Ferruginous Hawk

Please forgive the image. I shot it with my iPhone through a spotting scope, but it tells the story as well as anything I can write here. It’s winter, and just outside our small home town of Hollister is one of the greatest seasonal concentrations of birds of prey to be found in California.

It happens each winter, when raptors driven to move south find an open valley filled with squirrels and other groceries. A quick trip last Saturday turned up the usual assortment of American Kestrels, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, Golden Eagles and several of the raptors like the one pictured. This is a beautiful Ferruginous Hawk, named for the rusty color it wears on its back (Think “ferrous” and you won’t soon forget it.). Other species are often seen in this area as well, but I’ll leave you to your own discoveries.

Ferruginous Hawks are birds of the open prairie, and many of them seem to find what they’re looking for each winter a few minutes’ east of Hollister and scarcely more than an hour’s drive from the Bay Area.

The greatest concentration of these beautiful birds is to be found in Santa Ana Valley, which hugs the Diablo Range. The area is private hands, but a few quiet public roads — Santa Ana Valley, Quien Sabe and John Smith — allow leisurely exploration. There are quite a few places to safely pull off the road, and the show isn’t limited to birds. Deer are common, and the luckiest among us may spot an elk, coyote or a bobcat as well.

Why bother? If you have to ask, I probably cannot explain. But to see wild animals hunting and living their lives in close proximity ties me to something nameless and primal. It’s a deep, abiding thrill.

Should you care to visit, the operating instructions could not be simpler. Pack water, binoculars and a field guide if you have them, and drive with care. Also, please respect the people who are fortunate enough to call Santa Ana Valley their home by not blocking driveways, stopping in the middle of the road or jumping fences.

And if you see a tall, middle-aged guy doing the same, that’d probably be me. Good birding!