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A Bird’s Eye View: November 13, 2009

Slow Days at Fire Island’s Hawk Watch

During the fall migration season, observers stand on a hawk watch platform at Fire Island each day, September through the first week in November, counting and identifying raptors coming through on their annual flight south. Migrating raptors don’t always come through fast and furiously. On three consecutive Thursdays, starting with the last one in August, there were zero, eight and six migrating raptors, respectively. However, on those days, local birds, deer and Mother Nature offered moments of drama, beauty and mystery.

Peregrines Hunting

At 6:45 a.m. the sky over Robert Moses State Park is gray. My sharp-eyed friend Walter, who is driving, stops the car as we are going around the tall needle-like water tower. He’s spotted a peregrine falcon, flying at a steep angle heading for a bird, which is trying to reach safety at the rear of one of the tower’s steps. The peregrine, which routinely dives at 200 mph and takes birds in midair, can bring sudden death. Not having a clear shot at its prey the peregrine flies upward but not away. With its pointed wings slightly bent it comes back at a different angle. The peregrine may be trying to get the prey, bird to fly, which could make taking it a piece of candy. But the hunted bird, hugging the rear of the step, moves with desperate speed. The peregrine again climbs and again the little bird momentarily escapes death. Now a second peregrine comes around the other side of the brick water tower. The peregrines circle down then rise up like a two-horse carousel. The pair may be trying to work in tandem where one will flush the prey bird causing it to fly and the other would take it. However nothing works for them and the hunt’s soon over. The pair is at the top of the tower by the railing. We see one’s black head, dark gray back and speckled breast as it looks around with an unhindered view of the ocean. Oddly in the stillness of early morning, with the action over, the excitement still lingers.

Disappearing Deer

At 9:35 a.m. on a sandy path, rounding a curve, I come face to face with a resident doe. Its high and lean legs are a surprise. The deer turns and walks nonchalantly along briefly stopping and showing the white of its rump, which is longer and more finely drawn than I realized. She goes into the grasses, which initially didn’t appear high enough to envelop her. Then there is only movement in the grass and a large brown eye momentarily appears. She comes into the open briefly, not far from the hawk-watching platform before disappearing into the grasses.

Minutes later, at the platform, a buck comes out of the grasses where the doe has been. It has velvet antlers, one of which is significantly shorter than the other. What happened fella? Lithe and brown, it walks silently around a sandy area sniffing the grass. Moving with agility and ease he disappears into the grasses reminding me of the film Field of Dreams. In it the ghosts of old-time baseball players disappear into an Iowa cornfield that rims the field on which they play, after their game’s over. In seconds however the buck comes out sniffing the ground and disappears into the low pine trees. Is he looking for the doe?

Wind and Clouds

When I get to the hawk-watch platform at 7:40 a.m., Ken has been there about 40 minutes and has seen one raptor come through. The wind, blowing at 15 mph out of the northeast isn’t the kind that drives mid-60s and combined with the wind, requires multiple layers of clothes. That there are few raptors hardly means that there’s nothing to watch. Wind and clouds are part of Mother Nature’s stage setting and are a show unto themselves. There’s a high layer of clouds in the direction of the lighthouse that seemingly aren’t moving. Much lower are massive clouds quickly coming our way. One directly overhead gives me the sensation of being an insignificant speck beneath its gaseous majesty. Another quickly takes its place blocking the sun except at its edges. On the ocean side, a splay-winged crow fighting the wind sticks out its legs and lands atop a waving pine tree. As the crow settles down, in back of it a wild whitecap crashes creating dramatic imagery.

A little later there is a highflying flock of 35 cormorants traveling in a horizontal V formation, one side of which is significantly shorter than the other. In back of the platform there’s a half-moon in the sky. Gray and barren it oddly looks cold. A minute later the moon is hidden under a carpet of clouds. A light bellied merlin has gotten behind us trying to go west but veers sideward in the breeze, which has now increased to 17 mph. The wind has also changed direction, now coming from the east. On the ocean side, there’s a brow-furrowing puzzle. Clouds are simultaneously moving in two different directions. A high layer of puffy ones is traveling east to west, the direction the wind is blowing. Below them is a layer of thinner ones traveling west to east, which is the wrong direction! Not interested in the scientific reason I stare at the clouds’ lofty mystery with child-like wonder.

In the parking lot, having a bite before leaving, I look up to feel the warm sun on my face and see tall grasses waving in a blue sky with pebbly clouds. So soothing. Even when the hawk traffic is light, moments like these are their own reward.