So fellow travelers, my favorite reality TV program is back on air.
Yes, this is a photo of hawks on their nest. I stopped watching Survivor many seasons ago.
The Cornell Ornithology Lab has a live camera which follows a pair of nesting red tailed hawks every year. Big Red and Ezra have been back at the nesting site for a while and their first egg was laid a few days ago. This means for the next month I will be glued to whatever device I can use to access the feed. (Well, maybe not glued. The high school where I work does have a “no cell phones” rule, so I will be limited to checking on during my breaks.)
I fell into hawk watching purely by being someplace during an extraordinary event by “chance.” I use quotes because I no longer believe any of my experiences in nature happen accidentally. The more time I spend on the trails, the deeper my conviction of every experience I have as an intentional communication meant to Awaken Something. I am not always conscious of what the Something is in the immediate moment, but over time its significance evolves into a key on the map of my life’s journey.
This is particularly true for my development as a birder. I began birding as a side effect of a “chance” experience (I wrote about this in a post last year. ) It will be a few years before I have the liberty of spontaneously dashing off in response to a RBA ( Rare Bird Alert) or am able to follow an incoming spring migration with the devotion many of my fellow birders exhibit. However, when conditions are right, I have been known to come down with a case of “bird flu induced spring fever” and head north (instead of west where the high school I work at is located) to a local birding spot known as Derby Hill.
Derby Hill is located on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, a few miles west of the lake’s southeast “elbow.” Migrating raptors traveling north through New York in the spring come to two of the Great Lakes: Erie and Ontario. Rather than crossing the vast open waters, the raptors travel around the lakes following their food supply: migrating song birds. When the winds blow from the south, the birds’ flight path tends to hug the shoreline passing directly over Derby Hill.
It was one such day with forecast southerly winds and clear skies I decided to head out for a spontaneous adventure. I made a few stops along the way, scouting for potential locations to hit up during the upcoming Birdathon Weekend (a blog post unto itself) arriving at Derby Hill in time to tag along with a group of SUNY’s Environmental and Forestry School students on a field outing. I listened intently to the official Audubon hawk watcher of the season list the highlights of the raptor migration so far. Top of the list so far: two golden eagles which had been spotted earlier that morning. Darn it.
Little did I know what the coming hours had in store.
Meanwhile I recognized several local birding experts setting up their viewing scopes along the fields edge. Derby Hill is a flat topped ridge with the rare distinction of having a clear view in almost all directions. There are numbered markers placed at strategic locations to make bird spotting easier. “Broad wing just left of 4,” “Turkey Vultures between 6 and 7,” spotters call out so people on site can train their binoculars to catch the incoming migrants. All the while the watcher on duty clicks a counter and records species on a clipboard.
It has always amazed me how spotters can tell the species apart.
I have a “raptor profile and silhouette chart” and still, except for turkey vultures, unless the bird flies close overhead I know only that it is a Large Bird. But fellow birders are always gracious in offering tips and giving me a chance to watch through their spotting scopes. With the gentle southerly winds, this day was proving to be a veritable expressway of raptors and other migrants giving me a chance to make some important additions to my seasonal checklist. In fact I has just written “Rough leg hawk!” in my pocket notebook, the exclamation point indicating a new addition to my slowly growing life list when someone called out “Kettle over the Bay.”
Was someone serving tea? I wondered until I saw what everyone was training their binoculars on.
A steady stream of raptors was flowing into a growing spiral of birds circling higher and higher above the small bay just north and east of Derby Hill. “Kettles” form when raptors find a warm updraft which they ride in wide gentle circles to an upper level current. This energy saving method of riding currents helps these large birds travel greater distances during migrations.
I had seen small kettles of a half dozen or so raptors when out hiking. This was no small kettle, growing in fact by the minute into a serious cauldron of large dark birds, showing no signs of abating anytime soon. Any thought I had of it being about time to head home flew out of my head faster than a songbird darting through the undergrowth. The number of birds joining the formation was astounding. I could hear several watchers counting quietly and others had moved their spotting scopes to focus on various areas of the still growing spiral.
Within minutes the kettle had the appearance of a small black vortex. The raptors’ cries and calls could be heard even over the sound of the waves below. Hundreds grew into thousands as the stream picked up pace. Someone’s cell phone pinged ( chirped actually ) and I over heard them explaining what we were seeing. “That was Bill ( one of the RBA admins) He just got a call from the NOAA station wanting to know what was going on over the lake.” Apparently the vortex had grown large enough to show up on the weather radar.
I honestly have no idea how long we stood there. I only know it was as if I had grown roots like one of the trees clinging to the cliffs below. I stood transfixed, watching the vortex grow and then finally begin to dissipate. I found myself silently urging the late fliers to hurry up and make a dash to “get in” on this historic moment. I know the stats were recorded in the Derby Hill record books and reported by our local Audubon chapter, verified (there was no shortage of reliable eye witnesses) and eventually listed with the National Society.
The impact of this experience remains with me. Some deep connection was made, a lost longing awakened.
I watch that huge black vortex and hear the distant cries against a backdrop of waves every time I see a hawk….
Every Single Time.
So when I discovered the Cornell hawk cam it was an obvious must follow for me. In addition to the live cam (which has an infra red setting for nighttime video) Big Red and Ezra file regular reports on Twitter. Avid followers can find out the minute an egg is laid, when the first chick hatches and which baby is the first to fledge. Reality TV does not get any better than this, especially so early in the birding season when returning migrants are still sparse.
It’s my third season watching, although it is actually the fourth season Big Red and Ezra have been on camera.
Hmmm I wonder if the first season is out yet on NetFlix?
The view from the cliff where the vortex occurred.
Postscript Editor’s note: If readers would like to follow Big Red, Ezra and their brood, you can find details at this excellent blog.
Walk gently on the path my friends and may adventure find you ready.