A chill in the breeze, a beautiful prairie grassland, a retreating bank of dark clouds and a loneliness that’s hard to describe. Winter in the Dakotas? No, Indiana. Specifically southwestern Indiana where re-claimed surface mines are in abundance. And with them an array of wintering raptors that live virtually unnoticed.
Nestled between the small towns of Dugger and Pleasantville in Sullivan County, Indiana lies Hawthorne Mine. At first, one might suspect that this is an unlikely spot for wintering raptors but upon closer examination the careful eye of a hawk watcher will reveal a sizable wintering population of Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Harriers as well as Short-eared Owls. Also present to a lesser degree are Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels, Red-shouldered Hawks and Merlin.
This was our destination for New Years 2009, to explore and hopefully photograph the surroundings as well as any raptors that were present.
December 30, 2008
After the much anticipated, but never desired, punishing drive through Chicago’s rush hour traffic the short five hour trip from our home in Gurnee, IL to Terre Haute, IN was actually quite relaxing. After settling in our hotel room at the Holiday Inn a quick check of the next day’s weather was promising. The forecast was sunny to partly cloudy skies and temperatures in the upper 30s.
December 31, 2008 (New Years Eve)
Waking early just before sunrise another quick check on the local weather remained the same as the night before. Nevertheless, always skeptical of weather forecasts I still needed proof. A hearty omelet for breakfast and time to load up the Honda CRV. First light revealed almost the exact opposite of the forecast, cloudy skies and no sunshine. Deja vu of our trip to South Dakota last year! Maybe the sun was shining (or would be) at Hawthorne Mine which was approximately 40 miles south of the Holiday Inn. It wasn’t. I had to improvise quickly if I wanted any photos at all.
Checking my directions we had to drive through Dugger before reaching the mine site. Dugger is a typical quiet peaceful midwestern town with not much going on even on New Years Eve. A quick look down Main Street reveals what I’m talking about.
A short drive south of Main Street is the entrance to Hawthorne Mine. A corroded old sign greets you with warnings of explosives and what to listen for. Wonderful…
The road turns from paved to gravel and the first thing your eyes fall upon is what I eventually termed “The Monster,” which was the huge Bucyrus dragline used in the surface mining activities.
After casting aside these grim reminders of human involvement on this land a quick scan of this place reveals something a raptor lover truly appreciates. Wide open spaces with a feeling of solitude only a prairie in winter can produce. I am reminded of a quote:
“…the joy of prairie lies in its subtlety. It is so easy, too easy, to be swept away by mountain and ocean vistas. A prairie, on the other hand, requests the favor of your closer attention. It does not divulge itself to mere passersby. — Suzanne Winckler (2004, Prairie: A North American Guide, University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA, p. xi)
This land, however, was not always prairie habitat. It was originally forest land. The coal mining activities transposed it into this habitat. And with that change came wintering raptors. Lots of them!
January 1, 2009 (New Years Day)
One of the most enjoyable activities on these trips is the chance to spend time observing behavior. With Rough-legged Hawks being my favorite raptor this was one of the most enjoyable trips I’ve ever had. However, when I first came enthralled by raptors I had the same feelings most birders have. But soon this changed. Perhaps this quote by Jonathan Rosen author of “Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature” says it best:
“No sooner had I discovered birds and that beating place in myself that craved and needed nature than I discovered how precarious the wild world is”
A few years ago I videotaped a Rough-legged Hawk hovering over an urban prairie focusing on its prey below. The bird would occasionally look back over its shoulder while it hovered. I’ve seen this repeated many times afterwards. Perhaps the bird is just guarding against its vulnerability, I don’t know for sure. Wanting to always capture this on a still image I was rewarded with a Rough-legged Hawk hovering at eye level over a steeply graded shoreline of one the surface mine’s ponds. Here is that photo:
This hawk remained hovering for a short period of time and then eventually wandered slowly off. As it flew away I kept clicking photos and a funny thing happened. The hawk, no longer hovering, just flying to a different destination, circled and turned back one more time. Did it think I was going to follow it? Have a look:
As sunset approached we were left with one final image and another quote:
Loneliness, thy other name, thy one true synonym, is prairie.
William A. Quayle, The Prairie and the Sea (1905)
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About the Author: Vic Berardi is a raptor lover that lives in the Midwest. He is the founder of the Illinois Beach State Park Hawk Watch and every weekend of the year you’ll find him searching for hawks and photographing them. Several of his photographs have been published in a leading raptor journal and in articles he has written. During the year he gives presentations teaching others about hawks and hawk migration. Vic also photographs dragonflies and wild flowers and is always respectful of nature and its creatures..