Barely five minutes after pulling out of the Roy Rogers parking lot in Frederick, Paul A. Napier spotted his first hawk.
It was sitting atop a light pole along Route 15, scanning the ground below. Soon there were more: A stocky red-tailed hawk atop the tallest tree, king of its world. An American kestrel-a delicate falcon the size of a mourning dove-sitting on a telephone wire, its tail wriggling like a cat's before it pounces. A Cooper's hawk hunting along a country road.
Winter is a great season to see hawks and other birds of prey. If it is windy, they catch the currents and soar over fields, backyards and rivers. On calmer days, they perch on anything tall, and their shapes stand out on bare branches. They are not tied to nests at this time of year and range widely.
The Raptor Society of Washington held its annual bird census over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. That is what Paul and Lois Napier were doing in Frederick, counting every raptor they saw from sunrise to dusk in a broad swath of territory to the Pennsylvania line. By noon, they had spotted 20.
He is president of the Raptor Society; she is a wildlife artist whose day job is a t a veterinarian's office. The census is not highly scientific, but they have noticed that some hawks have declined in numbers when open fields are replaced by buildings.
Most birding is best done at sunrise or twilight, when the birds are most active. Not so hawk-spotting. It is a sport for people who like to sleep late. Hawks don't get going until daylight. At night, they are supplanted by owls.
Some hawks are thriving in suburbia. The Cooper's hawk, considered medium-sized at 16 1/2 inches long, has figured out that backyard bird feeders are a good source of nutrition and sometimes nests in back yards. Sharp-shinned hawks also like to hunt around feeders.
Paula McNeil, a Prince George's County park naturalist and Raptor Society vice president, says she has seen a Cooper's hawk hunting in downtown Alexandria and a small red-shouldered hawk in a wetland next to a Wal-Mart in Clinton. Funny shapes on highway exit signs sometimes turn out to be hawks.
Red-tailed hawks often perch on poles or trees near highways, and Napier likens them to "white footballs" because of their large, conspicuous appearance. But red-tails and kestrels prefer open fields, where their superb eyesight zeroes in on quivering mice, voles, rabbits and other prey. They use their sharp talons to puncture and kill their catch.
Hawks flying overhead are harder to identify. But Napier offers some tips: They generally are brown and white. A big bird that is black is probably a crow or a young eagle; a gray bird is a vulture. Hawks have paddle-shaped wings with "fingers" at the end that let them soar and catch the wind. Gulls have thinner wings for gliding.
Starting next month, more birds of prey will arrive in the area as ospreys fly north to settle into nests in and around rivers. Other hawks-the so-called "broad-wings"-won't arrive until the summer from Central and South America. But hawks that are here know that spring is ahead and are pairing up. If you see one, its mate might be nearby.
For more information about hawks, got to www.hawkmoutain.org.