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Backyard Birder

Hawks head south with  an appreciative audience

As has become the tradition, a lot of people gathered up at Miller State Park last Saturday for New Hampshire Audubon’s annual hawk release and celebration of the fall hawk migration.

Hawks don’t always show up to be celebrated, however, and the day’s brisk winds and scant sun didn’t bode well.

Broad-winged hawks evacuate the Northeast by the thousands on a few mid-September days that offer thermal lift as sun heats earth. Too much wind breaks up the rising columns of warm air that broadwings ride high before heading south on a glide towards the next thermal ride high.

Edwin Way Teale compared this combination of hawks on rising bubbles of hot air to “a man walking slowly down the steps of a rapidly rising escalator.”

The hawks, heavier than air, are actually falling, Teale said, but the warm air current is rising faster than they are falling.

Well named, broad-winged hawks are broad in body, wing and tail. Nature has given them the perfect aerodynamics to carry them from Canada to South America with very little muscle engaged or energy expended.

As perch hunters that watch for prey from a tree branch, they’re couch potatoes of a sort, ill-equipped for the rigors of a long flight but perfectly equipped to ride high on thermal lift and then set their wings for a glide descent to the next hot air bubble.

Instead of groups spiraling high last Saturday, broadwings were sailing past the hawkwatch site as individuals on a straight southerly trajectory, flapping on occasion.

A flapping, lone bird usually isn’t a broad-winged hawk. Ten to a hundred or more in a group circling high definitely are.

As usual there was joking about what makes a “kettle” — the term for groups of hawks riding high on thermals. Are two birds a “ket”? That’s the lame joke I help perpetuate.

No, says Hawkwatcher Henry who staffs the watch for Audubon, two is a pair.

Okay then. Three or more makes a kettle.

Bona fide kettles did show up on Saturday, not large by mid-September standards and not rising very high given the conditions, but able to stir excitement among the gathering watchers. Typically the kettles formed low in the valley as small, black shapes slowly circled, rising up past the horizon line into a cloudy sky with many shades of gray.

The largest kettle of the day was an impressive 170, albeit distant specks that required scopes for the counting. We soon saw them closer, on a glide high against a rare expanse of blue sky.

About the same number of people gathered for the 1 p.m. release of an American kestrel rehabilitated by Maria Colby in Henniker. Just before the release and with perfect crowd-pleasing timing, six broadwings flew close overhead, single file, most likely on a glide between thermals. No need for scope or binoculars.

Often a few hawks, close up, riding the wind, can draw people in to the lure of wild world more than 170 distant specks.

To me, that’s what the hawkwatch is about: drawing people in. It’s about counting, too, of course, and submitting data to a large national count, numbers that are analyzed for population trends.

As the wild world goes, comparatively, raptors are doing well especially when compared to decades back when DDT took a heavy toll and hawkwatches were more about shooting hawks. Pesticides remain a concern despite bans on the most persistent.

As for the photo presented here, of a child aloft, the 1 p.m. hour arrived, time to release the young kestrel that had been abandoned by its parents and handed over to a wildlife rehabber.

Henry was to extract the young and very energetic falcon from its carrying case and present this most colorful bird for lots of photos and talk before gently casting it to the winds.

Henry has earned an appreciative following for the narratives that accompany his daily data submittals. In wonderful Henry prose, he captures the people, the setting, the hawks, the good humor — all the many parts that add up to the sum total of the hawkwatch.

In his words, this is what happened despite Henry’s very best and very skilled effort to present the bird to the expectant gathering:

“Over 150 people turned out to see the release of a young American Kestrel. He wanted freedom faster than his butter-fingered handler could give it to him. No leave-taking, no by-your-leave, just a whipping of wings out through the cracked door, and off he went, a runaway kite with no strings attached.”

The kestrel did give us a good view as it slalomed among mountaintop spruce to get his bearings. Sometimes a released bird disappears immediately.

Julie Brown, who had been explaining the fall migration and was to talk a bit about kestrels, one of the few raptor species in decline, swooped her daughter Laurel high in place of the kestrel.

As the expressions on the faces in the crowd indicate, her timing was perfect, too. Hawkwatchers are good-humored folk. We cheered the young kestrel on his way and young Laurel as well.

More kettles followed, not large, but pleasingly close. A few osprey and several bald eagles gave pause to the broadwing focus, as well as a bunch of feisty sharp-shinned hawks hurtling by. The day’s total was 1,334 raptors and good times shared by their watchers—to be continued daily on through mid-November.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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