Bernal Neighbors Baffled by Big Bird of Prey


Over the weekend Bernalwood received several reports that a rather large bird of prey  had been seen loitering in several Bernal Heights back yards. It began when this big bird was spotted in the backyard of Neighbor @Mop_Head, who speculated that the creature might be a Peregrine Falcon.

On Sunday, Neighbor Erin spotted a similar bird near College Avenue:

Over on Facebook, there were many theories. Perhaps it’s a juvenile red-tailed hawk? Or a coopers hawk? Or maybe a kestrel?

So what kind of critter is it? To answer that, Bernalwood shared the photos with ace birdwatcher Neighbor John, who theorizes:

A little hard to tell, but I’d say it is a juvenile Coopers Hawk. It’s a bit difficult to tell the size and a super similar looking hawk, though smaller is a Sharp Shinned.

Both are reasonably common around here. It would be great to think that this might be one of the two Red Tails that fledged from the nest on the north side of Bernal a month or two ago, but it’s too small and doesn’t have the right markings. For me the key is the dark stripe on the underside of its neck. Peregrines have a mostly white neck. As Coopers get older they add a rufous color to their necks and shoulders. And, as with all hawks, seeing them in flight is key to identification.

UPDATE: 3 August, 1 pm: Neighbor John and his bird-spotting son Eddie shot this photo this morning on the hill.  John says:

Eddie and I saw a hawk on our walk this morning, both in flight and in the tree above the Gates steps on the south side of the hill (see attached photo), and the young birder is “very clear” that it is a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk:


Neighbor Tamara reports that she spotted this bird on the hill two days ago:


PHOTOS: Top, @MOP_HEAD; below, @ecmesser

15 thoughts on “Bernal Neighbors Baffled by Big Bird of Prey

  1. Sup guys! As a local neighbor, biologist, and veteran hawkwatcher of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, I can say the following with good degree of confidence:

    1) Those are two different birds. Look at the feather pattern on the upper breast, one is pale cream and the other is stripey.

    2) The top one is almost certainly a redtail, probably a juvenile (the underside of the tail has more slate-y banding than russet color at younger ages), and is probably one of the asshole teenage redtails that have fledged from the north side of the hill and wont. stop. screaming. As I mentioned on the facebook page, the raptor migration season for young birds starts soon so hopefully they’ll go find their own place soon and leave their parents (and us) some peace.

    3) As Neighbor John states, the bottom bird is almost certainly an accipiter and probably a Cooper’s Hawk. “Coops,” as they’re called, are very common in urban and suburban areas. Sharp-shinned hawks are smaller and almost identical in color pattern, but they are actually not very common around here unless they are passing through (and, like I said, migration season hasn’t started yet). Based on the brown colors and pale eye, the coop is a juvenile, but I cant tell the gender just from the photo (females are significantly larger).

    For more information on local raptors, definitely visit the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory hawk-watchers on Hawk Hill in Marin this fall. The migration season bird counts start late next month. On most weekends in September and October, docents give talks about raptor biology and often release a wild-caught raptor that was banded as part of the banding operation.

  2. The lower dude (or, more likely, his kin) are frequent guests in our Lower Cortlandia backyard this time of year.

    • On a very windy day this past spring, I had the pleasure of watching a peregrine repeatedly dive bombing the resident red tails over the hill in full stoop. The speed was breathtaking, like a rocket.

  3. I missed the top photo and was responding to the bottom one. We saw a Cooper’s on the hill this morning above the Gates steps.

    Corvidea, my 8 year old son and bird fanatic can’t wait to see the raptor migration this fall. Maybe we will see you at Hawk Hill.

  4. There are several juvenile Coopers & Red Tails about. I’ve heard the Red Tails cheeping pitifully at their parent(s) up on the hill. Sadly, mortality rates are high for juvenile hawks, it’s one thing to watch mom & dad hunt, another to do it yourself, and I think the drought has made prey scarce–except in our backyard, where the mice are plentiful! I wish I could let the hawks know!

  5. The kestrels have disappeared from Bernal Hill. It is a shame, as they were apparently the last breeding pair in the city. I last saw them in the summer of 2013. The theory is that the increased ravens and crows chased them out.

  6. North slope of Bernal Hill has at least one juvenile Redtail. So with the Cooper’s, which I’ve seen in Holly Park, we have at least two in the neighborhood.

  7. We see these hawks behind our house all the time (in the greenbelt strip between lower Benton and Mission in St. Mary’s park). They’re fascinating to watch. The bigger ones hunt rodents then drop them for the juveniles on our neighbor’s roof . Occasionally the crows attempt to steal the prey and the hawks have to defend it. The hawks always win, but eventually give it up to to team crow.
    Always seems to happen on the same roof.

  8. I have noticed them making more noise and flying more since a huge tree was cut down in the last two weeks east of the Stoneman and Bonview cross street. There was a major nest there n the tree, maybe they are our looking to make new home for themselves.

  9. I saw what appears to be this hawk on the very top of Bernal yesterday morning around six thirty. I’m also glad to know someone else saw and heard the two juvenile redtails- they have been begging for food from their parents and I’ve watched them being fed. I usually see them in the pair of Monterey pines along the north side of the hill, just past the entrance. Wild Kingdom! Right here on the Hill!

  10. I miss the kestrels. I’ve been vaguely conscious of not seeing them around for a while but figured I was just out at the wrong time. Sad to learn that they have disappeared from our hill completely.

    The Cooper’s hawk has a very distinct cry, very different from a redtail. I heard it and was looking about for the source and someone told me it was a Cooper’s hawk.

  11. This is really upsetting, but my husband believes he saw this bird dead in a paper safeway bag on bernal hill this morning. He had seen the bird previously while walking up on the hill so felt pretty sure that’s who it was. Anyone know what could have caused the death? We’ve also reported it to Golden Gate Audubon for more info and in case that’s something they track.

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