Books & Essays
?Gallinaceous Grand-slam: One Man?s Cross-Country Obsession with Quail?
Quail Unlimited, November/December 2006
My father never meant to set any kind of record when he undertook to amass a mounted collection comprised of every upland game bird native to the continental United States and Alaska. The idea of a ?gallinaceous grand-slam? was a slow-dawning realization on his part, a recognition that his consuming love of bird hunting could also be an opportunity to permanently display these splendid animals for himself and his posterity. With the overall decline in Southern quail populations, it may also come to serve as silent tribute to a gracious culture that in his lifetime seems to have ground finally to an end.
I grew up a quail hunter, as did my father and grandfather. The long love affair of the rural South with Colinus virginianus, the bobwhite quail, is as central to the culture as fried crappie and Confederate memorials. Quail are very much a part of our literary heritage as well, lovingly portrayed in the works of such regional masters as Roarke, Babcock, Hill, Rutledge and Buckingham. With a father and paternal uncle already avid bird hunters (?bird? in the rural South invariably referring to the bobwhite), young William ?Spike? Funk was soon enough exposed to the formalistic, honor-bound tradition of this most gentlemanly of outdoor pursuits.
Capable of gusts of speed of up to 40 miles per hour, these ?feathered bombshells,? as the prolific ornithological anthologist Arthur Cleveland Bent has described a covey rise, offer a genuine sporting experience along with opportunities for enjoying three critical facets of Southern life: camaraderie, dogs, and good eating. South-central Kentucky, where Funk was born and raised, was in the 1950s and ?60s still a region largely devoted to small family farms, each field of seasonally variable crops bordered by lush fencerows that provided quail with protected staging areas for foraging. Birds were everywhere then, and even folks living in town were free to knock on doors and trade a farmer for half the resulting game bag in exchange for permission to hunt his land. It had seemingly always been this way, and so it would apparently remain forever.
Of course the munificent abundance of the old settler days was long past. Save for a few inbred pockets on public land the deer had been shot out decades before, as had the wild turkey, and bears were an ancient memory found only in obscure place-names like ?Bear Wallow,? as exotic sounding to their inhabitants as ?Elkton? or ?Buffalo Lick.? But the bobwhite quail was proliferating, thriving on the row crops planted for produce and animal feed which had formed the bulk of local agricultural output for over a century. The population of Kentucky?s bobwhites in the 1950s likely exceeded that of the 1550s, as the land uses particular to small-scale farming meshed perfectly with the biological needs of the species. With birds abounding the peculiar culture of Southern quail hunting, evolving from the desperate search for meat during Reconstruction to the refined pastime of leisured gentlemen, was allowed to take root and flourish.
This pleasant arrangement began to fall apart with the advent in the late 1960s of industrial agriculture, a monolithic entity deliberately created by petrochemical and farm equipment manufacturers to increase yields while shrinking the number of small farms. The result of federal and state farming policies favoring corporate food production over the combined efforts of independent individuals, agribusiness concentrates on extravagant machinery and heavy applications of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to achieve an ever-increasing harvest. Economics dictated that only substantial tracts of contiguous farmland would be viable proving grounds for this new strategy, as the capital outlay in combines, sprayers, tillers and chemicals was impracticable for the small landowner. Family farms were suddenly obsolete. The end of Jeffersonian America, accelerating since the latter 19th century, was finally at hand.
And so the fencerows were bulldozed and the small self-reliant farms bought up and amalgamated by the conglomerates to form enormous monotype fields?thousands of acres in size?of chemotherapeutic row crops. Corporations, not people, were now the legal owners of the soil, corporations with headquarters in alien cities remote from these fields both in distance and in caring. Successive federal farm bills continued to reward the large and wealthy at the expense of the weak and unconnected, and the bobwhite quail began his slow, gradual disappearance from the once-diverse landscape he had graced for so long.
My exemplar, the Kentucky poet and philosopher (and farmer) Wendell Berry, said it best fifteen years ago in his seminal essay ?Conservation and Local Economy?:
My part of rural America is, in short, a colony, like every other part of rural America. Almost the whole landscape of this country?from the exhausted cotton fields of the plantation South to the eroding wheatlands of the Palouse, from the strip mines of Appalachia to the clear-cuts of the Pacific slope?is in the power of the absentee economy, once national and now increasingly international, that is without limit in its greed and without mercy in its exploitation of land and people.
Hand in hand with the corporatization of agriculture came the widespread destruction of agriculture in any form as booming suburban and exurban development sprawled insidiously over the countryside. Shoddy subdivisions and indistinguishable hilltop McMansions increasingly polluted the viewscape, forever depriving the country of some of the richest farmland on earth while backing native wildlife further and further into a corner. The plague continues to gather speed today: each new ?Quail Ridge,? a spread of flimsy hutches?some with shingles already missing?clustered around a muddy fountain and a network of stinking blacktop roads, necessarily means the permanent end of wildlife habitat in that area. Even the ugliest clear-cut can grow back into a forest in a century or so; the haughty monocultural fields of the corporations may (or rather will) someday be returned to their true owners; but lands developed for residential or commercial use are forever severed from their human and natural heritage.
Outside of war and natural disaster, great change seldom occurs abruptly. The bobwhite?s slow slide from a routine to a rare member of the local avifauna was accomplished over decades of pesticide application and habitat destruction, but as with all cases of regional extirpation, the sudden realization that ?there aren?t any birds around anymore? came as something of a surprise. For years quail populations been winking out with the loss of each small farm, and today southern Kentucky, like most of the rapidly industrializing ?New South,? has outside of carefully managed private preserves only vestigial numbers of wild quail. The glory days of the past 175 years are a receding memory in the minds of a generation whose children would never know the mythic, trembling approach to setting dogs, the covey?s thunderous rise, the weary return home at dusk, and the family memories that lasted lifetimes. We had inherited, in Faulkner?s despairing words, a ?lightless and gutted and empty land.?
Though much is taken from us, much remains. After dental school Funk spent two years in Kansas with the Army, during which time he regularly partook of the generous opportunities for hunting bobwhites as well as such fanciful creatures (to a Kentuckian) as the ring-necked pheasant and greater prairie chicken. The upland game thrived on pockets of unimproved little bluestem and gamagrass, and Funk invited his father Marshall, a Bowling Green attorney, to sample this remnant of prairie richness that had once stretched from the Ozarks to the Rockies.
When he acquired the means Funk bought a 94-acre parcel of exhausted farmland on what were then the outskirts of Bowling Green, an undulating former cornfield that skirted a bluff overlooking a sluggish creek and the ruins of a Shaker dam. Over the next twenty years, through constant effort and trial, research, experimentation and refinement, he slowly converted the rocky, nutrient-starved red-clay fields into a game preserve aimed primarily at the bobwhite quail, as if seeking to restore to this isolated, outlying piece of earth some semblance of the pleasure and providence he had known while hunting with his father in the 1950s.
Funk planted lespedeza and native grasses, encouraged blackberry and foxtail millet, bush-hogged the relentless sumac and cedar saplings, and sought the academic wisdom of state and private game biologists. He was inexpertly advised to plant ceresia and Russian olive, decisions he now regrets?the restoration, as he puts it, is a continuous ?work in progress??but generally the farm now provides everything its modest quail population could ask for.
Wider horizons beckoned. One evening a few years ago, during the stultifying heat of August, Funk was perusing a field guild to Western birds and turning to the section on quails noted the bizarre lengths to which nature?s adaptive whimsy had gone to distinguish the five trans-Mississippi species. He had earlier received some unfamiliar feathers from a doctor friend in Montana for fly-tying, and now became increasingly interested in their provenance. With ?the season? having become so disappointing here, why not try someplace else? He thought he might look into airline tickets, research a suitable guide, and check out the possibilities. Like generations of restless Easterners before him, finding themselves surrounded by the constricting limitations of habitat loss and the depletion of wildlife, he would go west.
In the fall of 1999 he arrived on the burning plains of southern Arizona to find another world waiting. His guide was a retired bankrobber and former gunslinger with a visceral knowledge of local quail habits, and despite or more likely because of this imposing history they became immediately comfortable with one another. (Leon, the guide, broke the ice en route to their first hunt by relating the tale of a jovial evening that took place years ago in an Alaskan tavern: ?It was a great night,? he concluded. ?Everybody got shot but me and nobody got killed.?)
Quail hunting in 90? temperatures wasn?t something Funk had ever dealt with, nor was the local necessity of hunting strictly around water sources?stockponds and streambeds?as there was no morning dew to whet the birds? whistles. He had brought along two year-old Meg, one his three Brittany spaniels, and worried at first that the prickly pears and other hostile desert flora would eviscerate the dog before she became accustomed to this new terrain, but such was her inherent natural grace, weaving her in and out of the chaparral and mesquite thickets, that at day?s end he would proudly locate no signs of injury. The bulk of the pack was composed of Leon?s own Brittanies and short-haired pointers, toughened veterans of this harsh desert landscape.
And they found quail. They found birds like Funk had seen in Kansas; birds in numbers that resembled the prime shooting of his Southern boyhood. And the familiar bobwhite wasn?t the only inhabitant of this scorching terrain. Quail species including Gambel?s, Mearn?s (a.k.a. Montezuma or harlequin) and scaled (a.k.a. blue or ?cottontop?) abounded, and over the course of several highly enjoyable visits with Leon in both Arizona and Texas, Funk collected fine adult male specimens of all three species and had them carefully mounted, displaying them at his home and dental office.
The bug had bit. With Arizona?s resident birds in the bag (excluding the critically endangered masked bobwhite, a subspecies of the South?s C. virginianus), Funk began casting about for new additions to what was already beginning to look like a substantial collection. So he went to eastern Washington?s arid Columbia Plateau in pursuit of the Valley or California quail, a species whose prominent nodding top-feather and large covey proclaim its close kinship to the Gambel?s quail. The only bird left to add was the mountain quail, America?s largest and most atypical member of the quail family, fabled for preferring harsh steep terrain and a solitary, secretive existence.
I was privileged to be invited along on this last quest, traveling with Dad from Kentucky to the smog-strewn wilderness of LAX and all the way up to the Klamath country of southwestern Oregon. He had arranged for a guide and early one morning Bob arrived at our hotel in Medford with his 4X4 truck, his corpulent female Labrador retriever, and his blacksmith?s handshake. Bob outlined the general strategy as we motored out to nearby federal land. The dog was to range out ahead (I felt sure we could keep up given Moxie?s?the dog?s?extravagant physique) over the dry lava beds and sere grasses that composed mountain quail habitat in the area; we would follow closely behind until she scented them; the birds would typically run as we drew near; and we were to pursue hotly behind until they flushed.
Easy. Frankly I didn?t believe that Moxie would hold out for long when she was hoisted from among the anvils and hammers in the back of Bob?s cluttered Dodge carryall, tongue lolling, but she set us a daunting pace, hopping over igneous boulders and dodging the dry scrub, sniffing and searching, tail wagging with sloppy enthusiasm. We followed her closely, as advised, while the day grew hotter and drier. Western specialties like acorn woodpeckers and mountain bluebirds kept distracting me and I began to fall behind, squeezing my Model 12 between my knees while I adjusted binoculars. Suddenly Moxie froze, cocked her lumpish head, plunged into a coffeeberry bush and raced out the other side trailing a plump dun-colored bird with a spiked head. After a frantic stumbling chase Dad got off a fine shot with his old Charles Daly double-barrel and there was our mountain quail, with bold white stripes streaking his ruddy shanks and a soft gray back and cowl.
Back home, he admired his collection and pondered the next move. While attending Centre College in central Kentucky during the 1960s Funk had met a side-hill farmer, moonshiner and part-time marijuana grower named Eldon who introduced him, eventually, to the ruffed grouse. Hunting the ragged mountains of Jackson County was another experience entirely from the gentile search for the bobwhite he?d been raised on, but after several excursions into those myth-shrouded hills, using hickory saplings to pull himself up the precipitous slopes, he got the hang of it. On a lightening-scorched ridge in late November, the first snow of the year stinging his face, a big cock grouse leapt from a tangle of greenbriar with a cyclonic roar and entered our family?s history.
That experience and that bird, mounted in drumming position on a hollow log, stayed with him. And so when the quail quest was successfully concluded he thought he might expand his search a little deeper into Family Phasianidae?he would assemble a collection of the country?s grouses.
Early the following fall he was in Montana hunting sharptails, the fastest flyers of all upland game birds. The next year he traveled to Alaska after ptarmigan and spruce grouse. The year after he was in Idaho after sage grouse and two years ago he returned from Colorado with a beautiful blue grouse, making his collection complete. But to be on the safe side he went back to Idaho after our non-native partridges, the chukar and Hungarian (or gray), coming home triumphant.
What next? An active conservationist, in the 1980s Funk had been elected to serve on the Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Commission, a pulpit he used to reintroduce the wild turkey to its former habitat. Today turkey populations are stable or growing statewide, and a few years ago, having followed the vegetated corridor of the nearby creek, they turned up in huntable numbers at his farm. Numerous spread tails and dangling beards, taken on the premises, now adorn his home. The occasional American woodcock is also found in the bottom below the house; add a common snipe from southern Illinois and he had a couple of resident shorebirds to round out a comprehensive collection of upland game.
Throughout these exploits Funk?s weapons of choice have remained his scarred old Noble .410 and an equally veteran Charles Daly 20-gauge, both side-by-sides. An early admirer of English pointers while stationed in the rolling prairie of central Kansas, he gradually made the switch to Brittany spaniels when he realized that pointers were too far-ranging for the close confines and limited visibility arising from the tall native grasses of his Kentucky farm.
Today Funk has three young Brittanies, Meg, Jill and Snub, the last so named because of her excellent hindquarters conformation (spell it out backwards). The older dogs, Meg and Snub, have accompanied him to Arizona and Texas, taking to those desiccated landscapes like natives and turning up quail species they?d never been exposed to as if they?d lived with them all their lives. Like all good dog owners Funk wishes he could let his charges roam free or at least be somehow placed in suspended animation during the off-season (?I wish I could freeze-dry them over the spring and summer? he says), but realizing their inherent longing to roam?and perhaps bust up nesting quail?he confines them to a spacious pen in the woods behind his house.
My mother Pam has been and continues to be remarkably forbearing of Dad?s hunting wanderlust, raising nary an eyebrow over the exorbitant traveling expenses. (?So what?s all this cost you so far?? I asked once. ?I don?t want to know,? he replied.) Whether he has set any sort of record is wholly immaterial. As all men would in an ideal world, he has been fortunate enough to have had the health, the finances, and the familial support to pursue his inimitable dream, an aspiration which has taken him to the farthest reaches of America and to the very taxonomic limits of our avian heritage.
The end of any heartfelt quest, as Audubon understood upon completing his Birds of America, can be an anticlimactic or even dispiriting event. While some rest on their laurels and slowly succumb to inertia, lack of drive has never characterized my dad?his antidote to boredom or despair, like Falstaff?s, is always ?More life!? Last April, back in Kentucky for turkey season and looking over his striking display of mounted birds, I had asked him what if anything was next on his sporting agenda, in the back of my mind perhaps already anticipating the answer. His response neither disappointed nor surprised me. ?Well, I enjoy fly-fishing,? he?d said immediately. ?There?s a lot of different trout out there.?
Climbing the Last Light: An Afternoon of Hawkwatching
Virginia Wildlife, September 2006
?I've got a bird coming in just above the ridge," says the Counter, binoculars held tight to her face, and in unison twenty magnified human eyeballs swing northward. From over the flame-colored crest of Afton Mountain in mid-November I see the silhouette of a hawk flapping and coasting across the glaring afternoon sky, slowly, or so it seems at this distance, heading in our direction.
Against the blinding blue the distant hawk is no more than an anonymous winged shadow, still too far off to distinguish features or colors. There are 922 avian species documented as occurring in North America but only fourteen raptors (birds of prey) typically encountered here on the back porch of the Inn at Afton, high above Rockfish Gap in Nelson County, Virginia.
This helps narrow things down a bit, but then comes the hard part. To the uninitiated, soaring hawks can look much the same, but the experts gathered here today have already trimmed the list down to only two possible contenders based simply on style of flight and a vague outline.
Hawkwatching like other forms of birding is largely a process of elimination, a mental stripping away of potentials based on shape, flight pattern, location and time of year until the viewer is left with only a single, or at most a few, possible candidates. It takes hours of field practice to quickly determine a migrating hawk?s identity, but when the recognition is made we become privy to the hawk?s probable life history, because in correctly identifying a particular animal we assign to it a conjectured background based upon what science has revealed about the species in general.
Thus, while one hawk's personal history is as unique and varied as one person's from another?s, by learning how a hawk fits into its native ecosystem?its behavior, habitat and geographic range?we read into every observation an arbitrary but likely chronicle that makes each sighting much more than just another bird seen through binoculars.
Our hawk seems to struggle through the air as it advances: flap flap flap ? glide ? flap flap flap ? glide. As it comes nearer, the veteran hawkwatchers note the elongated tail, the relatively short, almost rounded wings, and the "shoulders" pulled up nearly even with the tip of the bill. Even for beginners the bird's laborious flight behavior has already identified it as belonging to the genus Accipiter, one of five genera of diurnal raptor (not including turkey and black vultures, species more closely related to storks than hawks) that are annually funneled through Rockfish Gap on their great autumnal migration.
Accipiters are forest dwellers, hunting birds and small mammals by ambush and a lightning pursuit through branches and brush. The short, broad wings are ideal for sudden changes of direction and brief, powered charges while the long tail acts as a rudder and stabilizer, allowing these hawks to snake through tangled undergrowth with single-minded relentlessness.
As there are only three species of accipiter in occurring in the US, the bird we've been watching can only be a goshawk, Cooper's hawk or sharp-shinned hawk. Goshawks are big hawks, nearly the size of redtails, and hunt snowshoe hare, grouse and ptarmigan in the northern forests. They are extremely rare vagrants through Rockfish Gap.
Cooper's hawks are crow-sized bird and squirrel killers, and like the smaller sharp-shinned hawk the adults are slate blue above and peppered with rusty-red scales on a soft white breast; in juvenile birds of both species the breast is marked with thick chocolaty stripes. Cooper?s hawks are fairly common migrants in October and early November.
The jay-sized sharp-shinned hawk looks much like the Cooper's, and only close and learned observation can discern the square-tipped tail and forward-swept shoulders of the sharpie. To further complicate identification accipiters are sexually dimorphous, the male sometimes being a third smaller than the female. Differentiating a male Cooper's from a female sharp-shinned at 2,500 feet can stymie even the most experienced observers, which is why "Unidentified Accipiter" is a valid choice on the Counter's daily tally sheet.
The bird in my lenses has the sharp angular tail of Accipiter striatus, the sharp-shinned hawk, and as I watch it grows larger and larger until suddenly it is among us, skimming less than 50 feet above our heads in its determined race to the south. The crowd gasps and grins as the close range allows us to greedily take in details: straight barred tail alternating blue and black and terminating in a band of brilliant white; creamy breast densely speckled with orange; inky cap hooding bright and unforgiving red eyes. Grim determination is what is primarily evoked as the hawk cocks its head to give his audience an ephemeral glance before rushing by us and forever out of sight.
Birds of prey are not generally known for having much sense of humor ? unlike, say, crows, though I have seen red-tailed hawks and ravens playing at aerial tag. But accipiters seem to me the most deadly earnest of all birds of prey, utterly focused on the hunt and so entirely creatures of their marvelous reflexes that any close association, even over the long term, can be dangerous. I once knew a falconer who said that while goshawks, especially juveniles, were sometimes capable of being semi-tamed enough to keep their killing fury turned toward targeted game instead of their handlers, sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, caught wild, were ordinarily beyond even rudimentary domestication, their hair-trigger instincts and electric nerve endings posing a constant danger the falconer's hands, face and eyes.
It looks to be a lot of work to be an accipiter. Built for brief, high-speed pursuits between tree trunks and through bushes, the sharp-shinned hawk and its kin appear ill-suited to the high-altitude strains of migration.
Better adapted are the members of genus Buteo, the long-winged, short-tailed windmasters whose expertise at finding and riding thermals is rivaled only by the eagles. As our sharpie disappears over the hotel roof someone has spotted another bird climbing over the ridge. "Buteo," intones the Counter, having observed the capacious wings spread at full soar as the bird rides the warm air rising over the mountainside in slowly ascending spirals, thick primary feathers rigidly extended like the fingers of a jazz pianist. We begin to mentally tick off the possibilities as the hawk swings nearer.
At the invisible peak of its spiraling tower of air the buteo banks, pulls its wings in slightly and, joined now by a couple of turkey vultures with raw red heads and gleaming ivory bills, commences a long, shallow glide along the mountain's shoulder, high over the clamorous flotsam of I-64, down the chute of Rockfish Gap and toward its assembled admirers.
By now we see the milky white throat and belly, the black-specked cummerbund, the flat brown back and head and, in stray glimpses as the bird pitches and turns, a rust-red tail tilting to maximize every whiff of updraft. A newcomer shouts "Redtail!" as the powerful hawk drifts past, passing at a low angle and honoring us with a brief, indifferent stare.
Red-tailed hawks are archetypal buteos with long, broad wings, stocky tails and an overall impression of stoic strength. As this one silently coasts by above our heads we take in the charcoal borders highlighting its pale wings, the ruddy tail now tightly closed, and the shoulders swung forward in an apparently effortless concentration on the annihilation of distance.
The "redtail" is the most populous buteo species in North America and generally migrates through Rockfish Gap in November, having been preceded weeks before by a tidal flood of broadwing hawks, smaller buteos that often form swirling "kettles" of sometimes hundreds or even thousands of birds, pulsing and spinning around thermal columns in a feathered cyclone. Broadwings are blunt-winged forest buteos, slightly larger than a crow, whose taste is for the cold-blooded: snakes, frogs, toads and insects. They come through in great swarms timed to maximize the last abundance of their warm weather prey, then are whirled off to Latin America in a few short weeks.
Many local redtails stay in Virginia all winter long, but most of the more northerly-based migrants take advantage of the opportunity to leave their summer homes before prey becomes scarce. An adaptable hawk, the redtail feasts on everything from spiders and earthworms to groundhogs and carrion. I?ve seen a single red-tailed hawk chase a dozen vultures, both turkey and black, from the carcass of a freshly butchered deer, and last summer witnessed a redtail struggling to take off with a bucking 5-foot corn snake in its talons.
Redtails are the most common late fall migrant at Rockfish Gap and at first I mistake the two buteos now circling overhead for members of the same species, but the bold banding on the longish tails and the narrow, sweeping wings with the curious opaque half-moons on the outer edges gives the newcomers away as something else entirely: red-shouldered hawks.
The red-shouldered is a swamp hawk, at home in streamside forests and marshlands, hunting snakes and frogs in the summer and small mammals in cooler months. A gorgeous raptor, Buteo lineatus has a black-and-white checkered back with ruddy shoulders and, in adults, a luminous coral breast and belly. Gliding high above, heading toward warmer climes, the two hawks give us a resplendent display during their momentary transit, chests glowing fiercely as they slip over the southeastern hills like twin sunsets.
All eyes being fixed on this spectacle we fail to notice two more sharpies until they're already overhead and then, at eye level and only a few dozen yards out, a burning dart of
red, white and blue comes whickering past with sharp wings chopping the air and long pointed tail trailing like a comet's.
It is a male American kestrel, a vibrant foot-long falcon the size of a killdeer and the smallest falcon in North America; like the rest of its kin, it is wasting no time in getting to its destination. While they will use updrafts and thermals when convenient, falcons are not as dependent upon them as are buteos and accipiters, relying primarily on their untiring powered flight to slice through the wind.
There are three species of falcon that may be encountered at Rockfish Gap: the kestrel, the slightly larger merlin, and the celebrated peregrine, globetrotting exemplar of the falcon clan. Kestrels hunt rodents and large insects from trees and powerlines, and will also take amphibians and catch small birds and bats on the wing.
The dusky merlin is the bane of migrating shorebirds, exacting a seasonal toll on small-to-medium plovers and sandpipers as they shadow flocks down the coasts like wolves trailing caribou herds. Powerful and deadly efficient hunters, merlins also hunt songbirds and small mammals and will attack human intruders on their nesting territory.
The world-wandering Falco peregrinus, sublime creature of myth and legend, deigns only to feed on medium to large birds it has knocked out of the sky with its dive-bombing attacks, striking ducks, pigeons, even geese and cranes with its oversized feet at speeds of up to and perhaps over 200 miles per hour. The rare occurrence of a peregrine at the hawkwatch, streaking serenely past on scythe-like wings, is an occasion for stunned silence among newcomers and veterans alike.
Our kestrel disappeared as suddenly as it came, and with approaching evening comes a lull in the flow of migrants. Watchers chat about recent sightings while novices query the vets for identification tips and tales of record high-number days.
Raptors are generally big birds and they depend on the lay of the land for long-distance travel. By following one another along ridges and mountainsides where the winds form warm, rising updrafts, hawks are able to save energy and reduce the need for hunting en route to their wintering grounds. In Virginia, at places like Rockfish Gap, Snicker?s Gap, and Harvey?s Knob, the natural contours of mountain chain and valley create topographic bottlenecks where birds from several migratory paths are channeled together as they seek the most obliging wind currents.
At these staging areas, in times mercifully past, restless killers calling themselves "sportsmen" would regularly gather for an afternoon's hawk-shooting, senselessly destroying thousands of migrating raptors at sites like Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, a location now dedicated to the preservation of wild hawks and a premier destination for hawkwatchers worldwide.
Rockfish Gap is hardly of the eminence of places like Hawk Mountain, Cape May Point in New Jersey or Ontario's Point Pelee, unrivaled sites where tens of thousands of hawks can breeze through in a few weeks, but its mountainous geography has made it an excellent destination for hawkwatchers in central Virginia, a fact recognized by the Commonwealth in its inclusion of Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch as part of the Thomas Jefferson Loop (Mountain Phase) of Virginia?s statewide Birding and Wildlife Trail.
At the top of the hour the Counter checks her electronic weather wizard and carefully enters the current wind speed and direction, temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, cloud cover and visibility. This information, along with an hourly tally of all hawks observed today, will be entered into the national database of the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) and used to extrapolate the overall population status of the fourteen raptor species regularly reported at Rockfish Gap.
I talk with some of the other watchers, who mostly live in Albemarle, Nelson and Augusta Counties. For dedicated regulars the season from late August to early December is a time to wrap the whole year around, a brief meshing of their own lives with those of some of nature?s most splendid creatures.
The small crowd gathered here this Saturday afternoon is of dissimilar backgrounds but united by a commonly held, largely indefinable, almost atavistic admiration for birds of prey. Insurance salesmen stand shoulder to shoulder with county employees, farmers share pointers with adjunct professors, and the timid novitiate is welcomed to the show by seasoned experts. A common love for these heraldic birds has drawn people from throughout the region to share in a magical moment that could even now be gathering strength behind yonder mountain ridge, some distant atmospheric event hurtling thousands of raptors southward in a strategic withdrawal from onrushing winter.
Why go hawkwatching? The most dedicated will try to tell you why they sweat through summer and brave the numbing winds of winter after often distant glimpses of migrating birds, but the explanations always seem perfunctory, rote, telling not the whole tale.
The birds' objective beauty and grace, certainly, is a recurrent factor?the elegant edging of chiseled wings against an oceanic sky, closer flashes of color, pattern, form, an overall impression of reserved majesty that trails the sky-crossing hawk like an angel's grace.
But something closer yet to the mute heart of the hawkwatcher drives those most deeply obsessed with this yearly pageant to come, again and again, and stand straining to see something that may not appear today, or tomorrow, or the next day. A kind of personal identification seems to be at hand, a yearning to be one with something as near to earthly transcendence as the human mind can be made to perceive.
The Counter here today, as on most every weekend of the season for the past eleven years, is Brenda Tekin of Charlottesville. Previously unfamiliar with hawks, Brenda had learned of nearby Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch from her local bird club, and she well remembers her first day.
?Call it beginner?s luck,? she says. ?Just as I showed up on a sunny September afternoon a stream of hawks rolled in and began to kettle low in the sky, so close that at times I thought I could just reach out and touch them. I was mesmerized at this spectacular sight. The experienced hawkwatchers told me that the swirling mass of birds I was seeing were broad-winged hawks, a species I never even knew existed before that day. Then a second group flowed in next to the first and the sky was filled! It was at that defining moment that I knew I had succumbed to hawkwatching.?
Since 1999 Brenda has been HMANA Coordinator for Rockfish Gap and is recognized as an authority on hawk identification, the person newcomers approach when making their
first tentative guesses. Having been to the bigger hawkwatches I?ve seen some of the jaded regulars display a sort of gentile contempt for beginners, forgetting that they themselves had once been equally ignorant. Brenda and the other pros at Rockfish Gap?John Irvine, Jr., Bill Gallagher, and YuLee Larner (the celebrated ?Bird Lady of Staunton?), among others?are unceasingly considerate toward those with even the most mundane questions (?Hey, what?s that big red-necked turkey-like buzzard out there??).
?To those new to hawkwatching an established hawkwatch can be a great learning resource,? says Brenda. ?During those first years at Rockfish Gap I was always appreciative of the more experienced individuals who were so patient in answering my countless questions. I think I speak for a lot of folks at the hawkwatch in saying that once your foot hits the parking lot pavement you?ve arrived at a place where you can leave all your troubles behind.?
The sun is dying in the west. We?ve had a good afternoon?four species of raptor have been encountered, enjoyed, and tabulated. No eagles this time, no harriers, ospreys or goshawks, but we know they?re out there, silently soaring in the fading air of autumn, following the same ridges and valleys their ancestors have traced for untold millennia.
Brenda claims to love raptors for their ?wild boldness,? as sound a reason as any. Few can successfully sum up the reasons why they spend each fall pursuing birds they will never hold in the hand, birds usually seen through a considerable distance and the artificial intermediary of binoculars. There must be something exceptional about hawks, something in their controlled savagery and indomitable freedom which calls out to a part of us long buried in the wearying nullity of industrial civilization, something that speaks, perhaps, to our own unconquerable animal selves.