It was just a coincidence, but still

22 November, 2015                        It was just a coincidence, but still


I began writing the section below this (begins “The low angle of the November sun…”) yesterday. The whole hawk incident happened the day before (Friday, 20 November). Last night I was getting ready for bed, I was brushing my teeth, I remember looking down at my little toothbrush stand on the counter, with bits of dried up toothpaste drips on it. It occurred to me in that instant what it would have been like to discuss this whole hawk encounter (below) with dad. His insights always startled me – always – and those insights are one of the many things I miss about him. I was mentioning to Evie at about that time – think about how it feels to talk with a mouthful of toothpaste, I suspect we’ve all done it – that the day before had been the third anniversary of dad’s death. And the day I had this singular encounter with a big Red-tail. Some of us think everything happens for a reason. Others (including me) think events are more random. More at the end. Here’s the post, mostly as I wrote it yesterday:  


The low angle of the November sun makes gorgeous light. We’ve gotten brief early season frosts but haven’t yet had a long, hard, brittle overnight freeze that will stop the insects for 2015. This wasp (Vespula vulgaris) was slowing down and sitting in the sun to warm up. That’s cooperative and helpful for an amateur photographer like me: 

Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) on a leaf at Pony Pasture

Common wasp (Vespula vulgaris) on a leaf at Pony Pasture

I was driving east on 33 in Glen Allen Friday afternoon. Ahead on my right I saw a mob of crows behaving with unmistakable aggression in a stand of mixed hardwoods and pines on the side of the road. I watched a bigger and lighter colored bird swoop through the woods and stop in a grove of loblolly pines. It was next to a parking lot and I slowed down and pulled in.

I drove around a building and through the parking lot to where the crows were mobbing a bird in a pine tree  thirty feet from the edge of the parking lot. It was a large (female) Red-tailed hawk. I rolled down my car window and pulled up and turned the engine off. When photographing urban birds, cars make a perfect “blind” because cars are not a direct threat and the birds act like you’re not even there. If you get out, everything changes. But they couldn’t care less about the car itself.

I took my first picture (it says on the camera) at 2:50. By the time I took my 157th picture (that’s how it goes sometimes) it was after 3:30. This is among the first pictures I took:

It's a difficult look to interpret. It may be arrogant. Or confident. Or raptors don't have emotions - who am I to say.

A difficult look to interpret. It may be arrogant. Or confident. Or raptors don’t have emotions – who am I to say. I’ve never seen a chickadee with this expression.

I watched her eat while I sat there. When I first stopped there were twenty crows, all in a frenzy. I didn’t witness any of this, but by her behavior and the crows’ behavior I surmise she must have just killed the squirrel. My guess is the squirrel was thrashing around and the crows were very, very agitated. But she just kept eating – it wasn’t pretty – and the crows lost interest and flew away. I don’t understand enough about this behavior. I wouldn’t have guessed they’d leave her alone so quickly.

Here’s another picture while she was in the tree:

It's hard to look away from a hawk's eyes

It’s hard to look away from a hawk’s eyes

I watched for a long time. Just me and her and the rapidly vanishing remains of the inattentive squirrel. I didn’t watch for an eternity, but over twenty minutes. Because after around ten minutes it was evident she’d finished eating. She turned 180º and was facing the opposite direction. And wasn’t eating, just enjoying (I presume) the feeling of a full stomach. Although in raptors that’s referred to as a full  “crop.”

Brief geek interlude. If raptors aren’t your thing, skip this paragraph. Of course if raptors are your thing, chances are you know this. But hawks (and eagles and ospreys) are “diurnal” raptors which means they hunt in the day. You’ve no doubt already surmised this, but owls are “nocturnal” raptors which means they are night time hunters. And diurnal raptors have crops but nocturnal raptors don’t! Or so I read in the Delaware Valley Raptor Center article called “Raptor Adaptations.” There is nothing that is not fascinating about this. If you’re of a certain mentality.

While reading the “Raptor Adaptations” article (you should really read that; it’s incredible) I discovered a fascinating section called “Foot Notes” – also worth reading. When that Red-tail was out in the sun (I’ll get to that in just a moment) I zoomed in on her feet. Check this out: 

That's a bad sight for a small mammal to turn its back on

That’s a bad sight for a small mammal to turn its back on

To return to where I left off before the “brief geek interlude,” she sat there for some time digesting. The sun was dropping and I wanted to see if she’d left any pieces of the unfortunate squirrel on the ground around the tree. I got out of the car and stood next to it and she still didn’t take off! I was really close. I gradually walked toward the tree and she flew off into the woods. I picked through the leaves at the base of the tree (lots of oak leaves even though she was sitting in a pine) and she hadn’t dropped so much as a squirrel hair. No blood, no hair, nothing. I walked back and drove out of the parking lot on my way home. But the nine day old moon was rising in the east and the air was clear and crisp and beautiful. And I thought a picture of the moon would be a nice compliment to the hawk pictures so I turned my lens toward it:

Waxing gibbous moon rising above a well-fed hawk

Waxing gibbous moon rises over a well-fed hawk

I would have worked harder on a better moon picture – but as I snapped that shot, she flew right over my head! She flew across the road in front of me and over another strip mall and landed in a tall tree – in the sun! I got back in the car, drove across the street and behind the strip mall, to the base of her new tree. I opened the car window again, stuck my camera out and grabbed a few more from this new angle:

That's a spiderweb behind her! This stuff never ceases to delight and amaze me

That’s a spiderweb behind her! This stuff never ceases to delight and amaze me. 

It was late by that time and the sun was going away and I went home. All this time I had been unaware it was the anniversary of dad’s death. But that’s just a coincidence. That’s the end of this section. Check out the little addendum to this one if you’re so inclined. And come back next week!

All best,



So anyway, since this was the week of the anniversary of dad’s death, that wound through my thoughts about the hawk encounter a lot. First – it was just a coincidence. In my opinion. It’s popular to say that “everything happens for a reason” but personally I don’t subscribe to that notion. My brother Kevin knows a statistician who says that “rare events happen – rarely.” It’s unusual to have a somewhat long, somewhat involved encounter with a raptor that coincides with an important date, but sometimes stuff just happens.

As I thought more about it, it also occurred to me that I’m glad I was unaware of the coincidence when I was watching and photographing the hawk. In my notes it says that if I’d been thinking about that, it “…would have cheapened the experience and distracted me and I would have less fully immersed myself in what I was doing, and that would have made it not-great.” I love a photographic “session” like that one. But it totally takes you over, you’re on autopilot, you can’t think about other stuff.  

Dad didn’t believe in ghosts or “being visited by spirits” or any other new-age or old-age mumbo-jumbo. If someone related a story like that to my dad and said “I think it was my father’s spirit saying hello,” my dad would have been utterly kind, especially if it was obvious that made the person happy. He would have said something on the order of “you can’t beat spending a sunny autumn afternoon taking pictures of a cooperative Red-tail.” He would never – not ever – believe that a person’s spirit takes the form of a hawk and stops by for a visit. But if something was harmless and made a person happy, he was all for it.

Kevin wrote Dad’s obituary, and closed it with this: “Mike’s kindness, sense of humor, curiosity, love of reading, and love of animals lives on in his children and grandchildren…” That hawk encounter was a sterling example of his curiosity and love of animals living on in his children. And that is a sterling example of a father’s spirit saying hello.


About Jay McLaughlin

I am a rehabilitation counselor. I have many friends with autism and traumatic brain injuries. They help me learn new things constantly. I hike with dogs at the James River in Richmond - a lot. I've completed an Iron distance triathlon a year for 11 years. My most recent was in Wilmington, NC in November, 2013. I currently compete in mid-distance triathlons. And work and hike and take pictures and write and eat.
This entry was posted in Birds, Fun, moon, People, Pony Pasture, raptors, Red-tailed hawks, Rivers, Smiles (including "dog smiles"!), Spiders, squirrels and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to It was just a coincidence, but still

  1. Cappy says:

    One of my favorites so far. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jenny says:

    Thanks, Jay. Really enjoyed reading this. A great way to start my week.

  3. Jean Yerian says:

    Loved the pictures and your narrative, but especially your last paragraph. The tribute to your father was just exactly right. Good son.

  4. El Pee says:

    Ahhhh… As both a son and a father I am as satisfied as (you imaged) the hawk was. Thank you!

  5. I wish I knew if my dad, who passed in 1994, in Richmond, believed, in life, that spirits could send messengers from the other side. I’m positive he knows it now. There are so many things in this post that resonate with me. I love the fact that you figured out you had this encounter after it happened. That its possible significance hit you later, and that you immersed yourself and gave it all the time it needed (so very rare in our rush-rush society). My dad sends me hawks, red-tails and red-shoulders being the birds of choice, though he’s not above hurling a Cooper’s or (yesterday) a sharp-shin at me. The coincidences, if coincidences they be, have been so many and so exquisite as to argue that there is more at work than chance. Your careful disclaimers tell me you’re a hopeful agnostic about all this. I get that. Me too. If you are willing to go deeper, I would strongly recommend contacting what is popularly known as a medium, or intuitive. You might check out Serendipity Sisters on Facebook, out of Minnesota. I’m due for another consultation (via phone). The first one was flabbergasting, life-changing, and made me very happy. It was where I found out that all those hawks were being sent, and by whom. I had no idea. I just knew that there was something very special going on. You are accompanied, believe it!

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