Sunday, February 26, 2023

High-speed Hand-off


One of the joys of moving to a new city, or even a new neighborhood, is getting to know the local wildlife. Every ecosystem, no matter how small, has its own mix of species. When my family moved from Berkeley to Benicia we saw a lot of familiar backyard critters – Fox Squirrels, Scrub Jays, Lesser Goldfinches – and, because our new home was close to the water and in a more suburban area, a lot of different ones as well. For one thing, Benicia has more Northern Mockingbirds than any other place I’ve been. We often see Canada Geese, Western Gulls, and even Ospreys and an occasional Bald Eagle flying over the house. And, with the abundance of open space and grassy hillsides, we see far more raptors than we did in our urban neighborhood in Berkeley. Red-tailed Hawks, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Cooper's Hawks are the most common, along with an abundance of Turkey Vultures.

My favorite new neighbors were the pair of White-tailed Kites who built a nest just four blocks from our house. When I first saw them in late March they were still building and I was able to photograph them carrying sticks to the tree. Over the next couple weeks, although I couldn’t see the nest itself, I photographed the male bringing food to the female, who was presumably incubating their eggs. (In kites it’s normally the female who cares for the eggs and hatchlings while the male hunts. The sexes look alike so of course I can’t be absolutely sure this couple was following tradition.)

One morning in April it had all changed. A half dozen crows were in the top of the nest tree with no kites in sight. I waited for the kites to come back and chase them off but they never returned. After checking again over the next few days it was clear to me that the crows had eaten their eggs and the kites weren’t going to try again, at least at that location. 

Then in June I noticed an adult kite spending a lot of time in a tree on our street and followed it to a nesting site just two blocks away. The new nest was in a taller and denser tree that was even more difficult to photograph than the first. Again I could watch as the adults flew in and out but there was no way to see into the nest. 

My big break came in July when the chicks fledged. After leaving their nest the two fledglings made their temporary home in a Coast Redwood in the alley behind our house. I could literally photograph them from my back yard. The short time they spent in that tree was a real privilege to witness. 

A chick would stand in the top of the tree and flap its wings, jumping in the air, repeatedly practicing its takeoff and landing technique. Other times the two of them would play tag, sometimes joined by one of their parents, chasing one another across the sky, spiraling together, nearly colliding, getting faster and more skilled with each passing day. 

At first the adults would bring food directly to their babies but as the days went on they made them work harder and harder for every meal. An adult would fly past the tree with a vole in its talons, calling for a chick to come and get it. When one of the young birds followed, the adult would let it get almost close enough to grab the rodent, and then surge ahead in a surprising burst of speed, making the hungry chick fly even faster. The successful hand-off you see in the next three photos happened on the third attempt. 

After about a week of these fantastic displays the family moved on, probably for a few hunting lessons in the local hills before the young birds were fully on their own. I was very sad when they didn’t nest in our neighborhood the following year, and I’m hoping they will return in 2023. 

Would you like to purchase a print? Click on the photos to see a variety of print sizes and framing options, or click here to explore my photo catalog.