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Like a Cat in the Woods

Monday, March 2, 2020


March 2, 2020, couldn't be any more different than March 2 of 2019. Last year, today was a Sunday, and Wendy and I were hosting the biggest birthday music party we could humanly pull off, for Bill. We all knew it would be the last birthday he'd have, and we wanted it to be the best one. And it was. Beloved musicians drove and flew from all over and that man played as if he were possessed, all day and into the night. He said it had been the best day of his life. Now, Bill was given to hyperbole, but we knew he meant it, and that it was true. And why not? His favorite friends were there, playing his favorite music, and everybody was freely showing their love for him. He was playing like the devil had gotten into him. And, of course, it had.

He was on fire, inside and out, and it was beautiful and sweet and terrible to see. Music was his reason for living, and man, did he live all that day, that wonderful day. I'll never forget what he said later, recalling that day. "I swear, I could go, and if there was gonna be music, I'd rise up and play another twelve hours. It means that much to me."

Today was different. It was quiet and cool and drizzly and there was nobody here but me and Curtis. I was thinking about him off and on, thinking about his birthday tomorrow, wondering how to mark it.

The cardinals pippering, the doves rocketing, the goldfinches careening, the yard exploding. A dark blue bullet swooped in, doing an elaborate loop-de-loop with a bird practically as large as he. Though their forms were no more than blurs, I knew it had to be a tiny male sharp-shin chasing a mourning dove. They climbed higher and higher, and the dove turned over in flight and stooped toward the ground, and the sharpie threw out one foot and snagged it like a cocklebur snags your sleeve. And they both tumbled to the ground, head over tail, and everything went silent. 

I grabbed my binoculars and my big camera and slipped downstairs and out the sliding door. I peeped over a rise and there he was, glorious, mantling over the captive dove. A full adult male sharp-shinned hawk, a damned rare bird any more. Oh joy. He will eat today. Much as I love mourning doves, having been mama to three, I wanted this hawk to eat today.


He wanted to fly away, but he couldn't, because he had to kill the dove first. I took two shots and retreated the way I'd come, head down, showing him I meant no harm, that I'd leave him in peace to finish the job. No photo was worth spooking him off his hard-won meal. The thing to do in this delicate situation is to get out of there.


Once inside, I raced up three flights of stairs to the birdwatching tower. The windows were streaked with rain, and I had to shoot at a terrible angle through two panes and rain too, but it was worth it to leave the little hawk in peace.


It may look like he's just loitering around, but he's squeezing that dove for all he's worth. Killing  takes more time than you'd think.


As soon as the dove was subdued, the little hawk tried to take off with it. And it was clear that this was not going to happen. A mourning dove weighs around 4.2 oz. A sharp-shinned hawk weighs around 5 oz. FIVE OUNCES. How does it cram so much fire and life into five ounces of flesh, bone, feather and nerve? Barely, that's how. Sharpies are all fire, all nerve.


Time and again the hawk tried to move his prey, and succeded only in making a couple of feet of headway. It wasn't clear the dove was dead yet, anyway.


 Ack. Are the doves' eyes open? Yep. Hard to watch, but watch I must.


It was interesting to see the predator suddenly vulnerable, now re-cast as prey. The sharpie desperately wanted to get into cover with its catch, knowing that he could himself fall prey out in the open. All it would take would be a passing Cooper's hawk, and he could lose both the dove and his life.


It was an impasse. I was settling in to watch him take his meal from the tower window, hoping he could pull it off without being attacked himself.


Suddenly, the sharpie took off, leaving the dove behind. What the heck? I followed him with my lens to the lone Virginia pine in the backyard.


There he sat and craned his neck, looking concerned. Instinct swung my lens back to where the dove lay.


And I saw with unbelieving eyes the tawny brown reason the sharpie had spooked.


The cat approached softly, stalking, unsure that the dove was really dead. Cats are careful. Cats are not rash.


And when it bent to take the bird in its jaws, the dove's wings stretched out in a last convulsion, a farewell to everything. Almost tenderly, the bobcat gathered the bird up.


Every cat owner has seen their pet with this look on its face. This is mine. Nobody had better try to take it from me.


The beautiful thief glanced around, the dove that had seemed so huge and unwieldy to its original captor, now but a trifle in its jaws.


Mixed emotions, the order of the day. I was heartbroken to see the sharp-shin robbed of such a fine meal, a meal for days. And I was absolutely thrilled to see a bobcat in my yard once again. I hadn't seen one in the yard since Curtis came on the scene. I was delighted to think that bobcats still stalked the margins, watched the feeder action. (And I had just been wondering this morning where the Norway rat who'd suddenly shown up had gone to.) I marveled that the cat came in, likely having seen me out in the yard just minutes earlier. And yet it did. I marveled at everything. I wondered who had sent these incredible things to me. The show goes on, and somehow I'd been here for it.


It turned, as cats will, on a soft pivot


and solemnly bore the dove away for good.


The cat simply melted into the woods and vanished. I have gone through my many bobcat photos but I can't say I recognize this animal.


It was just a bobcat, on a cool drizzly day in March, a day that was much different than this day one year ago. A day for reflection, for grief, for missing someone so special.


How I wish he were still here to see this, to see us. I still don't understand why he had to leave.


But he has melted away, like a cat in the rain-wet woods.


The sharp-shin bent to pick the feathers off his feet, wiped his bill on the pine branch, and flew off down the orchard.


He made another pass at the feeders just before it got too dark to see, but he didn't catch anything. 





19 comments:

And that's why you live where you live...it's magical! And I believe Bill was there to see it!

“He has melted away.” And you were witness to them both changing essences.

Posted by Libby Moore March 2, 2020 at 6:41 PM

I love this post. Hard as it is for me to see living things become prey, I know it must be.
I have witnessed that death crouch of a raptor holding on to its prey, waiting for it to die. When I was teaching at the local community college, during class one day I realized the students were not paying attention. Yeah, ok, so it's English Comp--they did that a lot. But this was different--they were all looking out the window of our 2nd story classroom.
There under a tree was a raptor calmly holding a squirrel which was squirming frantically. The hawk just sat there, impassive. It looked around, its hear swiveling slowly back and forth. After at least 5 minutes, the hawk took off, lifeless squirrel in claw. I can still see the squirrel's tail hanging down like a flag of defeat.
Dumb me, if I had thought quickly enough--I should have said: OK, now write a couple of paragraphs describing what you just saw.
Thanks for doing a A + job of writing! (Would have love to have you in my class :-) )

Beautiful description of life and death in nature.

I totally gasped out loud! what drama! Just so much yay! then Oh No! then OMG a Bobcat! Wow! i

We seem to be on the Hawk Migration Highway, and we get a lot of different types of Hawks passing through twice a year. We also have feeders, and lots of doves. Or, as the Hawks themselves like to call it: the Kwiki Mart. Certain times of the year, we will find explosions of dove feathers every day in our driveway. Hawk poop will be all over our deck, and under our trees. We try to be philosophical about this. "Birds gotta eat" is one of our sayings. If they have to eat "our" birds, at least it is a numerous species and not the rarer songbirds. So we look away and leave them to their meal. But if it's a house cat, man, then we chase after it, screaming, arms waving wildly, even throwing stones at it. It probably only annoys the cat, but is no doubt great fun for the neighbors to watch.

Posted by mimimanderly March 3, 2020 at 3:47 AM

Wow, what an experience to watch and record! Mystical and magical all in one! Thanks so much for sharing stories of nature happening around you! What a gift!

Grief is hard work Julie. You are grieving well and are in good company.

Wow, what an encounter to see! I was expecting a bobcat!

Sending good thoughts to you.

Another master class in life and death for all of us animals, told as only Julie can tell it.

I saw your presentation in Cincinnati last Thursday. I really felt for you for all you lost. I lost a lot last year. My husband passed away, my daughter shunned me and turned my 3 grandkids against me and I'm having a hard time at work. I finally went to counseling, it was helpful. If you get the opportunity you should try it.

I've read many of your blog posts and one of your books too. Your writing means a lot to me, and is so beautiful. Thank you!

Poor little Sharpie. He truly deserved that dove. But such is nature. Like life itself, some things work out and others go terribly wrong. I remember Bill's last birthday and marveled at how wonderful a send off it was for him. I know how difficult these first anniversaries can be and I'm so glad you have dear Curtis to comfort you. And the wonders of nature in your yard to distract you.

WOW! There is so much to digest in this single post! Thank you for sharing and challenging both my mind and my emotions with such a wonderful array of heartfelt observations.

I so enjoy reading about the animals you share with your readers. It's an entry into a world I would never know otherwise.
Many thanks.
Marcia

A sharp-shinned hawk killed itself by flying into one of our windows a while back. It was the first I have seen, although they are probably around here (NW Georgia) at times. We have never seen bobcats close to our house, probably because of coyotes.

Thanks for the work you do making this blog. We readers are so blessed by your photos and words. We also miss Bill and your words help us in many ways. I am sure many who read your blog have similar feelings. On the other side of this is the wonder of nature you show us. Thanks again Julie. mw

I love where you live. Thank you for sharing this intimate story.

The story of three creatures in a nutshell!! Have you ever wondered about the purpose of the animals? It is always survival. The dove trying hard but couldn’t survive. The hawk who had to abandon his meal because he had to endure. And finally, the cat, who unabashedly steals another’s prey for his survival. Their life is so simple. Thank you, Julie, for the beautiful photoblog!!

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