A birds’-eye view: Dogfight at the Brickyard

Published 5:07 pm Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Indianapolis, Indiana, may have a more famous Brickyard, but here in Americus/Sumter County, Georgia, we have our own brickyard. No, I’m not speaking of a race track; our brickyard is a 27-hole golf course known as The Brickyard Plantation Golf Club. I don’t know if Mr. Billy Clark, the owner, named his creation The Brickyard because in places it takes a brick to drive a golf tee into the earth or because gold, white and red bricks denote championship tees from men’s and women’s tees. The three courses are appropriately named The Waters, The Ditches and The Mounds for obvious reasons.
After church and lunch on Nov. 20, 2005, I met three friends at The Brickyard for golf. Like the pros on the PGA tour, our foursome preferred to walk the course as opposed to renting an electric golf cart. But believe me, walking was the only thing we had in common with PGA tour professionals! Like the PGA advertisement says, “These guys are good .” Suffice it to say we were lucky we didn’t get arrested for impersonating a golfer. But the idea was to have a good time while getting a little exercise on that sunny and warm fall day.
Being a bird watcher, I find it possible to look for birds and birdies while playing 18 holes. Unfortunately my score card reflected no birdies, which is one stroke under par for you non-golfers. But many birds showed themselves along the golf course that day, one of which was a very special treat.  Let me explain.
If you are even a casual observer of the avian realm, you probably know that some birds congregate during the fall and winter months to form large groups. At times, some of these flocks can number well into the tens of thousands. Local species like Red-winged Blackbird, Brown-headed Cowbird, Common Grackle and even European Starling will form flocks that feed and roost together in massive numbers. And that day was no exception.
After hitting our tee shots on hole number two of The Mounds, we walked towards our respective golf balls. One of the men in our group, knowing my affinity for birds, pointed overhead and asked, “What kind of birds are those?”
Looking up we saw one of those enormous flocks of Red-winged Blackbirds with perhaps other species mixed in. The flock numbered in the many thousands and was close enough for us to hear the sound of the wind as their powered flight grew and came directly overhead. The red on the blackbirds’ epaulets gave a distinct splash of color to the otherwise black mass. Suddenly the group came together into a gigantic whirling conglomeration of madly flapping wings. It was reminiscent of watching the program Nature on PBS where small fish draw tightly together to form large bait balls and hopefully escape hungry tuna or other predatory fish.  After all, it’s a fish-eat-fish world under water. And so it is with certain raptorial species in the class Aves; some birds eat other birds.
As we watched the blackbirds come together into a tighter ball they began to swoop, dive and turn as though they were performing a well choreographed routine on Dancing With the Stars. All the birds led yet, all the birds followed. It appeared that the flock knew exactly when to turn left or right, when to ascend or descend and when to loop. Was there some secret voice, inaudible to mankind, whispering directions to the birds? What gave this flock of birds such unity and purpose as though they were of a single mind?
Quickly I pointed out to my golfing buddies a different bird. It was a bird with a greater wingspan, noticeably pointed wings and larger than the Red-winged Blackbirds it was pursuing. As a child I called it a Sparrow Hawk but now know it as the American Kestrel. By now the kestrel, which is our smallest member of the falcon family, had managed to separate one lone blackbird. And although the blackbird was literally flying for his life, he was no match for the faster accelerating and maneuvering kestrel. Wing-beat for wing-beat and turn-for-turn, the kestrel closed on its prey. Upon impact the kestrel struck the blackbird with a force that literally caused feathers to explode in mid-air.
It was over almost as soon as it began. The dogfight lasted only a few seconds while four earth-bound golfers gazed in awe into the skies above. My golf buddies had never before seen such an event. The privilege to observe a bird of prey take another bird only occurred a few other times in my own life.
Reflecting back, I am reminded that timing and being in the right place at the right time played a big part in my being a witness to this all natural event. Although it’s seldom the number of times that I have observed raptors take songbirds (fewer than maybe 10 times in my life) the event itself is not rare. It happens many times a day across our state, nation and the world. If raptors didn’t take birds, reptiles, mammals and fish, they would vanish. It is all part of the process of our natural world. And although it is painful to see a Sharp-shinned or Cooper s Hawk take birds from my backyard such as Northern Cardinal and Purple Martin, I must remember this is how accipiters and falcons make a living. Certainly I can’t begrudge another for wanting to eat regularly and, in fact, I highly recommend it to sustain life.
That day at The Brickyard Plantation Golf Club in Sumter County, Georgia, was special. Jim McKay used to say as he introduced ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The defeat of the Red-winged Blackbird fed the American Kestrel. And although I don’t know if the kestrel experienced the thrill of victory, he was certainly the victor and lived to fly another day. There may be safety in numbers but not for that one unlucky Red-winged Blackbird on Nov.20, 2005.
Keep your eyes to the skies and remember to enjoy the beauty of our native birds.

Phil Hardy, a bird watcher and bird photographer, lives in Americus.