Sharp-shinned Hawk

A few days ago, in the late afternoon sunlight, I noticed a bird alight on a branch outside my second-story home office window.  I was preparing for an online class, moved up from the usual 7 p.m. start time by a Maundy Thursday church service.  A glance told me this might be something unusual; something about the coloration and the posture took it out of the realm of an ordinary songbird.

I grabbed the binoculars that always lie at hand, and checked it out.  Sure enough, the posture was upright, the beak was hooked, the breast feathers were in distinct vertical barring.  This was a hawk!  The amazing thing about it, though, was that it was barely bigger than a Blue Jay, that familiar perky, pesky, raucous songbird cousin of crows.  I checked other identifying marks, too.  The feathers on the upper back seemed greyish, and a few had white spots.  The rest of the back was more brown.  The beak was black, the eye yellow, legs yellow, and tail obstructed from view by the shape of the branches.  The bird sat there for several minutes, while I googled bird ID sites.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has the best one by far, a fact I proclaim with an alumnus’ pride.


Immature Sharp-shinned Hawk

And what I found was not simple.  There are two hawks that look like this; the Sharp-shinned Hawk and the Cooper’s Hawk.  The Sharp-shinned is the smallest hawk in North America, while the Cooper’s is just enough larger to be described as “medium.”  To put this in perspective, adult Sharp-shinneds are 9 ½ to 13 ½ inches long, have wingspans of 17 to 22 inches, and weigh all of 3 to 8 oz.  Coopers range from 14 ½ to 15 inches (male) / 16 ½ to 17 inches (female), span 24-35 inches (m) / 30 to 35 inches (f), and weigh 8 to 14 ½ oz (m) / 11 ½ to 24 oz (f).  So a large Sharp-shinned is nearly the size of a small Cooper’s.

Both have red eyes and breasts that are horizontally barred as adults, and both have yellow eyes and vertical bars as immatures (immatures can also be recognized by their inclination to be socially awkward, act silly, and wear makeup badly).  Both species feature songbirds as a major dietary element, so both hang around bird feeders.  (And we thought cats were the primary danger at feeders!)  Both can fly at lightning speed through dense branch coverage, and tend to do so to surprise their victims.  The Cooper’s Hawk is more common, but the Sharp-shinned is present during migration season.

The Cornell site even has a whole section with excellent photographic evidence comparing and contrasting the two.  The Cooper’s has a longer neck and a longer tail; that’s why I regret the obstructed view of the tail I had.  I did not observe the bird in open flight either; after a few minutes he or she just took off on a straight line, and was out of sight in a second.

The evidence that convinced me that I saw an immature Sharp-shinned is its truly diminutive size, its “no-neck” look, and the heaviness of its barring, which is more persistent on the Sharp-shinned.  I’m going to keep my eyes open, though.  Cooper’s Hawks are apparently abundant in suburban areas of this region, and are simply not noticed as often as more brightly colored or flamboyant birds.  Seeing one would give me a chance to verify by comparison and contrast that it was a Sharp-shinned Hawk I saw this time.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016


Crossing the Rubicon

On May 3, 2015, my Cycling Log tells a somber tale.   It was Sunday, a sunny and warm day.  I was out for a ride, heading westward from my home in Vienna to Herndon on the W&OD.  My standard westward ride, about 12 miles out and 12 back.  The first 2 ½ miles take me to Maple Avenue, the main drag in the town of Vienna.  After you cross with the signal there is an old railroad station on the left, a caboose and a small park on the right, complete with a memorial to those who have died in public service, and a chance to stop at Whole Foods or some other local place for a bite to eat.  It’s the spot I think of as the launch into the wider journey, from which you leave the familiar behind.


The Caboose at the park in Vienna on the W&OD.

Except on that date the launch was not to be had.  My body was signaling the control tower that there was a problem.  I felt exhausted, as if every bit of energy had left my body.  Surely, I thought, this is some kind of a temporary sugar low, or passing response to the medications I was taking in connection with my daily radiation treatments for prostate cancer.  Flomax induces dizzy spells sometimes.  So I crossed Maple Avenue and rested on a bench near the memorial fountain.  I watched the typical mixed bag of Sunday cyclists ebb and flow as the light cycled stop-go-stop-go.  Some were serious Spandex-clad riders on carbon fiber bikes, some were weekend warriors with bellies to match, others were families out for recreation, going at the pace of the slowest child.  Occasional joggers, walkers, dog-walkers, and roller bladers joined in.  They were all happy, relaxed, confident.

I was not, but after ten or fifteen minutes I had convinced myself that the weakness had passed.  I started out again.  I was wrong.  After a half mile or so the exhaustion started creeping in again.  I lowered my rate and my objectives.  If I could make it as far as Hunter Mill Road, about 4 miles beyond Vienna, I could stop, rest, and get back home.  Surely that was not too far.

I trundled out as far as Hunter Mill, and was glad to sit on the bench there for quite a while.  Then I got myself back home, stopping once or twice to rest. That was the last time I rode my bike for 2 ½ months.

On July 16th I tried again.  By that time I had been through with radiation for over a month, but still had two more monthly hormone shots to take.  Those shots reduced my testosterone to a very low level, so that my body lacked an essential ingredient to rebuild strength and stamina.  Yet I could make it to Hunter Mill Road without undue exhaustion, and in less time than the 55:59 minutes it had taken me on the fateful May Sunday.  From that point through the Fall, I rode only to Hunter Mill and back, except for a couple of rides during our Old Saybrook visit.  My times slowly dropped, and my stamina and confidence improved slightly.  The route is quite level and routine, just right for recuperation.

Over the winter I rode almost exclusively inside.  My physician suggested that I try resistance training to build up stamina for short periods of concentrated effort.  So every other time I exercised I set the exercise bike’s computer to that resistance setting.  I could feel the added resources of strength.  Then as early spring arrived this month I began riding outside again.  I was incrementally stronger and more confident on the ride to Hunter Mill.

In January of 49 BCE Julius Caesar made a fateful decision.  He was Governor of Gaul [which was divided into three parts], and was bringing his army back into Italy.  The Roman Senate demanded that he disband that army.  By ancient law, the Rubicon River was the demarcation line.  To cross that river with a standing army was considered treason, an attack on the Roman Republic.  But Caesar was very popular, and for what he considered the good of the Republic he crossed the river with his army to confront his political foes.  He was successful, and was proclaimed “dictator for life,” a life his foes brought to an end five years later on the Ides of March.

My decision a week ago was hardly as portentous as Caesar’s, but it was a big step for me.  I crossed Hunter Mill Road, my Rubicon.  Immediately beyond, there is a short but somewhat steep hill.  I made it with an ease that surprised me, thanks to the resistance training.  I went as far as Sunrise Valley Drive, another 2 ¼ miles round trip.  Then yesterday I went on to Sunset Hills Road, another mile round trip.  Still a bit more than 8 miles to go to recover my “old normal,” but I’m on my way.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016

First Ride

Today the harsh wind, the bleak gray skies, the borderline icy temperatures have begun to abate.  Meteorologists have promised, for what such promises are worth, a week of above average temperatures and sunny skies.  A clearing line swept across like the lifting of a grey veil yesterday, and the wind is blowing from the south.

I feel nervous and excited.  I’ve not been out on my bike since last mid-November, turning to the exercise bike in the cellar as an alternative to facing winter cycling.  I disappoint myself, but neither my confidence, nor my energy levels, nor my conditioning have recovered to near their levels last year before my cancer was diagnosed and radiation and hormone treatments began.  Then too, being 76 years old doesn’t help, whether the diminution in strength and resistance is real or imagined.

The indoor/outdoor thermometer reads 61.2˚ at 11:00, but that may be influenced by sun shining on the sensor.  AccuWeather says it’s 57˚.  Close enough for government work; I know what gear works in that temperature range, and though it should get several degrees warmer I’m going to be conservative and go heavier on the clothing: bib shorts, thermal underlayer, lime-green training jacket (handkerchief and iPhone bagged in plastic in the pockets), soft heavier socks, nominal sweatband.

In the garage, rakes and snow shovels cover my cycling shoe stand, omens of the chores of months just past.  They get relegated to the remote corners.  My bike rolls out easily past the new smaller Audi A3.  After being on the wall for three months the tires are at about 2 atmospheres; the pump fills the front one to 6, the rear to 7.  I’m grateful that I lubricated the bike just before I stopped using it. Fresh water in the bottle, computer cleared of that last fall ride’s data, helmet and gloves on, and I’m ready to go.

Rolling downhill toward Jackson Parkway I have that slightly disoriented feeling of relearning the feel and nuances of riding.  I’ve lost the instinctive certainty of melding with the machine.  Up Jackson to the W&OD right-of-way, where I see it’s been cleaned off and the brush has been taken back several feet off the tarmac.   That’s even truer up on the trail itself, where the swath is from 10 to 20 feet wide.  At least they had the sense to do it before all the little nesting creatures became active.


Bridge Abutment near Vienna on W&OD: “JULY 1902”

Workmen are fussing with the new crossing lights at Cedar Lane.  Are those traffic cameras?  Good!  The cleared underbrush and bare limbs reveal new home construction from teardowns on the way to Vienna, and there are two areas where tree-trimmers have blocked half the trail with their trucks.  Can’t they get those monsters off the trail entirely?  At the Community Center the large building project, featuring a “scored earth” approach to tree conservation, has us going between narrow chain-link barriers and across the middle of the now-shut parking lot.

Monitoring my body, I feel strong.  My neck hurts some, though.  I’m not used to this angle, even though my handlebars are set to a more relaxed position.  I move along pretty well in the quartering tailwind.  There are a few walkers and dog-walkers, and just a rider or two.  One passes me west of Vienna, the only one to do so on this 11.3 mile ride.  One more service truck setup to pass.  That’s three in less than four miles.  Sheesh!   Out where Angelico Branch is swampy the spring peepers, and even more the “spring croakers,” are starting to wind up the volume.  Thousands of horny amphibians in cold water.  I feel so good that I’m very tempted to go beyond Hunter Mill Road and try the steep trail hill.  But I won’t.   I need to return into the wind, and I don’t trust my energy reserves.

Good decision, as I start to feel the effort in my back and quads by the time I’m nearing Vienna again.  Going east I have to walk my bike around three huge tree trimming trucks east of Park Avenue.  I do just OK up and over the hill, but by the time I’m back at Academy I have enough left for an out-of-the-saddle sprint to the top of the street.

Not too bad.  And tomorrow it’s supposed to be over 70˚.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2016.