A Focused Killer

Wildlife was not especially abundant or conspicuous at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area, in central Missouri, on this hazy, late summer morning.  A few horned larks foraged along the entry road where a small flock of red-headed woodpeckers moved among the adjacent trees.  Within the refuge itself, great blue herons patiently stalked the pools, clouds of red-winged blackbirds roamed the grasslands, aquatic turtles basked on the remnants of drowned trees and a lone bald eagle surveyed the floodplain from the top of a cottonwood.

Then, as I rounded a bend, I spotted two raptors on the ground, apparently battling over something in the road.  As I pulled over and grabbed my binoculars, the smaller combatant, a sharp-shinned hawk, gave up and flew from the scene.  The larger one, a Cooper's hawk, remained on the road, hunching his back and spreading his wings to hide the prey and assert his dominance.  As I inched closer in my pickup, he began to yank feathers from the victim, a red-winged blackbird, before tearing into its carcass.  Determined to retain his prize, he seemed oblivious to my slow approach and did not fly off (with the meal in his talons) until I was within ten feet of the killing ground.

Those of us who regularly visit nature preserves know that the diversity and abundance of observable wildlife varies tremendously, often having little relationship to the weather conditions or the time of day.  Yet, we almost always experience some unexpected sighting that makes the visit especially memorable.  This morning, a determined and focused raptor provided that memory.