The art of observation

He explained patience. He said it was the most important thing of all to remember, this: that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it, and be patient.  —Helen Macdonald, “H is for Hawk”

I brought the binoculars up to my eyes and adjusted the knob, easing the fuzzy silhouette into focus.  It was a big hawk: that much was clear from the sheer size and the hooked beak.  The biggest species of hawk in our region is the Red-tail, and the female Red-tail usually outweighs the male; but the colors of this bird didn’t quite fit.

There was a smattering of white spots across the shoulders on either side; they formed a V on the upper back.  The head was dark, the throat lighter in color; and the buff breast was streaked with dark broad patches.

Then there was the tail: dark brown regularly interrupted with black horizontal bars, extending well beyond the folded wingtips.

Majestically, it perched atop the Celtic cross on the pinnacle of the brownstone church steeple, emitting a series of screeching cries.

Another bird, similar in coloring but smaller in size, answered from his perch in the uppermost branches of the tall dead spruce on Winthrop Street.

I eased closer, pausing after several steps to bring the binoculars up and observe the detail of the plumage.

Finally, after twenty minutes, the big hawk lifted its hindquarters, spread its broad wings, and dropped off the steeple, soaring to a cluster of far trees.  I caught a glimpse of the tail against the overcast sky: definitely not a russet red.

Back at the house I studied a copy of Sibley’s Guide and searched online.  Finally, I found it:  a juvenile Red-tail.

There is an art to identification, where perception, perseverance and patience reward the persistent observer.

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Hawk in the wind

While out for a mid-day walk in the biting January cold, I turned the collar of my coat up against the windy gusts that ripped the surface of the river, tore at the branches of the trees and sent dry leaves spinning upwards like whirling dervishes.

Standing on the concrete jetty behind the old mill, I suddenly looked up and chanced to see a red-tailed hawk overhead, struggling in flight, making little headway against the wind.

Buffeted, he braced, buckled, then barrel rolled directly into the wind; veered, braced, then buckled again; momentarily held tight, then was suddenly swept away, cast off into the southwestern sky, pummeled by a sea of pounding air.

His heroic efforts brought to mind Saint Exupéry’s description of flying into the rushing winds off the coast of Patagonia in the mid 1930s. According to Saint Exupéry’s account, “For three months of the year the speed of these winds at ground level is up to one hundred miles an hour.”

“In the first place, I was standing still. Having banked right in order to correct a sudden drift, I saw the landscape freeze abruptly where it was and remain jiggling in the same spot. I was making no headway. My wings had ceased to nibble into the outline of the earth.

“There was no longer a horizon. I was in the wings of a theatre cluttered up with bits of scenery. Vertical, oblique, horizontal, all of plane geometry was awhirl.

“Whenever I seemed about to take my bearings a new eruption would swing me round in a circle or send me tumbling wing over wing and I would have to try all over again to get clear of all this rubbish.

“I was wrestling with chaos, was wearing myself out in a battle with chaos, struggling to keep in the air a gigantic house of cards that kept collapsing despite all I could do.

“The first blow sent me rolling over and over and the sky became a slippery dome on which I could not find a footing.

“Here where I was, facing west, I was as good as motionless, unable to either advance or retreat….So I let myself drift to the left. I had the feeling, meanwhile, that the wind’s violence had perhaps slackened.”

Saint Exupéry concludes with this observation: “The physical drama itself cannot touch us until someone points out its spiritual sense.”

For me, it was much the same with the hawk.

“The Elements” in Wind, Sand and Stars, pp. 58-68.

WindSandStars

The peace of wild things

I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. —Wendell Berry

While out in the field with his German short-haired pointer the other day, my friend discovered the carcass of a hawk hanging from the top of a chain-link fence. On closer inspection it appeared as though the bird had recently expired, still clinging to the wire with one clenched talon. The breast plumage remained fluffed and airy, and brilliantly streaked in the afternoon sunlight.

My friend gently pried the closed talons from the heavy wire and nestled the hawk’s remains into a bag, thinking to bury it when the ground softened.

Early this morning at the back of his garage we lifted the hawk from its burial shroud and spread its tail and wings out on the tailgate of his pickup. The carcass measured 41 inches from wingtip to wingtip and 18-½ inches from head to tail.

Even in death the bird retained some degree of its former majesty, as these photos attest.

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