Climbing the Last Light

| 10/25/2013 9:35:00 AM

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.

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