Sunday, September 19, 2010

And Slowly They Appeared, One By One...

We heard the hawk’s cry from far above us at the chicken yard—keening, lonely, intense, insistent. The hard blue September sky was brilliantly clear, and that lone hawk circled far above us, riding the thermal that rose from the stream valley like the more common buzzards.
It was not a menacing presence, to us or to our flock of chickens. They squawked in minor concern, but went about their business without the great consternation they would have displayed had they been truly menaced by a hawk or owl in the immediate neighborhood. A brief time later, we saw the hawk again, circling farther overhead. Then another. And another.
Suddenly, we realized we were seeing the migration of a kettle of Broad-Winged Hawks, members of the Buteo family which migrates from North America, as far north as Alberta, to the tropics. At one point, we could see at least two-dozen individual hawks, briefly pausing just to our south; they appeared to be calling to other hawks in the area before reforming into a long, broad column flying south again.
The sky was too brilliant, and the hawks too distant, for us to discern any detail in individual birds. They were thick, muscular birds, riding the air with grace and power, and they were most deliberate in their travels. Shortly they will be over the Smoky Mountains, as they follow the deflective air currents along the Appalachians towards their winter homes far to our south. Their migrations are an annual event for many bird watchers, and nearby, Shenandoah National Park is a prime migration viewing point—for those not fortunate enough to be able so see them from their back yards.
Interestingly, Monarch butterflies are often seen migrating at the same time. They share the same flyways for the same reasons—seeking the favorable air currents to take them to their wintering grounds in Mexico. We did not see monarchs this time, but have seen them migrating years ago, in Arlington.
They clustered around our butterfly bushes, and slowly ascended the column of air. As we watched them rise, we realized we could see an unbroken line of butterflies as far up into the sky as they could possibly be seen, and they trailed off to both the north and south. They find their way to a place they have never been before, the valley where they were conceived and where their ancestors were conceived for generations out of mind.

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