Thursday, February 27, 2014

Hawk-eyed in Quincy

            The snow is still very thick, despite a few days of thawing -- the first thaw in weeks -- so as I walk around the salt marsh by the shore the footing is laborious. You sink a little with each step and there's no pace to it, no momentum, since with every step your foot may sink through the crust and drop down a few inches. This making the act of walking work and not the dream-like rhythm of meditative gliding through open, natural spaces.

            The smell of salt in the air from the few days' melting keeps me going. But after a while I tire of the slow pace and cut into the woodsy upland where the snow is easier to traverse. I bypass a section of the marsh path where I am likely to see anything besides Canada geese, the one species that appears happy to flock among the brown marsh grass emerging from the snow. I haven't seen any wading birds around here all winter.

            After cutting through the woods, I decide to return to the tail end of my marsh path to have a look at the other side of things. My noisy, unexpected emergence causes a large bird to start from the woods and fly soundlessly over the marsh toward a thin line of trees by the roadway. It's too far away to get much of a look, but its flight is silent and decisive and a part of me thinks "hawk."

            Coincidentally or not, a pair of ducks squawk a little and fly back toward me away from the flight line of my mystery bird. Some of the Canada geese grazing in the snow honk and flutter closer to the others, as if the flock were reflexively pulling together. I try to mark the place where the bird disappeared among trees -- it lines up, from my point of view, near a parked red pickup -- and finish my circuit of the marsh trail. A few bluejays fly across my path.

            As a last gasp, I get into my car and drive slowly down the street where the large bird disappeared into the roadside trees. It's a Sunday in gray, wet February, nobody else on the road, and I'm about to give up the search. The red pickup has disappeared. I come up to a slight curve that leads shortly to an elementary school. I think 'just a few trees more' -- and then, suddenly, there it is. A very large, rounded gray-feathered presence, perched on the branch of a very thin tree.

            It's a hawk, and it's not making much of an effort to stay out of sight. I stop the car just where I am, the back end of the vehicle sticking out into the roadway, and take my simple point-and-shoot digital camera into the street with me. Then it's a matter of how close he'll let me get. I pause in the street. The motion of lifting the camera to my eye doesn't disturb him.

            The bird is aware of me and turns his head from side to side to keep one of those hawk eyes on me. But his attitude seems to say, 'oh, it's just some dude with a camera.'

            I get closer, start shooting. Get a little closer still. The light is poor; gray, dull. I'm trying to pick out markings but only those dark bands on its breast stand out. I'm not about to work my way around him, into the marsh, to shoot from behind. That strikes me as intrusive, rude.

            And I decide I'm not going to push myself literally as close as I can get to him, get in his face so to speak, and make him fly off. My presence with the camera is intrusion enough. Anything more crosses the line into disrespectful, bad manners. Besides, it's wrong to make wild creatures use up energy unnecessarily.

            From the images I find of hawks with banding across the breast, I tentatively identify it as a red-tailed hawks (tentative is as far as any of my identifications go). They're the most common hawks around here anyway.

            The next day I go back to the marsh, without seeing the hawk anywhere.

            The day after that I drive slowly down the same street and, again to my surprise, find the hawk once more in what has to be the same tree. Only this time he has his back to me, turned into the wind.

            No one else driving by stops, or even slows. Oh, well, the world seems to say. A huge old hawk perched roadside in a city of 90,000 people. No big deal.