At the age of 5 years old I was given a Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. The book was a gift from an aunt that seemed to sense that I’d have an interest in such things. I still have that original field guide with its dried out binding and a hapless piece of masking tape long since lost to its purpose.
I purchased another edition when the the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds was updated. It was lost during a field trip in which I was collecting nests in autumn. Somewhere along the way I set the guide down and left it behind, never to be found again. That meant the precious records I’d kept for my life list were gone as well. A harsh lesson was learned about keeping track of my most important belongings.
That’s a lesson we seem to learn time and again throughout life. We can even lose parts of ourselves if we’re not careful about keeping track of who we are.
To that end, my relationship with birding is not quite as passionate as it once was, but it is still there. The desire to chase down new species has mellowed. And yet, there have been some fun moments over the last few years when extremely rare species of birds turned up in our area and I made the quick trip to see them. So the thrill of the chase still exists.
And actually, I’m much more interested in observing the fine details of birds these days than chasing down rarities. As an artist that has drawn and painted birds my whole life, and sold thousands of paintings of these creatures, it is still thrilling for me to look through binoculars and a scope at an interesting species of bird and study the facets of its feathers or the construction of its beak.
But I don’t always have binoculars in hand when birds turn up. I was running a four-mile loop along the Fox River last week when a first-year Bald Eagle came coursing north over the Batavia Depot Pond. I watched it flap and glide toward Fabyan Park and then it apparently turned around. It came back over my head as I was running, so I stopped, and pointed it out to a couple who were already staring up at the bird. “That’s a bald eagle,” I informed them, and went on to explain that it could well be one of the two young that fledged in a nest on the Mooseheart property two miles to the south.
Actually, there are now dozens of eagles along the Fox River. In the last ten years or so, their populations boomed and there are eagles of all variations along the river. It takes bald eagles four years to reach maturity with their white heads and tails. Before that, they are dark all over with a white belly and flecks or patches of light plumage cropping up on their bodies.
Which is confusing to people that don’t know eagles, or birds in general. The same holds true with hawks. There are 10+ species of hawks that occur in our area. Some are falcons, others accipiters. The largest proportion of the hawk population are red-tailed hawks, the most common species of hawk in North America.
Red-tails also vary quite widely in coloration. They start out brown and mottled and mature into adults with russet red tails. But there are color variations even among adult red-tails, with some individuals completely chocolate brown while others are nearly white all over. There’s a purpose to all this in terms of evolutionary adaptation, and what we see in these variations is ultimately the manner in which speciation occurs. If a population becomes isolated in its genetics or preferences over time it may become a distinct species.
When I’m out cycling or running and see a hawk species, I can identify most of them within half a second. I know their shape, their flight profiles and their manner of perching or landing. Each of these characteristics has been ingrained in my birding memory bank from years of studying hawks and other species of birds in the field. I get fooled now and then but 95% of the time I’m right.
Having this type of information ready makes my outdoor activities a bit more interesting. Some people like to know what they’re seeing when a hawk flies overhead, but others could not seem to care less. I recall the moment in a business meeting on the 36th floor of the John Hancock building in Chicago. A peregrine falcon floated up level with the window, riding an updraft. We were four feet from the bird, a rare opportunity to study such a wonderful creature so close. The meeting was not that important, just a review of the
client activity that week, but somehow people could not spare thirty seconds to take in an amazing sight like that. There were other things wrong with that company at the time, and one of them was a narrow-minded view of its core business opportunities. I’d tried to expand this view during my time there, but management was stubborn. Six months after I left the company, they implemented the very policies I’d proposed. I’ve always seen that hawk floating by the window as symbolic in some ways of how close-mindedness can prevent people from seeing outside their little boxes.
How can one not be inspired by the sight of a hawk floating on the wind? Are we not envious of that ability, and mimic that ability with our tall buildings and airplanes? And those of us that run and ride love the free-wheeling feel of coursing over the ground like a harrier.
Of course not every moment of a hawk’s life is so graceful. I’ve also witnessed a red-tail pigging out on a big snake it had caught. The bird was so full, it’s crop stuck out the front of its chest. It could not fly with that weight in its craw, so it hopped awkwardly across the ground and sat with its feathers sticking out at odd angles until the snake was digesting. Then it flapped away from its low perch as if it had just eaten a giant pizza.
And isn’t that inspiring? Perhaps not.
But the more graceful aspects of hawks and eagles is still inspiring to most. When you come around the corner of a road in the hills to find a hawk with its wings spread in the wind, it makes you feel as if you could fly as well. And perhaps you can, in spirit.
Because there was a day in 1973 when our cross country team was about to face an opponent that had won dozens of dual meets in a row. Our team was the upstart, and I was nervous about the day. So I retreated to the top seats of the bleachers with a book titled “The Peregrine” in hand. The descriptions of a man in Great Britain following the rare falcons to the very shores of the coast was so inspiring that I was lost in a dream world. The feeling I got from that literature carried right into the race with thoughts of falcons free on the wind. I led the team to victory that day, and give all credit to the inspiration of those hawks coursing over the English moors.
Of course, there are some people who are driven in their entire careers to protect and save raptor species. A long-ago friend named Tom Maechtle and I used to run around the fields looking for hawks and owls together. Tom followed his passion for hawks into a career in which he’s done field work with falcons on the cliffs of Idaho and high in the trees of Amazon jungles. He never had time for sports despite the fact that he stood 6’4″ and would have made a fine basketball player, for he was robust and had a high level of endurance. I know this because I traipsed after him through deep snows and thick brush. I admire what the man has done in his life, protecting these inspiring birds from unnecessary extinction.