This is the time of year when Tehachapi residents are most likely to see Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper's Hawks as they dart through the air seeking to grab smaller birds.
These full-throttle birds are called accipiters, and they primarily feed upon other birds, often catching them on the wing. They are similar in appearance and known for their quick, fearless flight in pursuit of prey.
Sharpies, as they're known to birders, are the smallest hawks in North America — kestrels and even merlins are typically smaller, but both of them are actually falcons, not hawks. Cooper's are slightly larger, and to make it even more confusing, the females of both species are about one-third larger than the males. So unless one of these is similar-looking raptors is especially small (probably a male Sharp-shinned) or especially large (probably a female Cooper's) I always consider my identification of these two birds of prey as "tentative."
Years ago, a friend and I once spent four hours in the loft of the Kmart store in Tehachapi, attempting to remove the most agile raptor in Tehachapi from one of the largest buildings in the valley.
The bird was an immature Sharpie, or possibly a Cooper's, who had flown in through an open delivery bay on the west side of the store in pursuit of a house sparrow. That was on Thursday. We were called in on Sunday.
The acrobatic hawk had caught and dined on the sparrow, but then was unable to find its way back out. It is not uncommon for some birds to experience difficulty escaping from a confined area when the exit is lower than the ceiling. They simply refuse to fly downward and out, especially if there are lights or skylights; they keep to the upper levels in a futile search for an escape.
Despite the efforts of Kmart employees, who left the delivery doors open when possible and even chummed sparrows and blackbirds with birdseed placed in the doorway to entice the bird out, the young Sharpie flew back and forth near the 25-foot ceiling in the warehouse portion of the store.
On Saturday, the Tehachapi Mountains Birding Club was contacted and expert birders Clark and Jean Moore arrived to see what they could do. They knew from past experience that the hawk was unlikely to fly out on its own and would have to be caught and removed.
However, netting a bird that can fly as adeptly as an accipiter in a warehouse with ceilings almost three stories high was bound to be difficult. The metal trusses that support the roof consist of two pieces of angle iron, one piece attached to the roof and the other about two feet below it. Connecting the two are both vertical and diagonal struts that run the width of the building. There are literally thousands of them.
The two-foot gap provided plenty of space for the hawk to fly back and forth without even dropping below the trusses. It would occasionally dip down into the more open space on long flights to the opposite end of the warehouse, but then would dart back up into the rafters to perch. Added to the labyrinthine support structure itself were fluorescent lights, electrical conduit tubing, and the sprinkler system for fire protection.
Clearly, the bird had the upper hand.
Clark and Jean had even managed to net it a few times, but the bird bounced out before the net could be closed. After three hours of trying to catch the bird on Saturday, the Moores decided to let it rest.
I went to the store on Sunday with my friend Brett Lambert, and decided that we needed to confine the bird to the loft area of the building, where the roof was a more manageable nine feet above the floor.
Once we had driven the bird into the loft area, we attached two giant tarps from the roof down to the floor, considerably narrowing the space available to the hawk.
To reduce escape routes even further, we used 12 lightweight painting drop cloths and 400 clothespins to make another curtain across the loft. Now the bird had only three aisles to maneuver. Getting to this point was not a quick process, however: twice the hawk had dashed through tiny gaps in our defenses and regained the freedom of the open warehouse.
Finally we got it back into the plastic enclosure we had created, and the nets we each wielded closed together like a clamshell and caught the elusive bird, who glared at us unrepentantly from inside Brett's salmon net.
We carried the bird outside and examined it carefully. The ends of its primaries and tail feathers were disheveled and badly needed preening, but amazingly after four days of traversing the maze inside the store, not a feather was broken.
We released the raptor in a field near the store and instead of fleeing as far away as it could, it nonchalantly flew up into the center of a nearby pine tree. It looked like it was already eyeing some foraging sparrows.
And that's the story of the hawk who went shopping at Kmart.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.