Two Heavyweights

Red-tailed Hawk (Buteo jamaicensis) and Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer) Photos Heather Davison

In the northwest corner of the park, below the hill with the Peace Symbol, a heavyweight of the air and a heavyweight of the ground met in a death match. The big, mature Red-tailed Hawk, probably a female judging by its size, attacked a mature Gopher Snake that was about four feet long. Park visitor Heather Davison was on the spot with her cell phone. She reports:

Like many during the pandemic, I have looked for ways to avid feeling isolated and getting out to walk and hike in the East Bay has become a regular and much enjoyed activity. I am consistently surprised by just how much “wild” there is right outside our doorsteps, so close to our human urban habitat. 

I particularly enjoy walking in the East Bay hills and more increasingly, Cesar Chavez Park at the Berkeley Marina. In addition to the unparalleled views of our beautiful bay, framed by the hills and bridges and the jewel that is the Golden Gate, I have only recently discovered that the peninsula of the park itself is home to a host of animals. I’ve seen jackrabbits and kestrels, heron, egrets, ground squirrels and burrowing owls. Seals, pelicans, cormorants, red-winged blackbirds, coots and schools of leopard sharks. The list goes on – there is always a plethora of activity to observe, and so much to learn in the process. It’s a gift. 

A couple of weeks ago I was taking a solo walk around the park. It was a gorgeous, warm January Bay Area day, and as usual simply being outside and surrounded by the light wind and water was living my spirits. As I rounded the Northwest “corner” of the park peninsula I noticed some movement on the path up the hill to the right. There, about 30 yards or so from the main circumference path was a large raptor engaged in a battle with what looked like a gopher snake, also large, perhaps 4 feet in length. I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed this, and although there were plenty of other folks walking and riding bikes past where I was standing, no one seemed aware of this amazing event. I wanted to make sure not to influence any aspect of this phenomenon, so I stayed back, but was riveted.

It was like a dance. I watched for about 10 minutes as the bird perched on the pavement, seemingly disinterested in the snake which was primarily in the culvert. As soon as the snake made a move for the grass and what might have afforded a little protection, though, the raptor quickly launched itself into the air and dove at the snake, where the two engaged in an “embrace”. The snake was clearly both powerful and heavy, and when the bird was able to lift it off the ground (which it did a few times) it would thrash its body powerfully enough for both parties to come crashing to the ground.

A young man walking a bike approached, presumably to take the path up the hill, but he noticed the snake and bird and stood to watch with me for a few minutes before he left, also not wanting to disturb them. It was a nice moment of community – we both seemed to understand and respect that although we could watch, we needed to leave these two alone in their struggle.

After a few more moments, the bird disengaged with the snake and settled down on the path, at which point he clearly noticed me watching. I decided to leave at that point as I felt my presence was a distraction and take another lap of the park.

When I came back to the scene 15 or so minutes later, both animals were gone. I walked up to the spot where the struggle had occurred, and all that was left was a splotch of red blood, likely that of the snake.

This really was a magnificent event to witness. Truly nature, “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it. Seeing this episode pulled me out of my own bubble and reminded me of just how small we all are. Just more pieces of an incomprehensibly large – and magnificent – puzzle. It’s a comfort. 

Looks like the snake won this time. Lost a little blood but the raptor flew off with empty talons. A smaller snake would not have been so lucky. Compare “Banded Hunter,” October 14 2021.

Heather writes about herself: “Although I grew up on the East Coast, I have lived in and loved Oakland for 33 years. I am a community activist and musician, and am delighted to continue to be able to encounter events like this that feed my curiosity and provoke a sense of wonder. In our backyard.”

Thank you, Heather, for these photos and this great narrative, which expresses feelings that so many of us share.

P.S. Burrowing Owl Update

The First Owl could not be seen yesterday but was back early this morning.

From the perimeter path you could barely make out the top of its head and one eye.

I took the snapshot, left, and a 3-minuite video from the Open Circle Viewpoint; it’s on YouTube, click here.

For help spotting this bird, check this earlier post. The Second Owl remains missing.

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2 thoughts on “Two Heavyweights

  • I love this amazing story. Thanks for sharing, Heather!

  • Heather mentions that she is a community activist and a musician. She doesn’t mention that she is also a writer; however, she is a superb writer as evidenced by this narrative. What a beautiful and dynamic piece of writing! It’s a lovely way to pay homage to the park. Thanks for posting it. And her dramatic photos complement it fittingly.

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