Email givant @adelphi.edu
Most of the time they were black specks that couldn't be seen without binoculars or a birding telescope. However, after spending nine hours on a hawk-watching platform on Fire Island this past September on a cloudy day with wind gusting at 15 mph and the temperature in the '60s, I was genuinely looking forward to going again. I accompanied Walter, a friend, who does this hawk watch every Thursday during September and October, along with two other serious birders, Ken and Steve.
As we drove onto Fire Island just before 7 a.m. with the sun trying to break through gray clouds, two common loons were flying over the dunes. A whitetail deer, looking like a larger-than-life painting, stood with legs outstretched and watched us for a few seconds before disappearing into some trees. Once up on the platform, a family of five deer grazing below looked up at us. The two adults and a juvenile were a dusky brown while two fawns were a rich tan. They looked lean, lithe and curiously fragile as they grazed, ambled over to some trees and quietly disappeared.
The wind, which whistled in my ears much of the day, was from the east. Migrating raptors don't find an east wind conducive to their southern journey. However a northeast wind last Thursday had brought 500 migrants. Today figured to be quiet. Watching migrating hawks is hardly the same as looking at them perched nearby on a tree branch. What you see through binoculars is a speeding black silhouette often a few hundred yards away, sometimes more. The birds can be engagingly beautiful but offer only seconds to identify.
Our first bird is a big osprey lazily flapping its wings over the choppy ocean. It's quickly gone and entered into the tally sheet by Steve, a meticulous recorder. As a first-time hawk watcher, I soon was excited to see the round head and tight tail of a peregrine falcon that dives routinely at 200 mph, cruising in slow circles over the Atlantic. No dives today, but this bird, because of its speed, has a mystique that makes it exciting just to see. Later a smaller raptor, a kestrel, comes in low and fast over the dunes near the Great South Bay. In less than a minute, three dozen starlings that have been feeding and don't want to be fed upon, scatter in the air in a defensive ball shape.
"Whoa, whoa, look here" someone says. A fast, fast flapping raptor comes in on the parking lot side. It is a black silhouette with sharply pointed wings. The bird turns and comes back again. Is it carrying something? No. It's a merlin, the first of 15 that we'll see today. My three hawk-eyed, expert companions call out where the raptors are and identify them while I listen to their descriptions explaining why a raptor is a merlin or a kestrel or something else. They are very good teachers.
Ken soon makes a comment, which becomes a road map for me. Kestrels, the smallest of the falcons, flap hard because their size often makes them struggle with the wind. Merlins, slightly larger and chunkier raptors come in low and fast, flapping hard but not struggling. The peregrines ride on the wind. Control is their signature. While this is basically the case it wasn't a hard and fast rule, he added. Something about what he said combined with what I'd seen so far rang true with the old college professor in me. It was a guide to watching the hawks that I would use all day.
Some raptors come in low and hard and I guess "merlin" as Ken, Walter or Steve identifies them. When someone calls out "a peregrine" I look up and look twice. The bent, pointed wings of the falcon billow out, like a sail as it makes tight slow circles. This detail isn't shown in any field guide I've looked at. Later I watch another merlin flying on a straight line toward the ocean. As the raptor comes back I notice that the front edge of its wings aren't as curved as those of the peregrine. The day is becoming a hawk-watch master class.
Later in the afternoon Walter spots a second peregrine circling near one that we were already watching. It is a rare sight he says as we watch the two do semi-fast circles as they fly steadily toward the causeway. They are black silhouettes, one closer and looking larger, the other further away and looking smaller. Soon, they are out of sight. Afterward I wonder if both were circling in the same direction or divergent ones. Steve, whose knowledge is wide and deep, remembered they were both circling counter clockwise. I'm impressed.
A little later around 3 o'clock we watch a higher-flying peregrine. Looking at its round head and tight tail I see that it flaps hard then glides and repeats the cycle several times. I smile, Ken is right; there are variations. A little while later I watch another merlin cross the thin lines of dark clouds that stood out against the palest shade of salmon coloring from the hidden sun. Nature is an exquisite artist.
As we are leaving, the same family of deer is grazing by the roadside and watches us pass. Next time I'm bringing warmer clothes. While it was fall today, the conditions felt like winter. If Walter hadn't brought an extra jacket for me, I never would have lasted. Watching silhouettes is a different kind of birding than I'm used to and is both a challenge and an adventure. The group has real camaraderie, which I enjoy. Besides, the wind may be out of the northwest next time and perhaps a few hundred raptors will come through. You can't ask for more.