Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Raptor Rapture


            I'm no expert, I'm not even a birder. At best I'm a would-be, a wannabe birder. It's intimidating. Not the birds, but the identification.
            Oh look, I say, those red tips on the tail. Definitely red. I'm calling it a red-tailed hawk. They're the most common ones around here anyway; the most common big ones at least. And this bird is big. We get to know just how big because we are passing directly underneath it in order to enter the Webster wildlife sanctuary through a little hut. He's perched on the peak of little shelter's wooden roof.
            We can't stand in the parking lot watching him all day. I have to take my eyes off of him to walk through the open door and pass under that roof. He flies off when the third of us, my son, passes beneath. I don't see this take-off, but I feel his shadow. Something's changed in the world. He's gone; we don't see him again.
            I have walked beneath a perching hawk before. It's not like walking beneath a robin, or a crow, or a bare branch. You can't tell if they're watching you, though they surely know you are there. They don't swing their heads or flutter anxiously. They do not grow nervous as you come closer, pass underneath their perch and then re-appear on their side, your back turned. Except that you turn your head to look back, and up, to see if they are watching you. Who's nervous now? Are they tempted to drop down, land on your head, let you feel their claws?
            The hawk hasn't moved; he gives you the sidelong glance. His world. He stays; you go.
            I'm not sure what they are, what they do. How they change the quality of the air you breathe, the silence you hear, when they're nearby. They are very different, very strange. They turn the universe around them into something strange and ancient, into their world, not yours.
            Birds are creatures that can sit on a perch for an hour, leave in an instant. We'll never know why.
            I saw a hawk sit unruffled in a large, mostly bared deciduous tree in autumn while the entire tree filled up with comparatively small black birds covering every branch. Starling sized; maybe they were starlings. Not crows, I know that much. They perched on every bare branch, hundreds of them, and not quietly. Let's all make a lot of noise, the flock said in a hundred voices, until he goes. They chattered, filling the air with ceaseless noise like a crowded cocktail party in a high-ceilinged room. They kept up the noise, "scolding" it the word people usually use, aggressively. But they can't chant together, they can't get their voices all together and shout in unison "Hawk Go Home." They  bark, yip, jeer at their own rate, and all the squawks mix together forming a kind of white noise. It's meant to be aggressive, but it's kind of cheering, enlivening too. It's a river of birds.  
            A few of their number even flew up at the hawk, intruded on the hawk's personal space, hovered, squawking their derision, before dropping down again. The most daring of them aimed a peck at his feathers before dropping back, like youthful warriors running up to hurl a spear at a woolly mammoth in order to prove their courage. The hawk moved not a muscle, not a feather, paid no attention even to the little creatures trying to peck him and drive him off. I will sit here, the hawk said, as long as I choose and leave when I am done sitting. Perhaps he was digesting.
            I have turned a corner on a twisty path in a salt marsh in Quincy and come face to face with an owl in a tree. Once even with a very large bird I took to be an osprey. I wasn't too sure. He left in a hurry. Was it something I said?
            Another time, in a more wooded place, a park in Plymouth where I regularly walked at the end of the day and just as regularly encountered no one, I came around a bend in the trail through a screen of branches and found myself facing an owl sanding straight in a small patch of cleared ground. He was a truly good sized creature, about the size of the largest plush owl toy you would buy for a child's bedroom -- a rather absurd practice when you think about what the real ones are like, but we like to domesticate the wild. He seemed to be eating something. We looked at one another and I sensed a reluctance on his part to take his leave. I was busy with my mouse, he seemed to be thinking; now you're here.
            But I had nowhere to go but forward. After a beat or two the owl lifted, or perhaps extended his wings and appeared to float upwards in absolute silence to nearest convenient branch of a nearby tree. He moved the way vampires move on TV shows. No wasted motion, no fluttering, no apparent effort. No exertion, as if he could press a button and float upwards. I could tell his eyes were on me, though I couldn't really see them. I wanted to apologize for disturbing him. But it is hard to walk away when you are that close to an owl, a large owl, in daytime, when you are not supposed to be seeing an owl, and you have no knowledge base for telling one owl from another. After a few more seconds, as I stood and stared, the owl considered and decided that I wasn't leaving fast enough, or he wasn't far enough away, and performed the same soundless, effortless ascent that took him up higher into the trees, through the leaves to a place where it was harder to see him, though I still knew where he was. I took the hint and walked on.
            I heard him, or some other owl, hoot in the dusky woods for weeks that year. 

[P.S. the photo of a great horned owl is a public domain image]