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Sunday, March 3, 2002

Area Resident Keeps Eye on the Sky

By Rebecca Szymanski
For the Journal
    It's a quiet afternoon along the banks of the Rio Grande and Les Hawkins is focusing his attention on a group of waterfowl in the distance, a familiar occurrence that began for him more than 70 years ago.
    But on this visit to the Corrales bosque Hawkins isn't watching birds as much as he is trying to explain why he watches them.
    "It almost feels as if I was born with it, as if it's always been there. To this day, if I see a very unusual bird or new bird I get about as excited as I did years ago. So it's never worn off."
    Hawkins is a friendly and dignified man with a head full of white hair and an affectionate smile. He seems to have the energy and ease of movement of a man 30 years his junior, not to mention his overbooked appointment calendar.
    As a bird-watcher, Hawkins has formed friendships that have lasted throughout his life and has relied on his fellow bird-watchers during difficult times.
    He has watched birds in the company of others and has wandered the countryside by himself. Along the way he has seen some of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Hatching a hobby
    Back in 1929, as an enthusiastic 15-year-old, Hawkins explored the Santa Cruz Mountains and other areas in central California, filling a journal with sketches and descriptions of 265 species of birds.
    For field observations he used an old pair of bridge glasses that his father, a sea captain, had given him.
    When Hawkins went to sea in the early 1930s as a merchant mariner, traveling through the Orient and the Panama Canal area, he recorded the birds he saw along the way: a pied wagtail on the moat of the emperor's palace in Tokyo; a bird in inland China called a hoopoe with an orange body, black and white wings and "big feathers sticking way up over the top of the head;" and a white-bellied swallow shrike in the Philippines.
    He even met with a professor of ornithology at the Bureau of Science in Manila just to talk about birds.
    Seventy years ago, he and a few birding companions started the Oakland Ornithological Club. Those 15 young men went on to become, among other things, a college professor, a doctor and a director of California's state parks. Hawkins moved to New Mexico in December 1945 to work on budgets and financial planning at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
    The group still meets every year in May, but as the years in the past century dwindled, so did its numbers.
    "One year we were all there and then a couple of years later most of them were gone," Hawkins says, in a low voice. "Just like that."
Birds of a feather
    When his wife of more than 50 years passed away in 1992, Hawkins turned to local bird-watchers for companionship.
    "That's when I dove in headfirst with the gang here, which probably saved me. I just spent as much time with them as I could. What a great bunch of people."
    He also spent a lot of time traveling as part of bird-watching tours to Mexico, Belize, several places in Canada, around other states and all over New Mexico.
    Recently, after a good friend and his wife stayed with Hawkins for a weeklong visit, Hawkins traveled to Florida to meet other friends for an American Birding Association conference, touring the Everglades during the day and attending lectures at night.
    On one of the bird tours he spotted a limpkin, a dark brown bird streaked with white and about half the size of a sandhill crane, but in a family all its own.
    According to "The Sibley Guide to Birds," the limpkin belts out an unmistakable "loud, anguished, wild-sounding scream."
    Hawkins last had the pleasure of meeting up with one of those swamp-dwellers when he visited the Panama Canal as a young man.
    He is a member of a number of national and local bird-related organizations and was one of the original members of the New Mexico Ornithological Society.
    As communicator for the Central New Mexico Audubon Society's Thursday Birders, he gets the word out via e-mail about meeting times and places for bird walks. Often the group meets for lunch afterward or members bring sack lunches.
    And he occasionally leads some of the excursions, such as to the Jemez Mountains last August in search of the three-toed woodpecker.
    But on this visit to the bosque, Hawkins is puzzling over how to explain his lifelong fascination with birds.
    Standing next to his spotting scope, Hawkins looks out across the river to the snow-streaked Sandias in the distance. The air is cool, but the sun is warm on his face and as a red-tailed hawk circles above, its tail feathers catching the light, he smiles.
    It is his explanation.