At 11 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 21 — a day of prayer — Jeff Henry’s day was taken prey.
Henry’s neighbor, Traci Vasterling, had just returned from church with her family. She called to tell Henry that there was a large bird sitting in a flower pot on their front step.
“She said I should come outside and see if I could identify it,” Henry said.
You see, Jeff is renowned in his neighborhood for both his knowledge of birds and his skills at educating people about conservation. As he slowly crept up the sidewalk, he saw the three Vasterling’s children — Chris, Amanda and Delaney — happily snapping photos of the bird from 15 feet away on the driveway.
“I could tell from a distance that the bird looked like a buteo,” Henry recalled, “and figured a red-tail was most likely.”
Buteo (pronounced “beauty-oh”) is the scientific term for hawks with broad wings that hunt by soaring and dropping down on rodent prey, not flower pots. Red-tailed hawks are the largest buteos in Wisconsin, and by far the most common.
When Henry returned from church, the hawk was gone. That was that, he thought. Hawks come and go, until the next morning.
“I was looking out our dining room window and saw a hawk perched on a pine branch,” Henry said. “I assumed it was the same bird as the day before.”
There, at eye level on a pine bough, sat Ethan.
OK. I know. Where did that come from, right? But isn’t it obvious by now that this was no ordinary bird of prey? This hawk was a tame hawk. So, let’s call him Ethan. Ethan Hawk.
Henry noticed that there was a leather cord, or jess, dangling from one of Ethan’s feet, or “tarsi.”
“That gave me the idea it was likely a falconer’s bird,” Henry said.
He watched Ethan dive to the ground and tussle clumsily with wilted hostas, then he started networking. If this was “somebody’s bird” Henry thought, then somebody would know how to rescue it. In all likelihood, all a falconer had to do was walk up to the bird and it’d jump onto her glove.
His first virtual stop was the Chippewa Valley Birding Google Group, an online society of nature lovers who regularly post their local sightings and experiences. Ten minutes later Henry had an email reply from Emily Johnson, an Eau Claire birder.
After a briefing from Jeff and a couple of hours to cast a broader net of inquiry, Johnson suggested Henry contact an area falconer named Joe Krumrie, who might know who Ethan belonged to.
Krumrie, a state Department of Natural Resources employee, had another friend, Luke, who had lost his bird the same weekend. At 3 p.m. on Oct. 22, Luke and a friend met Henry at his house. By that time, Ethan had once again vanished “without a leather trace.”
It didn’t take long for the falconers to determine that Ethan wasn’t their bird. They’d lost their bird at 1 p.m., and this one had shown up two hours earlier. But Luke said once they were there, they, like Henry, felt obligated to try to find and rescue him.
Luke and his friend had a bal-chatri trap, a cage with a live mouse in it used to lure a hungry hawk close. Henry had his bike. They split up and started combing the neighborhood just south of the North Crossing. About a half hour later they all met back up at the Henry’s.
Three men from diverse backgrounds had shared a single altruistic purpose; to track down a dizzy young raptor set on seeing the world, or at least the north side of Eau Claire.
They’d checked the woods on either side of Riverview Drive and other areas, but Ethan had disappeared like a rare roast rat sandwich at an all-you-can-eat buteo buffet.
Luke and his friend headed back to Nelson and that was pretty much it for Henry’s search effort. Luke said Henry should call if the hawk was relocated and somebody would return to try to capture it.
“The (survival) chances are definitely lower if it’s a first-year bird,” said Krumrie, “It’s just the natural tendencies of raptors. First-year birds have a lot lower survivability rates than second-year birds.”
Henry wishes they’d found Ethan and returned him safely to his owner.
“On Sunday, when it was ‘just a hawk,’ I wasn’t particularly motivated to get involved — just let nature run its course,” he said. “On Monday morning, my perspective changed when the hawk was back, right in our yard.”
So, Ethan, wherever you are, here’s hoping you have flower pots to perch on and plenty of friends to watch your rusty red backside. Here’s to high skies, lusty thermals and benevolent winters.
We’re preying for you.
Betchkal is a freelance writer who lives in Eau Claire