SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
January 16, 1967
After 10 years of observing and logging the habits of hawks, usually while crouched under a damp blind, the writer is witness to a rare and rewarding event
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January 16, 1967

A Visit From A Proud Stranger

After 10 years of observing and logging the habits of hawks, usually while crouched under a damp blind, the writer is witness to a rare and rewarding event

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With the bow net on the ground and the pigeons on our conscience, the four of us squeezed into the blind and commenced the principal business of bow-netting—waiting. The waiting is hypnotic. Partly it is the point-of-flame phenomenon of mystic fame—staring at a familiar object until fantastic sensations are achieved. After even a few hours, to say nothing of a few years, every contour line, every rock, every thicket overlooked by the blind is so well known that even a small thing—a limb broken off an oak a quarter of a mile away—is immediately noticed and becomes an object of speculation.

The hallucinations are not all metaphysical. The waiting, the concentration on the far horizon, along with anticipation, produces visual distortions. There is a phenomenon that trappers call "hawk spots." Suddenly one sees a small black dot moving against the sky like a gliding hawk. The trappers whisper urgently, "Here comes one," only to find that the spot is a mirage, not a hawk but an aberration of one's own vision. Butterflies, or even honeybees, flying a few inches in front of the observation slits, are often misidentified as hawks by eyes focused on some distant point in the sky.

The first hawk of genuine substance we saw that morning was a sharp-shin. Sharp-shins are, in a sense, the banderilleros to the great corrida of migrating hawks. They are small, agile hunters and are very numerous along the ridges during the fall. The sharp-shin is the lesser member of the Accipiter genus of hawk. All Accipiters have short wings and long, rudderlike tails that make them the most maneuverable of all the birds of prey. While pursuing quarry through thick cover, they can literally turn square corners. Sharp-shins are the smallest birds regularly migrating along the ridges, with a wingspan of about 20 inches. They are seldom taken in bow nets, pigeons being much too big for them. Therefore when the first sharp-shin rose against the woods and started straight in toward the clearing, Bill, on the lure line, kept the black-and-white lure bird in the air. This pigeon, a veteran of a hundred or so buzzings by sharp-shins, gave a few evasive flaps, more it seemed out of a sense of duty than from fear. The little hawk made three passes, pivoting around the lure pole in tight circles and giving a piercing kee, kee, kee scream of irritation. Then realizing he was overmatched by the pigeon, the sharp-shin turned and, flying only a few feet above the ground, came across the clearing directly toward the blind. Before he rose to pass over the brush pile and out of sight, he was close enough so that we could stare straight into his blazing eyes.

In replica, on a heraldic banner, in a museum case or the pages of a bird guide, the dramatic features of the birds of prey seem to be their talons, powerful wings and curved beaks, but face to face with a wild, live hawk, it is the eyes that seem to dominate. The eye of a hawk is incandescent. If you do not know or have forgotten, look into the eye of a hawk, and you will see that life burns hot and fierce.

After the first, there was a steady patter of sharp-shins, drifting into the clearing, flitting about the lure pigeon and then gliding off down the ridge. Mixed in with these little hawks were a few red-tails. These are big, heavy-bodied, broad-winged (four-and-a-half-foot spread) birds, strong and tenacious hunters, capable and, when the mood is on them, willing to come to a trapper's pigeons. Season after season more red-tails are banded in the mountains than any other species. The first red-tails that came down the ridge stayed airborne, ignoring the lure because they were not hungry, had been alarmed or perhaps simply because they would rather ride the updrafts than stoop to pigeons.

Finally a red-tail better adapted to bow-netting appeared. He spotted the lure bird from nearly half a mile up the ridge, gave a little double-take jump in the air, as hawks do when their attention has been engaged, and then came boring through the wind toward the clearing, wings stiff, legs out straight, talons open for business. When he was a hundred feet away the lure bird was dropped into the hiding box, and the hawk adjusted his glide toward the bait pigeon. The red-tail hit a few feet in front of the net and skidded along the ground into it, grappling for the pigeon. The trigger was pulled, and both birds were caught under the mesh.

After the red-tail was banded, measured, admired and released, there was a lull, an hour when nothing was seen flying and the human components of the traps tended to relax like fatigued springs. Then, suddenly, the tension was almost unbearably restored. Something that seemed to be a small black cloud but that flapped like a bird dropped straight down against the lure pigeon. "My God," I whispered to my friends, "it's the world's biggest red-tail!"

If nothing else, you would think that 1,350 hours of sitting in the blind would have prepared me to identify whatever came flying down the ridge. Yet there is some excuse for the first misidentification. Nothing like this creature had come to the nets in 10 seasons, or 210 previous days. It was as unexpected, as well as seeming almost as large, as a pterodactyl. In the moment of confusion and disbelief that followed, the golden eagle—for that was the cloud that flew like a bird—grabbed the lure pigeon, holding it by the leather harness (fortunately for the pigeon) as casually as a man dallying with an olive on a toothpick. The lure line was pulled tight, lifting both the pigeon and the attached eagle into the air, then dropped smartly to the ground. The eagle hit with an audible thud and released his hold on the lure harness. He sat for a moment looking puzzled, as if thinking, "By gad, what power in that pigeon." Then seeing the second bait bird, which we were frantically wiggling, the eagle, in one flapping jump of 10 feet, landed in the net and was trapped.

The eagle lay on his back under the net, his talons held above his breast extending through the mesh, reaching toward us. This back-to-the-ground position is the last-stand defensive maneuver of all the birds of prey. So extricating smaller hawks from the net has become a casual thing. One hand is waved above the net to distract the bird, while the other goes under the frame of the bow and catches the two legs together at the "ankle," immobilizing the dangerous talons.

With the eagle, however, quantity altered the quality of the operation. The foot of the eagle was as broad as a man's open hand, and each toe was tipped with three inches of curved talon, as sharp and twice as thick as an ice pick. With such equipment an eagle can kill a fox or a fawn and, as the moment suggested, make confetti out of a man's hand. A shirt was thrown over the bird's head, but even so the hand that went under the net was clammy. Once the fist closed down on the two legs, it held on, quite literally, for all and whatever it was worth.

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