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.

 

 

The Texas Two-Step: Spring Birding, Lone-Star Style

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

American Avocet, Bolivar Peninsula

April 18, 2014. The Bolivar Peninsula. Friday morning. It’s our first day in Texas, and we’re surrounded. My mother, my son and I have come, not for music, Texas barbeque, or large hats and longhorns, but for the birds. And they do not disappoint: Terns, gulls, pelicans, sandpipers and plovers, herons and oystercatchers—thousands of birds, spread out in a panoply before us. To our left, a flock of Black Skimmers take to the air; dead ahead, a hundred or more American Avocets work the shallows; on our right, Marbled Godwits probe the sandy bottom, searching for a meal with bills long as a lover’s kiss. Between the Avocets and us, a dozen Least Terns sit restlessly on the sand, accompanied by a trio of Black Terns—a bird I’d previously come across only in field guides. And over it all, a constant stream of Gull-billed, Forster’s, Sandwich, and Royal Terns sail effortlessly by on outstretched wings. It’s birding by complete immersion, like sipping from a fire hose. And this is just the beginning. Examining fields, waterways, ditches, and stands of palm trees scattered throughout revealed further delights—Long-billed Curlews, American Golden Plovers, and Loggerhead Shrikes among them. Even the roadside fences had something on display, giving us great looks at the marvelous and engaging Scissor-tailed Flycatcher—a striking bird no matter how often we encountered it.

Indigo Bunting, High Island

Indigo Bunting, High Island

After exploring the peninsula, we headed out to High Island, and the sanctuaries of Boy Scout Woods and Smith Oaks. High Island is arguably one of the most inaccurately named areas of the country, as it’s neither high nor an island. It is, however, fantastic for birds. It sits on the northwestern edge of the Gulf of Mexico and offers glorious respite to northbound migrants—a lush, verdant haven for birds exhausted from their non-stop flight across the Gulf’s open expanse. Indigo Buntings, Scarlet and Summer Tanagers, Orchard Orioles, warblers, thrushes and vireos, all break their journeys here to gather strength before pressing onward. An active rookery at Smith Oaks also serves as a critical nesting ground for Roseate Spoonbills, Neotropic Cormorants, and a variety of other wading and water birds—and provided us with unparalleled, intimate views of these spectacular creatures.

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

Roseate Spoonbill, Smith Oaks Rookery

We could easily have spent a week getting deep into the wonders of High Island, but we had an engagement to keep with the birds of south Texas. Hard as it was to take our leave, after two days, we ventured to birding mecca: the valley of the Rio Grande.

The Rio Grande Valley—or RGV, to those in the know—is one of the most ecologically diverse areas of the country. Desert landscapes, wetlands, coastal shorelines, riparian woods, tropic zones, salt marshes, and palm forests all exist within its confines, and provide refuge to an astonishing array of birds, many of which are found nowhere else in the country. There are close to 90 parks, wildlife refuges, and birding hotspots across the region, and you could spend months exploring them. We hit six during our too-short visit: Estero Llano Grande, South Padre Island, Sabal Palm Sanctuary, Quinta Mazatlan, Bentsen-Rio Grande, and Falcon State Park. Every park had wonders to discover, and even the roads to them held surprises, including Harris’ Hawk and Crested Caracara (two of my target birds for the trip, and both of which forced abrupt highway maneuvers).

Crested Caracaras

Crested Caracaras

At Bentsen-Rio Grande, we caught up with the elusive Elf Owl, a nesting Gray Hawk, and the charming and diminutive Northern Beardless Tyrannulet (a south Texas endemic). Falcon State Park held desert specialties like Greater Roadrunner, Verdin, and Pyrrhuloxia. We had great looks at Curve-billed Thrashers and Olive Sparrows at Quinta, and Green Jays, Black-crested Titmice and Buff-bellied Hummingbirds at Sabal Palm. The highlights for me, though, were Estero Llano Grande and South Padre Island.

Estero is a marvel to behold. It’s a relatively small refuge, and easily managed, but it features the greatest habitat diversity for a single park in the RGV—and consequently plays host to perhaps the widest range of bird species. One of our first sightings was a pair of beautiful Fulvous Whistling Ducks—a life bird for all three of us, and an excellent portent for the day. This was followed by a procession of shorebirds: Stilt Sandpipers, Killdeer, a single Spotted Sandpiper, Long-billed Dowitchers, Least Sandpipers, Avocets and Black-necked Stilts—the epitome of elegance in long legs and sharp contrasts, and utterly captivating. Across the deck, and just behind the park office, Plain Chachalacas, White-winged Doves, Green Jays, and the scaly-feathered Inca Doves were among the visitors to one of the park’s few feeding stations. And crossing the pond along the boardwalk, we were greeted in most un-rail-like fashion by a Virginia Rail and a Sora, both out in the open and exposed, completely out of character for these usually skittish and secretive birds. Incredulous as we were, we still took full advantage, watching and photographing them as they scoured the mudflats 10 feet in front of us. We spent the rest of the day in a constant state of ecstatic delirium as Estero revealed its wonders: Great Kiskadees by the handful, Common Pauraques, Wilson’s Phalaropes, and a pair of courting White-tailed Kites arcing and dipping gracefully above the treetops.

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

Black-necked Stilt, Estero Llano Grande

We rounded out the visit watching an electric-orange Altamira Oriole tend to its pendulous nest, and catching a glimpse of an Eastern Screech Owl taking the last of its daily rest before foraging for the evening’s repast.

South Padre Island provides a different flavor of birding spectacle. Situated in the Gulf of Mexico just across from Port Isabel, South Padre is almost entirely developed. The little open space left is focused primarily around two sites: the South Padre Island Convention Center and the Birding and Nature Center. These two areas are migratory magnets, drawing birds in and concentrating them—sometimes in breathtaking numbers. Even on a slow day, though, the birds are nothing short of spellbinding. Wandering the Convention Center grounds, we had Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Magnolia, and Tennessee Warblers mere feet from us, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Eurasian Collared Doves resting above our heads, an extralimital Red-headed Woodpecker (which caused quite a stir), a flock of two-dozen Dicksissel, and, in one view, a Painted Bunting, a Blue Grosbeak, and at least 17 Indigo Buntings drenching us in color and song. We were even graced with visits from both Yellow- and Black-billed Cuckoos.

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre

Black-bellied Whistling Duck, South Padre Island

After drinking in the songbirds at the Convention Center, we headed next door to connect with waterfowl and waders along the Birding and Nature Center’s boardwalk loop through the marsh. Almost immediately, we were greeted by what is certainly one of the region’s most iconic and familiar birds, and has become a personal favorite: the beautifully plumed Black-bellied Whistling Duck, whose gentle face, bold eye ring, and vibrant orange/pink stick-on bill lend it a humorous, quizzical expression. We’d seen them all over Texas, but they were here by the dozens. So, too, were the big waders: herons and egrets. All gave us fantastic looks, but the standouts were a Reddish Egret dancing for dinner just off the boardwalk, and a Tri-colored Heron catching small fish with its arrestingly blue bill.

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

Tri-colored Heron, South Padre Island

We spent the better part of six days birding the Rio Grande Valley (including a second stop at Estero) before heading northward again, towards Huston and our final park: Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is one of the last stands of southeast Texas’ once vast expanse of coastal prairie, and is home to Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, a critically endangered subspecies of the Greater Prairie Chicken. There are so few of these birds left in the wild that several years ago, the US Fish and Wildlife Service established seven captive breeding sites to help save them. Today, the birds seem headed for recovery, but FWS is incredibly protective. The only way for the public to see them is to reserve a seat on an FWS van and get driven out over several miles of bumpy dirt road closed to all but sanctioned personnel—and there’s no guarantee that the Prairie Chickens will be there when you are. We were fortunate, though, and arrived on the scene in time to watch seven of them, including several males decked out in full breeding regalia and putting on quite a show for the ladies. I don’t know how long we spent watching them, but everyone in the van sat reverently enchanted by the display, sharing the moment with perfect strangers, latching on to the wildness and grasping, if only fleetingly, the thread that binds us all, human and avian alike, to each other.

This is what birding is truly about. It’s more than just reveling in a show of feathers or finding solace in the company of birds. At its heart, birding reawakens our ancestral memory and re-ignites the ancient spark of connection between ourselves and the natural world. It reminds us that we are indescribably yet intimately linked to the creatures around us, that we share a future, that we are kin. We are not above Nature, we are part of it, as dependent on the planet’s biological support systems as all other life on Earth. For better or worse, we are the caretakers of this planet, and it is incumbent on us to ensure that we, the birds—indeed all of Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful”—have a home here, and a chance to live their lives with dignity and respect, and free from the possibility that a single species, through carelessness and lack of vision, seals an unkind  fate for all.