Wayfaring Stranger

December 20, 4:00 AM. Thursday. The sun still two hours from breaching the horizon, I’m up and pulling myself out from sleep-warmed sheets and into the pre-dawn chill. My wife, still snuggled safely under the covers, breathes softly, oblivious to the goings-on around her. She won’t be joining this chase.

I dress quietly in the dark and head to the kitchen for a quick breakfast, waiting for my son to wake and making final preparations for the day’s adventure: a northern sprint to a little park in Portland, Maine, wherein lies the rarest bird we’ll ever see.

Aidan emerges from his room, groggy but excited. Though he’s on winter break and fiercely protective of his sleep, this trip was his idea. He is first and foremost a birder, and earliness of the hour be damned, he’s champing at the bit to go. It’s three-and-a-half hours to our destination, and the winter light is short; there will be time to rest tomorrow. We gather the last few items—binoculars, cameras, gloves, provisions for the road (even birders as obsessed as we are need to eat)—and we’re off, leaving my wife sound asleep and the cats silently questioning our sanity. Just one thing left to do: pick up Keith.

Gyrfalcon © Keith Carver

As of this writing, Keith Carver and I have known each other for exactly six years and 30 days—and I can almost pinpoint the hour. This is due not to any special powers of recollection on my part, nor because I have the date and time entered into a journal. I know this because on January 2, 2013, Keith and I met in Hadley, Massachusetts while watching a Gyrfalcon. In our area, this happens about once every 20 years, so it’s an event of some note—and a very auspicious start to a friendship that’s since included Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese, Bohemian Waxwings, and one very obliging Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Keith’s a great friend and wonderful birding companion, and is always up for a chase: When I told him our plan and invited him to join us, he didn’t hesitate. He also knows Portland well, and could guide us to the very spot where, with a little luck, the bird would be waiting.

When we got to Keith’s house, he was ready for us. A quick turnaround—exchanging greetings, stowing gear—and we were back on the road, drawn automatically and inexorably towards our own Magnetic North, driven by hope, passion, and the thrill of the chase.

Three hours later, we pulled off the interstate and into Portland, our destination just to the right of the exit ramp. One slow merge and three turns later and we’d arrived: Deering Oaks Park. And there, at the last turn, was the bird—perched in a tree at the junction of Park and Deering Avenues, in the park’s southwest corner, right where it was supposed to be. We found a spot just down the road, walked back to the tree, and looked up.

There it was. And it was beautiful. At the end of the easiest chase we’d ever had was the rarest bird we’d ever seen. For a moment, none of us spoke—we just stared, letting our minds fully grasp the reality of the situation in which we now found ourselves. By all rights, the bird shouldn’t have been there—and yet it was. Standing on a corner in downtown Portland, Maine, we were looking at a Great Black Hawk.

Great Black Hawks are large raptors (similar in size to Red-tailed Hawks) native to Central and South America; until this bird, there’d never been a confirmed wild Great Black Hawk north of Mexico. Then, on April 24, 2018, a birder found and photographed a large raptor on Texas’s South Padre Island; review of the photos and subsequent observations confirmed the bird as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. But the bird vanished later that day, and despite dedicated searching was never seen again.

Fast forward to August 6. Twenty-four miles south of Portland, a birder again photographs an unusual hawk, this one soaring over the seaside town of Biddeford Pool. The photo hits the Internet and eventually lands at a FaceBook group called What’s This Bird?, where it’s identified as a juvenile Great Black Hawk. Three days later, this bird, too, disappears. On October 29, the bird appears again, this time along Portland’s East Promenade—but vanishes like smoke the next day.

Finally, on Thursday, November 29, the hawk discovers Deering Oaks Park and, without fanfare or fuss, settles in. Since that August 6 report, birders up and down the state have been on the lookout for this bird; word gets out almost from the minute it touches down, and birders begin pouring in behind it—the first trickles of water ahead of the flood. Someone manages to capture a photo of the underside of its wing, showing distinctive patterning. Comparison to underwing photos of the Texas bird come up positive: incredibly, this is the same bird that materialized over South Padre Island eight months before—and nearly 2000 miles away.

News of the hawk’s arrival in Portland spreads beyond Maine’s borders like wildfire, drawing people from across the country—Massachusetts, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California. It spends the next several weeks in the park, feasting on a near-endless supply of squirrels, rats, and pigeons, and tussling with the resident Red-tails. Thousands of birders come to this unlikely spot to bear witness to an event the likes of which, in a lifetime of birding, may happen once.

And thus, on the morning of December 20, did we find ourselves in the hawk’s company—the faithful, as it were, undertaking a holy pilgrimage to offer our respects and simply be in the presence of this glorious bird. We spent nearly three hours there, among a small crowd of kindred spirits celebrating the occasion and our collective good fortune to be a part of it, each of us subsuming a piece of history and in turn being subsumed by it, awed by the mysterious spectacle. Questions fell like rain. How had this hawk gotten here? How long would it stay? How was it surviving, and how long would it last? The bird, naturally, was silent to our queries, and simply went about the business of being a bird—in this case, roosting, hunting the copious and corpulent urban squirrels, and for the most part ignoring us. And that was the wonder of it. In an entirely alien environment, in the midst of its celebrity, this hawk found a way to survive, and did so with grace and relative ease. It appeared to all the world as if it belonged there—despite being 3000 miles from the familiar, from home.

And then, as difficult as it was to break away, it was time to begin our southward trip home. We parted ways with the group—these former strangers to whom we were now, through this encounter, permanently connected—silently thanked the hawk, and wished it well. For now, at least, it was healthy and it was safe. But its future, like its past, was uncertain.

The Great Black Hawk continued to delight new and repeat visitors to the park for some time. Prey was bountiful, and thus far the weather had been mild, sparing the bird the full fury of December in Maine. In the back of everyone’s mind, though, was the “What if?”. This was, after all, a bird of the tropics, not adapted to the brutal cold and punishing reality of a true New England winter. If conditions changed, if the mercury plummeted and snow and ice took hold of Deering Oaks Park, would the hawk survive?

Like everyone, I hoped for the best, but was subconsciously steeling myself against an outcome I hadn’t the courage to voice. Nature plays by her own rules though, with no regard for our feelings or desires: On January 20, winter’s hammer struck on the winds of a bitter storm that would ultimately claim the hawk’s life.

That was the scenario everyone had been watching for. Everyone knew what it might mean, and people were ready for it. The morning after the storm, someone went looking for the hawk and found it lying on the ground, unable to stand, and virtually unresponsive… yet somehow alive. That same morning, Terra Fletcher, a recent transplant to the state who we’d met on our visit and who had experience with raptors, happened to be in the park as well. She took the bird home, got it warm and safe, and then made contact with Avian Haven, a dedicated bird rehab facility in Freedom, Maine, who arranged transport for the hawk. Road conditions could hardly have been worse: the usually 90-minute trip was a harrowing four-hour ordeal, but the hawk’s condition seemed to improve along the way. When it arrived at Avian Haven, the bird was alert and active. After emergency care for frostbite to both feet and general debilitation, the staff at Avian Haven settled the Great Black Hawk into intensive care for the night.

The next morning, the hawk was standing and very hungry. A full exam revealed that the bird was stable and in good overall body condition, but the frostbite was a bit worrying. Though it didn’t appear excessive at that point, frostbite is notoriously insidious. It would be at least a few days before they’d know the full extent of the damage. In the meantime, the hawk was still eating ravenously and seemed to be gaining strength.

Appearances can be deceiving, though. Wild animals hide their injuries well; by the time something is obviously wrong, it’s often too late. Though the hawk’s appetite continued unabated and it grew feistier, the full effects of frostbite began to show: it had progressed from the bird’s feet to its lower legs. By January 29, the situation looked grim: the vets at Avian Haven were faced with the probability that the bird would lose at least two toes from each foot to frostbite. In all likelihood, it would be worse.

The next morning, the hawk’s appetite fell precipitously and it was unable to stand. Diagnostic tests showed no circulation in the feet or lower legs; when the vets removed the bandages, both feet were discolored and beginning to decompose. Avian Haven had done all they could; despite heroic efforts to save the hawk, the damage was too great. This wayward stranger’s journey had reached its end.

I, like all who’d come to know this bird, was heartbroken. It all seemed so futile—all the effort, and for what? If it was just going to die anyway, what was the point? Why? The answer, of course, is simple: because. Because to do nothing, to let the bird suffer, cold and alone, would have been morally wrong. In its need for protection, for kindness, and for care, the hawk was no different from any of us. Though the outcome was ultimately the same, in its last days, the hawk knew peace, safety, and comfort. It was shown great compassion, and in its final moments it was attended by people whose hearts had grown to encompass this incredible, bird. On some level, I’m certain it understood that people cared for it. That it was loved.

During its life, the Great Black Hawk brought joy to all who spent time with it. People who had never watched a bird before became captivated by this beautiful hawk and the story of its epic journey; many found themselves caring. For some, it awakened a sense of awe and wonder in the face of Nature, and a desire to protect Her. And there were those of us who fell in love.

Chasing birds is about the allure of the possible, the embrace of wonder. But it’s also about accepting the beauty and fragility of life, and the reality of its inevitable and sometimes tragic end. The idea of a tropical raptor finding safe haven in northern New England was ludicrous, until the Great Black Hawk found its way to a city park in Portland, Maine and changed everything. Should this have been possible? No, not really. Yet somehow, there it was. And though this hawk met its fate too early, while it lived it was magnificent. Power, beauty, grace, dignity, all given exquisite form in feather, muscle, and bone—a winged embodiment of living fire, defying all expectations of what should be, and by its presence challenging us to rethink what we know. This is how I choose to remember it.

Birds don’t exist for our benefit, but we benefit from their existence—ephemeral though it may be. Had I not spent time with the Great Black Hawk, would I have been spared the pain of its death? Of course. But I would have been robbed of something much greater: the chance to witness something spectacular and to know, even a little, the magical, the wondrous, and the beautiful life it was.

By their nature, birds are creatures of mystery, capable of things the likes of which we humans can only dream. Spend time with them—any of them—and I dare you not to become captivated, and perhaps even fall in love. But spend time with something this rare, and I dare you not to reevaluate your knowledge of what can be, not to question your idea of the possible. And I dare you to remain unchanged.

This, this is what the Great Black Hawk was. For me, the experience was worth a broken heart.

 

 

9 thoughts on “Wayfaring Stranger

  1. What a wonderful story. I too love birds. Been watching them for 30+ yrs. And that is all I do, watch and feed. Don’t know one species from another. I drag my husband all over the area, and even further for the rarer or unusual birds. We took the trip to ME one Sat. No luck. We left for home about 2 hrs. too soon. Saw that it was seen later that day, we were back there on Sunday. What a sight. Then on Jan.1st we took a trip to Plum Islaand so why not take the chance on the Hawk. We were glad we did. I’ve been following the Avian Haven updates and was so upset to see that she didn’t make it.
    (funny sie note, I am not a readerat all. When I see a post this long, I just skip right over it but I couldn’t stop reading this one)

  2. We all have a take away from this, at least the ones who really care about these things. My own takeaway was something I will hold for many years: I do not hope for the best outcome. I calculate, do the math and check the odds; then act. There are times when one has to act, and once again, I am left to know that under the circumstances, the bird was in jeopardy. Even with the scant knowledge I have, I knew if the Hawk stayed, it would die. Storm patterns have brought more snow and cold to our shorelines as a result of climate change. I was fully convinced that this hawk, like the Mandarin in central park, was brought here by human intervention, but we will never know. What I did know was that it was going to most likely die, and die in front of everyone. It helps to have raised over 200 forms of poultry in free range conditions. Which I have. It helps to look at other forms of birds histories in the conditions of winter. It helps to comprehend the natural eating habits and ecologic niche that the bird inhabits. I did all these things. But I too, was silent. For that, I became a witness of its tragedy, for that I became part of the problem, for that I have great regrets. Yes it was just one hawk. Yes it was a mistake on my part, and I think many others, who if given the circumstances all over again, might have done something different. I cannot speak for anyone else. But I know once again I am changed by this event.

    • You make some excellent points, but the issue is, in many ways, more complex than that. As you point out, we will most likely never know the provenance of this hawk, but there exists the very real possibility (probability, according to many raptor experts) that this was a wild bird. Consider where it was first seen, in south Texas. This, as you know, is very close to its home range–particularly when measuring distances from a bird’s perspective. It’s also where, for decades now, experts and laypeople alike have been expecting one to show up. The other sightings of Great Black Hawks in the U.S. have all been in VA and FL, and all were either confirmed or presumed captive birds that had escaped or were released. Again, this bird was first seen just north of its typical range, so not out of the question that it could have been a wild bird. Also, many vagrants are first-year or juvenile birds (as this one was)–something to do with not yet having a fully-developed navigational sense.

      I think the most salient point, though, is that birds are adaptable (some more than others, of course). Species regularly explore new areas–some successfully, others less so. In our area, Carolina Wrens, Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Northern Mockingbirds, and Tufted Titmice were all unheard of just decades ago, and are now commonplace. Carolina Wrens are particularly illustrative, as they push northward when conditions are good, but when the weather gets harsh, many die off. The survivors, though, keep contributing their genes to the population, eventually leading to a species that is better adapted to survive colder conditions. Black Vultures have, in recent years, expanded northward to great success. And Cattle Egrets are an African species that expanded into South America and then northward into the southern U.S.; last year, there were at least nine in western MA, so they may be the next species to take up residence here. Also, specific individuals who find themselves out of range often do quite well–as with the tropicbird off the coast of Maine (now in his 13th year, I believe).

      Of course, other birds show up and don’t make it. Two rare flycatchers showed up in NY last year and didn’t survive, and there are many other examples. It’s extremely saddening, but it is a part of nature.

      The question is what to do. It’s not feasible to capture every bird that shows up far out of range, and some birds are harder to catch than others (raptor banders will tell you that they can be very difficult to trap). And then there’s the question of whether or not it’s our place to do that. Nature has Her own way of doing things, and there’s some validity to the argument that we shouldn’t be interfering with Her (and often when we do, it’s to the detriment of all). Of course through our actions, we already are–climate change, habitat loss, and overpopulation are having grievous effects on the planet. These, however, must be addressed on a larger scale–and on some level, individual species are going to have to adjust on their own, as it’s too late in the game to prevent many of the effects of climate change.

      There are no easy answers, but it’s important to keep asking questions, and it’s important that we keep our dialog, and our minds, open. That’s the only way we’ll ever find any solutions at all.

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts. It’s through these discussions that we will, in fits and starts, move forward.

  3. his will be indeed a dialogue, and I very much understand your points: Some clarification however:
    A) I knew about the sighting of the bird in the South West, and recognize the “wild” factor. That made perfect sense. I also know the aspects of being trained as a Falconer, and that a novice is encouraged, required, to capture a bird from the ild in its juvenile state. While previous sitings were near the edges of the southern border, its odd that the bird wasn’t seen, and then stayed put in Maine. A bird that gets so much attention often attracts attention that is unsavory. I have witnessed this first hand more than a few times.
    B) Expansion of territorial areas within the birds physiology is not something both of us are not aware of. There are limits, and those limits when it comes to birds and other animals are known. Some birds are extremely adaptable, others are not. The Barn Owl on Martha’s Vineyard experiment failed because the feathers of its body are not equipped for cold. The Puffins on Eastern Egg had suffered severe losses due to the sea currents not being full of the fish they needed to breed young.
    A Hawk that lives near the rivers of the Amazon? I don’t know, but I do know that all birds carry one trait: efficiency.
    C) I have had to remove raptors from my chicken coops on occasion. They were released outside and in one instance was amazed at how a single talon went through one side of my glove and out the other side like butter. I cannot go from the general from the specific, because each bird is different due to its past experience. It is of course not feasible to catch every bird off course, but I never thought that. I was talking about this one bird. The Great Black Hawk.
    D) Nature takes its course, but we choose our own course as well. Many situations call for humans to assist in nature, too many that I can mention, and certain conservationists have spent a lifetime doing so. Because we, as a species, have now done more than our own share of harm. We are a malignant species for the most part, destroying far more than we create.
    So I choose to intervene when I can, even if the outcome is not known. In this case I would have chosen differently. As far as individual species adjusting, well… in previous times it was called extinction. Whats coming may take out 20% of diversity or more. Thats nature. This, on the other hand was a Hawk. One bird.
    E) What would I have done if I could change things, when people say no one should help, until the bird is lying helpless and frostbitten in the snow? I would have intervened, or found someone who had the authority to do so. I would have tried to help transport it, and I would have been honored, like so many others, to at least get it to Florida. We do not draw the line for compassion using numbers. When you can help, you are nearly forced into doing so because of soul. I would have no other choice.

    Devin, its good to have a friend that takes the time to think, write and bring information to the table. We agree fully that questions should be asked, informed conversations perhaps more than heartfelt opinions need to be heard, and problems, no matter how difficult need to be addressed. Resolutions are never without gradations, and solutions are never set in any more time than the length of their usefulness.

    • Amen- as a former wildlife rehabilitator, I know that most of the animals I picked up, “should” have been dead but that does not stop one from trying in hopes of release back to the wild. Letting nature take its course ? Compassion is compassion. We intervene sometimes as did those who picked up this great bird albeit too late for the bird. There will always be many sides to this story. Let us be considerate of one another’s thoughts on this matter.

  4. February marks my 60th year of birding and it goes without saying that the Great Black Hawk was among the most exciting birds I have ever seen. Such an unlikely species to end up in Maine! This is what birding is all about. I call it expect the unexpected. What a great ambassador for birding! If he caused just one non birder to become a birder then his death would not have been in vain.

  5. Beautifully written! You captured the heart of the experience for you and your son and the tragedy of the hawk. Your last words really hit home. This bird did leave its mark on us, as do all birds. But there was something about the magic and mystery of this one. At the same time, its mark changed our pursuit of rare birds: to see them as you did and to see them, especially the “wayward” ones, as something we are all responsible for. What causes more and more animals to lose their way?

    • Thanks, Bruce. As you know, birds are wonderfully mysterious, and we’ll probably never be sure why certain individuals lose their way. I suspect there are many factors involved, and quite a few that are caused by us–climate change, habitat loss, and disruption of food sources are at the top of the list, I imagine. Whatever the case, it’s more important now than ever that we all pay attention to what’s going on around us, and do what we can before it’s too late.

      Thanks again for reading!

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