I spotted the hawk from about 50 feet away, perched on a dead tree where he could watch over the Central Florida marsh as if he ruled the place.
I stopped about 30 feet back, and stood as still as I could, hoping for a chance at a photo if this elegant Red-shouldered Hawk decided to take off.
And then I waited. First through an easy 10 minutes, then another 15 not-so-easy minutes, then at least 10 more interminable minutes. I watched as he swiveled his head, glanced up and down and fluffed his feathers without giving a clue to his intentions. As the sweat dripped down my back, I started thinking about giving up.
Birding is a lesson in patience on so many fronts. There are days when all you hear are calls from distant branches. There are mornings when the birds are always backlit or camouflaged. There are whole afternoons when not one bird makes a sound.
I like to think it’s all part of the curriculum that comes with the birds. At a time when we’re so attention deprived, birding is a graduate course in alternative time.
When we step into the feathered world, time is measured by the arrival of insects, the ripening of fruit, the rise of the tide, and the setting sun. At first it may seem birds move on some spontaneous whim. But there’s actually a complex set of triggers mostly invisible to us.
The shriek of a predator will send a ripple of fear through the birding landscape, and suddenly dozens of Warblers, Swallows and other songbirds give up their hiding places to flee. Or after hours of empty woods in the late afternoon, first one, then several birds will appear in need of food before the day ends. Half an hour later, the landscape can be brimming with them.
Our most rewarding experiences have been paved by lessons in patience. We had been looking for the Painted Bunting for five years before we came upon one at the tail end of an otherwise bird-free afternoon. I finally caught the Belted Kingfisher in flight after dozens of encounters taught me how to approach at a glacial pace.
But nothing calls for patience like the wait for a raptor to take flight. It’s a little like a poker game: The more you invest, the longer you have to stay — until your back is sore, your finger aches from tension against the camera’s trigger and you find yourself wondering if the wait will ever end.
The variety of Red-shouldered Hawk I came upon the other day in Central Florida is famous for its ability to stay put for hours on end. Hawks have no predators, so they don’t mind sitting high on a branch until something prompts a move. Their eyesight is extraordinary, so they can spot the slightest move without having to go off to forage or fish like other birds.
But the wait didn’t last forever that day. Just as I was losing hope, the Hawk made its move and shot to the ground about 50 feet away. All the lessons in patience paid off this time. I caught him in mid flight and followed him to his landing spot. The hawk crouched there for a few minutes before lifting off again — this time with a frog in his talons.
He sailed off into the distance, his lunch hanging beneath him, and he landed on a faraway tree to dine on frogs legs.
Here’s the story in pictures: