Dancing in the Sky

March 16th, 2009

It was so warm out this weekend that it felt like the middle of spring.  We’re not there yet of course, after seeing the low 20’s last week.  Many trees and shrubs have begun to leaf out, and hopefully everything hangs in there as winter gives way and the days grow longer.  Will we have another hard freeze?  I hope not… with luck we may actually have a little fruit from our small orchard this year.

Meanwhile I’ve enjoyed watching some of our avian friends returning, including several juvenile Red-tailed Hawks.  


I remember writing two years ago that I worked with raptors quite a few years back.  I worked alone as a biological research technician in a southern swamp for a few splendid seasons… big words for someone who ran through fields and forests gathering data. 

It was a great job, with some key prerequsites, like being okay wading through waist deep water with snakes drooping from branches above looking down at you.  For me it was an amazing experience though- I saw the natural world first hand and thought about what I wanted to do with my life.  It was quiet yet engaging work, and afforded time to watch the unfolding rhythms of nature as the seasons changed. 

In this case my charter was to follow a nesting pair of hawks around most of the day for three overlapping seasons.  Using radio tracking equipment I could tell when they were flying or sitting, and then go find them to observe what they were doing.  Sometimes I would climb trees adjacent to their nest and watch them feed other critters to their young fledglings, witnessing the stark realities of nature each day.  I remember seeing otters in the wild for the first time in my life.  While abundant in Missouri now, they were rarely seen in those days. 

One time I was canoeing down a swampy canal in the middle of the bottomland forest, peacefully watching those snakes glide off branches into the water.  And then while feeling totally relaxed, a loud “Smack-splash!!!” from a beaver’s tail and I nearly jumped out of the canoe.  The beaver non-chalantly climbed up on the bank and sat there licking it’s fur and watching me glide by.  How I wish I had taken a camera along on so many of those days.

On another warm, early spring afternoon in that watery place I watched in amazement as a pair of bald eagles performed incredible aerial maneuvers in preparation for the mating season.  It was like nothing I had seen before- I was enthralled, watching them zooming, climbing and diving towards each other with talons extended, and then doing quick snap-rolls as they passed while their talons touched briefly.  

I had dreamed for years as a youngster of learning to fly, and not just anywhere… watching the eagles was incredible and at the time seemed like a vision or a sign to pursue those dreams.  Through a series of fortunate events, I then met someone and took a job as a graduate assistant at the University of Missouri, studying and teaching biology.   There I was, barely out of college, teaching science labs to over a hundred undergraduates.   That was a wonderful, humbling experience in itself, and as lifetimes go I ended up meeting someone else and fumbling furiously towards my dreams to fly. 

I ended up spending the next 20 years traveling around world, flying off aircraft carriers for much of it, and seeing places and things I would never have believed.  I haven’t written or talked about it much because it was a different chapter of my life.  In some ways it’s almost like a movie that I saw long ago, and wonder about at times.  Parts of it are difficult to share, and others better left unsaid.  I enjoyed most of it, especially the sights and sounds of lives and places I didn’t really understand.   It fulfilled a desire for service and I loved the flying immensely- in many ways it was hard to let go.  Flight became an extension of an earthly life- literally to see new horizons in a given day.  Much more, but with that said I think I’ve been looking for a way to share some thoughts about those days or places, and maybe where I’ve held back at times.  I’m not really sure yet.   But when I might write about something far away, you’ll have some idea of how I got there.   Now we’re here, on a new journey for the past few years and it’s a chance to explore a whole new set of dreams.

I was thinking of that day long ago watching the eagles when I saw a pair of Red-tailed Hawks last week.  They perform similar flight maneuvers and I watched as a juvenile pair circled high above the pond calling to each other.    Here’s a fuzzy picture of one several hundred yards in the air as it dropped towards another hawk. 


They too extended talons and flew at each other, but it wasn’t quite as dramatic as that day with the eagles long ago.  Still it is something to watch and I can only wonder why they seem to love dancing in the sky?  Are they showing what good hunters they are with legs and talons thrust out aggressively, kind of “showing their stuff”  to their possible mate?  

Their flying antics continued for about five minutes, with shrieks and cries, and then all at once they separated and headed back over the woodlands towards their nesting site.   One of them dipped quickly toward the treetops, wings tucked and whispering quietly as it flew past me just a few meters away. 


Birds, and raptors especially, have always been part of my life.  I’ve watched and studied them since my school days and there’s a connection with flight that I’ve felt closely through the years.   I loved the change that flying provided too- a physical change of perspective as well as a mental shift.  You can be sitting on the ground, shrouded in fog and drizzling rain… and a minute or two later you burst forth through clouds into a shimmering sky,  with sunlit mountains of white all around. 

Isn’t life often the same?   Stretches of rain and gray at times, and then days filled with light and promise where we embrace our surroundings, finding it a sheer joy to be alive.   We’ve all lived lived through such challenges and bright days.  And I believe we have a great deal of choice regarding whether it’s the gray skies or the sunlight we see the most.  It’s neither the weather or our eyes that really tell us so.

6 Responses to “Dancing in the Sky”

  1. You have written a powerful blog post in this one. Thanks for sharing it.

  2. I’ve learned a lot about you here–from swamps to jets. Which swamp did you work in? I grew up in Eastern NC and have canoed in many swamps.

  3. Ed- Thanks.
    Sage- Southern MO, called Mingo Nat. Wildlif Refuge. It’s probably a small area by what you’ve seen, but it seems enormous. A good portion is designated wilderness. I would love to visit some others by canoe… but no ‘gators please!

  4. You and I may have been at Mizzou at the same time. I was teaching there between 1982 and 1987, holding forth in German classes in the General Classroom Building across from Brady Commons.

    Small world, as they say.


  5. R. Isn’t that strange- you’re right, it was the ’83-’84 year for me. That was an incredible year, small world indeed.

  6. What a great entry. You have a way with words and I will be visiting again

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