NEW WILMINGTON, Pa.– Our first visit to the Westminster College Field Station for a prolonged birding expedition surprised all of us when a Bald Eagle soared overhead. One small group of students spotted it cutting through the wind above the eastern horizon as we prepared to wrap up for the day.
I was headed into toward the classroom and Nature Center when I heard someone shouting.
“That’s a Bald Eagle! There! A Bald Eagle.”
Our guiding ornithologist, Dr. Kerri Duerr, seized the chance for a learning moment. She immediately put out a call for everyone to hustle. She coached the group to move quickly to the other side of the Nature Center to track the eagle. This is when I witnessed how serious birders are seriously quick.
I was too slow. By the time I caught up to the group, the Bald Eagle had flown beyond the tree line—too far for me to see.
I learned that I must work on my reaction time and focus my attention. I had become too easily distracted by the sounds caused by the wind whipping the Ecology, Westminster and American flags near the front of the Nature Center. That’s when, in the blink of an eagle’s eye, everyone else was rushing to the backside of the structure. By the time I wandered over to the group as I was wondering what was going on, the eagle was gone.
I failed to anticipate the possibility of such a sighting. I had missed the obvious clues.
The first clue presented itself at the start of our day. Dr. Duerr shared her experience of seeing a Bald Eagle earlier in the morning during her drive to campus. I should have had a bell go off in my head. In spite of the gray winter morning, there was an eagle out there.
The second clue came when we witnessed a Red-tailed Hawk. It seemed to be watching us watch him as he lingered overhead during multiple passes over the Field Station. I am accustomed to seeing hawks soar over my home on partly cloudy days when the sky is punctuated with bright puffy clouds. This Red-tailed Hawk was showing me he had the power to navigate the turbulent air with the dark, low shifting clouds.
The third clue that I ignored came as the temperature rose into the low 50s. It had warmed up so much, I had yanked off my gloves and packed them in my pocket.
I also didn’t think about the rapidly moving Nimbostratus clouds that gave way to bright bursts of sunlight that washed over the Field Station. That sunshine warmed the ground, creating thermals (pockets of warm, rising air). The buffeting winds also bounced off structures, trees, and nearby hillsides forcing rushing air to go up in what is called an updraft. Thermals and updrafts help these birds of prey to ride higher into the sky.
Next time I will pay closer attention to the cues I’m presented. I will will focus on the birds. I will be ready for the mighty Bald Eagle when we head out on our next birding adventure.
Here’s a short video post giving a shout-out to the Field Station and recapping some of the findings that went into the student field notebooks.