I wake at 4:30 A. M. naturally, without a clock. I am still alive; life is short; time to get up and live. I read, write, or study at this time every day. Today, I am reviewing my notes on raptors. This early morning plunge into the fine details of hawk plumage, shape, and behavior primes my mind for the upcoming day. I am counting hawks today and I need to get into the zone.
I pack and eat, and I am on the road by 6:30 a.m. for the hour’s drive to the hawk site, the Cumberland Gap Hawk Watch in western Maryland. I begin counting at 8 a.m., and the trek up to the site takes 15 to 30 minutes, depending on how much I allow myself to sweat. On cold days, I hike slowly up the mountain wearing only a layer or two, taking breaks along the way, controlling my temperature. Today is cold, about 32 degrees, so I am prepared with extra gear, which I am carrying instead of wearing. I am beginning to sweat, so I slow down despite my desire to push on. My shoulders would like the journey to end sooner rather than later. I am carrying the spotting scope, the tripod for the scope, a camera with a heavy 300-mm lens, and my coat, which is filled to capacity with gloves, hats, a facemask, and an extra shirt or two stuffed into the sleeves. My backpack is bulging at the seams, packed methodically to utilize every available space. Today, like most days, I am alone. Only the wind, the cold wind, will provide companionship.
The wind is both my friend and my foe. The raptors rely on the wind to provide lift. Their journey is long and they must catch a free ride if they are to migrate successfully. Without wind, raptor migration slows to a halt. For this reason, I welcome the wind. The trade-off is that the wind steals my heat. As I arrive at my post — a jutting rock called Lovers Leap — the wind is absent, and I feel too warm. My steaming body attempts to dry in the cold, still air. As the water vaporizes, it takes my heat, which for now feels refreshing. I scan the sky — nothing flying yet. Mornings are often slow, but occasionally you catch the raptors as they are starting their day. These birds tend to be low, offering the closest views of the day. I unpack my daily log, check the weather on my mobile device, and record environmental data, including temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, cloud cover, and atmospheric pressure. I will do this every hour.
Looking up, I see the tail end of a bird streaking across the sky. It is red. In the time I was writing, the first bird of the day was passing and I nearly missed it. This is the problem with counting alone; birds pass even when you’re not looking. I look intently at the sky, knowing that inattention will result in not counting a migrating bird. For the next seven hours, I will look at the sky, a prospect that some find absurd. As a young man, I not only would have agreed about the absurdity, but would have said it was impossible. Having had what would now be called attention deficit disorder, the prospect of focusing, standing, or doing the same thing for eight hours straight would have been preposterous. However, as a man grows, his abilities change. Being able to focus on the sky and the birds is Zen-like, which I liken to becoming aware of our place in the universe. For the next hour, I am intently aware. No birds, however, for this concerted effort.
Abruptly, around 10 a.m., the wind starts to blow from the south. The gentle cool breeze removes the insulating air that has enveloped me up to this point. I begin the process of putting on additional layers. Within the next hour, I will have put on another shirt, my outer pant layer, my coat, my facemask, my brimmed hat, and my gloves. I will also put up my hood on my coat to block as much of the wind as possible.
Several birds stream through: Three sharp-shinned hawks and two more red-tailed hawks pass before an adult bald eagle appears in the sky. These majestic eagles are a sight that always generates excitement.
After marking the raptors on my log sheet, I realize that it is lunchtime. I have been hungry since hiking up the hill, and I finally concede to my growling stomach. I pull out the small tri-legged stool for lunch and sit down for the first time since arriving. To eat, I need to remove my gloves, which I always detest. Having my hands free, I mark the hourly count and the environmental data. As soon as I get my sandwich and chips out and get comfortable, just as my mouth touches the food, a bird appears in the sky. The bird is far away, poorly lit, and not obvious. Clearly, I will need the scope to have a chance for identification. I quickly put down my sandwich, jump to the scope, and work out the identification. This happens every time I attempt to eat. Even on birdless days, I can count on something happening that will necessitate action, just as I begin to eat. One day it was a strange rustling of leaf litter in a crevasse behind and below me. It turned out to be a porcupine attempting to climb up the cliff walls. Another day, it was a U.F.O. that turned out to be part of a plastic bag lofted high into the air.
During this hour, a massive flock of crows passes the site. They are not migrating and will most likely return later in the day. A mixed group of black vultures and turkey vultures appears in the sky; the group is also not migrating. They eventually land on the rocky outcroppings on the cliffs. This is one of their favorite spots — the rocks are painted with their white excrement. A pair of local ravens disrupts their rest. I hear the ravens croak before I spot them. I croak back and get their attention. One, flying under the rock I am on, alters its path and comes back to investigate. It seems disappointed when it sees me instead of another raven. It turns, rejoins its partner, and heads toward a vulture. The vulture, knowing what is coming, takes early flight to get a jump on the ravens, to no avail. The ravens chase the vultures, swooping down on them, making them roll and turn in the air. It reminds me of a dog running into a flock of pigeons in a city park.
About an hour after lunch, I drink my hot tea. I am always amazed at how efficiently the thermos keeps the tea hot and equally amazed by how quickly wind can cool that tea when I use the thermos cap as a cup. And, like clockwork, birds seem to appear in the minutes when tea is served. I am simultaneously excited about the prospect of drinking hot tea and seeing a migrating raptor, while still worrying about my tea getting cold and losing the bird. I should eat lunch and drink tea all day long, especially on slow days, but it doesn’t work that way — I’ve tried.
By afternoon, the temperatures usually rise, and if it can, the sun makes its presence known. The warm sunlight is a gift, heating my black coat. I might even be tempted to take off a layer, but I know better. The wind always wins this battle. It’s best to conserve as much heat as possible. As the day gets warmer, I can still get cooler. My body has been burning fuel to keep me warm all morning. Lunch and hot tea have replenished my reserves, but I am not moving around much, just standing. I therefore remain bundled, complete with gloves and a face mask. This is the time of the day when visitors might arrive. Having just walked up the hill, they are warm, often sweating. They walk over to the site with trepidation to see what someone garbed in a snowsuit is doing with optical equipment on the cliff on this warm day. As with lunch and teatime, when a guest does arrive that is interested in knowing about what I am doing, a bird often appears. Because some people don’t understand birding etiquette — bird identification trumps conversation — I patiently wait for a pause in the conversation before ignoring the visitor and focusing on the bird. I usually last about half a second before I just can’t wait any longer and switch my attention to the bird. I then talk the visitor through the identification process, pointing out that the birds use the ridges as a flyway for their migration. The guests are usually blown away by the thought of an interstate highway in the sky that raptors and other birds use to get from points north to points south. Of course, other visitors come for the hawk-watch site specifically. Many of these visitors know about the site from viewing hawkcount.org. Some may have been following the daily tallies of this hawk site as well as others in the area.
Visitors rarely stay long, and before I know it, I am again alone on the cliff. The afternoon hours can be exciting, tiring, or boring. When counting hawks, nothing is definite. When birds should be flying, they aren’t. When the weather seems too dreary for flying, there they are. I have long ago given up any hope of predicting hawk flights on any particular day. Predicting the birds is like predicting a roulette wheel. I know that given enough spins, particular numbers will be hit. For birds, I know during particular weeks, certain birds will inevitably migrate through. Unfortunately, for the hawk watch that I am manning, a counter is not present every day. Therefore, many big-number bird days are simply missed.
On this particular day, I have a feeling that golden eagles, which should be migrating at this point in the season, are in the air and will be arriving any minute now. Golden eagles tend to be seen more in the afternoon at this particular site than in the morning. A more accurate statement is that golden eagles do not seem to be early birds. As I ponder the many reasons that golden eagles should be passing the site, an adult male northern harrier makes his way south. He is spectacular, with his long wings and tail, ghostly owl-like pale face, gray body, and black wing tips. Nothing else looks like a northern harrier. He is far away, but I am still excited to see him flapping south. Within a few minutes, a few red-tailed hawks also pass, north to south. Then a sharp-shinned hawk and a Cooper’s hawk appear. The sharpie is migrating, but the Coop is a local. I regularly see this bird, which flies past the cliff, usually staying low and headed in the east-west direction.
It is 3 p.m. daylight saving time, and I mark the log sheet and check the environmental measurements. I watch the skies for another hour. No birds appear in the sky during this time. The sun is dimming as it lowers in the sky. I pack up and begin the walk down the hill, tired, wind-blown, and hungry. I wonder whether I should have stayed another hour, but I remind myself that no birds were flying during the last hour, that I have children that I would like to see, and that I am ready for dinner. I also remind myself that I will be back here tomorrow, and the birds will surely wait for me to arrive.
Reprinted from Bird Watcher’s Digest (November/December 2017), a bimonthly magazine for avid birders and backyard bird watchers alike.
Brian Wargo is a science educator, physicist, hawk watcher, and philosopher. He lives in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania. His book, Bird! An Explanation of Hawk Watching, is available at online booksellers.