OK, so Andy Williams might say I’m a couple months early. …There’s an air show going on right now in the skies all across America. Ospreys, eagles, harriers and falcons – No, I’m not making a plug for the U.S.’s military arsenal. All throughout the country, the lush greenery of summer is giving way to crimson, gold, and ochre hues. Multi-tone foliage provides the backdrop for countless winged creatures to take to the air on their annual ritual of southward migration. Countless, maybe, to some; but that’s exactly what a growing number of others have adopted as either their obligations or their pastimes: tallying and keeping track of the participants in one of Nature’s grandest spectacles. For as the leaves start falling, feathered fauna of all shapes and sizes take part in this dazzling display of organized movement.
Sure, songbirds passing through one’s backyard on their way south may elicit a pause or a double-take for their bright or unusual plumage; but among the most captivating of those to make this pilgrimage, in my opinion, are the raptors – a fancy name for birds of prey (or any winged critter that subsists entirely on other living creatures). They’re known for soaring high among the clouds as they make their marathon treks; for floating freely on crisp autumn breezes; for slicing through crystal clear blue skies; and for turning lazy circles and figure eights, as they channel Greyhound and “leave the driving” to the wind.
There’s a growing population of Americans, and in fact people worldwide, who when the temperature begins to go down, take that as their cue to look up. A season that begins in late August with shorts and tees wraps up later with blankets and hot chocolates, well into December. Hawk watchers, as they’re known, turn out in flocks of their own for an annual phenomenon: the ‘explosion’ of broad-wing hawks that takes place near the midpoint of each September. Consider that in the weeks running up to this “rush hour”, a few dozen of this little hawk (not much larger than a bluejay) may pass a site on a given day. But give it a few days longer, and it’s as if a floodgate has suddenly been opened. They swarm past like locusts, in “kettles” that often number in the hundreds or thousands of birds.
Hawk watchers almost understand their own language, so to speak, and in that way, succeed in getting closer to Nature. They can identify a species with confidence when the bird is little more than a speck on the horizon. They learn to spot the subtle differences between “Sharpies” and “Coops”. For some of these fanatics, gathering in groups with fellow enthusiasts at designated hawk watch sites strategically positioned along the birds’ flight paths, this activity is gaining in popularity and truly becoming a real spectator sport. Will it someday become as synonymous with autumn as football games and pumpkin pie? One might hope, since it’s one more way that we humans can reminded ourselves that we’re all just part of a grand Creation.
Perhaps Roger Tory Peterson, the renowned birder, was thinking the same thing:
“On any clear cold weekend in October, tens of thousands of men, women and youngsters gaze skyward from the rocky ridges across the land, and from strategic spots along the coast and the Great Lakes. All stare fixedly at black spots in the blue sky; many use expensive binoculars. They are not plane spotters; they are hawk watchers, devotees of an increasingly popular facet of the sport of birding…” (Roger Tory Peterson, Editors note, A Field Guide to Hawks, William S. Clark & Brian K. Wheeler)