Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 13, 2009

A Living Breeze

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:09 pm

Sunday dawned cooler than the previous few autumn mornings at the Detroit River mouth. It promised an especially cool autumn day. The sky quickly phased into a bright blue canvas as soon as the sun crept over the Canadian skyline, rolled over the islands, and struck the American shore.  A crisp Northwestern breeze pushed against the dawn but had no effect upon it – it rose at normal speed. The Fall season here at the river mouth can be exciting when these morning winds come from the east on the heels of a clear sky. They bring with them huge migrating flocks of raptors. The hawks begin coming around 9 am and continue, on some days, until the sun retreats at 7 pm or so. Early in the fall, thousands of Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned Hawks will ride them south from the northern forests. This fall some 20,000 Broad-wings were recorded by human observers as they made the passage over the river in September. October usually brings thousands of Turkey Vultures along the same route – following the same breeze.  Westerly or southern breeze usually hold back any given flight.

This October had yet to host the “big flight” of Turkey vultures as of the 11th of the month. The winds had not been favorable. Some groups had crossed, but only in scattered patches and these buzzards were forced to tack into the breeze. Saturday the 10th was a good day, with 8,000 migrants, but not a break-out day by any means. The big black birds had to bend their wings into a “W” formation and angle across the sky in order to make southwestern headway. This day looked to be yet another one of those off days – if you can call a flight of 8,000 birds “off.”  In spite of wind direction, however, it turned out to be a break-out day. I was fortunate to witness at least a portion of it.

I saw my first vulture about 9:45 or so. This bird slid by going in exactly the wrong direction! It was a lone bird heading north- probably looking for a thermal to ride or adjusting his GPS unit. My concentration re-focused on earthly matters for the next quarter hour as I scanned the river for waterfowl and watched a few late season swallows swirl about for midges. The next time I looked up the blue sky was full of vultures. I mean full. One gang of black forms turned lazy circles over the field to my north while another rode high up on a mass of warm air directly over my head (see here). A third group formed a continuous horizontal column stretching off beyond sight from the eastern horizon and feeding into the circular masses.

The circling groups, known as kettles, were impressive enough (see here). These consisted of hundreds of individuals riding a thermal heavenward like a reverse tornado. At a certain point, the top birds would begin to peel off one by one and glide off like a sinuous ribbon. Never was a wing beat executed during this whole set of maneuvers – it was all performed with outstretched and motionless wings held up at a slight angle. But it was the sight of the incoming birds, those streaming in from the horizon, that impressed me the most. It isn’t often that we get a chance to stretch our eyeballs at such a continuous stream of life (see here).

The incoming steam was organized into a band about 10 birds wide and thousands long. Like a meandering river, the column vacillated and danced according to the whims of the breeze. At one point the band angled and veered north for a short spell then fluidly shifted back to a straight western course. As it passed directly overhead, I could clearly make out the details of the individual fliers themselves. Upon reaching the shoreline sky, they broke up into kettles and augured upward.

The aerial show continued unabated for the next half hour until I had to cut my observation time short (neck spasms, you know). The migration continued throughout the day as if some great hand had opened up a floodgate. The sum total of day’s migration turned out to be in excess of 16,000 (officially 16,292). I was privileged to see at least a few thousand of those birds.

It might seem odd that I would get excited at a flock of buzzards, but I hope you see that they represent something much more than that. It allowed me time to imagine what it must have been like to see those so-called endless flights of Passenger Pigeons or Buffalo herds back in the old days. It also allowed me the opportunity to appreciate a tide of modern life that still exists in spite of our hectic modern day world. As you can see, it also turned me into a  writer of rambling nature prose sounding very John Muir-like. I’ll apologize later, but being witness to a living breeze tends to do that to a fellow.


  1. Great post. What a sight. I could easily get neck spasms under those circumstances.

    Comment by Hugh — October 14, 2009 @ 6:29 pm

  2. Like so many of your articles this grabbed my attention. I have started to appreciate the vultures and what they do. They have been resting in my sub-division overnite the last few years. The noise they make landing in the trees,in a small way, remind me of Audabon’s accounts of the passenger pigeons when they were at their peak.

    John Muir is univerally admired and appreciated for the legacy he created. I think many people feel that you are doing things that John Muir would have been proud of.

    Comment by jim — October 22, 2009 @ 10:53 am

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