Nature Notes: Soaring

CRAIG SPARKS photo

If ever there was something that most of us wish we could do, it is fly. But beyond simple flight lies the bliss of soaring.

We've all seen hawks and eagles circle round and round as that rising column of sun warmed air carries them aloft higher with each circle. Climb rates of several thousand vertical feet a minute are common for soaring birds.

Not all birds soar, as this type of flying requires large strong wings and it helps if they're near the top of the food chain, as you just never know who you're going to meet in a thermal.

Smaller birds seldom soar aloft, but small hawks are known to use the rising air to help them migrate to hunting areas.

The whole soaring thing is a wonderful fluid dance in the sky. There are lots of things going in a rising thermal of air, and it is not a static situation at all. The winds aloft carry the thermal sideways as it rises and if you watch carefully as birds turn and turn again in a thermal, you'll notice that while they circle, they are also moving across the sky slowly, staying in the rising column as it blows sideways and all the while climbing higher and higher.

Soaring is a powerful flying technique that when mastered can save a bird tons of energy, and they can travel to places that they wouldn't otherwise have the energy to flap their way to.

Some birds can only fly when thermals are present as they are quite poor flyers without the lift of soaring thermals. Turkey vultures and condors, for instance, are seldom seen flapping their wings for more than just a few strokes, but they are masterful soaring birds, and any glider pilot will tell you, "Oh man, I wish I could soar like that!"

The beauty and grace that is soaring is something to watch and appreciate. A great wheel of sea-gulls, and pelicans, cormorants and the like can put on a dazzling show over the beach when warm sunny conditions create rising thermals. Then these guys just are a magnet to this free lift, this solar elevator.

From a human perspective, we can, of course, only soar with the help of some kind of airplane and nowadays with the advances in technology and materials, small one-person hang gliders are really the closest thing we have to pure flight. A truly awesome experience this hang gliding, one that should not be put off if ever the opportunity presents itself, and if it does then by all means go for it!

There is a reason that hawks call from on high, as do eagles and seagulls. It has to be pure joy, even for these veteran sky pilots. Nothing quite like it here on old terra firma. You'll be transformed.

• Check out our new weekly nature movie at: http://home.pacifier.com/~sparks/wildlife!!.html

• Craig Sparks is director of NAWA, a filmmaker, freelance writer and wildlife rehabilitator.

• Found injured wildlife? Questions? Call the Wildlife Center at 665-3595 or send an e-mail to: sparks@pacifier.com.

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