Tuesday, September 21, 2004
When beauty seems doomed, look up to the sky
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Williamson is a producer for public radio station WVTF (89.1 FM) in Roanoke.
It's time to go outside and look up. Right now.
For about two weeks every year, the skies over Southwest Virginia frame one of the most remarkable spectacles in the natural world. Amazingly, almost nobody notices.
During the last two weeks of September, the biggest wave of broadwinged hawks passes over Southwest Virginia as the birds head south to Mexico and Central America.
They started moving in August, and there'll still be a few stragglers in the bright blue skies of October. But now is when the biggest kettles can be seen, as hundreds and thousands of hawks climb thermals and wind-surf down the ridges of the Alleghenies and Blue Ridge.
Every day, dedicated watchers from the Roanoke area scan the skies from Harvey's Knob overlook at mile 95.4 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, meticulously counting the broadwings and other species that pass.
The first time I saw a big flock - called a "kettle" by hawk watchers because from below the birds resemble a huge, boiling mass - I was speechless.
Having spent a lifetime communicating for a living, it's not often that words fail me. But fail they did on that September afternoon years ago in Floyd County when I saw my first really big group of broadwings fly over the high pasture at Rocky Knob, where naturalist Clyde Kessler began watching three decades ago.
Since then, I've often asked myself, "Why aren't more people out here to see this?" Granted, there are days when the hawks just don't come, or when the ones that do are so far out that they're dots in the spotting scope. Which isn't very dramatic. I have dragged friends up on the slope, only to have them ask me at the end of the day what the big deal is.
Nevertheless, there are enough days when the spiraling columns of raptors are directly overhead, sometimes so low you could hit one with a rock, to make the occasional slow day worth it. Why the Blue Ridge Parkway isn't lined with eager observers this time of year is beyond me.
The rest of the year, birding is like hunting: you actively pursue your quarry where it's likely to be found. But hawk watching is different. You don't go to the birds - they come to you.
It reminds me of setting out trot lines as a boy in Texas, when I could never be sure what I'd find when I checked them the next morning. Would it be a big juicy catfish? Or a mean snapping turtle that wanted to take my fingers off?
When you're watching for hawks, you pick a spot where they are historically likely to pass, and you wait at the appointed time. You scan the skies with naked eye and binocular, never knowing what might materialize any moment over that far ridge. It might be a couple of dirt-common turkey vultures. Or it might be a mighty sky caravan of broadwings, sliding down the prevailing ridge lift of the mountains.
For some reason, it seems important to me that people see and take note of things like this. I'm not exactly sure why. When I think about it, the phrase "to bear witness" comes to mind.
In this dangerous and lovely world, there are days when beauty seems doomed, or at least mortally threatened. The least we can do is acknowledge its presence. The yearly passage of the broadwings through September's mild blue skies is a thing of beauty.
Go outside. Look up. Bear witness.