Blue Ridge Birding, Brides, and Biophilia

Red-tailed Hawk, Buteo jamaicensis

 

If you’re a urban dweller in the Washington / Baltimore corridor the urge to escape the asphalt jungle can either pull you to the east and the rural tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake Bay, or to the  west and the historic Shenandoah Valley and Blue Ridge Mountains.  It was the lure of the saltwater bay that won the day for us, but not without an occasional wistful glance over our shoulders to the beautiful mountains of Virginia.  Luckily a family wedding and an invitation from friends allowed us to visit this hill country in October.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Edward Wilson codified our urge to commune with nature as the “biophilia hypothesis” in 1984.  He actually suggested a genetic basis for homo sapien’s desire to affiliate with other forms of life, both plant and animal.  I suspect it’s a driving force behind increasing urban green spaces, back yard gardening, environmentalism, and the popularity of birding.  It may have also inspired an urban bride and groom to head to the mountains to exchange their vows.

It was a perfect day for a wedding with an Indian summer sun’s slanting, late afternoon rays, shining on the wedding party.  Grazing cows on the nearby hills barely noticed the nuptial festivities.  I was not unaware of the soaring birds completing the idyllic scene.  Live music and dancing, with some blue grass flavor finished the memorable day.

Eastern Bluebird, Sialia sialis

The next morning we headed further south and west, higher into the Blue Ridge, along the Cow Pasture River.  Friends from Charlottesville, two families, had jointly dreamed of owning a cabin in the hills.  It would be a rustic, secluded lodge, along a river, ideal for fly-fishing, tubing, and hiking.  It would be a country retreat for the two large families, now with many grandchildren.  It was all that and more with a large front porch, stone fireplace, and comfortable beds, with a nearby bunkhouse for the kids.

One arrives at this destination over a mile of winding, narrow, gravel road along the creek bed, past a repaired wash-out, and through the dense woods.  Several times I wanted to turn back, this couldn’t be the right route, but we pressed on.  At the edge of the forest and the top of the last hill we finally saw the house in the valley below, with barking dogs, Lang, Peggy, and Mike all welcoming us to their home in the mountains.

Right out of the car I spotted a large bird perched atop a pole and power line, maybe a quarter mile across the valley.  It had a light upper and dark lower body and I prematurely declared it must be a Bald Eagle.  I quickly unpacked my camera and proceeded to close in for a better look.  The technique is to advance 50 feet, take some shots, check exposure factors, and advance another 50 feet.  If you’re lucky you may even get a flight shot when the bird finally spooks.

Yellow-Romped Warbler, Dendroica coronata

In my experience most raptors, especially eagles, won’t let you get very close.  My goal was to hide behind the last tree, perhaps 100 yards from the perching bird.  I inched my way there and still the bird did not move; something was not right.  I took more shots and zoomed them to the maximum.  It was not an eagle.  It was a Red-tailed Hawk, upside down, and dead.  The whiteness I saw from a distance was the hawk’s lower belly feathers, not the head of a Bald Eagle.

Obviously I could now get as close as I wanted, inspect the crime scene, and get as many shots as needed, all with the correct sun angle and exposure.  This hawk was not going anywhere.  How did this proud bird reach this ignoble, inverted end, hanging earthward, limp, dead?  Death had come recently.  There were no signs of gunshot, but man was not completely blameless.  I believe this was death by electrocution.

Birds land and perch on power lines everyday with no ill effect.  The flow of electrons takes the direction of least resistance through the wire, bypassing the relatively insulated body of the bird.  If that bird, however, ever touches another wire or any grounded structure, the current will flow through the bird and kill it.  My theory is that this hapless hawk landed on top of the wooden pole and its wing or feet touched the wire, completing the circuit from wire, to bird, to pole, and the ground.

Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica

I did more birding that day and the next as our hosts guided us over the suspension bridge and through their forest on barely blazed trails.  We saw other woodland birds but I could not get that hawk out of my mind.  A couple weeks later Peggy emailed me that it had finally fallen to earth and the vultures had picked over the corpse, leaving just feathers and some bones to mark the spot.

And time goes by.  This fall weekend reminded me of that yet again.  Mother Earth and all its creatures grow old.  If we’re fortunate aging is graceful and gradual, but occasionally unexpected tragedy intervenes.  We cling to nature, each other, and our God for solace, but time waits for no one, not even a Red-tailed Hawk.

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