My Day as a Hawk Watcher

The raptors journey is long and they must catch a free ride if they are to migrate successfully. Without wind, raptor migration slows to a halt.

| Summer 2018

  • The raptors rely on the wind to provide lift.
    Photo by Getty Images/Supercaliphotolistic

I wake at 4:30 A. M. naturally, without a clock. I am still alive; life is short; time to get up and live. I read, write, or study at this time every day. Today, I am reviewing my notes on raptors. This early morning plunge into the fine details of hawk plumage, shape, and behavior primes my mind for the upcoming day. I am counting hawks today and I need to get into the zone.

I pack and eat, and I am on the road by 6:30 a.m. for the hour’s drive to the hawk site, the Cumberland Gap Hawk Watch in western Maryland. I begin counting at 8 a.m., and the trek up to the site takes 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how much I allow myself to sweat. On cold days, I hike slowly up the mountain wearing only a layer or two, taking breaks along the way, controlling my temperature. Today is cold, about 32 degrees, so I am prepared with extra gear, which I am carrying instead of wearing. I am beginning to sweat, so I slow down despite my desire to push on. My shoulders would like the journey to end sooner rather than later. I am carrying the spotting scope, the tripod for the scope, a camera with a heavy 300-mm lens, and my coat, which is filled to capacity with gloves, hats, a facemask, and an extra shirt or two stuffed into the sleeves. My backpack is bulging at the seams, packed methodically to utilize every available space. Today, like most days, I am alone. Only the wind, the cold wind, will provide companionship.

The wind is both my friend and my foe. The raptors rely on the wind to provide lift. Their journey is long and they must catch a free ride if they are to migrate successfully. Without wind, raptor migration slows to a halt. For this reason, I welcome the wind. The trade-off is that the wind steals my heat. As I arrive at my post — a jutting rock called Lovers Leap — the wind is absent, and I feel too warm. My steaming body attempts to dry in the cold, still air. As the water vaporizes, it takes my heat, which for now feels refreshing. I scan the sky — nothing flying yet. Mornings are often slow, but occasionally you catch the raptors as they are starting their day. These birds tend to be low, offering the closest views of the day. I unpack my daily log, check the weather on my mobile device, and record environmental data, including temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, cloud cover, and atmospheric pressure. I will do this every hour.

Looking up, I see the tail end of a bird streaking across the sky. It is red. In the time I was writing, the first bird of the day was passing and I nearly missed it. This is the problem with counting alone; birds pass even when you’re not looking. I look intently at the sky, knowing that inattention will result in not counting a migrating bird. For the next seven hours, I will look at the sky, a prospect that some find absurd. As a young man, I not only would have agreed about the absurdity, but would have said it was impossible. Having had what would now be called attention deficit disorder, the prospect of focusing, standing, or doing the same thing for eight hours straight would have been preposterous. However, as a man grows, his abilities change. Being able to focus on the sky and the birds is Zen-like, which I liken to becoming aware of our place in the universe. For the next hour, I am intently aware. No birds, however, for this concerted effort.

Abruptly, around 10 a.m., the wind starts to blow from the south. The gentle cool breeze removes the insulating air that has enveloped me up to this point. I begin the process of putting on additional layers. Within the next hour, I will have put on another shirt, my outer pant layer, my coat, my facemask, my brimmed hat, and my gloves. I will also put up my hood on my coat to block as much of the wind as possible.

Several birds stream through: Three sharp-shinned hawks and two more red-tailed hawks pass before an adult bald eagle appears in the sky. These majestic eagles are a sight that always generates excitement.

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