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Wednesday, 04 September 2013 15:32

Owning the autumn sky

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out natcornThe loud, piercing keee-eeeeerrrr jerks your head up involuntarily to see the essence of wild freedom — a red-tailed hawk, wings outstretched banking slowly in the blue. It stops you, if only for a second or two, it stops you.

 

If you are close enough to get a good look with naked eye or, more likely, through binoculars or spotting scope at the eyes of the perched adult Cooper’s hawk — the limpid reddish-orange pool reflects the universe with a clarity that stops you. If only for a second or two, it stops you. 

And it stops you, should you be fortunate enough to see a peregrine projectile, wings folded falling at 200 m.p.h., exploding midair into its unsuspecting prey or a sharp-shinned outrace and capture a flicker trying to escape through the woods.

Hawks are more than Merriam Webster’s “… any of numerous diurnal birds of prey belonging to a suborder (Falcones of the order Falconiformes) and including all the smaller members of this group …” Maybe more akin to Ba — the Egyptian spirit that flies from the tomb to live forever.

Or from Thoreau, “The hawk is aerial brother of the wave which he sails over and surveys, those his perfect air-inflated wings answering to the elemental unfledged pinions of the sea.”

Hawks have always had a special place in the human psyche. It’s the place that connects us to our most primordial essence, the place that connects us to nature. Hawks are symbolic of clarity, awareness, strength and spiritual rejuvenation. 

And everyone stops to watch when the hawk comes, as described in the poem by Robert Penn Warren: 

 

From plane of light to plane, wings dipping through

Geometries and orchids that the sunset builds,

Out of the peak’s black angularity of shadow, riding

The last tumultuous avalanche of

Light above pines and the guttural gorge,

The hawk comes.

 

And come they will, by the thousands. Two streams of raptors flow southward across North America each fall. They are composed primarily of Swainson’s hawks in the West and broad-winged hawks in the East. Others, like eagles, falcons, kites and vultures join in, sometimes only for a few hundred miles as the Swainsons and broad-wings continue on their Neotropical journey.

The thing that makes hawk migration unique is the fact that it’s diurnal. Hawks seek out thermals (currents of rising warm air) to lift them up like a boiling kettle till they spill out the top and set their wings and glide south looking for the next thermal or perhaps and updraft created when prevailing winds bump into a mountain range.

And because these birds have been following basically the same routes for millennia, watchers know just where to go to get a look. Places like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania draw thousands of watchers to see tens of thousands of hawks. Some area hawk watches include Grandfather Mountain, Mahogany Rock, Mount Pisgah and, probably the most notable hawk watch in the region, Caesars Head State Park in South Carolina just below the North Carolina border along U.S. 276.

These migrant streams pick up sojourners along the way. The eastern stream eschews the Gulf of Mexico and turns westward, passing over Corpus Christi, Texas, a million strong. There is a confluence of the two streams of migrants in south Texas and Mexico creating a “river of raptors” that moves through Veracruz, Mexico, and down to the Isthmus of Panama. This river comprises nearly the entire world population of Swainson’s hawks, broad-winged hawks and Mississippi kites. These birds are joined by at least a dozen other species and viewers are often treated to more than a million migrants in a single day.

To find a hawk count near you, go to hawkcount.org. And no matter where you are this September and/or October, remember to look up. While it’s true these migrants have established routes a front or some other weather pattern can always jostle them a few miles off course. I remember one October years back when I was headed to Cherokee and around Uncle Bill’s Flea Market caught a glimpse of a swallow-tailed kite (unusual for this neck of the woods). I stopped the car and scanned the skies and found a mixed flock of a couple of hundred migrating Mississippi and swallow-tailed kites.  

(Don Hendershot is a writer and naturalist. He can be reached a This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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