QUAIL MUTTERINGS #10. My Front Yard (August 6, 2011)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #10. My Front Yard (August 6, 2011)


It’s August 6th, and I’m still listening to and watching the young Cooper’s Hawks. Almost any time of day you can hear their sharp, raspy whistles coming from various areas around our front yard. Most hawks have similar sounding calls, but the volume and timber seem to vary with the species. Lately, I’m hearing both the Cooper’s loud, urgent calls as well as their descending whistles which they can do during flight. The canyon is filled with hawk sounds from daybreak to dusk which I find exhilarating.

These Accipiters careen through the canopy zooming like fighter jets between bushes and expertly threading through tree foliage. They quickly clip around rocks and tree trunks reminding me of a cutting horse skillfully maneuvering around barrels or cattle, except they are much faster and more agile. Sometimes when I’m sitting out on the front porch I feel like I’m observing an air show of F-14’s minus the deafening explosions created when the sound barrier is broken. The Red-tails spend more time up in the sky whereas these guys tend to hang lower, right in our line of sight.

During more calm periods of their day they seem to find respite in the bird bath out front. Now, these are no small birds, mind you. They are quite large, fourteen to twenty-one inches tall with a wingspan of up to three feet. Mostly I see small wrens and Black Phoebes enjoying the shallow layer of water spanning the top of the cement disk. They like to sit on the edge, then hop into the wetness and splash around, and go back to the side to shake off and preen themselves.

But it’s a whole different activity to witness these practically full-grown hawks do the same thing in this small amount of water. It’s during these times when you can notice the dark, broad bands on their tail feathers. Usually, one at a time will fly down and perch on the split-rail fence before hopping over to the bird bath to play in the water and flap around. When he’s had enough bath time he’ll crow-hop over the split-rail fence to the plow handle beyond for a perch. Sometimes they even fly up to the house to sit on the porch railings. I guess I don’t pose too much of a threat to them.

I’m wondering now how much longer these Accipiters will call our front yard their home. I suppose that they too, like my Red-tail friends, will grow up and move on. At least to a larger territory than just my view from the front porch. We leave in a week to take our son up to Chico State University and will be gone for ten days. Will my feathered family still be here when I get back? Or will I miss them too at the end of summer?

Chance feels ready, for the most part, to embark on his new college adventure and I realize, at least in my head, that it’s time for my youngest to spread his wings and leave the nest. But my heart is probably going to have a rough time of it. We’ll both, he and I, embark on a new chapter in our lives. Each of us will practice letting go while at the same time, inevitably, grasp for something new to hold onto. He’ll have his x-country running and engineering classes to focus on, along with a whole host of new college experiences, no doubt. I wish him well and hope he’s ready.

But what about me? Am I ready? Is a mother ever ready either to raise a child, with all those unforeseen situations; or to step back, just enough, when it’s time for them to be on their own? When there are younger ones to continue to care for when the older one leaves, the brunt of the loss is probably not as much. But when it’s my youngest, and the last one, how will it feel?

I remember my mom going through a tough patch when both my sister and I were in college. We just thought she ought to “adopt another kid.” What did we know? Ultimately, she found her way by focusing on her job, but also allowing herself more time to explore her interests. Taking classes, volunteering, working, and caring for her many animals filled the time so that the space in her heart could slowly fill with other things, or at least different proportions of the same things.

Now, as the parents of the young Cooper’s Hawks allow their young more responsibilities to care for themselves, they, the adults, can fly farther away and for longer periods of time. In their world, it’s the adults that leave the children when the time comes. For us, it seems, it’s the other way around.


QUAIL MUTTERINGS #9. Bye-Bye Baby Buteos; Hello Accipiters (July 15, 2011)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #9. Bye-Bye Baby Buteos; Hello Accipiters (July 15, 2011)


Good things don’t last forever. But sometimes they last longer than we expect. I feel so fortunate that I got to watch those juvenile Red-tail Hawks for almost two months before they presumably left the canyon for larger territory. Daily, or sometimes more often than that, I headed out with binoculars to enter into the private world of my “baby Buteos.”

I could hear them calling periodically throughout the day, pleading with a parent to “Bring Food!” Their requests were incessant especially at dawn and dusk. No matter where they were on the canyon walls I could hear them, and therefore find them, to spy on their not so private childhood. Often there would be only one youngster visible.

When a parent would fly over, the juvenile would really start to carry on. The meal would be delivered and set down and then the parent would quickly leave. Almost without fail she would circle higher and higher, sometimes kiting (hovering), probably to get a better view of the next meal victim. The young Red-tail would then study the morsel before pecking at it and eventually devouring it. Raptors are carnivores and attack their prey aggressively. I’d see the parents bring mice, rats, a snake, and small squirrels or rabbits – slightly bigger prey.

I’d be thrilled when one of the younglings, at dusk, would come settle for the night in the tall eucalyptus tree near our house. The other one was sometimes in the old eucalyptus across the creek in the same tree where their nest had been. I’d go to bed content knowing that my baby Buteos were nestled safely right outside. I had fallen in love with them.

My oldest daughter, Jessie, came home for the summer, from China, where she’ll return in the fall for a second year teaching English. On Monday evening, July 11, the two of us took a walk up the canyon. We stood on a boulder and watched both juveniles and a parent fly around and take turns landing on various rocks and trees up on the north ridge. Last week, during my morning run, I had watched one of the youngsters come in a little too fast, for a landing on top of a yucca plant, of all things, having to flap wildly to stop his forward momentum. I handed the binoculars to Jessie so that she could peer into their world, glimpsing a special moment of shared life in the canyon. We humans are not alone. There are so many intertwining lives that exist here, apart from us.

That evening was the last time that I saw or heard, for sure, my baby Buteos. I expect they were ready to expand their horizons. The canyon’s not all that big. It amazes me they stayed as long as they did. I’ll probably see them soaring above, but just not realize it’s them, specifically. I miss them, but know it’s for the best.

By Friday, four days later, I notice the young Cooper’s Hawks have just fledged their nest, high in an oak tree directly over our dirt road out front. It’s a good thing that we are the only traffic around. The two adults have been active here for a couple months, flying back and forth through the oak canopy hunting for their prey. Being smaller raptors enables them to sprint through air and foliage quickly. Unfortunately, they eat song birds. We live in an incredible bird sanctuary here. I don’t like the idea of my little musical friends getting eaten, but I know the Cooper’s Hawks need to survive too. I’m glad I haven’t witnessed any of their hunting missions. They tend to vocalize a lot and are quite bold. I witnessed one of them pestering a juvenile Red-tail Hawk when they were still around.

Their nest also happens to contain two youngsters. One of them seems to like hanging out on a branch near the nest while the other prefers his home sweet home. We watched one of the parents bring something in its beak, stopping momentarily to drop it in the nest before taking off again almost immediately. The kids squawked and squawked before the nest dweller won out and the other went back to its branch. I hope this one is getting enough to eat and not just perching out on the limb to keep from getting bullied. I’ll keep watching.

Two evenings later I hear one of them calling. I walk over to the road and look up. The noisy one is on the branch and the nest dweller is quiet. I can see it moving around up there. As I look up at the branch sitter I tell him how beautiful he looks. These smaller raptors are Accipiters, being smaller that Buteos. But they’re not that little. Certainly too big, I would have thought, for bathing in the bird bath that stands in the front yard. It was quite a sight. I saw him do it a couple different times over the next few days. I guess he doesn’t know any better yet. Maybe his mommy didn’t tell him he’s a Hawk.

So it’s not time to put away my binoculars yet. There’s more to see and learn about out in our front yard. For now, I’ll be watching my “Baby Accipiters,” spying through tree limbs for a closer look.

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #8. The Journey of Fledglings (May 30-June 6, 2011)

QUAIL MUTTERINGS #8. The Journey of Fledglings (May 30-June 6, 2011)


by Chi Varnado

On this beautiful, sunny Memorial Day morning I’m sitting outside on the east side of our porch enjoying a cup of strong cowboy coffee with lots of half-and-half, my favorite. Earlier, my oldest daughter called from China to say hello. Jessie is teaching English at an engineering college on their northeastern seaboard. She’s coming home for a visit this summer to take the GRE’s and apply to graduate school for applied linguistics before going back for a second year there. After catching up with each other I passed the phone over to Chance, who’s graduating from high school in two weeks. It’s hard to believe. Our youngest of three is getting ready to fly the coop.

The washing machine is churning Chance’s clothes into cleanliness on the corner of the side porch. I came out here to listen to the birds, but the noise of the motor is making that difficult. I go back inside to grab the binoculars to see if I’ll be able to view a particular family of feathered friends.

I’ve been observing this massive nest in the tall eucalyptus tree across the creek since March. It sits about a hundred feet up. Every so often I’d wander over to see the growing sanctuary, sometimes joined by my daughter, Kali, and my two-and-a-half year old grandson, Ian. He begins the fifth generation of our family to inhabit the canyon, nestled in Ramona’s back country. For weeks, the pair of Red-tailed Hawks has worked tirelessly building their high-rise condo carrying sticks, weeds and grass. And then, it was quiet. For the next couple of months I’d occasionally notice one of them fly to or from the tree, but their world was pretty private over there.

Last week, the hawk calls became incessant. Their high-pitched whistles echoed through the canyon and prompted me to go find out what the racket was all about. I had already changed clothes into my dance teaching attire, but I couldn’t wait. After digging out my mini binoculars from the dresser drawer I walked over toward the tree. Standing beneath the nest was not a suitable vantage point. I ducked through the pasture fence and lifted the spy glasses to my eyes. There, in the circle created by the lenses, standing on the edges of the nest, were two juvenile Red-tailed Hawks. They were huge, filling my entire view. These raptors can be two-feet-tall and have a wingspan up to fifty-eight inches. Their world up there looked so peaceful and serene. Those tall, elegant beings simply stood there, occasionally shifting positions, but for the most part seemed strangely meditative. Living that high up in the canopy brought with it a gentle swaying of the branches when the breezes danced through.

I figured I could keep my hands more steady, for a clearer picture, if I sat down and braced my elbows on my knees. Since I was wearing clean pants I looked for something to sit on. I found a dead branch and moved it over to where I’d been standing. After performing a grand plie I sat down on the stick and it broke sending my rear end into the dirt. I brushed off the best I could. I wasn’t about to change again and dirty two pairs of pants in one day. Besides, I wanted to watch these guys as long as possible before having to leave for work. I looked up through the binoculars again to see if I’d scared the young-uns. But my awkward and clumsy antics hadn’t seemed to disturb them too much. They just turned their heads to look at me every so often.

That evening, after returning from the Dance Centre, I joined my husband, Kent, in a walk to an area behind the nest and slightly up the hill, to observe the majestic giants. God, they are awesome. I was careful to move slowly, be quiet and keep a respectful distance away.

On Saturday we had taken Chance down to Mt. Carmel High School for the CIF Track and Field Finals. He’d made it in both the mile and the two mile, but scratched out of the mile in order to focus more on his favored two mile. He’d done the same thing last year. I love watching his long brown hair flowing behind him while he runs. His graceful strides and sheer determination makes this mother proud. He runs with a fire in his heart and shows amazing endurance. My pet name for him is Runs like the Wind, much to his teenage chagrin. But like most seasoned parents, I realize my job does not always make me very popular. The Ramona boys track team placed second for Division Two. It wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for. Last year they won.

On Monday morning I looked through my binoculars and once again saw my two friends. By evening, when I looked again, they were gone! Their nest was now almost non-existent. Had they torn it apart? I felt a dark curtain come down over my happiness. Sadness crept in. I was surprised to be affected this much.

The next morning I heard the calls. Were they still here? I walked further up the canyon with my field glasses, past blooming wildflowers. Yellow clusters of Seep Monkeyflowers blooming in the creek; striking, four-foot-tall, purple Penstemon; and pink Canchalaguas pulled my steps toward the creek bed. I stopped to study the skeleton of an old burned oak tree. There, on a branch, was one of the juveniles: up close and gorgeous. The breeze ruffled his faintly colored feathery bib as he stared right at me. Periodically his eyes would appear to blink as the nictitating membrane swept across his eyes. I heard his sibling calling from the opposite canyon wall. Then this one opened its beak and answered.

I went to get Kent as he finished his morning run so he could enjoy a closer look too. During the day we perused several books about raptors to learn more about them. I had no idea that they were practically full-grown when they left the nest. I noticed my mood lifting now that I knew our Buteo Jamaicensis friends were okay.

Now, this week, several times a day, I’m out there wandering the hillsides with my binoculars. My kids say I’m obsessed. It’s probably true. I’m amazed that I’m able to locate them. One afternoon the young hawks were on opposite sides of the canyon calling back and forth. The previous morning I had been awakened at 5:30 A.M. by one of them in the eucalyptus tree near the house. I was so happy to hear it there. And yes, of course, I went out to look at him. “You’re so beautiful,” I whispered. On Saturday, I watched a parent fly to a tree near the boulder where one of them was perched. The juvenile flew over to join her. Then Mom flew to a nearby power line carrying a mouse in her beak. When the young one came over she fed him the rodent and then took off circling higher and higher. All the while, from the other side of the canyon, the other one called, “Feed me! It’s my turn!” This fellow kept calling back, even though the mouse was still hanging from its beak. I don’t know how he kept from losing it.

I had been concerned that they weren’t eating and was greatly relieved to see that the parents were still helping them out. Just the day before, I had held my breath as one of them attempted to climb a tree next to a craggy rock face before flapping its wings precariously when slipping down the vertical side of the boulder. One evening they both perched on the cross-arm on a power pole and were still there the next morning.

I feel worried, yet excited, as I watch the young hawks’ development and can’t help but compare it to my own son’s. My youngest child is coming of age. He’ll be eighteen this month and heads off to Chico State University in the fall. The fledglings have come a long way, but there’s always the parent’s concern of, “Have they come far enough to be ready to spread their wings and really fly?” I sure hope so.


Chi Varnado’s memoir, A CANYON TRILOGY: Life Before, During and After the Cedar Fire, and her children’s book, The Tale of Broken Tail are available on Amazon.