Snowbird's sinus 'cured' by a hawk

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By The Staff

Birding is sometimes a matter of luck and mood. I found both in a Days Inn parking lot in Ocala while driving from New York to Longboat Key. This was the fourth year my wife and I were staying at the motel. The date was the same at least three of those times, Dec. 30. We were going to have dinner at a small family-owned Italian restaurant called Lorenzo’s, for the third time.

This time in addition to driving fatigue I was fighting a nasty sinus infection. Coming out of our room, I noticed a speck on a light pole on the other side of I-75. Getting out my binoculars, I walked as close as I could to a chain link fence with a vine growing across the top and trained them on a magnificent red-shouldered hawk. Just then the hawk rose and flew toward another pole on my side of the road.

I was smitten by the raptor’s beauty as it landed atop the pole. Its light copper breast streaked with white became progressively lighter as it faded into powerful yellow legs. Dark bands on its fanned tail flashed in the late afternoon sun.

The hawk then dropped down to a part of the pole where it would place its powerful claws on a flat surface and gaze down at the road for at least the next 45 minutes. As it faced west into the bright lowering sun, the colors of the raptor were magnificent.

Soon I was fixing my birding scope on the hawk with a lens that magnifies an object 48 times the size the human eye sees it. The shoulder was a rich dark brown that seemed to have a reddish hue. The bird’s back was a dark brown flecked with white streaks the color of freshly fallen snow.

The raptor’s grayish bill which was a bright yellow at the base, cast a shadow on its chest, and the three black pointed claws on each foot which hung over the rim of the pole cast shadows on the metal pole. A few times the bird of prey turned its moderately brown head, also flecked with white, as if it were showing off a new haircut.

Each time I looked directly into the large brown eye that seemed to be glistening. I’d like to say the eye was huge but it wasn’t. I’d also like to say that it looked directly at me, which it didn’t. There are few things in nature that bring one’s senses alive more than looking into the eyes of a sentient creature that is looking back at you.

Towering above me at the top of its metal perch and at least 60 yards from it, I was an insignificant object on the landscape. Suddenly having this bird all to myself in the warmth of Florida momentarily cured my sinus ills. It was just him and me; a magnificent actor and audience of one. Neither one of us was going anywhere just yet.

It often looked down with great curiosity at what I don’t know. Maybe it was looking at the flying metal insanity whizzing past below and perhaps it was keeping an eye out for road kill.

After a while with nothing happening, I became bored. I glanced at the texture of a nearby mourning dove’s feathers perching on a wire. I noticed the markings under its eyes around its face; the spacing of dots on its wings and the precise layering of its tail feathers. The shape of the tail and its slender elongated body absorbed me. Then a silent voice in my head spoke. “Are you crazy, you can see this anytime.”

Turning back to the red-shoulder, the blue sky unexpectedly seemed filled with slow flying white flakes of snow that had black wing tips. At least 100 birds were flying southeast and their white bodies were cast with a yellow hue from the sun. There was one great, shaped wedge of them and a smaller wedge as they flew into the empty blue. Numerous stragglers followed.

I put my binoculars on them as they flew into what soon would become the sheer emptiness of the blue sky, and the simplicity of the birds’ forms made me feel I was losing my balance. I noted everything I could, to look later at a field guide.

When I took my binoculars off them and looked into the sky, they’d simply vanished. But for a few more minutes more and more stragglers came looking like slow-moving white snowflakes.

I watched, fully aware that in this parking lot I had discovered the magic of unexpectedly finding birds of uncommon beauty where I would have least expected it, and when I needed a lift.

A few small birds with yellow rumps pecked at the grounds and one perched on the wire fence but quickly flew as I watched its bobbing motion. My wife, who had come out and seen the red-shouldered hawk, was now calling that it was dinner time. So was my empty stomach. When we left, the hawk was still there.

At Lorenzo’s we shared a personal pizza and a tasty chicken and mozzarella cheese dish. The food couldn’t have been tastier.

Looking through my battered field guide I saw that the small yellow rumped wasn’t a yellow-rumped warbler as I thought it might be. I also wasn’t sure about the identity of the ethereal flock of white birds.

My wife and I would be in Longboat Key the next morning and I’d soon have a consultation with some Florida birders about my mystery birds. I just sat savoring the moment and the restaurant’s atmosphere. For the moment, Ocala felt like home.

Michael Givant is a retired college professor having taught sociology at Adelphi University in New York. He’s written about 230 articles on birds and birding. Birders can e-mail him at givant@adelphi.edu.