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A Bird’s Eye View: October 16, 2009

Migrating Hawks Ride the Wind

The sun is up a short while, illuminating the dark brown coat of a grazing whitetail deer that turns to look at three humans coming onto Fire Island. Grasses are shimmering in a stiff breeze that will blow all day across this strip of land with a bay on one side and the ocean on the other. I’m with a small group of observers who will be on a platform watching and recording migrating raptors all day.

The wind is both a blessing and a curse. Today it is steadily gusting out of the northwest and flowing southeast, at approximately 15 mph, and should bring a lot of avian traffic. That’s the blessing. The curse is that with fall temperatures in the mid-sixties its going to feel like winter. My friend Walter, having finished donning several layers of clothing, says” you know that you’re dressed for the hawk watch when you can’t move.” For me it means wearing seven layers including a thermal hooded sweatshirt topped by a windbreaker.

Peregrine falcons are 16-inch birds that routinely dive at up to 200 mph and can take prey in mid air. Here they generally can be seen at a distance. One, a gray-blue adult, comes over the dunes taking us by surprise. “We gotta start paying more attention,” someone says jokingly. Another is coming in a half-mile away. I lose it momentarily but true to form it flies along a dune near the ocean before disappearing.

Late in the afternoon a veteran hawk-watcher, who says half jokingly that there are just two types of birds, hawks and hawk food, notes that an approaching peregrine has a full “crop.” That is a bulge below the bird’s throat and above the stomach, where the peregrine temporarily stores food. The raptor has swallowed a meal on the run. As a gull comes close to the raptor, everyone calls out as the peregrine takes a whack at the gull who moves on.

The merlin, once referred to as the “pigeon hawk,” is a 10-inch falcon that is smaller and thinner than the peregrine. Early in the morning, one with the front of its wings billowing out goes after some glistening black crows. Larger foes, they use the advantage of numbers and chase it away. Another merlin coming in over the ocean and across the dunes is flying directly in the path of the morning sunlight, which bathes it in a delicate gold hue. However, once out of that sunlight, it appears to turn into a silhouette. They keep coming on a carpet of wind, at times seeming to materialize out of nowhere. Before I know it one is in the space that a peregrine just left and drops like stone below the dunes. Their speed and diving ability is eye-opening to me.

Suddenly the windsock, next to which I’m standing, screeches from a gust. The sound, like abruptly rising music in a movie, makes me realize that until this moment I’ve only admired the fast-flapping merlins. Now I’m taken by them. They’re moderate sized, fast, and their long dives are captivating. They don’t have the peregrine’s size or its mystique and in comparison can be underappreciated. They’re by far the most numerous raptors that we see today. Temporarily this is merlin country and I’ve become a fan of theirs.

There’s a commotion from our group, which has now grown to ten. “He’s goin’ after ‘em,” someone yells. It is another merlin, this one chasing a flicker, which is a colorful woodpecker. The chase is over the dunes and along the ocean’s edge. If the merlin is looking for a meal, the flicker probably has too much of a lead to be chased down. Merlins, however, don’t go hungry. Later in the afternoon there’s an ominous-looking black raptor in silhouette flying by the platform. It’s a rather odd-looking merlin. The bird appears to have its head turned down while its legs are bent upwards. Hawk-eyed Ken calls out ”merlin eating.” Looking closely I think I can see that the bird is holding something. Another meal on the run.

The raptors aren’t the only ones grabbing something to eat. While I’m having a sandwich someone yells “merlin.” It is coming, coming, coming closer. The falcon’s back and wings are a light gray and its breast and belly appear to have a pale golden hue. When one comes rising up from the dunes I see a white band on its tail. Steve, a superb birder, tells me that this one is an immature merlin noting that on them the band is slightly whiter than on adults. Two merlins coming toward us are going at each other, perhaps playing. A third one, which was in the scrub near the platform, rises up like a rocket. And so it goes.

Late in the afternoon a merlin stops in a tall bare tree a hundred yards from the hawk-watching platform. Now at last I can get binoculars on a perching merlin. Sure. The bird is partly hidden by the tree’s branches. Below is a walkway and some people oblivious to the merlin are approaching. The raptor wants no part of them and flies. Although I’m disappointed I realize that this bird wasn’t going to pose and today I’ve come to appreciate it in flight. The merlins have made my day.

Some nine hours after we arrived we’re getting ready to leave, when a lone monarch butterfly flutters over the platform. Its color is rich, its flight easy. Pleasantly tired, I remember that Muhammad Ali once said, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Floating on an emotional high I think I get the float part. Watching migrating hawks ride the wind gives you a different perspective.