The moist climate in northern Vermont produces lavishly beautiful scenery, but tends to limit soaring potential. That, plus having only lower performance ships to fly, kept me from straying far there, but the ten mile ridge downwind of our airport became so familiar, I could put myself to sleep at night visualizing each fold and roll in the hillside I hugged so many hundreds of times to the far end and back.
We soared with hawks there daily, and what a blessing! They mark lift with amazing accuracy, yet seldom seem to mind when we nose in. One might be parked above a slope facing into the wind with its head down, hovering motionless over unsuspecting prey, and when we glide by it would only glance over briefly, then return its eye to the hunt.
Of course in a limited number of square miles the hawk population amounts to only a few individuals, and to humans passing at 50 knots they all look pretty much alike. Where one hawk’s range ends and another’s begins may be clear to them, but we have no way of knowing. Except…
One spring I was high above a broad area of canopy forest and saw a single white speck down against the sea of rich green. At first I supposed a big trash bag adrift, but it was moving across the wind so it had to be some kind of bird. Never seen any white birds around there large enough to spot from such a distance. A goose perhaps… but one all by itself? Hmm. I wanted to fly down for a better view, but it was too low to be sure of regaining enough height to reach home. Oh well, probably never see it again anyway.
Then a few days later there it was again, this time much higher, but before I could close in for a look it dove into the trees. That happened several more times as the season progressed, always somewhere along the same stretch of ridge, and the more I saw of it the more it looked like a big hawk – except pure white… Eventually I caught it perched in a high treetop looking the other way (into the wind of course). I set up a careful approach and swept in from behind low and fast, reaching our nearest point before it startled and took wing. It was a hawk alright, an all white red-tail, believe it or not!
So where others of the species are downright brazen about holding their own airspace, why was this one so elusive? I’m no ornithologist, but have to wonder if the bird somehow knew that it’s plumage was a warning beacon instead of effective camouflage, and instinctively adopted more covert habits. Anyone’s guess. Supposing no other humans knew of my albino hawk, I almost wrote a piece about it for the local paper, but decided not to for fear some oaf with more ammunition than brains would get inspired and blast it into eternity. Under those terms, all I could do was continue to enjoy the show.
October in that region is when hawks of all kinds migrate south, funneling from vast forests across Quebec onto the singular ridges of New England and Appalachia. About the time those first migrants started passing through, my secret friend disappeared. Generally, hawks return from southern winters to occupy the same territory year after year. Would the albino come back as well?
Sure enough, next spring it did return to reclaim its previous domain. Again its habits were reclusive, but familiarity brings benefits and more than once it let me near enough to see that this season it had one big feather of normal coloration on its left wing!
And then it came back a third year. This time the albinism was not so brilliant, a softer creamy shade, and it sported several tail feathers of conventional color as well. It also seemed less elusive, more bold about allowing itself to be seen. That summer I finally had the pleasure of thermaling with the majestic beast, even making eye contact at times, as with all its ordinary cousins.
After the third year I never saw the white hawk again – or had it outgrown the albinism, now free rule its sector of Paradise without the onus of vivid costume? We’ll never know. Either way, that ended the white hawk phase of my story, just another in the growing list of wonderful, unique, always open-ended experiences accessible only to soaring pilots. So many marvels have accumulated, it’s hard to imagine whatever could come next.
Only one way to find out…