19 July 2010

Kahu (hawk)

By the north end of the Raumai bridge a kahu turns, banking towards the poplars and the coppicing willows. The sun lights up its outspread wings and the fan of its tail; against the shadow of the trees the wings and tail seem to glow as if illuminated from within their own feathers. Then the vision's gone. The memory contains no movement; the memory of the moment remains fixed like Zeno's arrow, like an emblem — or an omen, auguring the fate of the wild.

I drive on, the image of the bird burning. How can a moment contain such power?

On the Napier Road another kahu drops from the sky towards the road. I brake and veer. The bird hovers over a small, crushed body, blood and feathers on the tarmac; the kahu realises it's too late to pluck the morsel from the road and beats its wings, rising to safety in the sky. Another vision, another moment; again, the movement hardly there — the pale bird, long legs stretching downwards, head looking down, body suspended from upraised wings. Another emblem or omen, like an angel — not the pretty, insipid angel of catechisms but the powerful, dangerous angel of mythology.

Of all the common birds here, kahu might be the most difficult to photograph. Sometimes one of these big birds will watch the car drive past a few metres away, the effort of releasing the body of a possum or hare and rising into the sky not warranted. But if the car slows, even at a distance, the kahu flees. On foot, a hundred metres is far too close for a kahu. I don't have the patience to wait interminably in a hide near a dead possum, and I don't have the kind of lens that would allow a satisfactory photo of a kahu in flight — even in the refuge of the sky, they're unapproachable. I'll keep trying, but perhaps my continual failure's no bad thing. I have some sympathy for Geoff Dyer's belief that "the world will exist only as long as some part of it remains unphotographed".

1.Kahu (pronounced, roughly, KAA hoo) are a common sight in most rural areas of Aotearoa, particularly near roads, where they take advantage of the abundant road kills. Most people simply call them hawks; the official common name is Australasian harrier; the scientific name is Circus approximans.
2. The closing quotation is on p. 327 of Geoff Dyer’s Anglo-English Attitudes. London, Abacus. (1999). 372 pp.

1.Kahu over the edge of my terrace, last year's big slip below.
2. About as good as I've managed so far. Cropped and processed to the limits.

Photos and original text © 2009 Pete McGregor


Anne-Marie said...

Such a common sight around here, a kahu in flight, but one that never fails to give me a thrill. On my way home yesterday I had to drive around one that was feeding off road kill on the side of the road. It glared up at me, making sure I knew I was on its turf!

It seems appropriate that, of all birds, kahu are the most difficult for you to photograph. They're ever-present but elusive.

Love that first photo.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
These words bring to mind an experience I had with a large Bald Eagle while on a canoe trip in the Boundary Waters, and having seen no one for days. The eagle flew just beyond me soaring and diving and perching in huge old growth pine tress as I paddled on a lake and into a river. I felt connected to that moment and still do. I love seeing the kahu, even if they are feeding on road side carrion. Who can blame them for an easy meal.

pohanginapete said...

Anne-Marie, they do seem to glare, don't they — as if affronted because you've interrupted their feeding? In fact, one flew low over the car as I was driving into town this morning, and I imagined your reaction, knowing how much you love kahu :^)

Robb, that must have been a magical moment — and a wonderful trip as well. Not much chance of that in Aotearoa now, but in the past it might have been the enormous Haast's eagle — although I'm sure my predominant emotion would have been sheer terror, given they preyed on moa ;^)

leonie wise said...

I have always just thought they were hawks and am delighted to learn their scientific name.

The quote gives me pause for thought (again) as I contemplate life without attempting to define moments by trying to capture them within a single lens reflex!

leonie wise said...

P.S. I am sure we saw one of those driving up the Whanganui river road just north of Jerusalem a few years back. I only had a pocket digital camera back then, so can't really make it out properly in my photograph, but you have me squinting at the old picture trying to work it out


pohanginapete said...

Leonie, that was almost certainly a kahu you saw, although Anne-Marie saw a karearea (NZ falcon) on that road a couple of years ago.

If Geoff Dyer's suggestion makes you think, try the first chapter in Jack Turner's book The Abstract Wild, in which he argues three things are primarily responsible for the destruction of "wildness": knowledge, mass tourism, and photography. Very uncomfortable reading for me, but I have to admit he argues a strong case. Moreover, Barry Lopez eventually put his cameras down and never picked them up again; he concluded they removed him from the moment rather than enhancing it. Plenty of food for thought.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

maybe it is better to live in hope than to actually achieve?

Great photos nonetheless

pohanginapete said...

You might be right, Hungry pixie. Maybe photography's sometimes like fishing — the art of prolonged anticipation.

Lydia said...

I love the photos and the new word (to me), kahu. We have many Red-Tailed Hawks around here, always seen on telephone poles along the road into town. A long time ago I started calling them Beauties, don't know why exactly...except they are that.
It's been years since I read Ivan Doig's This House of Sky but I still think of two words he used to describe a hawk (I don't think it was an eagle) catching an updraft of wind high in the sky. They were: "Correcting, correcting."

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, thanks :^) I love the idea of introducing people to the local names of our birds; I also have a fascination with the way names develop as part of our personal histories (e.g. "The place where we saw the stoat").

That description of Doig's ("Correcting, correcting") seems so right.