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A Bird’s Eye View: November 12, 2010

The Lure of the Hawk Watch

From September through early November at the Fire Island Hawk Watch, migrating raptors are counted daily and the data is eventually shared with researchers worldwide. I go once a week, but not just to help spot and identify birds. I go for the excitement, the feast of images and for the moments when the words “this is why I come,” ring silently in my head.

It’s just before 7 a.m. on first Thursday of last October. As my friend Walter and I are driving over the bay span bridge to Fire Island, we see a solid wall of low gray clouds that hang over the island like a theatrical curtain. The wind is out of the northwest, the right wind for a busy day. What’s going to come through today? When we get to the hawk watch platform Steve, a fellow watcher, immediately spots a harrier, a dark raptor with a light belly and telltale white rump nicknamed the “marsh hawk.” It’s a long-tailed, long-winged hawk that looks larger than its eighteen-inches. The day’s off to a flying start!

Somewhat later there’s another harrier that dips, glides, goes down among the scrub, flaps, turns, and drops slightly above bare sand. The bird’s wings are patterned and chunky like the sails of a Spanish galleon. Enchanting. In back of the raptor, the edge of the ocean looks broken and fuzzy where it meets the horizon. Focusing on it is like looking through a long lens on a voyage to the unknown. This is why I come.

At 8 a.m. the temperature is 52 degrees, colder than normal. With the wind blowing at 11 mph, it feels 10 degrees colder. Shortly, there’s an incoming peregrine falcon. Large, dark gray with a light belly it’s one of the fastest birds on the planet.  Someone says, “It’s after something.” That something is a flicker, a colorful woodpecker, going over the dunes. Will the peregrine take it in midair? Will there be an explosion of feathers? Suddenly there are two flickers and no peregrine. What happened? The peregrine, for no obvious reason, broke off the chase.

By 9:30 the sun’s out bringing welcome warmth. The merlin, a small, compact falcon, is our most frequent flier today. One with a dark tail and whitish breast is perching on a pole too far for a good look. A few minutes later the raptor flies. It’s a female and gorgeous. As she passes overhead, her breast and belly are now a dark yellow. She starts circling. Someone calls “Hey lady, the other way,” so we can count her. As the merlin circles in the blue sky, its breast and belly undergo another color change and are now light yellow. The edges of her wings and tail are luminescent with bright sunlight shining over them. It’s a stop-and-look moment. This is why I come.

By late morning the temperature has warmed to a balmy 59 degrees and I’ve replaced my hooded parka with a hooded sweatshirt. Some distance in back of the hawk watch platform a dove is perched high in a bare tree. A merlin coming over the dunes hangs a left and streaks toward the dove. The potential meal takes off. The merlin then hangs a right and goes across the road where another feathered meal may be waiting. Later, on the bay side, come two merlins almost without warning. They are silhouettes with light fronts. For a split second they actually touch. Having fun, guys? One goes on toward the bridge, the other out to the bay. Were they traveling together?

Another merlin lands in a dead tree filled with gray pinecones. Someone comments on its beauty, and indeed it is. The merlin’s back is a dark charcoal gray while its breast and belly are dark yellow with brown striations. Around its neck is a light yellow “necktie” while the side of its light face shows the falcon’s dark, vertical “mutton chop.” A posing merlin is a rare treat here. The raptor turns its head in our direction showing light tan eye bars, then the bird nicknamed “the blue bullet” lowers its head slightly for a second, showing the perfect symmetry of its face and head. With no warning it lifts up, turning right and then down like a fighter jet. In a flash it is gone into the swale, having graced us with its presence. This is why I come.

Too often I find myself looking into thin air while others have identified an incoming speck. But not this time. There’s a black speck over the lighthouse. Passing the lighthouse, the speck gets bigger and bigger until it takes shape. The bird becomes a fast flying silhouette with a large rounded head and shoulder, which tapers into tight tail. It’s a peregrine. Flapping, flapping, gliding, but not for long, then its gone. Yeah, baby! This is why I come.

Another merlin lands on the bare branches of a low pine tree backed by the dunes. Not having seen it land, I look in vain and finally resort to viewing it through someone’s scope. It’s impossibly camouflaged, an insignificant brown shape with a light area that I never would have noticed. But that isn’t what gets me. There are a few solitary strands of grass on the dune in back of it. The sedate scene is familiar to anyone who has often birded beaches. With the day winding down, I don’t care if we see anything more. It’s a tranquil moment from decades ago when a tired and emotionally satisfied little boy who’s been out playing for hours starts home for dinner. What else can I do with the little boy in me? It’s why I come to the Fire Island Hawk Watch.