Newspaper editors and reporters get what can be called “quirky” story ideas all the time.
I remember in my very first job at a newspaper, when I was a green reporter at a weekly newspaper in South Dakota, a man walked into the newsroom one day with a tomato he had grown that was there. He claimed he looked like Richard Nixon.
It was around the time of Watergate, so the whole world knew what President Nixon looked like, except, apparently, this guy. Moreover, while talking with him, I struggled mentally, wondering, “How do I write a story about a tomato?”
Finally, discouraged, the man left. I felt good about myself. I could go back to writing about the important, if not very exciting, news of the day: a repair project on Main Street, followed by a report on what happened at the school board meeting the day before. in the evening.
What I didn’t know was that Bruce, my editor, a seasoned journalist, had witnessed my conversation with the tomato gardener.
“I know you have other things to do,” he said, “but you just let a good story slip away.”
“About a tomato?” I asked.
“Keep typing,” he said. “I know you have deadlines to meet. But think about it.
I’m sharing this tidbit of my early work experiences because on Monday I found myself more or less demonstrating that I hadn’t learned anything over the years.
That afternoon, I received a phone call from Lori Kat Gregory, a Vermillion woman who walks her dog through Prentis Park around 5:30 a.m. every morning.
For much of the past month, she said, she encountered a Cooper’s hawk in the park. The hawk didn’t bother her or her dog, Lori said. He has a favorite tree where he usually sits and where she finds him every morning. She’s talking to him, Lori says, and he answers her. She called because she thought the fact that a Cooper’s Hawk, a bird of prey, called our community’s most popular park home was pretty neat and perhaps warranted a human interest story. .
I’m afraid I gave Lori the cold shoulder. I remember telling him that his idea was not viable; I think I described his suggestion as “on the fringe” when it came to something I was writing about.
As soon as I hung up the phone, I started reliving that tomato experience from years ago. My very first boss has been retired for decades and lives in California, but it felt like he was standing in my office.
I kept hearing his voice over and over again. “You just let a good story slip away,” he kept saying.
Then I found a message Lori left for me on the Plain Talk Facebook page. It included information about a Cooper’s hawk and she even sent an audio clip of her one-time call.
“Outside of breeding season, Cooper’s hawks tend to be quiet,” she wrote. “They are one of the most fearless hawks because they will actually let you get close. I stand under the branch they are on and talk to them. They have never tried to bombard me or my little one. 20# dog. He will stay there as long as I talk to him. Any other hawk will fly away as you walk towards him, even if you are more than a hundred yards away.
Monday afternoon, I still had a chance to fix my mistake. I was lucky enough to meet Lori again and meet this falcon. I replied to her message and at 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, I met her and her dog, Pal, at the corner of Main and Plum streets to start a walk in Prentis Park.
“Hawks have a really piercing, weird sound,” Lori said, “and when I first heard this bird I thought, ‘What is that? It’s not a hawk,” but it turns out it was.
After watching too many western movies, I had concluded that each member of the hawk family simply let out a long, high-pitched “caw”. This is hardly the case with Cooper’s hawk.
Bird watchers note that this bird’s most common call is a loud, scratchy cak-cak-cak, lasting 2–5 seconds, given by both sexes in defense of the nest. This call is also given during courtship.
The sun hadn’t risen yet when we entered the park, but the sky had taken on that milky pre-dawn color and Prentis Park sounds like a bird’s paradise at 5:30 a.m. It’s like if all the songbirds imaginable were awake at that time. time and they all tweet each other — 280 characters at a time.
With birdsong all around us, Lori and I continued our walk, hoping to hear that cak-cak-cak.
During our walk she mentioned that she first heard the hawk about two weeks ago and I had to agree that a Cooper’s hawk doesn’t really sound like a hawk.
“When you first hear it, you’d think you were in a Brazilian rainforest,” she said. “I thought so, because it’s so different from the other birds here. It’s so different from any other bird here and especially you hear the robins in the morning.”
Lori said her first encounter with the falcon just left her curious.
“I heard the sound, I heard the bird and I thought, ‘I don’t think he looks like a hawk,'” she said.
When Lori returned home, she searched for hawk sounds in South Dakota and learned, upon hearing a recording of her single call, that she had encountered a Cooper’s hawk.
We were walking to an area of the park where she usually finds the falcon, but the clouds had clouded the sky a bit and she was worried it might take her away.
“I think it’s a male and maybe it’s a breeding issue because it will sit for a while and call there and then it will fly to another tree and do it,” Lori said. .
We had the opportunity to talk about much more than birds. Pal, the dog, is 11 years old and is an Old English cockapoo sheepdog, according to DNA tests.
“You would never know, but she guides us,” she says.
Lori moved to Vermillion about a year ago, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to spread through South Dakota. She was born in Watertown, but didn’t live long in South Dakota.
“I have some kind of heritage with this town because my grandfather went to college here in 1928. Then my two aunts went to school here,” Lori said.
These aunts would meet men who would eventually become her uncles.
Today, she lives near the fraternity that was once her grandfather’s home.
She asked me how long I had been in the news business and learned that I had reported for most of my adult life and had worked at Vermillion for the last 25 years. I admitted I was getting a little long in the tooth, but I’m not ready to quit working yet.
Now we were near the tree where Cooper’s Hawk usually hangs. The early morning light was dim, but there didn’t seem to be a hawk in the tree and we couldn’t hear the distinct sound of the bird.
Lori mentioned the very first time she saw the bird.
“I walk up to a bird of prey and I think, ‘As I get closer to him, that’s it. He’ll be gone. But I walk and talk to him and he’s not going anywhere,'” she said. said “I mean, I just go under the branch and it doesn’t fly away.”
Lori gets chills, she says, every time she sees a majestic bald eagle in flight, so she couldn’t pass up this first chance she had to get as close to Cooper’s hawk as possible. .
She finds Prentis Park a lovely place to walk Pal every morning and meeting the falcon is just a bonus to this lovely experience.
Lori learned that my wife and I don’t have pets, mainly due to allergies, but I mentioned that my daughter, Sarah, and her husband, Erik, who live in Elk Point, are overrun with dogs and cats they “keep”. They love doing it and I eventually shared Sarah’s phone number with Lori as a potential “sitter” for Pal.
By then 15 minutes had passed and we began to worry that Tuesday morning might be hawk-free at Prentis Park.
“Here it is!” said Lori.
“Yes!” I replied, surprised.
“That’s so cool,” she said.
He called back and we headed to the sound.
“He’s usually a lot more vocal. He must be hunting,” Lori said.
Soon it looked like he was almost above us.
“Where are you, buddy? she said, directing her question towards the treetops, hoping the bird would answer.
A man riding what I thought was the loudest motorcycle possible passed the park on Prentis and turned west on Main, roaring the whole time. I assumed that must have scared the bird off.
Cooper’s hawk called again. He was right above us. I could see him in the dark; Lori hadn’t spotted it, and I did my best to point out its location while pointing my camera in the direction of the bird in the pre-dawn light.
My pre-dawn photography skills I learned are lacking and Cooper’s hawk decided not to stick around long enough for me to lose it.
We both watched it take off, chattering loudly and flying east across Prentis Street towards a tree behind a house.
I thought the sound of my camera might have scared him off and Lori assured me not.
“No, he just hunts, I think,” she said. “You can’t really scare him.”
Lori was thrilled that I photographed the bird, dismissing the fact that it wasn’t a clear image.
“That’s awesome! Who cares if it’s worked out?” she said.
It was time for Lori and Pal to start their walk home, but she summed up our time together.
“Wasn’t that fun?” I’m so happy,” she said.
I made sure Lori knew the morning was a fun experience for me too.
It was more than just “fun”, though.
I hadn’t let a worthy experience “get away with it”. I had just taken a morning walk in a beautiful park surrounded by a symphony of birdsong.
I have heard, encountered and attempted to photograph a Cooper’s Hawk.
Even better, I made a new friend.