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Hawk watching

11/06/04 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin says that this is a good time of year for some specialized bird watching.


(Levin) The other day I performed one of my favorite late autumn rituals: watching migratory hawks above the Connecticut River. When viewed from the fire tower on Gile Mountain, in Norwich, the hawks appear against the sky or wooded landscape as they ride air currents, heading south past the mountain toward the Middle Atlantic states and beyond.

The 75-foot fire tower, which straddles a large granite outcrop, rises well above the forest canopy, and offers a stunning 360 degree panorama. Depending on the direction of the wind birds may appear out of the east or northwest, sometimes close, sometimes far off in the blue-gray haze.

I walk the half-mile trail, climb the tower and let myself in through the trap door. It's unseasonably warm. The sun is bright, the sky blue-gray, and a windrow of clouds, pushed by a gentle breeze moves up the valley. Except for those of a few steadfast oaks, most tree limbs are bare. The last asters glaze open patches in the woodland.

From the tower I can see a bend in the Connecticut River, glistening in the sun, Dartmouth's Baker Library Clock Tower, Mary Hitchcock Medical Center, and a landscape that runs in corrugated ridges to the horizon. A band of noisey blue jays zips through the bare woods, hurling their voices across the mountain. A chipmunk, perhaps the last I'll see thiss season, scurries through the brittle leaves beneath the tower.

November usually brings the hardy hawks: redtails, red-shoulders, goshawks, and the diminutive, but spirited sharp-shinned. Occasionally I see a rough-legged hawk or a marsh hawk. Or even a bald eagle. Once, more than twenty-years ago, I saw a golden eagle above Gile Mountain; a wayfarer from a remote Arctic outpost, the eagle hung above the fire tower, tail feathers spread like a poker hand.

Today, a raven rises in the west above South Strafford. A pair of loons flies past, working much harder than a hawk. A sharp-shinned hawk, as gray as slate and barely larger than a bluejay, appears out of nowhere, directly above the tower, and heads toward Mount Ascutney. From the north, somewhere over Thetford comes a red-tailed hawk, its white chest flashing in the sun like a semaphore. The hawk reaches the northwest corner of Gile Mountain, joins the raven in an up draft of air that deflects off the ledges, and screams for reasons known only to the hawk. Both birds play on the wind, circling, circling, circling. Then the redtail pinches its wings together, narrows its tail, and slides down an invisible sky-chute.

By the time it rises again, it has sailed miles from the fire tower, having left the raven to face winter alone.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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