Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Broad-wings of Spencer Crest

Happy Earth Day! I can't think of a better day to post about a pivotal moment on my birding calendar that occurs each spring.

Spencer Crest Nature Center hosts a breeding pair of one of my favorite raptors, the Broad-winged Hawk. While many birders in the northeast count May as the prima donna of the birding calendar I side with April when Broad-wings, specifically that pair, return to Spencer Crest.

They were the birds I was most hoping to encounter during my visit last Saturday. Sometimes you see them on the drive in, perched on a large snag that stands on the west side of Amelia Pond. Sometimes you hear their high-pitched call as you step out of your car. Sometimes you watch one flush overhead as you walk the trails through the woods, and sometimes you miss them altogether.

About thirty-five minutes into my walk I was just entering the woods when I heard a single cry of a Broad-winged coming from a stand of White Pines. Scanning those tall trees didn't help, as I continued down the trail a bird suddenly flushed and disappeared. Not a great look, but at least one was back. That confirmation is what I was hoping for.

An hour later I finally saw one as I stood at the intersection of two trails, about quarter-mile from where I first heard the hawk. A largish bird, at least compared to the woodpeckers and creepers I'd been watching, landed on a large branch high above me, but in plain view.

Broad-winged Hawk
I moved quietly, stealthily shooting a series of pictures, at least in my mind. I was probably like a lumbering elephant in the bird's eyes, but it was kind enough to stay for a bit. I checked how much space remained on the card, discovering I only had space for eleven more images. Typical. If I tried to swap out the old card for the empty one in my pocket it would flush. So, with a handful of perched shots already completed I waited patiently for an action shot.

Broad-winged Hawk in flight
After several minutes it flew, but only a short distance to a neighboring tree. Just what I was hoping for - a chance at a flight shot. Unfortunately, only one of my shots came reasonably close to being in focus. No National Geographic cover, but the details allowing identification are there - the broad, alternating black-and-white banding on the tail, the dark trailing edge on the upper wings. Small consolation considering the head is completely absent.

It only stayed in the new spot for a minute, then bolted to parts unknown. One of the last images before the card filled shows the bird energetically launching from the branch in a crazy, sideways posture. Obviously one that it didn't hold for long.

Broad-winged Hawk in flight
It is something to see a kettle of these small buteos as they ride thermal to thermal on migration, and seeing a river of them moving over Corpus Christi or another fall hawkwatch must be an unparalleled event. But the two individuals who call Spencer Crest their home is my tipping point in my time line of spring migration - now the floodgates can open. I'm now primed for the vireos, warblers, thrushes, and others to make their appearance.


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