Granby Land Trust and Granby Public Library host Hawk Talk with John Weeks

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The title slide for the lecture

An audience filled the North Barn at Holcomb Farm on Sept. 8 when John Weeks stepped to the podium to begin his talk on the predatory birds that can be seen in the Granby area. One would not expect such a talk to begin with Shakespearean prose, but that was the case, as Weeks explained his title for the beautifully illustrated lecture: Hawks and Handsaws. Using some melodic lines from Hamlet that referred to certain birds as handsaws, Weeks noted that handsaws was probably an early translation from heronshaw, a word describing a young heron.

With an eye to preparing potential participants for the weekend Hawk Watch at Blueberry Hill in Granville, Mass. on Sept. 10 also sponsored by the GPL and the Library, Weeks gave descriptions of the various birds that might be seen. This particular location is a prime spot for viewing the many migrants that pass by during September and October. Numerous fall hawk watches take place along the eastern seaboard, the most famous being in the Appalachians at Hawk Mountain near Kempton, Penn.

For centuries, hawks and other predatory birds were considered pests by farmers. Pennsylvania offered a $5 reward for any dead goshawk, but hunters shot any bird of prey they saw, bounty or no bounty. An annual shoot targeting hawks and eagles caused thousands to be killed each year well into the 20th century. Rosalie Edge, a passionate conservationist, bought Hawk Mountain in 1934 and established there the first sanctuary for birds of prey. The bounty for dead hawks was finally terminated in 1951. Since 1972, all birds of prey are protected under federal law.

Today, birds of prey, and many others, lose their lives in the blades of wind turbines. Weeks showed the newest design of turbine that eliminates the blades. Hopefully it won’t be long before this design becomes the standard.

Weeks described the characteristic of raptors, the group to which hawks belong. Raptors are birds of prey, hunting other animals for food. To that end, they have very keen eyesight and hearing, sharp talons and powerful beaks. Some of them hunt in daylight (diurnal), others at night (nocturnal). Many of them migrate following the same types of flyways that other birds use to escape winter climes. Many of these flyways are well-known and charted. When using a flyway, the birds can take advantage of rising columns of warm air to save energy. Most raptors avoid migrating over oceans because large bodies of water do not generate uplifting wind currents.

Using beautiful slides of photos taken by himself and others, Weeks described the characteristics and identifying features of several kinds of hawks: red-tailed, red-shouldered, broad-winged, rough-legged, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned. Some of these birds are quite difficult to identify, but the slides were instrumental in highlighting the differences.

Among other birds covered in Weeks’ talk were eagles, harriers, falcons, kestrels, vultures and kites. In discussing the latter, Weeks noted that kites can stay aloft in place, seeming to be hovering the way falcons do. The great difference, however, is that the kites are truly floating on air currents, expending very little energy, whereas the falcons are expending a lot of energy flapping their wings to stay aloft. That is the difference between kiting and hovering. An example of a much smaller bird that hovers is the hummingbird, which most folks have seen in their own yards.

In closing, Weeks paid tribute to his friend Sam Kellogg, who passed in 2021. On his last visit to Blueberry Hill, Kellogg counted 600 raptors passing overhead. It is not out of the question that the birders on Sept. 10 or any of the other days this fall might see that many.

John Weeks always enthusiastically answers questions from the audience. Photos by Shirley Murtha