It’s 3:46 p.m. on March 6, 2023. The overcast sky hides the sun as a cool breeze from a weak easterly wind fills the air. I stand vigilant upon a pile of ancient Tuscarora sandstone, rhythmically scanning the sky with my binoculars, up and down and left to right, before removing them from my face for a thorough glance with my naked eye. It’s all to no avail. A few raptors migrated earlier in the day, finding lift from the columns of rising warm air powered by the direct sunlight, but the sky is quiet now. The 2023 spring season at Tussey Mountain, unbeknownst to me at the time, will not be breaking any records. The warm weather and low snowfall have kept eagles, and other raptors, wintering farther north where they will not be detected from our lookout. As I stand sentry atop the rocks, my mind drifts from one thought to another. From the inexorable march of climate change to the fate of the avian communities to one existential question: Why do I hawkwatch? Better yet, why did I choose to dedicate two months of my life to a simple, albeit difficult, task?
It had always been my dream to contribute to the field of ornithology, and to better understand Golden Eagle migration and behavior, we need to count birds and record data. For science, I can justify the time spent braving the oppressively cold and windy days and exercising an inordinate amount of patience. Whether we use this data to assist with conservation efforts, further our understanding of their biology, or for an exercise in biostatistics, it helps us better understand the natural phenomenon of bird migration. After all, it wasn’t until Dan Ombalski and Dave Brandes dedicated their time to the site that we discovered that Tussey Mountain was a premier site for observing Golden Eagles in the eastern United States. Since conducting full-time spring counts, we have also learned new things about eastern Golden Eagles. For example, it was once a commonly held belief among raptor enthusiasts that any large raptor seen kiting (a form of hovering) east of the Mississippi River was a Red-tailed Hawk. This is not true! Over the last 20 years, we’ve observed and documented hundreds of Golden Eagles kiting at the site. But will hawkwatching always be necessary to gather this information? Like many trades, human hawkwatchers will likely become obsolete as artificial intelligence and robotics will do the job with greater accuracy than any error-prone human being could ever hope to achieve. When this happens, how will I justify my time spent staring at the sky?
I jump from my analytical left brain to my artistic right brain. I want to see beautiful birds! Golden Eagles are some of the largest and most imposing raptors on earth, and the sight of them is awe inspiring. They are also gorgeous, with subtly beautiful plumage that features their namesake golden head and neck, leading edge on the wing, and bars on the top of the wing. Immature Golden’s display their unmistakable white tail base and white wing patches, a plumage that ranks with spring Magnolia Warblers, Painted Buntings, and Scarlet Tanagers as one of the most famous aesthetics in North American birding. When they fly, they are strong and steady, an adept flyer that can maneuver as well as any of its raptorial counterparts. They are masters of flight. However, if it’s beauty and aesthetic we seek, why not stay home and scroll through photos and videos on the internet? One can look up thousands of Golden Eagle pictures online within a fraction of a second, all without having to wait for hours in the cold, and with a view that is better than anything most hawkwatchers could ever hope to see in their lifetime. If I can enjoy these images without spending gas money, then why do I make my daily journey out onto the mountain?
Even if we’ve unraveled all the mysteries of Golden Eagle migration and photographed every plumage from every angle, we can still expect hawkwatching to be an engaging challenge. Unlike warblers in a nearby tree, raptors in the hawkwatching arena are often too distant to discern color or detailed field marks. To be a good hawkwatcher, one needs to rely on size, shape, and behavior to determine a species. At a distance, Golden Eagles can easily be confused with a variety of raptors including Turkey Vultures, Red-tailed Hawks, and, of course, Bald Eagles. Besides the notorious Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks, separating the Bald and Golden Eagles is one of our toughest challenges. Many times, I would see an eagle and begin arguing with myself: “Was the tail long or short?” “Was the head large or small?” “Were those tawny bars or was the light playing tricks on my eyes?” Eventually, these identification challenges were solved with careful analysis, help from my mentor, Nick, and many hours of practice in the field. As hawkwatchers, we learn the nuances of how raptors flap their wings, move in the wind, behave with other birds, and so on. It’s similar to identifying a person familiar to you. You see them walking in the opposite direction, three blocks away, and on a crowded street, but you instantly recognize them by their unique characteristics and movements. Like any skill, there is personal satisfaction and pride derived from achieving a level of competency. But if I wanted to master a skill, why birding specifically? Why not another hobby that requires less patience?
I return to my reverie of early March. The seasonably mild air and overcast evening sky fills me with a melancholy feeling, and I’m doubtful that I will see any more raptors today. Regardless, after spending hours and days repeating the scanning process, the spotting settles into beautiful monotony. I stare into a light wind with anticipation, my eyes locked above the tree line just 100 yards in front of me to northwest.
Suddenly, a large bird appears low on the north side of the ridge. This identification poses no challenge, and I know what it is immediately. It’s a Golden Eagle! It is taking a laborious flight path, flapping the entire way across the sky. With no thermal or ridge updrafts, this bird is forced to move ahead with energetically expensive wingbeats. Each wingbeat is shallow and labored but fluid and powerful. It continues along the ridge until it is straight out above the power cut. Once above the power cut, I can see every detail. It has a white tail band, white in the wings, and no tawny bars — a beautiful juvenile! After showcasing itself, the eagle abandons the ridge and heads north. It continues its powered flight toward the remote forests of the Alleghany Plateau and out of site. When it was gone, I thought about its epic journey — where it had been and where it was going. I admired its intrepidness and determination to migrate despite the poor weather conditions. Golden Eagles are among some of the wildest, fiercest, and toughest creatures on earth. They breed in remote areas of the stunted boreal forest in northern Canada. They have been known to attack prey as large as caribou in Alaska. And when they arrive to their breeding grounds in early spring, they must survive in a land that is still a frozen expanse. As this bird flew north, I thought of all this and wondered what its future held. What will it experience? What will it see? What will it eat? Will it have a successful nest? Will it survive another year? It is these questions that fill me with a profound sense of wonder. In this moment, I felt a connection to the incredible life of a wild creature. For me, this is why I wait for hours with bated breath for the opportunity to see a distant bird for only a few seconds.
|Overlap, more March
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|Overlap, more March