Last night around 11:30, after posting “The Grave Dug By Beasts,” I went out for a quick, half-hour walk. The crescent moon was setting over Sapsucker Ridge as I made my way slowly up the field toward the head of the hollow.
Just past the top of the amphitheatre, I’m startled by an explosive snort from thirty feet away: white-tailed deer. We haven’t been seeing deer during daylight hours nearly as much as we usually do this time of year, and when we do they seem unduly skittish. My mother wonders if perhaps the local coyotes haven’t begun behaving more like wolves, traveling in packs and targeting healthy, adult deer. I’d love for that to be true — the ecological repercussions of such a switch would be enormous — but I’m wary of wishful thinking.
A little farther along, I hear more running sounds to my right. Five or six deer cross the trail right in front of me, all in a panic. They’re not running from me, I realize, but from something else. I wait for half a minute, but I don’t hear anything further, so I move on.
It’s a chilly night, and I’m walking quickly to try and get my blood moving. I stand for a few seconds to catch my breath at the top of the field, the spruce grove looming up in front of me — a black wall. Just then, a weird, strangled cry rings out. Fox? Coyote? Bobcat? It’s right on the other side of the grove, whatever it is, and I wonder if my presence has set it off, because the cries keep coming every few seconds, accompanied by the sound of slow, erratic footsteps in the dry grass. I feel the hair rising on the back of my neck. It was exactly one year ago that we had to shoot that rabid gray fox.
It suddenly seems like a good idea to make my way back to the house before the moon sets. I ease over into the woods as quietly as I can and pad quickly down Laurel Ridge Trail. The cries slowly fade from earshot.
Twelve hours later, Mom returns from her morning walk with some exciting news: she’s found the Cooper’s hawk nest in the woods on Laurel Ridge, less than 200 yards from the houses. Since I’ve been hearing the birds (and very occasionally glimpsing them) from my front porch since early March, it’s no great surprise that they’re nesting up there. But it’s great that she’s found the nest, and that it’s far enough down from the top of the ridge that we should be able to find a spot where we can set up a spotting scope later on, look down into it, and watch the chicks, as we did back in 2003 with another Cooper’s hawk nest — provided that this is the nest they end up using, and not an alternate.
I go up the trail following Mom’s directions with cameras at the ready. It’s a bright sunny morning, and the temperature is climbing into the high 40s. There are several squirrel nests that seem almost big enough and stick-filled enough to be hawk nests, but when I get to the real thing, there’s really no comparison. It doesn’t have any leaves in it, which suggests a more recent origin. And it’s a more imposing structure, with higher sides and more of a disc shape — clearly something only a bird could build.
At scattered intervals, I hear one of the hawks chattering from nearby. First it’s off to one side, then the other. The trees are completely bare, I can see for hundreds of feet through the canopy, and I am standing still and watching as intently as I can, but the bird might as well be invisible. Just as soon as I think I’ve finally zeroed in on the spot, I hear the kak-kak-kak-kak-kak from somewhere else. There! Was that a flicker of gray-brown wings? Nope. It’s behind me now.
Here it is almost noon, and I’m getting spooked again. It’s uncanny how good some predators are at staying just out of sight — if never completely out of mind.