So, I’m standing atop Hawk Hill, a 940-foot rise located on the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge and lookout point for the largest known raptor migration path on the West Coast. This is high season.
Here is a unique spot of ground. Northern Marin County and Tomales Bay act as a funnel guiding raptors to Hawk Hill, which may explain why there are 300 Golden Gate Raptor Observatory volunteers on call. Every year raptor observatory volunteers stand watch from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., daily, save for rainy days, from mid-August to mid-December. They count raptors.
This is a good day. Finally, after a couple weeks of overcast, fog, and even rain, today is clear and warm. Added bonus, it’s a weekday, so civilians are absent.
The peak overlooks San Francisco city and bay, but no one pays attention to that. I count 19 men and a half-dozen women who are either volunteers or committed birders. I may be the only outlander here.
A man calls out, “One broad-wing leaving the cloud into the blue.” Another man announces, “Osprey coming in over FM (FM tower). We got a high osprey coming in.”
Another man calls out, “There’s a red-tail [hawk] passing over Hill 88.”
A woman says, “Adult tail, got it.”
Second woman, “That bird’s been counted.”
Man, “There’s a red-tail just off the saddleback.”
“Okay, how high up?”
The callouts are well shy of continuous. Between callouts, birders tell stories and jokes, but stories are interrupted by callouts, and jokes are short comments or one-liners. Birds take precedent over everything. Over the course of an hour I see raptors by the ones and twos, but not a mass of raptors, not a battle line of raptors.
I ask a gray-haired woman if this is a good raptor day. She says, “Yes, a lot of red-tails. In the last hour we had nine. We’ve had bad weather, not many team days so far, so this is a good day.”
“What’s the most unusual bird you’ve seen?”
“Broad-wings are really good-looking birds. This is the only place you’ll see broad-wings in the West.”
“Yeah. Broad-wings are a very Eastern bird, you can see them anywhere on the East Coast.”
“How come they’re here?”
“Some live in British Columbia and higher north. A lot of broad-wings migrate down the Mississippi River, but a few go down the West Coast.”
A man calls out, “Cooper’s [hawk], over the saddleback.”
My companion continues with broad-winged hawks. “They are a mass-migrating bird back East, so places like Cape May [New Jersey] get thousands of broad-wings in the air. We get a handful, between 20 and 50 every year on the hill.”
“Have you ever seen a tornado of raptors?”
“We do get some giant hawk kettles [birds circling tightly in a thermal updraft] but not the thousands you get back East. We’ve had a couple kettles forming over Soccer Hill this morning...20 to 30 birds.”
There is always one person who stands out. This time it is the youngest volunteer: late 20s, a woman, tall, brown hair, big round brown eyes, wearing a Golden Gate Raptor Observatory baseball cap, blue vest, and jeans. She’s scoring the birds as volunteers call them out.
I can’t remember the last time I’ve been with a person who has as open a face as this woman’s. It’s as if every emotion she feels is instantly transmitted onto her countenance. I have a clear, unobstructed view into her soul. The sight takes my breath, her light is so bright I have to turn away.
Of course, I turn back. We chat, I learn about her college, learn she is an intern on the counting team, lives on the Marin Headlands with other interns, and as she talks she shows me how much fun it is to be young and living in a national park; how she loves raptors; how she likes working with these people, loves working in teams.
It wasn’t a sexual thing, wasn’t a love thing, and it definitely wasn’t about birds. It was standing before a person who, it seemed to me, is transparent.
See Part 1 of Hawk Hill.