Once a year, the little town in Michigan where I grew up became a happening place. The occasion was the annual Fall Festival, part craft fair, part car show, part caramel corn.
The whole thing was delightful. Streets were closed down hours before the big parade. Kids lined up on the curbs in hopes of catching candy thrown by the Homecoming Queen. I remember watching the town’s main stoplight going through its color-cycles, with no one paying it the least attention.
The parade made a strange concoction: there was the drum corps, followed by fire trucks, followed by a troupe of dancers in clogs, followed by the high school’s Homecoming floats, followed by Shriners from a half-dozen Masonic Temples, all buzzing around on miniature scooters, six inches off the ground. The tassels on their red fezzes whipped back and forth like blond bangs.
The whole thing was delightful because it made no sense: that was part of its charm. It was a menagerie, a free-for-all, a circus with a hundred rings.
The natural world is no circus, but each year it puts on a show equally lavish and equally strange: birds by the thousands migrate southward out of Canada, along both coasts, around the Great Lakes, over the Great Plains, down the Appalachians and the Rockies, pressed together into the funnel of Mexico and pouring through the bottleneck of Central America.
The birds don’t know each other: they just find themselves shoulder to shoulder, wing to wing, headed in the same direction. Most songbirds migrate at night, when a couple chirps above us or a shadow zipping in front of the moon are our only clues to the presence of thousands overhead. Some flocks of birds are so large, they appear as “blooms” on the radar maps of meteorologists.
Juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawk
Photograph by Andre Moraes
More easily seen, and more breathtaking, are the migrations of birds of prey. From any hilltop in North America, on a clear day in October, you may see dozens, even hundreds of hawks, falcons, eagles, and their relatives, either singly or in small groups, all streaming by southward. One day the skies are empty and the next day they're full, as if someone had turned on a spigot.
Ospreys abandon their local ponds, harriers their marshes, falcons their cliff ledges. Merlins, little angular missiles with wings stuck out like an anchor’s flukes, go zipping by almost too fast to register. Sharp-shinned Hawks, long-tailed dashers of the forest, harass each other with the reckless abandon of fighter pilots. A Golden Eagle, ravens swooping at him from above like gnats, cruises past without twitching a muscle, its six-foot frame throwing an even larger shadow.
Sharp-shinned Hawk and Merlin
Photograph by Cynthia Nichols
This is delightful not because it doesn't make sense, but because the sheer scale of it is so hard to comprehend. My tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older: a Shriner on a tiny scooter seems tame compared to a kettling cloud of Broad-winged Hawks overhead, rising in a towering thermal, silent, on their long way down to the tropical forests of Brazil.
Broad-winged Hawks flocking in migration
Photograph by Andre Moraes
Dust off your old pair of opera glasses and spend an afternoon scanning the skies where you live. Let us know what you see. The parade is strung out over the whole continent, but it’s certain to pass your door. The Homecoming Queens don’t throw candy—no, it’s something far better. You may find yourself curbside, shoulder to shoulder with someone you’ve never met, both looking up.
Henry Walters is a naturalist, a teacher, and a falconer. He lives and writes in a cabin in southern New Hampshire on a 1,700-acre tract of conservation land, of which he acts as steward. His poems, essays, and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of print publications, including The Old Farmer's Almanac. He is the co-founder of the Harriers, a club for young birders throughout New Hampshire (nhyoungbirders.org), and as a seasonal naturalist for the New Hampshire Audubon during the fall hawk migration, his writing appears on the blog (www.hawkcount.org) for Pack Monadnock Raptor Migration Observatory. A book of poems, Field Guide A Tempo, will be published in the fall of 2014.