Sunday, November 12, 2006

Blood Bath and Beyond

On a recent Sunday morning at around nine, while we were relaxing with the morning newspaper, our across-the-street neighbor Becky knocked at the door. Mars answered, and a quick conversation ensued of which all I heard was "hawk is killing a squirrel in our front yard."

With a pounding heart and rapidly pumping adrenaline I was already in the process off getting up when Mars said excitedly "Jim, let's go!" And, as I reached full verticality, "Get the camera!"

By the time I came back down from our upstairs den both women were outside in the middle of the street looking intently at the nature drama unfolding on the nearby sidewalk apron. Apparently during that time Becky had said, "I thought that you guys would like this."

We do. In fact it is fair to say that we have been waiting to see something exactly like this - and more importantly get close enough to photograph it - ever since we saw the first hawk circling over our house several years ago.

Mars and I both grew up in the non-rural Greater Hartford area of Connecticut. At that time there just weren't any hawks around here, largely due to the extensive use of pesticides such as DDT. I myself did not see any wild hawks until I spotted one circling over the cornfields on a summer vacation that we took in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country around 1980.

In fact I think that my only previous sighting of any member of the Accipiter genus was at a falconry demonstration during half-time of an Army versus Air Force football game at Yankee Stadium in the late 1950's. It was also probably the first viewing experience for the terrified pigeons that normally ruled the skyways of the ballpark. Fortunately for them these performing peregrines only attacked the straw targets held by their handlers. I remember thinking briefly, and totally impracticality, that the sport of hunting with these birds would be really, really cool. And, in the illogical mind of a teenage boy, a perfectly sensible reason to join the U.S. Air Force - a motivation that did not stand up to the dovish beliefs of my early twenties, among other things.

We began visiting northern New Mexico in 1992 with, as far as I can recall, no additional raptor recordings and have seen hawks on pretty much every one of our hikes out into the high desert mountains. In some unforgettable instances we were able to look down at them as they floated below us on the updrafts created by the valley beneath them.

They seemed the ultimate image of freedom, the type of thought that occurs to someone who would have been sitting behind a desk almost any other week. Now that we are retired I realize they were probably just out trolling for food - just another day at the office for them.

And finally, hawks began appearing on our home front.

The tower building of our former employer Travelers Insurance (now St. Paul Travelers) became the nesting site for a pair of peregrine falcons in 1997. And they, or their offspring, have returned to this location every year since. Although we were disappointed never to see the heart-stopping sight of an absent minded actuary being carried away by a rapidly rising raptor. Nor to find the pinstriped remnants of any unwary underwriters. We did frequently witness "Amelia" and her mate circling the tall narrow building and faithfully followed the egg-laying and hatching activities of the pair on the internet-based "falcon cam" that was placed next to their nest for our entertainment (lunch times only of course).

At about the same time we began to notice hawks perched occasionally atop a highway light or roadside tree on our early morning drive into work. And even more infrequently, but nonetheless periodically, a raptor silhouette soaring over our very own house.

We also started to see evidence of the hawks' success at finding food in our own neighborhood - and sometimes within our yard. Dismembered pigeon parts appeared periodically on our front lawn when we returned home from work or were left on the community sidewalks on which we walked.

A few times the (or at least "a") hawk actually landed in the flowering crab tree right in front of our family room - and the site of our bird feeders. He twisted his head around in that disconcertingly hyper flexible manner that gets my head spinning whenever I see it, but never seemed to lock in on any potential playmates. Even though on at least one occasion a frightened furry food-gatherer hid close by in one of our cylindrical pottery feeders.

The most recent incident of carnage was splashed across the stone paver walk just outside of our family room door and was documented at that time (September 2006) in an earlier blog entry entitled "blood on the pavers.

And a few winters ago we did get a phone call from another neighbor alerting us to a hawk versus pigeon confrontation on the snow in their back yard. We could see the action from our kitchen window and maybe even, we convinced ourselves, actually see some of the exsanguination on the white stuff. But we were still tens of yards away and, for various reasons, not inclined to attempt to get closer. In any event, the hawk left with its victim a very short time after we received the tip leaving us still feeling excluded from the hawk's real world state of nature.

This time we didn't. (click to see photos)

For one thing the ravaging raptor seemed totally oblivious to us - that is to say he was not watching us like a hawk. When I arrived on the scene, Mars and Becky were watching the hawk from a distance of probably about fifteen feet. I took my first photos from that spot using the meager telephoto lens on Mars' camera. Sensing the big bird's lack of interest and encouraged by the two women (one of whom has a considerable insurance investment in me) I moved closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer, and pointed and clicked, and closer..... Until I was about one foot from the curb - at which point he finally looked up, and stared (I'm certain) directly at me.

As our eyes locked I waited eagerly for that moment of spiritual connection - the intense instantaneous bonding that occurs between the hunter and the hunted (even though my weapon was a camera). That magical empathetic event where the prey acknowledges his role in the cycle of life, accepts his fate, and gives permission to his brother-in-the-hunt to perform the ultimate act that one living creature can do to another. (Or in my case to take a close-up of the feeding frenzy).

Not a thing, not anything, nil, zero, naught/nought, zilch, zip, nada, diddly-squat, squat - although I did get the feeling that if I got any closer he would probably rip my head off and then go right back to eviscerating his Sunday brunch.

I backed up a step or two and took a few more pictures. And then suddenly the hawk lifted his victim and flew to a low branch on a tree in the immediately neighboring yard. Becky, who had now joined in the photography frenzy, and I followed him. The raptor sat quietly within the shelter of leaves, with his breakfast draped languidly across his nesting branch. After determining that good photos were near impossible, and unwilling to attempt to move our subject matter to a more photographable location, we both returned to Mars and Becky's husband Mike who were standing back at ground zero.

"I think it's the same one that we saw this summer." said Mike, referring to an similar incident he had told us about that occurred in their back yard. "He's much bigger now."

"It's amazing what a pure protein diet can do." I suggested.

"Just keep fattening up those squirrels" Mike replied while looking over at to our corn cob feeder and frequently raided bird feeders.

With no hawk to watch we all suddenly became aware of the cold October morning, and decided to head to the warmth of our respective houses to check out our digital results.

And ponder our future relationship with hawks - which seems to be becoming less and less distant. There is an exhibition of falconry portraits by Michelle Elzay at one of our local art museums. I want to see them.

It's much too late in life to join the Air Force, even if I wanted to. But Mars and I will be moving to New Mexico some day. And retirement is supposed to be about doing things that you always wanted to do, but never had the time. Or better yet trying activities that you never thought you possibly could.

How totally cool would it be to look down from the top of one of those high desert mesas and see our own favorite raptor wearing his own little hawk uniform with the Meehan family colors circling below?

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