A visitor from the apex

Sep 29, 2017 By Robert H. Peck, Staff Writer

I was out for a run the other day when a hawk landed casually on the railing next to me.

And by "next to me" I mean next to me. The photo below was shot with my phone, without benefit of the zoom feature. The bird was right there.

I'd been crossing a bridge, going over the railroad tracks here in Iowa, and it swooped down on its big pale wings and alighted on the edge, wide-eyed and panting, as if truly bothered about something.

On that Friday, the first day of fall, it was 95 degrees and humid. Perhaps the bird had not expected such warmth this late. Or maybe he was coming down from the high of chasing an especially exciting rodent.

But for whatever reason, he was clearly experiencing a rush.

And so was I.

The closest I'd ever been to a big raptor before this one was they year before at a conservation center outside town. There they raise injured eagles, vultures, owls. And, yes, hawks, just like the juvenile red-tailed hawk that had landed right next to me now.

Fortunately I'd dedicated some considerable time in recent months to learning bird identification, so, although I'm far from an expert, I was able to spot the telltale signs of this very common predatory bird species that has adapted well in many places to human sprawl: its broad, almost heavy wings in flight, its peculiar angled snout, its splotchy white back. Its tail wasn't red yet, because it was young, but brown-banded instead.

I know all of this because I stopped dead in the middle of my run and locked eyes with this bird and stood, sweatily, for a good 10 minutes without moving, watching the hawk that had deemed fit to land mere feet from me and was surveying the tracks below, and occasionally me, as if I, representing the human race, were hopelessly unworthy.

We humans could not be less to this bird. Our existence is uninspiring to an apex predator able at any moment to take off and soar into the sky.

I hope the hawk was OK. I think he was. He soon moved, but not far, just about 20 feet farther down the railing. I moved with him and he let me approach, sidling up guiltily for having invaded his space again, even though he, originally, had invaded mine.

He turned to me, and we looked at each other for a long while, he dangerous, me agape.

And then he took off once more, towing mightily along in the air before alighting in a tree just off the tracks about 30 feet down the line. Though I now knew him well, having studied his every feather, he was immediately disguised in leafy shadow. Before too long, I'd lost the shape of him, and, while I knew he was in the tree, I couldn't have told another person where exactly he was or how to spot him there.

He melted back into the foliage just as suddenly as he'd arrived in my life. And I ran on.

Hawk, if you're reading this, thank you. I won't forget our time together on the bridge. Humans can be cruel, but almost any one of us would be surprised and delighted by a close-up visit from you.

If you ever feel tired or lonely or you're looking for company, feel free to land near me again any time. Someday I hope you will show me your grown-up, rusty red tail.


Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.

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