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A Bird's Eye View: October 31, 2013

Fire Island’s Frequent Fliers

It is morning at the Fire Island Hawk Watch, where, in September and October, hawk watchers stand on a platform counting southward bound migrating raptors. Identifying flying raptors means quickly identifying the bird’s profile. This is different from having time to identify a perching bird whose color and feather patterns can be easily seen. With a good northwest wind as a magic carpet, the birds have been burning through all morning. Names like merlin, kestrel and osprey are being tallied. A day like this “juices” birders.                                                  

A Hungry Flier

Around 10:30 a.m. the wind lessens significantly. Jackets and hooded sweatshirts come off. A flicker comes through, just escaping being taken by a merlin, perhaps the most frequent flier seen here. The flicker is a colorful yellow and white woodpecker that eats mainly ants on the ground. Even though it’s larger than the merlin, it is potential “hawk food” for migrating birds of prey. The merlin is a small, stocky falcon with short, broad wings that resemble an old-fashioned paper airplane whose main food is small birds. As the flicker disappears into the swale below, the merlin doesn’t break off to chase it. There will be more. It’s a long way to South America.

Nicknamed “the blue bullet,” for its speed, another merlin comes through holding a dragonfly. While the latter are aerial predators of insects, now they are flying energy bars for merlins who take them in midair. This bird’s dark color, speed and athleticism creates a mystique.

Ospreys and Others

The wind picks up and sweatshirts go back on. A number of migrating tree swallow come by. These 5.75-inch birds have been coming through all morning. How fast do these little birds burn through the sky? I can’t offer a stopwatch time but one comes over the platform and my head. By the time I turn around it’s at least 100 feet past me, flying fast.

An osprey comes by the bay, head down looking for fish below. The osprey’s large size at 23-inches and long wing span give it a distinctive look. It is often seen circling above the bay searching for fish. It will let down its legs like a plane’s landing gear and dive taking the fish in its talons.

By now it’s cloudy and a sharp-eyed watcher yells, “Fox crossing the road!” A large loping, red fox crosses an empty dirt road in front of the platform and goes into the scrub on the other side. A minute later people are walking past in both directions unaware of what they’ve just missed. Meanwhile the red fox, mainly hidden in the grass, lopes along like a swimming otter, rising, falling and finally disappearing. I look over to where the grass and the trees end to see if the stealthy fox comes out there, but it doesn’t. The fox has out foxed us all.

Kestrels, Like Crazy

The wind is also driving our smallest falcon, the kestrel, who we don’t see here as often as the merlin and the osprey. Nicknamed the “sparrow hawk,” the kestrel hunts small mammals and insects from perches or by hovering. The kestrel can seem literally to be suspended in midair and then drop straight down. It makes a shrill “killy, killy, killy” sound. When they are on a perch, especially the male, the bird’s rufous and gray coloring, along with its striking head pattern, make it a smart looking bird. There’s also something about its small size, 9-inches, and it being a bird of prey, which makes the kestrel intriguing.

Now kestrels are burning through the sky on their way to the southern US and Mexico. Not used to seeing them here, I’m having trouble. I miss the first one that is called out because a merlin, is coming with it. There’s one sky high, a speck, against a background of clouds. A light colored kestrel comes over a pole, rising and rising, offering a nice view and a hint of its beauty. Two more come over the vegetation. I see some black circles near its head as the elusive little falcon reveals something of its feather pattern. They keep coming and one burns over the trees and sand on the beach side, then is gone. Another perches atop a pole but not for long. There are more kestrels today than I’ve ever seen here before. Finally flying past the platform a male kestrel turns its body toward us momentarily showing its rust and gray pattern. Someone comments on its beauty. Atta boy!

In the parking lot there’s a scent of candles. The scent remains in the air for a long time while I’m driving home. I can’t identify it. Then it occurs to me. Maybe it’s the scent of migrating raptors burning through the September sky.