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.