Armchair Birding: Raptors in Focus

Armchair Birding: Raptors in Focus

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(by Anne Kilgannon) – Have you ever been hawk-watching? Standing on a ridge overlooking a stretch of country created just right for an updraft of warmed air, forming a highway in the sky for the soaring of raptors? Some Fall day I will be there, thrilling to the sight of big birds streaming by, the urgency and tug of the migratory season pulling them through the sky. The Chelan Ridge Hawk Migration Festival on the dry side of the North Cascades is within reach—and a likely adventure some day—but the epitome, the dream trip, would be Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, so heroically saved for us by Rosalie Edge in 1938 when she purchased the land under the migration path.

Oh my, what a story! If you enjoy gripping page-turners and unlikely champions battling great odds—and winning—get a copy of her life story, Hawk of Mercy, by Dyana Furmansky, for an eye-opening history of a dark chapter in Audubon. It’s a passionate and inspiring biography of a woman wholly taken with birds and their protection, who threw herself and her fortune into conservation work almost alone, but who through persistence and sheer chutzpah created a movement and galvanized a quiescent public to stand up for birds. From a traditional norm of seeing hawks as vermin fit only to shoot and let rot in their thousands as they attempted their annual migration over the mountains of Pennsylvania and other infamous spots, Edge transformed the reflexive killing to awakening a sense of awe in the majesty of the birds responding to the seasonal imperative. In time, binoculars replaced shotguns, respect and understanding ended the wanton slaughter.

The villainy assigned hawks as “chicken killers” was, in part, ignorance of the crucial balancing role of predators in general and the raptor’s place in the natural order. Society still struggles with the notion of wolves and grizzlies taking their rightful places. Hawk-viewing festivals are part of continuing public education, as are banding programs, annual counting and mapping of bird populations, and other programs to gather data, establish patterns, and learn the intricacies of bird life.

An excellent window into this work and the fascinating people who make it their life’s purpose is Jack Connor’s Season at the Point: The Birds and Birders of Cape May. Connor describes in gritty but affectionate terms what it means to participate in the annual tallying of raptors as they pass over this spot on the eastern flyway. As you read his account, your back will ache in empathy, your eyes will want to be there scanning, straining to identify smudges and streaks of sky-high birds as they stream by. You will be moved by the Cape birders’ dedication and their dogged strength as they struggle each year to add to our store of knowledge—still rudimentary, still a new science of migration and population.

Should you be pulled to join in, either at the Cape or more locally at Chelan, it would be best to study the classic work Hawks in Flight, by three noted graduates of Cape May: Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton. Their book is dedicated to Maurice Broun, who got his start when Rosalie Edge hired him as the first “curator” at Hawk Mountain. Roger Tory Peterson wrote the Foreword, adding another link to the chain of bird knowledge passed hand to hand, having himself stuffed envelopes for Rosalie’s conservation crusades in her New York apartment in his early days. It was Peterson’s “method” of bird identification system, first published in the 1930s, that helped turn bird study to field study, not “bird in the hand” by way of the shotgun. All these steps we now take for granted are but one or two generations of birdwatchers in the making. Hawks in Flight takes the Peterson method even further as the authors explore the visual frontiers beyond field marks and feather colors. Watching and identifying raptors calls upon the birder to develop new skills involving “a number of hints and clues: the rhythm and cadence of a bird’s flight; its overall color, shape, and size; plumage characteristics; and behavior under given conditions. All form a composite picture of a bird that may be flying at the limit of conjecture.”

It’s startling to realize that the tips offered for hawk identification were painstakingly assembled from experience at Cape May in the near past: Pete Dunne conducted the first season-long migration count just in 1976. This is still an evolving story, one we can participate in and advance if we have the time and skill. Bird watching is a relatively young pursuit and one heavily dependent on citizen science. With climate change and habitat loss threatening, we all feel the urgency of the moment, but seeing how far we have come in such a short span is also encouraging. We are giant strides from the massed killing of hawks, Passenger Pigeons, and other birds shrugged off by public indifference; our challenges are subtler if no less deadly. Rosalie Edge’s campaigns will not be our way, but with new tools and knowledge, we will join our pioneer forebears and marshal awe and wonder “for the birds.”