If it hadn’t been for the osprey, I might have missed the hawks. Earthbound, irritable after weeks of intense heat and drought, trapped in what seemed an interminable summer, I was raising my eyes less and less often to the unchanging, unbearably blue skies.
Despite my inattention, the world had business to attend to. The seasons continued to turn and the great migrations, the mysterious movements we describe so well but comprehend so poorly, began anew.
As always, the mallards and blackbirds were the early arrivals, but it was the osprey I was longing for. Their first call is an affirmation of autumn, their return an occasion for joy. Wheeling in on the thermals, their liquid arpeggios falling like leaves to the earth, they compel admiration and awe. Yesterday, as their unexpected and welcome call swelled my heart and pulled my eyes upward, I noticed another movement in the sky, higher even the ospreys and certainly more impressive.Flying above the ospreys were hawks – more than dozens, perhaps even hundreds. They might have been redtails or sharp-shinned, but I suspect they were broad winged, “kettling” their way among the building cumulus, spinning upward into the sky, silently stitching winged patterns between the clouds.
Despite the funny name, “kettles” are an important part of migration. When hawks find a thermal updraft, a column of warm, rising air, they stretch their wings to rise with it. Seeing the kettle form, other hawks join in, and the kettle grows. As each hawk reaches altitude at the top of the thermal, he sets his wings and glides away, losing altitude until he finds another thermal and repeats the process. It’s clearly an energy saver, and perhaps even a pre-migration form of communication. In some places around the country, such as Hawk Mountain in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, kettles composed of thousands of raptors can be seen.
In Texas, broad-winged hawks as well as other hawks, falcons and kites arrive from breeding grounds in the eastern half of the country. Following the Mississippi Valley down to the Louisiana coast, they turn westward toward Texas, following the coastline to Galveston Bay. Preferring to avoid the bay itself, the hawks cross Houston and head to Corpus Christi, where they catch the thermals over the Nueces River and continue on to Central and South America.
This year, the birds seem to be on schedule for their appearance at the Corpus Christi Hawk Watch, where the height of the migration will be celebrated September 23-25. The Corpus Christi hawk watch is the largest in the nation. In 2004, the total count exceeded one million migrating raptors, and it’s not uncommon for 100,000 hawks to be seen in a single day.
Although bird watching with friends is fun, it isn’t always necessary to get your spotting scope and a lawn chair to witness the vastness of migration. Just last year a Weather Underground blogger with a penchant for radar-watching called something to our attention. He’d picked up the hawk migration on radar, a tool commonly used by birders like Woodcreeper to track our avian friends.
Over the next months, I began doing a little radar-watching myself, just to see what I could see. What I saw on Labor Day weekend was so unusual it made me pause. From a point northeast of Bastrop, Texas, the radar showed a streaming, expanding area of return. It looked for all the world like smoke, rather than rain, and when I did a Twitter search for “Bastrop”, that’s exactly what I found – the beginning of the terribly destructive Bastop Complex fire.
Radar is one thing, of course. Reality is another. Over the next weeks, as the fires spread throughout Texas, Forest Service maps and weather radars helped entire communities track new fires and smoke, even as postings to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook helped to communicate the massive scale of unfolding events.
As the fires began to be contained, I continued to keep an eye on the radars, and one night I was certain I’d spotted another explosive fire outside San Antonio. Doing a quick check to see if anyone else had noticed it, I discovered a storm chaser from Dallas who was querying his Twitter followers, asking if anyone could confirm a fire. After a few minutes, we had a different sort of confirmation. It wasn’t a fire at all. The large, explosive return that began as a single point between Garden Ridge and Schertz was, in fact, bats.
Yes, bats. The radar had picked up the emergence of millions of bats from the Bracken Bat cave, summer home of the world’s largest bat colony. As many as 20 million Mexican free-tailed bats live in the cave from March to October, and you easily can pick up their nightly emergence from the cave on sites such as this. It is possible to visit the Bracken cave, but membership and reservations are required to do so. It’s one way that the cave has been preserved for its residents, keeping them safe from overly-curious tourists and real estate developers alike.
A true bat afficionado could have quite a weekend in season, taking in the Bracken cave and the Congress Street Bridge in Austin on the same trip. I’ll not be able to make the trip this fall, but next spring, when the bats return, I’ll be eager to see for myself the spectacles recorded on these videos.
Radars are amazing tools, as useful and convenient as the laptops, desktops, smart phones and iPads that bring them to us. Still, desk-and-device-bound as we are, it’s worth reminding ourselves now and then of the world beyond our screens, a world far larger, far more intriguing, more complex and even more mysterious than the images and ciphers flickering before us.
Watching a thunderstorm blossom on radar before making its way across the countryside is marvelous, but it’s no substitute for the smell of rain on the wind or the taste of a sudden spring raindrop. Watching a fire ignite and spread across a monitor never will be as heart-wrenching or frightening as a sudden whiff of smoke.That we can track the swift, graceful movements of migration by means of technology is nothing short of astonishing. Still, who would give up the sound of rushing wings or the sight of spiraling life, tumbling and soaring beyond the limits of our sight as it disappears into the sunlit heavens like a prayer?
In the end, even the most useful gadget provides no more than a poor reflection of the wonders surrounding us, like a mirror unsilvered by age. There is a time for gazing into our dim mirrors, but there are other times when it’s best to get up, go out, look up and seek out all the wonders that surround us. The world, after all, doesn’t have a Facebook page. She’d rather meet us face to face.