Friday, September 12, 2014

Death Plunge

It was a warm Sunday afternoon, with strong winds coming out of the south and a bright sun high in the sky.  In other words, it was a perfect day for raptor migration—the south winds were pushing the raptors north, and the sun’s heat was creating warm air thermals for them to soar on.  I had to make the most of it.  So right after brunch, I headed up to the sledding hill—the view is great from there and it would create a nice updraft—after lunch to do a hawk watch for an hour or two.  Little did I realize that I would remain there atop the sledding hill five full hours, right up until it was time for dinner, wishing that I could stay even longer.

Before I had even reached the top, the first Bald Eagle flew over.  It flew in a rising spiral until it nearly disappeared from sight, then set off on a long, downward-sloping glide towards the nearest thermal to the north, which rose from the steep banks of Big Bateau Lake.  Looking through my binoculars now, I could see the eagle repeat the process again, this time disappearing behind the tree line as it glided north to catch some other thermal. 
Such is the joy of raptor migration: I have watched this happen countless times, but it never seems to get old.  I just love watching the raptors get so high that they are almost out of sight, then go into a steady but effortless glide a mile or more in length, not once flapping their wings or veering off course.  I’ve also always loved to watch raptors “kettle,” or ride warm air thermals in very large numbers.  Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks are well-known for this, and a large kettle of raptors is always a magnificent sight to behold.
Here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin, though, hawks rarely form large kettles, at least in the spring.  This is why I was extremely happy when, half an hour later, I saw a small kettle off to the south consisting of four eagles, a vulture, and two goshawks.  As they reached towering heights they all broke into a long glide straight towards me.  When they got quite close, they finally hit the sledding hill’s thermal and immediately started to slowly spiral back upwards. After ten minutes or so, they all drifted off towards Big Bateau, leaving me there overjoyed.  Raptor migration was really happening!

Despite the excitement of these events, however, the real highlight of the hawk watch came four hours later, when—after another goshawk, seven more eagles, a kestrel, a harrier, a Red-tailed Hawk, two Sharp-shinned Hawks, two Rough-legged Hawks, and two Red-shouldered Hawks had flown by—a pair of eagles rose above the tree line to  the north,  circling each other and calling loudly: eeeeeek-eek-eek-eekeekeek! I was getting excited—I knew this was a precursor to a spectacular display, one I had been dying to see for a long time.

As they got higher and higher in the air, my excitement kept mounting.  Finally, when they were barely noticeable specks high in the sky, I saw them stop their spiraling and fly towards each other.  Here, finally, began the Bald Eagle’s famous “Death Plunge.” I could not believe I was finally seeing it for myself.   They locked talons.  Then they fell. They tumbled from the lofty heights with astonishing grace, even as they seemed to completely lose control.  They fell… and fell… and fell…
They fell faster and faster, tumbling every which-way, never unlocking their talons even when their fall seemed to reach impossibly fast speeds.  The treetops were approaching.  They didn’t let go.  They didn’t stop.  They tumbled over and over in midair. Now, the treetops were too close.  They were going to crash.
At a perfectly timed moment when they were both upright, just when they were about to hit the trees, they unlocked their talons and unfurled their wings.  The pair bottomed out just above the treetops, barely avoiding a fatal collision with them and the frozen ground below.
It was not simply because of pure luck that I was able to have this incredible experience.  It was because I understand the ecology of the Northwoods; its weather, its ecosystems, and its inhabitants.  If I had not known that a warm, sunny day in the Northwoods with winds from the south is a perfect day for hawk migration, I would have never seen what I did. 

I had heard much about the Bald Eagle’s spectacular “Death Plunge,” but nothing I was ever told could have prepared me for what I experienced that Sunday afternoon.  That, the first time I personally witnessed the raw beauty and power of  the eagles’ plunge, is a memory that will stay with me forever.

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