Utne Blogs > Environment

Climbing the Last Light

by William H. Funk

Tags: bird watching, Virginai Wildlife, wilderness, environment,

Red-shouldered hawk in flight
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.

First published in the September 2006 issue of Virginia Wildlife magazine.

“I've got a bird coming in just above the ridge," says the Counter, binoculars held tight to her face, and in unison twenty magnified human eyeballs swing northward. From over the flame-colored crest of Afton Mountain in mid-November I see the silhouette of a hawk flapping and coasting across the glaring afternoon sky, slowly, or so it seems at this distance, heading in our direction.

Against the blinding blue the distant hawk is no more than an anonymous winged shadow, still too far off to distinguish features or colors. There are 922 avian species documented as occurring in North America but only fourteen raptors (birds of prey) typically encountered here on the back porch of the Inn at Afton, high above Rockfish Gap in Nelson County, Virginia.

This helps narrow things down a bit, but then comes the hard part. To the uninitiated, soaring hawks can look much the same, but the experts gathered here today have already trimmed the list down to only two possible contenders based simply on style of flight and a vague outline.

Hawkwatching like other forms of birding is largely a process of elimination, a mental stripping away of potentials based on shape, flight pattern, location and time of year until the viewer is left with only a single, or at most a few, possible candidates. It takes hours of field practice to quickly determine a migrating hawk’s identity, but when the recognition is made we become privy to the hawk’s probable life history, because in correctly identifying a particular animal we assign to it a conjectured background based upon what science has revealed about the species in general.

Thus while one hawk's personal history is as unique and varied as one person's from another’s, by learning how a hawk fits into its native ecosystem—its behavior, habitat and geographic range—we read into every observation an arbitrary but likely chronicle that makes each sighting much more than just another bird seen through binoculars.

Our hawk seems to struggle through the air as it advances: flap flap flap … glide … flap flap flap … glide. As it comes nearer, the veteran hawkwatchers note the elongated tail, the relatively short, almost rounded wings, and the "shoulders" pulled up nearly even with the tip of the bill. Even for beginners the bird's laborious flight behavior has already identified it as belonging to the genus Accipiter, one of five genera of diurnal raptor (not including turkey and black vultures, species more closely related to storks than hawks) that are annually funneled through Rockfish Gap on their great autumnal migration.

Accipiters are forest dwellers, hunting birds and small mammals by ambush and a lightning pursuit through branches and brush. The short, broad wings are ideal for sudden changes of direction and brief, powered charges while the long tail acts as a rudder and stabilizer, allowing these hawks to snake through tangled undergrowth with single-minded relentlessness.

As there are only three species of accipiter in occurring in the US, the bird we've been watching can only be a goshawk, Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk. Goshawks are big hawks, nearly the size of redtails, and hunt snowshoe hare, grouse and ptarmigan in the northern forests. They are extremely rare vagrants through Rockfish Gap.

Cooper's hawks are crow-sized bird and squirrel killers, and like the smaller sharp-shinned hawk the adults are slate blue above and peppered with rusty-red scales on a soft white breast; in juvenile birds of both species the breast is marked with thick chocolaty stripes. Cooper’s hawks are fairly common migrants in October and early November.

The jay-sized sharp-shinned hawk looks much like the Cooper's, and only close and learned observation can discern the square-tipped tail and forward-swept shoulders of the sharpie. To further complicate identification accipiters are sexually dimorphous, the male sometimes being a third smaller than the female. Differentiating a male Cooper's from a female sharp-shinned at 2,500 feet can stymie even the most experienced observers, which is why "Unidentified Accipiter" is a valid choice on the Counter's daily tally sheet.

The bird in my lenses has the sharp angular tail of Accipiter striatus, the sharp-shinned hawk, and as I watch it grows larger and larger until suddenly it is among us, skimming less than 50 feet above our heads in its determined race to the south. The crowd gasps and grins as the close range allows us to greedily take in details: straight barred tail alternating blue and black and terminating in a band of brilliant white; creamy breast densely speckled with orange; inky cap hooding bright and unforgiving red eyes. Grim determination is what is primarily evoked as the hawk cocks its head to give his audience an ephemeral glance before rushing by us and forever out of sight.

Birds of prey are not generally known for having much sense of humor … unlike, say, crows, though I have seen red-tailed hawks and ravens playing at aerial tag. But accipiters seem to me the most deadly earnest of all birds of prey, utterly focused on the hunt and so entirely creatures of their marvelous reflexes that any close association, even over the long term, can be dangerous. I once knew a falconer who said that while goshawks, especially juveniles, were sometimes capable of being semi-tamed enough to keep their killing fury turned toward targeted game instead of their handlers, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, caught wild, were ordinarily beyond even rudimentary domestication, their hair-trigger instincts and electric nerve endings posing a constant danger the falconer's hands, face and eyes.

It looks to be a lot of work to be an accipiter. Built for brief, high-speed pursuits between tree trunks and through bushes, the sharp-shinned hawk and its kin appear ill suited to the high-altitude strains of migration. Better adapted are the members of genus Buteo, the long-winged, short-tailed wind masters whose expertise at finding and riding thermals is rivaled only by the eagles. As our sharpie disappears over the hotel roof someone has spotted another bird climbing over the ridge. "Buteo," intones the Counter, having observed the capacious wings spread at full soar as the bird rides the warm air rising over the mountainside in slowly ascending spirals, thick primary feathers rigidly extended like the fingers of a jazz pianist. We begin to mentally tick off the possibilities as the hawk swings nearer.

At the invisible peak of its spiraling tower of air the buteo banks, pulls its wings in slightly and, joined now by a couple of turkey vultures with raw red heads and gleaming ivory bills, commences a long, shallow glide along the mountain's shoulder, high over the clamorous flotsam of I-64, down the chute of Rockfish Gap and toward its assembled admirers.

By now we see the milky white throat and belly, the black-specked cummerbund, the flat brown back and head and, in stray glimpses as the bird pitches and turns, a rust-red tail tilting to maximize every whiff of updraft. A newcomer shouts "Redtail!" as the powerful hawk drifts past, passing at a low angle and honoring us with a brief, indifferent stare.

Red-tailed hawks are archetypal buteos with long, broad wings, stocky tails and an overall impression of stoic strength. As this one silently coasts by above our heads we take in the charcoal borders highlighting its pale wings, the ruddy tail now tightly closed, and the shoulders swung forward in an apparently effortless concentration on the annihilation of distance.

The "redtail" is the most populous buteo species in North America and generally migrates through Rockfish Gap in November, having been preceded weeks before by a tidal flood of broadwing hawks, smaller buteos that often form swirling "kettles" of sometimes hundreds or even thousands of birds, pulsing and spinning around thermal columns in a feathered cyclone. Broadwings are blunt-winged forest buteos, slightly larger than a crow, whose taste is for the cold-blooded: snakes, frogs, toads and insects. They come through in great swarms timed to maximize the last abundance of their warm weather prey, then are whirled off to Latin America in a few short weeks.

Many local redtails stay in Virginia all winter long, but most of the more northerly-based migrants take advantage of the opportunity to leave their summer homes before prey becomes scarce. An adaptable hawk, the redtail feasts on everything from spiders and earthworms to groundhogs and carrion. I’ve seen a single red-tailed hawk chase a dozen vultures, both turkey and black, from the carcass of a freshly butchered deer, and last summer witnessed a redtail struggling to take off with a bucking 5-foot corn snake in its talons.

Redtails are the most common late fall migrant at Rockfish Gap and at first I mistake the two buteos now circling overhead for members of the same species, but the bold banding on the longish tails and the narrow, sweeping wings with the curious opaque half-moons on the outer edges gives the newcomers away as something else entirely: red-shouldered hawks.

The red-shouldered is a swamp hawk, at home in streamside forests and marshlands, hunting snakes and frogs in the summer and small mammals in cooler months. A gorgeous raptor, Buteo lineatus has a black-and-white checkered back with ruddy shoulders and, in adults, a luminous coral breast and belly. Gliding high above, heading toward warmer climes, the two hawks give us a resplendent display during their momentary transit, chests glowing fiercely as they slip over the southwestern hills like twin sunsets.

All eyes being fixed on this spectacle we fail to notice two more sharpies until they're already overhead and then, at eye level and only a few dozen yards out, a burning dart of red, white and blue comes whickering past with sharp wings chopping the air and long pointed tail trailing like a comet's.

It is a male American kestrel, a vibrant foot-long falcon the size of a killdeer and the smallest falcon in North America; like the rest of its kin, it is wasting no time in getting to its destination. While they will use updrafts and thermals when convenient, falcons are not as dependent upon them as are buteos and accipiters, relying primarily on their untiring powered flight to slice through the wind.

There are three species of falcon that may be encountered at Rockfish Gap: the kestrel, the slightly larger merlin, and the celebrated peregrine, globetrotting exemplar of the falcon clan. Kestrels hunt rodents and large insects from trees and power lines, and will also take amphibians and catch small birds and bats on the wing.

The dusky merlin is the bane of migrating shorebirds, exacting a seasonal toll on small-to-medium plovers and sandpipers as they shadow flocks down the coasts like wolves trailing caribou herds. Powerful and deadly efficient hunters, merlins also hunt songbirds and small mammals and will attack human intruders on their nesting territory.

The world-wandering Falco peregrinus, sublime creature of myth and legend, deigns only to feed on medium to large birds it has knocked out of the sky with its dive-bombing attacks, striking ducks, pigeons, even geese and cranes with its oversized feet at speeds of up to and perhaps over 200 miles per hour. The rare occurrence of a peregrine at the hawkwatch, streaking serenely past on scythe-like wings, is an occasion for stunned silence among newcomers and veterans alike.

Our kestrel disappeared as suddenly as it came, and with approaching evening comes a lull in the flow of migrants. Watchers chat about recent sightings while novices query the vets for identification tips and tales of record high-number days.

Raptors are generally big birds and they depend on the lay of the land for long-distance travel. By following one another along ridges and mountainsides where the winds form warm, rising updrafts, hawks are able to save energy and reduce the need for hunting en route to their wintering grounds. In Virginia, at places like Rockfish Gap, Snicker’s Gap, and Harvey’s Knob, the natural contours of mountain chain and valley create topographic bottlenecks where birds from several migratory paths are channeled together as they seek the most obliging wind currents.

At these staging areas, in times mercifully past, restless killers calling themselves "sportsmen" would regularly gather for an afternoon's hawk-shooting, senselessly destroying thousands of migrating raptors at sites like Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, a location now dedicated to the preservation of wild hawks and a premier destination for hawkwatchers worldwide.

Rockfish Gap is hardly of the eminence of places like Hawk Mountain, Cape May Point in New Jersey or Ontario's Point Pelee, unrivaled sites where tens of thousands of hawks can breeze through in a few weeks, but its mountainous geography has made it an excellent destination for hawkwatchers in central Virginia, a fact recognized by the Commonwealth in its inclusion of Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch as part of the Thomas Jefferson Loop (Mountain Phase) of Virginia’s statewide Birding and Wildlife Trail.

At the top of the hour the Counter checks her electronic weather wizard and carefully enters the current wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover and visibility. This information, along with an hourly tally of all hawks observed today, will be entered into the national database of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) and used to extrapolate the overall population status of the fourteen raptor species regularly reported at Rockfish Gap.

I talk with some of the other watchers, who mostly live in Albemarle, Nelson and Augusta Counties.  For dedicated regulars the season from late August to early December is a time to wrap the whole year around, a brief meshing of their own lives with those of some of nature’s most splendid creatures.

The small crowd gathered here this Saturday afternoon is of dissimilar backgrounds but united by a commonly held, largely indefinable, almost atavistic admiration for birds of prey. Insurance salesmen stand shoulder to shoulder with county employees, farmers share pointers with adjunct professors, and the timid novitiate is welcomed to the show by seasoned experts. A common love for these heraldic birds has drawn people from throughout the region to share in a magical moment that could even now be gathering strength behind yonder mountain ridge, some distant atmospheric event hurtling thousands of raptors southward in a strategic withdrawal from onrushing winter.


Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.

The birds' objective beauty and grace, certainly, is a recurrent factor—the elegant edging of chiseled wings against an oceanic sky, closer flashes of color, pattern, form, an overall impression of reserved majesty that trails the sky-crossing hawk like an angel's grace.

But something closer yet to the mute heart of the hawkwatcher drives those most deeply obsessed with this yearly pageant to come, again and again, and stand straining to see something that may not appear today, or tomorrow, or the next day. A kind of personal identification seems to be at hand, a yearning to be one with something as near to earthly transcendence as the human mind can be made to perceive.

The Counter here today, as on most every weekend of the season for the past eleven years, is Brenda Tekin of Charlottesville. Previously unfamiliar with hawks, Brenda had learned of nearby Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch from her local bird club, and she well remembers her first day.

“Call it beginner’s luck,” she says. “Just as I showed up on a sunny September afternoon a stream of hawks rolled in and began to kettle low in the sky, so close that at times I thought I could just reach out and touch them. I was mesmerized at this spectacular sight.  The experienced hawkwatchers told me that the swirling mass of birds I was seeing were broad-winged hawks, a species I never even knew existed before that day. Then a second group flowed in next to the first and the sky was filled! It was at that unforgettable moment that I knew I had succumbed to hawkwatching.”

Since 1999 Brenda has been HMANA Coordinator for Rockfish Gap and is recognized as an authority on hawk identification, the person newcomers approach when making their first tentative guesses. Having been to the bigger hawkwatches I’ve seen some of the jaded regulars display a sort of gentile contempt for beginners, forgetting that they themselves had once been equally ignorant. Brenda and the other pros at Rockfish Gap—John Irvine, Jr., Bill Gallagher, and YuLee Larner (the celebrated “Bird Lady of Staunton”), among others—are unceasingly considerate toward those with even the most mundane questions (“Hey, what’s that big red-necked turkey-like buzzard out there?”).

“To those new to hawkwatching an established hawkwatch can be a great learning resource,” says Brenda. “During those first years at Rockfish Gap I was always appreciative of the more experienced individuals who were so patient in answering my countless questions. I think I speak for a lot of folks at the hawkwatch in saying that once your foot hits the parking lot pavement you’ve arrived at a place where you can leave all your troubles behind.”

The sun is dying in the west. We’ve had a good afternoon—four species of raptor have been encountered, enjoyed, and tabulated. No eagles this time, no harriers, ospreys or goshawks, but we know they’re out there, silently soaring in the fading air of autumn, following the same ridges and valleys their ancestors have traced for untold millennia.

Brenda claims to love raptors for their “wild boldness,” as sound a reason as any. Few can successfully sum up the reasons why they spend each fall pursuing birds they will never hold in the hand, birds usually seen through a considerable distance and the artificial intermediary of binoculars. There must be something exceptional about hawks, something in their controlled savagery and indomitable freedom which calls out to a part of us long buried in the wearying nullity of industrial civilization, something that speaks, perhaps, to our own unconquerable animal selves.

William H. Funk is a conservation writer in the Shenandoah Valley.  Write to him at williamfunk3@verizon.net.

Photo by A. Drauglis, licensed under Creative Commons.