In the early evening as I watered the flower beds and the asparagus in the lingering heat, far off I could hear the wind come, leaves in distant trees hissing as it rushed towards me, growing in strength and volume, now swaying the trees nearby. It tugged at my hat and sent dried and crumpled leaves tumbling across the grass. The wind cleared away the oppressive heat and I looked upward expecting to see storm clouds. Instead, I saw a lone turkey vulture way up high, serene, floating, taking advantage of the new currents, and just below him, small black specks wheeling and dipping under thin, gauzy clouds. Swallows, or some similar bird. I knew it from the way their wings curved back and from their quick darts and flashes of movement. There were probably 25 or 30 birds. And for a while they stayed high above me in the same small area, simply enjoying the waves of wind. Young birds practicing their flying, perhaps, or joyfully shrugging off the dead stillness of the day and reveling in how the wind enhanced the freedom of flight.
In case you haven't realized by now, I love birds. We are lucky to get a good variety through here – some long-term residents, others that stay only a few days – and after a few years, my slow brain has caught on to the different types, when to expect them and their varied kinds of flight.
Our year-round residents, the chickadees, tufted titmouse and nuthatch flash nervously and quickly among the trees, always preferring the shelter of the branches to being exposed long in the open. The goldfinches come and go in flocks, one bird apparently guiding the movements of all. Egrets and herons lope across the skies in early morning and again in the early evening.
For aerial maneuvers it is hard to beat the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers (who are with us only during the summer months) or Bluebirds (year-round), both highly-skilled insect hunters. They are the aerobatic pilots of our airspace, executing with precision steep banks and stomach-dropping free falls that follow the erratic zig-zag of insects in motion, snapping them up in mid-air. The Scissor-tails with their long tail feathers look like small kites fluttering against the blue. The sturdy Bluebirds are all business.
The heavier bodies of flickers and red-bellied woodpeckers are more difficult to keep aloft, or so it seems from their flying. They flap-flap-flap-flap, then glide for several beats, dropping precipitously before they hurriedly flap-flap-flap-flap again. I suspect they really prefer to be firmly attached to the side of a tree.
As for the crows, they are always in a hurry. Their flying is filled with purpose; flat, steady and powerful wing-beats carry them over fields and through the trees. Crows understand that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. They prefer to be in their clans and often fly in pairs or small groups. Their flight seems to me tinged with guilt – skulk-flying – and I am certain that they are either flying away or towards trouble.
The elusive stealth flyer of our skies is the Barn Owl. Just as the last tinges of light drain from the sky, the owl leaves his nest box up in the barn’s rafters and glides silently out over the fields. The Barn Owl has fringed feathers with comb-like edges that break down turbulence and muffle sound. This silent flight is why he is so deadly to field mice, gophers and snakes. His coloring lets him fade into the night. They never see or hear him coming.
Finally, perhaps my favorite flyer, the hawk. If the owl is the stealth plane the hawk certainly must be the fighter jet. He circles idly above, seemingly indifferent, just as the vultures do, but his fierce eyes are surveying the landscape far below, looking for the slightest ill-timed dash for freedom through the tall grass - and then down he swoops, claws and beak at the ready.