The number of hawk watchers at Harvey's Knob had decreased slightly as we headed back south along the Appalachian Trail.
Appalachian Trail from Black Horse Gap along the Blue Ridge Parkway north through Harvey's Knob Overlook and about a half mile beyond, and back. 6 miles.
Here's how to know you're a genuine bird expert. You saunter into the lot at the Harvey's Knob Overlook at milepost 95.3 in the middle of September, wade in among the scores of people with lawn chairs, binoculars and conversations about whether the hawk-watch count for the day is closer to 3,000 or 4,000, and you start talking about the bird you saw overhead on the 2.5-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail you and The Greatest Day Hiker Of Them All have just walked, from back at Black Horse Gap.
"Flying pretty low," you say. "Distinctive red beak."
The birders in their chairs collectively bring their sky spyware down to their laps and smirk with gentle, bemused tolerance.
"Turkey vulture, Kurt, turkey vulture," comes from several voices at the same time.
"Oh," you say, and then have to talk, too, about forgetting your binoculars on this one day in years and years worth of hikes when you planned to walk through The Annual Hawk Watch at Harvey's Knob.
With said plan having been hatched via suggestion from veteran hawk-watcher, Blue Ridge Country contributing editor/columnist and good pal all-in-one, Elizabeth Hunter.
Who, from her bird-watch chair, is among those letting me know that I can go ahead and add the turkey vulture to my life list. And who, also having recommended, sometime back, a specific pair of binoculars (albeit more for looking down than far up), is not shy about pointing out the irony of forgetting binoculars on this particular day.
To the rescue suddenly out of nowhere – well, the other side of the overlook – comes another old pal, former Blue Ridge Country art director William Alexander, accompanied not only by a pair of good big binoculars, but also by honey Amber and kiddies Aidyn and Noah. Aidyn, three, is convinced to talk a little about her swimming lesson earlier in the day. Noah, nine months, is handed over for a pleasant visit and to push on my watch with his thumb, and to talk about nothing at all, including no grief whatsoever about what kind of bird I saw or what equipment I carried or didn't carry.
The Day Hiker and I linger maybe half an hour, hoping to see another of the kettles the all-day watchers saw earlier (no, I don't say anything about if there were witches stirring them as they flew over); but with an apparent lull and with the deep-blue sky making higher-flying birds harder to see, we continue on north on the AT from the Big Hawk Tailgate, walking maybe a half mile before finding a nice knob for lunch.
On the way back, the number of watchers is down a little at Harvey's Knob, and both Elizabeth and William-and-family have moved on. The Day Hiker and I pause for a shorter time than our first pass, and then continue on back south along a section of trail that features the sound and sight of the parkway all along it, a few gentle climbs and descents, and two or three passes through overlooks where on this day there are no hawk-watchers, in that Harvey's Knob – with its good views both to east and west – is the ideal spot.
It remains unclear if the few people at those other overlooks might have been on the lookout for turkey vultures.
September 18, 2010 hike.
How to get there: Blue Ridge Parkway to Black Horse Gap, at milepost 97.7.
Read Elizabeth Hunter's Blue Ridge Country story on winter raptors along the Blue Ridge Parkway.