Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hawk watching at Beamer Memorial

In the past year, I’ve realized two important and surprising things about myself:

  1. while I had considered myself in general a serious and risk-adverse person, I still need "mini-adventures" to energize me and to buoy the enthusiasm I feel for life. Now I don’t mean bungie-jumping or treks across the Sahara desert – just getting outside my comfort zone and doing things outside the everyday routine.
  2. while I had considered myself pretty much a city person, I am energized by being in natural surroundings (forest, beach, etc.).
So about a week ago, after seeing some hawks along the highway, I did a little research and found that there are a few places in Ontario that are particularly good places to view migrating hawks, eagles, and other birds of prey. I love seeing these birds because their freedom and power inspire me, and they’re also pretty easy to spot and identify. After reading about Beamer Memorial Conservation Area on the website for Niagara Peninsula Hawkwatch, I decided that I should check it out. It was a beautiful day, I had the day off, and it would have been a shame to stay inside. So I packed my car with a few things and headed off, not entirely sure what I would see.

What I had not expected was this:

There was a tower. There were lots of cars and people. Most of the people were men. Since it was a weekday, there were several retired men. Most of them seemed to have known each other for years. They came supplied with binoculars and expensive-looking cameras with huge zoom lenses. They had packed lunches and thermoses and lawn chairs. They had their own vernacular (“TV” for turkey vulture, “shoulder” for red-shouldered hawk, "Gary" for a Cooper hawk, “gashawk” for airplane, etc.). When someone spotted a bird of prey, they called it out with the location so everyone else could see it, confirm it, and identify it. Counts were kept to track bird populations from year to year.

I hadn’t brought my own lawnchair, so I ended up sitting on a picnic table with a couple of greybeards. I listened in on their conversations, started asking a few questions here or there, and gradually they opened up and started sharing with me hints on books to read more on the subject (recommended were “A Year at the Cape” [not sure, but maybe they meant this book?], “The Wind Masters,” and “Hawks in Flight”), the best weather conditions in which to watch for raptors (overcast because the birds are easier to see against the clouds than against blue sky, cool so the thermals that lift the birds to higher altitudes are weaker), how to differentiate between the species, where to park my car so it wouldn’t be vandalized at the conservation area, etc. When they realized that I didn’t have binoculars, one of the gentlemen loaned me his extra set. They were exceptionally kind and willing to introduce a newcomer like me to the hobby they enjoyed with such passion.

As we sat in the sun and it became increasingly futile to look for the migrating birds (it was a warm day, and the thermals were lifting them to such heights that most could not be seen, even with binoculars), I sat listening to them talking about T-shirts they particularly liked (one where native Americans were depicted with bows and arrows, saying “Fighting terrorism since 1492”), about trends in nature (“Studies now show that the turkey vultures are moving further north while the ravens are moving further south.”), cars, current events, etc. They were intelligent, articulate, discussed a wide range of topics, and weren’t afraid to take a piss at each other (“Two loons above the tower!” “Six loons on the tower!”). They reminded me a great deal of the personalities I had worked and studied alongside when I was working on my biology degree.

And it was a really good day.

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