Noe Valley Voice July-August 2003

Florence's Family Album:
Birding from a Noe Valley Deck

By Florence Holub

In this essay reprinted from the November 1991 Voice, Florence describes some feathered friends who dropped by the Holub house on 21st Street.

One day a few years ago, Leo and I heard the thump of something hitting our picture window. We investigated and discovered that a little song sparrow, upon seeing the reflection of the sky in the glass, had zoomed into the window and knocked himself silly. We also noticed that danger was lurking nearby. A neighbor's cat, with swishing tail and drooling mouth, was sneaking up on the poor befuddled bird.

Fortunately, Leo sprung to the rescue by quickly enclosing the little fellow under a protective crate. That kept the cat away until the sparrow was recovered enough to leave by a small exit and fly away. Meanwhile, I was able to make a sketch of him.

This is only one of our many bird tales. Ever since we moved into our 21st Street hilltop home (in 1956), we have been astonished by the abundance of bird life in the middle of the big city.

Noe Valley has a year-round residential bird population that includes hummingbirds, juncos, sparrows, mockingbirds, mourning doves, scrub jays, and even the solitary shrike--a small bird of prey called the "butcher bird" because he hunts insects, other small birds, and mice, and then impales them on a thorn until he's ready for dinner. At times, we have also sighted crows, blackbirds, and nuthatches. And, of course, there are the ever-present pigeons.

In the spring when the fruit trees are blooming, we are regularly visited by small seed birds which eat the insects that are busy pollinating the blossoms. During the summer, we have a constant stream of fruit eaters--flickers, robins, and yellow-sided parakeets. We have spotted large flocks of house finches, with brilliantly colored red heads and breasts, as well as goldfinches, and pairs of yellow- and black-hooded orioles.

When the berries of our Hawthorne tree ripen in the fall, we have visitations of birds from faraway places. Every year, for example, our yard is host to flocks of sleek cedar waxwings who arrive suddenly, feed, and then just as suddenly depart.

One year, a waxwing dropped to our deck, panting helplessly. I rushed out to look, and noticed that a large piece of skin and feathers was missing. A hawk, no doubt, had wounded him mortally. We buried him in the back yard.

Speaking of hawks, a few weeks ago while relaxing on our deck, Leo and I noticed a strange pattern of shadows racing across our feet. Looking up, we were amazed to see six to eight enormous hawks soaring in circles above our heads. The lowest one was only 50 feet above us, so we could see the dark breast band, the lighter underparts, and the majestic four-foot wingspread. The hawks spiraled slowly upward until they were carried over the crest of our Dolores Heights hill.

Although we had sighted a couple of redwing hawks before, these birds were the biggest we had ever witnessed flying over Noe Valley skies. After a few hours of perusing our bird books, we decided to consult the experts stationed at Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands--only a 10-mile drive from Noe Valley across the Golden Gate Bridge. So a couple of weeks later, we did just that.

Upon leaving the freeway at the other side of the bridge, we encountered a two-lane zigzagging road that seemed like a journey back in time. Then, as we neared the base of Hawk Hill, remnants of military fortifications prompted anxious memories of the World War II years. But after parking the car, we took an uphill path through chaparral brush and pine trees, and were brought back to the here and now by an escort of fluttering monarch butterflies. The lovely creatures stayed with us until we reached the summit, where a crowd had gathered to hear an introductory "Hawk Talk."

We were told that this hawk observation point was discovered in 1972 by ornithologist Lawrence Binfold, after he noticed an inordinate number of hawks passing by his window at the Golden Gate Science Academy and suspected there might be a migration route nearby. The area was at one time a military base, but when the military moved out, it became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Golden Gate Raptor Observatory now holds down the fort. The Marin Headlands hawk migration route is the only one of prominence in the far west, with close to 20,000 hawks passing through the Golden Gate each year.

Hawks fly south using the Pacific Flyway, which narrows and funnels over the Marin Peninsula, creating a concentration of birds. Seeing the wide stretch of water before them, the birds circle on updrafts in order to gain enough altitude to glide across the Golden Gateway to San Francisco.

Hawks don't like to fly over water--where there is no food, no place to rest, and no updrafts--because they can't swim. If they tire, they will drown. The day must be clear, so that they can see the lay of the land, and there must be a good wind blowing, to send them soaring across the gap. If it is a foggy and still day, they just hang out for a few days, laying low and hunting until conditions improve.

The peak of fall migration happens from September through November, and the best time to see hawks is midday, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. During these hours, Hawk Hill is well staffed with trained volunteers, armed with powerful binoculars. The birdwatchers work in teams, calling out each sighting in shorthand: "Two sharpies!" (sharp-shinned hawks), "One Coop!" (Cooper's hawk), and so on, with additional sightings such as "Red-tailed!" "Rough-legged!", "Red-shouldered!", and even the rare "Red-tailed albino!"

When we mentioned our unusual Noe Valley hawk sighting to the affable speaker, pioneer hawk-counter Carter Faust, he ventured that the birds might have been broad-winged hawks. The broad-wings, which travel in flocks, had recently passed through the area, he said. Then Faust was interrupted by the call "T.V.!" and he explained, "That would be a turkey vulture looking for his TV dinner."

The volunteers count all of the other birds passing through as well, he said, and the information is passed on to public health and environmental groups, for it is now acknowledged that whatever affects birds (pesticides, for instance) eventually travels along the food chain to affect us humans, too.

We checked our bird books again when we got home, and to our delight uncovered not only the broad-wing, but another hawk that looked exactly like the birds that soared over our deck. It is the huge Swainson's hawk, a bird that migrates in flocks and which spends the summer in the Alaskan tundra, storing up fat. In the fall, it journeys south to winter in the Argentine pampas. These hawks fly a distance of 5,000 miles every year!

On that day at Hawk Hill, we also spoke with Fox Channel 2 reporter Gary Kauf, who was covering the hawk migration story for his station. We learned that he had lived in Noe Valley for seven years and read the Voice religiously. Small world, isn't it? Especially if you are a Swainson's hawk! h

Volunteers from the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory (GGRO) will begin their annual count of raptors flying above Hawk Hill in the Marin Headlands in September. For information about the GGRO's weekend "Hawk Talks," visit the group's web site at or call 415-331-0730. You also might enjoy Janis Cooke Newman's description of her own Hawk Hill adventure published in our October 2002 issue (go to