, an intern with the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO). The man with the bird of prey embroidered over his heart is Allen Fish, GGRO Director.
And the bird in the coffee can is an adult female Cooper's hawk, caught this morning in one of the GGRO's banding blinds.
Every autumn, thousands of Cooper's hawks -- as well as red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels, and peregrine falcons -- fly over Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands, funneled into a dense concentration at the tip of the North Bay by the raptors' preference for flying over land rather than water.
And every fog- and rain-free weekend in October, the peak month for raptor sightings, the GGRO staff offers free "Hawk Talks" and the chance to get up-close-and-personal with a large meat-eating bird.
Fish pulls a nasty-looking rubber rat out of his backpack and squeaks it at the group of us who have assembled for this weekend's Hawk Talk. "Raptors generally feed on large rodents," he tells us. "They've also been known to swoop down on songbird feeders and pick a chestnut-backed chickadee right off its feet."
As we contemplate what a bird that eats rats might do to a chickadee, Fish retrieves the coffee can from Whitecloud and sticks his bare hand inside.
"I bet this looks really smart," he says, while digging around the bottom of the can. At one time, hawk handlers wore thick leather gloves to protect them from the raptors' talons. But after a handler inadvertently broke a bird's leg, the GGRO staff decided to give up the clumsy gloves.
As we watch, Fish draws a large brown-and-white mottled bird out of the coffee can. The hawk has yellow cat's eyes and a sharp, black-tipped beak. At the end of each of its toes is a talon, long and curved as an ancient Chinese aristocrat's fingernails.
Fish shows us the metal band that has just been attached to one of the raptor's yellow legs. During the fall migration, the GGRO operates four banding blinds in the Marin Headlands. In these nets, birds of prey are trapped and banded in order to help the GGRO keep track of raptor populations. Afterward, they're transported in coffee cans to prevent the birds from flapping their wings and injuring themselves.
"Stand back," says Fish, as he prepares to release the hawk. "I never know which way they're going to fly, and if she poops on your head, at least you've been warned."
With an upward push of his arm, Fish sets the bird free. The hawk stretches the fingered ends of her striped wings and glides to the top of a cypress tree. We watch as she rearranges her feathers--"getting the human cooties off," says Fish--and then the powerful hawk catches a current of air and sails out over the bay.
When the Cooper's hawk is out of sight, I climb to the very top of Hawk Hill, where volunteer hawk watchers are busy counting raptors. Every year, the GGRO trains volunteers to help count the hawks, falcons, turkey vultures, and occasional eagles that soar over the Marin Headlands.
"Unidentified buteo north!" shouts a man whose T-shirt is printed with the picture of a bald eagle. Twenty pairs of sophisticated binoculars turn toward the north sky.
"I think that's a juvie R.T.," says a women with a falcon stitched above the brim of her baseball cap.
"Juvenile red-tailed hawk," confirms a man who is eating a sandwich behind his binoculars.
A woman whose badge identifies her as a GGRO Dayleader, makes a little hash mark on a form.
The view from Hawk Hill is spectacular -- sailboats on the bay, San Francisco from bridge to bridge -- but nobody up here is taking their eyes off the sky.
"I've been here on a clear October day and seen a hundred and forty or fifty hawks an hour," says a man, who has not once lifted his head from his spotting scope. "I tell you, after a day like that, you're wrung out!"
Looking up, I spy the long narrow tail of what I think must be an accipiter. "Anybody got an extra pair of binoculars?" I ask.
How to Experience Your Own Raptor Rapture
Getting to Hawk Hill: Take Highway 101 north over the Golden Gate Bridge and exit at Alexander Avenue. Turn left at the stop sign and go under 101. Turn right onto Conzelman Road and drive 1.8 miles. When the road becomes one way, park and walk up the west side of Hawk Hill, past the locked gate. It's just a few hundred feet to the summit.
The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) holds "Hawk Talks" at noon every fog- and rain-free Saturday and Sunday in October on Hawk Hill. If they've been able to capture and band a bird of prey, they will incorporate it into the talk and then release it at 1 p.m. For information about volunteering to count raptors, or to find out more about the GGRO, visit the group's web site at www.ggro.org, or call 415-331-0730. If you'd like to hear about the latest count, the raptor hotline is 415-561-3030, ext. 2500.
If you're going: Be sure to bring binoculars, a jacket, and a picnic lunch. Dogs are allowed on Hawk Hill, but if your dog is large, boisterous, or a little too interested in birds of prey, it's best to leave him behind.
Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail Janis Cooke Newman at firstname.lastname@example.org.