A late-winter morning, with valley cold gradually succumbing to the sun, finds me entering the gate guarding the path to the Dish. An Anna's hummingbird and a pair of mourning doves induce a pause -- fortunately, because a Cooper's hawk crosses Junipero Serra and begins circling for altitude. Soon I am climbing along a "recreational route" wisely created to restrict damaging off-trail excursions -- but, unfortunately, paved! A flicker yammers across the path, undulating in flight, and I pause to watch a flock of linnets and white- and golden-crowned sparrows work their way through a thicket. The fence around the new reservoir, two-thirds of the way up on the right, is decked out in yellow-rumped warblers, a black phoebe and several wintering bluebirds. Off to the left, in the moist slough below, a California thrasher is singing and scrub jays quarrel noisily.

As I top the hill, the first red-tailed hawk is looking for a thermal as the sun is halfway to noon and the temperature nears 60 degrees. A red-shouldered hawk flushes out of one of the oaks on my left and departs, screaming. In the deep gully past the Dish itself, a pair of white-breasted nuthatches work the limbs of a defoliated oak. Several oak titmice join it, and a Nuttall's woodpecker calls from partway up the next slope.

Toward the crest that overlooks Page Mill Road, I startle a small flock of meadowlarks -- and then encounter a puzzle. In one of the antenna towers to the right, there's a hawk, but I can't figure it out: a lot of barring on the back, looks smaller than a red-tail; maybe a red-shouldered, but it doesn't look quite right. Besides, the damned bird is back-lit and leaves before I can get a really decent look. Never mind; on the next pole is a kestrel, and I know what that is (see above). As I watch, he swoops down to the ground and returns empty-clawed.

By this time, I'm confident that I've counted six different red-tailed hawks, two red-shouldered hawks, the Cooper's hawk and Old Unidentified. Lots of activity at the top of the food chain; it occurs to me that I wouldn't want to be a ground squirrel up here.

The walk to the Dish is an interesting entry into real-world nature. The grasses are European exotics; there are more starlings than native meadowlarks; and the landscape bears signs of human intervention that range from microwave arrays to cattle. It is far from pristine, but the pleasure of being out here, of watching the birds playing their roles even in this partly pastoralized, semi-industrial ecosystem, supplies me with inspiration for the rest of the day. So this morning I am close enough to nature -- as close, in this urbanizing valley, as most people are likely to get.


-- D.K.