Crossing Paths

Certain exquisite experiences in the natural world arise because of the precise alignment of unpredictable paths. We can never know exactly where and when they’ll occur, if at all, and that, perhaps, is the very essence of their charm. Other than being out on the land as often as possible, I know of no way to encourage these myriad potential moments except being open to their possibility.

Driving down the valley with a crate of homemade jams ordered by a shop in a near fishing village, we were both weary from the long hours of making them. If it weren’t for the fact that we’d get paid once we’d delivered them, I don’t think we’d have left the house that day. But those converging paths, those unique articulations of wonder and connection, can be sparked by the most innocuous of outings.

Storm clouds budded in purple swells above the mountains as we levelled out onto the plain. While the isthmus burned with the slanting sun, the wing mirrors told another story. There we glimpsed the piled-up sky raging with winds as we raced away.

A falcon glanced over the road, and our first thoughts turned to the kestrels that commonly hunt across the scrub. But when a second and third falcon flashed beside us we pulled over. We stood at the edge of the road where we could see the pillows of storm hugging the hills; to one side the watery meadows glowed with light, to the other yellow daisies lit the scrub. The falcon flock wheeled low over the marshes, over the road and over us, scything their way through the glittering air as though swimmers of bright water.

Red-footed falcons are colonial breeders and nest well to the north of here, but they can pass through on migration in large gatherings. The storm funnelled our way, spilling over the mountain peaks and vanishing the valley we’d driven down. But the flatlands remained lit, washed with a sharp yellow light that tore through the twisting braid of birds. We tried counting them but failed; their weaving ways, like an ancient dance kept secret within a community, meant that guessing was our best measure.

The fifty or so falcons dipped and sheered, hawking the insects that make up the majority of their diet. I saw one snare a dragonfly from the air and eat it on the wing as it flew within a metre of me. While the females wore a cinnamon wedge on their undersides the males were like pockets of storm, outriders of the steepled clouds building up over the hills. Their plumage was the same turbulent shade of blue and grey, a vivid metallic bruise spreading from the deep red wound that lend these falcons their name.

The falcons fissured the air with sharp turns and then drifted in slow circles above our heads. While one laddered steeply another furrowed the grasses, emerging with its prize. The storm spread over the valley with a rumble of thunder. Seeing rain in the distance we remembered the crate of jams in the back of our open truck. Reluctantly we left, leaving the falcons shoaling before the storm.

About an hour later we stopped at the edge of the meadows, an empty crate in back and some money in our pockets. The falcons had gone, spurred south by the seasonal impulse, and the stormlight had subsided to a flat and quiet dusk. I’d never have guessed there’d been anything there at all.

33 thoughts on “Crossing Paths

  1. I love that last line. It drops off and leaves the reader in a powerful way.

    And how true about being open to possibilities, about just getting outside! My husband and I were recently in Costa Rica, and although neither of us know much about birds, just being in that place allowed us to spend hours watching hawks and vultures circle and dip and rise over the roads we traveled. I wondered what it was like, being so intimate with the wind. And I was thankful to have a reason to wonder.

    Love post and photos, as always.

    1. Thanks, Emily. Delighted to hear you liked it and how the last line worked for you. And I have to say, Costa Rica is very high on our list of places to explore. Although I know nothing of the birds that live there, I would relish the opportunity to start from scratch with a field guide and learn about them. But like yourself, I could just as easily watch and wonder about them – in your elegant way of putting it – being intimate with the wind. Bet it was a beautiful journey…

      Thanks again, and hope all is well,

      Julian

  2. “Their plumage was the same turbulent shade of blue and grey, a vivid metallic bruise spreading from the deep red wound that lend the falcons their name.”

    So glad you give in when beckoned to write.

  3. I’m wondering about – the deep red wound – and the falcon name. If I Google I find the Latin falco , meaning hook, for the beak and claws. I never thought why a falcon is called a falcon?

    1. Good question! The bright scarlet colour on male red-footed falcons spreads from the feet to include a patch of their undersides. It’s a remarkably vivid, almost alarming, colour against the bluish-black of their feathers. So the deep red wound only refers to this type of falcon, Falco vespertinus, though the hobby, Falco subbuteo, shares a similar red patch as well. Do you see either of these species where you are?

      Many thanks for reading!

      Julian

  4. Immersed in articulate narrative and images, I found myself ducking somewhat as the falcon snared “a dragonfly from the air and [ate] it on the wing as it flew within a metre of me”. As always when I come your way, crossing this particular path has been a rewarding adventure.

    1. I love that you ducked, Cindy! Although only one of the falcons came as close as that, none of them were remotely bothered by our presence, circling and diving about us the whole time. It was as if we were invisible.

      Thanks kindly for your lovely comment, as always, and hope all is well with you beneath the northern lights!

  5. ….reluctantly we left.

    This is how I’m feeling as I finish reading this wonderful blog. I’m very happy to have chanced upon this wonderful spot and look forward to exploring your site and reading more.

    1. It’s a great pleasure to see your wonderful comment this morning, Colleen. Can’t tell you how delighted I am that you found your way here, and that the words and images have resonated with you. I’m very happy you chanced upon the blog as well, and am looking forward to having you along.

      My very best wishes,
      Julian

  6. What an experience, Julian and so beautifully narrated, as always :) Don’t you wish you could somehow capture those experiences and hold onto them? I had one a few weeks ago, myself. I was just about to head to bed, when I noticed the northern lights dancing outside my window. Throwing a coat over my pyjamas, I worked my way down to the end of my driveway. As I watched the lights dancing above the trees, a low howl of a wolf pierced the silence right beside me. He was soon joined by the whole pack, howling and wailing just on the other side of the trees. It’s a moment I will always hold tight to in my memory.
    Thank you for sharing this. Now, we can all feel like we were there with you.

    1. Wonderful story you tell here, Heather! The howling and the wailing, the northern lights and the closeness of the wolves. Thank you for sharing it…

      In many ways I feel that those moments are held on to, or captured. Whether in a lucid and enduring memory or by putting the experience into words or images, those few minutes with the falcons feel extremely near to me. I think that’s what particularly enthralls me about such vivid encounters – that you carry them like polished stones, smooth, substantial and shining.

  7. Well-written as ever Julian! I love the pictures! They almost look like the open lands we have here in agrarian communities, almost tropical. That second picture, in particular, with the tree, the angry clouds and mountain in the backdrop. BTW, what would your home-made jam be? Just curious about the fruits you have in your area. Since I was a kid I have always loved jams made from guava and coconut. Yum… :)

    1. Thanks, Rex! Interesting you see a resemblance between the images and some of your own landscapes. Although I know you’re not in India, when I was travelling there many years ago, I was surprised how suddenly I would encounter a landscape that reminded me of Europe. I love how we discover these unexpected connections, even if they only exist through our own experiences of other places. On to jams! We have a lot of wild blackberries here, which I mix with apples. And plenty of elderberries (small, dark berries in large clusters that can only be used when cooked) which I mix with pears. But peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots all grow very well here so we make a variety of different jams using those fruits, depending on the season. The other fruit that I really love that grows well here is quince. Again, it can’t be used raw as it’s as hard as a bullet, but once it’s cooked it has a wonderfully rich aroma and delicate pink colour. As much as I love our local jams from around here, you’ve got me very excited to try some coconut and guava jams! How the heck am I going to find that???

  8. As always, Julian, your writing makes me want to run outside and pay attention, to have some serendipitous encounters of my own — and try to capture them even half as well as you do. I love that your poetry never overwhelms your content, and your content always deserves your poetry. All in lyrical, meaningful balance. Some of my favorites from this piece:
    –to one side the watery meadows glowed with light, to the other yellow daisies lit the scrub
    –scything their way through the glittering air
    –the stormlight had subsided to a flat and quiet dusk.
    Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. So sorry to have taken this long to reply, Jenny, but your wonderful comment is deeply appreciated. I was a bit overwhelmed by your generous words to be honest. If in some small way my own words encourage or inspire you in your connections with the natural world then I feel greatly honoured. When you mentioned paying attention it reminded me of a line by the writer Chet Raymo who said that “attention is the highest form of prayer.” Much of his work is imbued with a religious precision which can be applied equally in our relationships to the wild in my opinion. And that attention, that sense of focusing on the particulars, is a way of deepening those encounters when they occur. And in some instances attention will actually reveal to you the encounter in the first place. Enjoy, as you run outside…

      Many thanks and hope all is well with you,

      Julian

  9. Great post, Hoff. Such unexpected encounters make for the real highlights of one’s journey through life.
    Last winter I looked through my living room window of our flat in the West End of Glasgow to see 40 waxwings sitting in the tree just outside – just an arm’s length away…

    1. Thanks, Pete! Well I have to say that you’re one up on me in the wonderful waxwing stakes! A bird I would dearly love to see, and I know that when they irrupt into Britain in cold northern winters that they are quite confiding (like your flock of 40!) but I’ve never been around when one happend. Must have been an absolutely splendid sight through the window. Thanks for sharing this sighting!

  10. Is the reason you came across such a group of falcons because they were migrating? I have seen falcon in Oregon and Alaska, but I have never seen them in groups.

    1. That’s a good question, and the answer is a little bit of both. The red-footed falcon, Falco vespertinus, breeds in group colonies so they have a tendency towards social behaviour, unlike some falcon specie and which seems to stay with them during migration. Having said that, migration often brings raptor species together, not strictly as a group, but as birds using the same thermals to help them on their way. If you happen to live nearby to one of the major North American flyways for bird migration they you would most likely encounter large numbers of various raptors all flying together. I have only experienced that type of migratory movement on a couple of occasions in Europe – when thousands upon thousands of birds were flying south overhead – but I’ll never forget those extraordinary days! Many thanks for taking the time to read, and I hope I’ve answered your question somewhat! Feel free to ask any others you might have.

      Best wishes,

      Julian

      1. Thanks Julian:

        I see other groups of birds gathering in the fall such as meadowlarks and northern flickers, but , again , I haven’t seen raptors. Yet, guys in my pigeon club speak about migrating raptors, so I will ask for some clarification. I’ve only been in Oregon since last January, so I don’t understand all the comings and goings of the birds and animals yet.

        It’s neat you had the opportunity to see falcons in a group.

        I enjoyed how the various elements were tied together in the story to create interesting meaning. An obligation turned into a wonderful experience of discovery and opportunity to view an occurrence in nature that most people don’t get to see.

        Sher

        1. Thanks for adding these thoughts, Sher! Raptors often use quite particular flyways, so it would be great to get some local advice on migratory routes around your neck of the woods. You never know, there just might be large numbers of raptors that fly through close by. Coming to understand the local “comings and goings” is one of the great joys of moving to a new place! Hope you enjoy…

          And many thanks for the generous compliment about the post; delighted that you liked it. Looking forward to hearing about those animals and birds around you!

          Best wishes,
          Julian

  11. Hi Julian:
    I thought at first the red-footed falcon might be another name for a bird we have in North America, but it turns out we don’t have red-footed falcons– just peregrine, prairie, and aplomado falcons. I subscribe to the Cornell Bird Lab, and I couldn’t find any information about our falcons migrating in groups. Yet, I did find European sites where folks mentioned occasionally seeing red-footed falcons in groups.

    I spent two weeks on Adak Island along the far western reach of the Aleutian chain in Alaska hunting for ptarmigan, and we had peregrine dive bombing our bird dog. It was quite interesting to watch how the falcon would dive and lightly clip the griffon’s head as he galloped across the tundra. My only other opportunity to observe falcon behavior was also in Alaska when a falcon came in and hit one of my racing pigeons while it ate grit on the beach. I think the impact killed the bird.

    The peregrine falcon are quite extroverted in their behaviors. Remind me a bit of great horned owls in this way.

    In Oregon I expect I will see prairie falcon. It will be interesting to compare the prairie with the peregrine.

    Sher

    1. Great story you tell of being in the Aleutian islands, Sher! A place I would love to explore. I can only begin to imagine the landscapes and light up there. Peregrines are remarkable creatures; we have them here and they hunt high above the village on many summer evenings, usually chasing swallows and housemartins. It’s the swiftness and deftness that I admire so much. And a beautiful name is the aplomado falcon; I’m going to look it after I’ve posted this.

      And please let me know how it goes regarding migrant raptor watching come spring. Hopefully you’ll have some local knowledge leading you in the right direction!

      Thanks ever so much for sharing these thoughts…much appreciated.

      Best wishes,
      Julian

  12. A beautiful story about your encounter with the falcons and the approaching storm, Julian. I wonder how many people have seen a phenomenon like that, it sounds remarkable. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it. A real gift, and thanks for sharing the wonder of it here.

    1. Thanks so much, Cait! It was a remarkable encounter; we’ve been blessed in our journeys around Greece and the Balkans to see migrating raptors a number of times. Always it is a breathless, wondrous, and hurtling experience. I know you’re a good ways from southwest Ontario, but I always wanted to visit Point Pelee during migration, which I’m sure would reveal a wealth of wonderful moments. Delighted that you dropped by, Cait, and many thanks for your kind thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.