When I take the commuter bus into New York City and back, I prefer daytime trips because I can count hawks.
I’m not a birdwatcher; but I have noticed, over many years of traveling the route (Interstate 78 Pennsylvania through New Jersey), that the highway offers good predatory-bird landscapes. The bus has large windows and elevates the passengers above the usual traffic lanes, so even though I’m traveling 70 miles an hour, I have a panoramic view through eastern Pennsylvania and north-central New Jersey, where there are scrims of woodlots behind the noise barriers, scrubby undergrowth on medians and embankments, a few cornfields, many high-density housing communities, railroads, creeks, and small county park lands.
I seldom get a close enough look to identify a bird positively; yet from my motor-vehicle perch I can tell a buteo from a harrier or an accipter. The fairly small kestrel is difficult to note, being about pigeon-sized (and pigeons are legion in NJ &NY) but I’ve identified them by their flight pattern. The buteos are most common around here, and from a bus I can’t usually discern a broad-wing from a redtail. But I see them roosting at dusk, or perched, or soaring over the fields and the strip mall parking lots. Twice, I have even spotted a great horned owl in trees along the route.
There are important raptor flyways along this path and into the region just west of where I live: Hawk Mountain is a big birding attraction along the Appalachian Trail. I have counted as many as 18 raptors along an 80-mile stretch of road. The commute takes just under two hours; I am probably the only person on the bus who spends most of her time looking out the windows at what is, admittedly, a rather uninspiring and predictable landscape.
Hawks have been very much on my mind because I recently read Helen Macdonald’s quite wonderful memoir, H Is for Hawk, which I highly recommend.
Here are a few fragments of notes I wrote in my journal while I traveled home last Sunday.
what could be a hawk. but isn’t–
paper wasp nests squirrel dreys (nests of food for hawks!) leaf clumps plastic bags[tangled in boughs]
big crows. until they fly. traffic cameras. the particular angle of them, perched (as it were) above streetlamps.
without binoculars, and in motion. not birdwatching. I scan for raptors.
frozen swamp–The Meadowlands–
snow. out of which phragmite grasses emerge, brown, russet brown. color of redtail feathers.
cranes/high tension wires. canadian geese–also in snow, feeder creeks & streams frozen, Hudson frozen, Delaware frozen.
raptor count NJ 10, PA 4. Four in 16 miles, Pennsylvania.
And yes, I composed a couple of poems during the trip.
But only one of the poems featured hawks.
~ Link to a great page for Eastern US raptor identification
I saw an enormous hawk at Northeastern last week, sitting on a tree branch watching the kids inside the gym exercising.
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