One for One
“In order to see birds it is necessary to become a part of the silence.”
– Robert Lynd
It’s another cold, snowy daybreak on this early March morning. A quiet gentle snowfall during the night has draped the hillsides in a cloak of pure white, softening the bare contours of the surrounding hills and artfully accentuating the sculptured forms of our newly-pruned apple trees.
In some parts of the country the advent of March signals the impending arrival of spring where the setting sun lingers a little longer on the western horizon and temperatures begin the slow, agonizing climb from the depths of winter cold to the first gentle stirrings of spring warmth. We welcome these first seasonal changes with both joy and just a little bit of reserved skepticism. March represents a time of wild extremes here in the High Country. While there are hints of change in the air that stir the senses, our experiences teach us it is wise to practice patience and caution. It’s better to remain a bit reserved in actions and deeds for the next few weeks as winter begrudgingly loosens its steely grip over the land.
Some of our greatest late winter storms have occurred in March when great masses of cold northern air collide with the increasingly frequent warm fronts moving up from the south. These dynamic clashes of kinetic energy occasionally create storms of epic proportions. Such was the Great Blizzard of March 1993 when more than three feet of wet, heavy snow, accompanied by raging blizzard winds blanketed the hills and hollows with icy ferocity.
As a long-time observer of Nature’s frequent rousing displays, March represents the onset of an especially exciting time to enjoy one of my greatest delights – bird watching. I have been a birder for most of my life and have traveled far in pursuit of avian rarities. March signals the period when northern feathered residents who have overwintered in the southern climes begin looking to the northward flight home, patiently awaiting the warm southern winds to lift them skyward on their dangerous and arduous trek over hundreds and thousands of miles on their return to summer breeding grounds. For many species this annual migration begins slowly in March, increases dramatically in April and reaches a crescendo in May when our newly-budded apple trees will be filled with dozens of butterfly-like warblers flitting about noisily stuffing their tiny bellies with worms and small insects to provide the needed energy required to traverse the miles that remain.
I have been fortunate to witness some marvelous, often breath-taking events in my birding “career”, most of which have occurred in the most inauspicious moments. The following essay I wrote two years ago recounts one of these special birding moments during my youth when I was privileged to observe an event that remains such a deeply etched memory to this day. I hope my words vividly convey for you the excitement and intensity of an encounter that so deeply affected me. Enjoy.
One for One
The forest harbors many secrets; secrets of life, of death, of renewal. They unfold around us continually, revealing themselves only during those moments when we are most attuned to the rhythm of the woods. These shared secrets are sublime gifts of knowledge, offering insights into realms of understanding that can often transcend our own limited experiences of life. These moments of clarity are frequently revealed under the most ordinary of circumstances, sometimes while simply enjoying an afternoon hike in the woods.
The hiker had reached a spot in the forest where the trail forked in two directions. The left fork continued eastward, following the small creek he had been hiking alongside the last hour. The right fork progressed into a short series of switchbacks that traversed a small rise overlooking the creek. He turned right and began the gentle climb, hoping the higher view would offer a greater panorama of the creek bottom. The trail underfoot was, surprisingly, thickly overgrown with herbaceous undergrowth. It was obvious that few people ventured on the uphill climb, preferring the less-strenuous hike along the flat creek path.
It was early summer, warm and humid, but not exceedingly so. There was the slightest breeze stirring and the morning’s warmth was tempered by the coolness of the creek and the shade provided by the dense canopy of trees. Even so, by the time he reached the top, he was heavy with perspiration and paused beneath a tall pine to cool off. The view from the top of the dry bluff was worth the extra effort getting there. The narrow, flat creek bottom, a lush, green, tangle of confusion, offered obscured glimpses of rippling water as it reflected the filtered morning sun. Tall hardwoods lined both sides of the waterbed, creating a dark archway of leafy vegetation which softened the sound of running water, enhancing the sense of privacy and intimacy. The extraordinary silence was palpable, almost a physical presence which seemed to press lightly against his chest. He closed his eyes, leaned back against the pine tree and breathed deeply, quietly enjoying the stillness of the moment.
Then, suddenly from his left, a scream; primal, urgent. (What…! What was that?!) He jerks his head toward the sound, seeking, looking. (What WAS that??) He peers intently into the trees looking for movement. He stands motionless, unbreathing, a small bead of sweat clinging at the corner of his eye. The scream, again; closer, more strident and compelling. (Is it human?) He catches a flash of movement (A rush of adrenaline!) but can’t quite make it out. (Wait…is that a bird…? Yes… it’s a bird!) He grabs up the binoculars hanging around his neck and, with some initial difficulty, focuses in on the bird as it madly, wildly, weaves and dodges his way through the dense stand of hardwoods, heading straight in his direction! The hiker quickly identifies the bird as a Northern Flicker and immediately behind it, matching the Flicker wing-beat for wing-beat, is one of the forest’s most fearsome winged predators, a Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
Now suddenly cognizant of the magnitude of the mortal drama unfolding through his lenses, the hiker watches in stunned disbelief as the hawk catches up with its prey, and in a lightning-quick display of lethal power and agility, strikes in mid-air in an explosion of dust and feathers. The Flicker screams again, a brief, agonizing, guttural wail of panic and loss. The two entangled bodies fall to the ground in a writhing mass, roll briefly in the dry forest litter and then…stillness.
He slowly glasses over the ground where he saw the bodies fall. The Sharpie is mantling the lifeless victim, its sharp talons tightly gripping the woodpecker’s limp body, the outspread wings held wide over the body, signaling to all it would abide no intrusion upon this moment. With his 10X field glasses the hiker can see the hawk’s head very clearly as it carefully scans the surroundings for possible dangers, apparently unaware of the human’s quiet presence just yards away. As he stares intently at the bird, he is mesmerized by the fierce hypnotic intensity in the hawk’s eyes. It is the fierce gaze of the predator, focused solely on the moment of the kill and protection of its food. For what seems like many long minutes, the hawk carefully, patiently, scrutinizes the landscape and then, assured all is safe, begins to feed.
As the observer watches in breathless silence, the Sharp-Shinned Hawk tears into the fresh kill, savagely ripping out large pieces of feathery, bloody meat and swallowing them whole. As it eats, the bird is ever vigilant, constantly alert for unexpected disturbances. A small gray feather clings to its blood-stained beak as it continues to feed, tearing relentlessly into the mutilated body, cleaving flesh from bone. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the hawk lifts its wings, and with a couple of flaps, abandons the half-devoured carcass and disappears, silently swallowed up by the forest.
The hiker stands motionless, numbed by the surreal nature of the event he just observed, keenly aware of the sound of his pounding heart. He is afraid to move lest he shatter the purity of the moment. For this is an exquisite moment, a moment of absolute clarity in which secrets were shared; fundamental secrets of life. One dies so another may live. One for one. It’s just that simple. There was no cruelty here, no brutality, only the continuation and renewal of life through the necessity of death.
He thinks of walking over to view the remains of the Flicker but decides against this. Somehow, right now, it seemed inappropriate. It is enough he was granted witness to this wondrous natural drama; to try to explain or further define this experience would be to somehow demean its essential nature. And so, he turns, gathers his thoughts, and proceeds down the ridge, following the creek as it leads him, hopefully, to more secret encounters within the green wood.