A Gust Front, a Fire and 100 Hawks

April 19, 2009 by · Comments Off on A Gust Front, a Fire and 100 Hawks
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Hennessey and Okeene OK areas
18 Apr 9

(by Elke Edwards)

Roger and I took a country drive into northern OK on Saturday, ostensibly looking for an April supercell out ahead of an occluded cold front squall. The latest round of I-35 construction (and inherent delays) encouraged an alternate two-lane route to get out of town. I don’t mind. It’s a choice that never fails to gift an unsuspecting traveler with serendipity. In comparison, Interstate travel lacks somewhat in significant happenstance.

We targeted a blip on the radar via iPhone, only to watch the storm weaken and vanish within our sight. Near Hennessey and not yet 5 p.m., we opted to hang out for a while in the sunshine at a crossroads west of town and await whatever else might form ahead of the slow-moving front. Roger drooled over what must have been a lovely classic supercell up in Woods County OK – out of reach for us except by radar. I reminded myself how to set the aperture of my Canon in manual mode, discovered the focusing ring on my favorite lens is starting to fail, and took several shots anyway of the verdant wheat surrounding us just for an experiment in compiling a panoramic.

After a time, we noticed a wisp of smoke rising on the moderate southeasterly breeze a mile or so north. A few minutes later we exclaimed at several large plumes billowing upward and decided to investigate – first the fire and then the squall line.

Many of the pastures we had passed earlier had recent fire signs, though they were already greening beautifully. Apparently the local landsman decided that with rain on the way, it was as good a time as any to burn another acre – a questionable decision given the wind, and it looked like it got rather out of hand; it jumped his plowed fire break, left the pasture and got in some trees. As we passed a couple of cedars went up like they do, i.e., Roman candles, beyond the black and smoking field.

I noticed 2 hawks standing quietly in the black near the road as we drove by – immature Swainson’s hawks, and 4 or 5 more hawks circling the smoke plume bright in the sun farther west. (It’s a habit to count raptors on our country drives – can’t help myself – I see hawks everywhere. It happens when your mother runs a wildlife rehab center that takes in some 500 raptors per year for the last 25 years.) I’d seen six of these harbingers of summer soaring on our way up, long admired them for their incredible bi-annual migration all the way from their wintering grounds in the Pampas of Argentina to the central through northern Great Plains for breeding in April — and then back again in September.

Well, we went on, drove west a ways to get under the anvil canopy and get a better look at the line of thunderstorms heading toward us. The storms were not much to write of, but we were treated to the sight of a large raft of white pelicans climbing the sky on the current of warm air being displaced by storm outflow. We decided to turn around, and I mentioned I would like to look at that scorched field once more to see if the hawks were still there.

We approached driving slowly and were surprised and delighted to find 30 hawks now standing in the half acre plot, alert to any sign of movement in the black. They were very visible in the dark field. Then, looking up, we were astonished to see several dozen more hawks circling and trying to land, occasional squabbles ensuing, the birds calling, some with territorial screams. Wow! How often do any of us get to see so many marvelous hawks all in one place? I knew them all for Swainson’s hawks just by this behavior. We had a some minutes to enjoy the experience and then the gust front came through, reigniting the fire – there were some impressive flames roaring in the partially burned woods that backed the field and quickly blowing smoke at us. All the hawks took flight, some kiting on the wind above the field, others soaring.

On our drive home I explained to Roger that the spectacle we had witnessed was a rarity here in North America. The birds migrate together in large groups and then quickly disperse in pairs to nest all across the Plains. But I had heard stories that once hundreds of hawks gathered for few days before they leave for the winter. The sight is more common for Pampas farmers because these birds stay in large groups there, following locust swarms, in the wake of harvesters – and wild fires. In Argentina they are called Locust Hawks.

Serendipity — the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely. Such was ours today.