HINCKLEY: A promise made some 40 years ago was met Tuesday morning with the arrival of a buzzard.

Donna Hixenbaugh of Dayton laughs now, thinking back on the pact she made in high school with her best friend, Joann Barton, to travel someday to Northeast Ohio to attend Buzzard Day in Hinckley.

After graduation in 1975, the two always kicked around the idea of attending the annual rite of spring when the buzzards make their celebrated “official” appearance in the Hinckley Reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks.

With binoculars in hand, they joined about 100 others at the park’s Buzzard Roost to mark the arrival of the harbingers of spring.

“This is just a fun-loving crowd,” said Barton, who lives in Beavercreek. “We came to bird-watch and people watch.”

A fair number of false starts greeted the dreary, foggy morning in the park.

The watch officially began in the dark at 7 a.m.

The first promising sign came at 7:41, when four ducks flew overhead.

For the next hour or so, the crowd played a game of duck, duck, Canada goose, with a crow mixed in for good measure.

With all eyes scanning the skies, the first turkey vulture soared in from the north at 8:31 a.m. and roosted in a line of trees.

The crowd cheered and let off a collective sigh of relief that the wait was over. It was almost an hour later than last year’s first sighting, at 7:44 a.m.

Thom Kotulak of Parma figures he has attended about 40 Buzzard Days over the years.

The Hinckley native was in full buzzard regalia Tuesday, carrying a large staff covered in buzzard stuffed animals in every size imaginable. He also donned buzzard-themed clothes for the occasion.

And Tuesday’s wait was nothing compared to one decades ago when it snowed and the first buzzard wasn’t spotted until 2:30 in the afternoon.

“You stay until it shows up,” Kotulak said.

Sharon Hosko, the park’s “official” buzzard spotter and manager of the Brecksville Nature Center, said the timing of the buzzard’s arrival usually depends on the weather.

Because it rained overnight and was foggy and chilly in the morning, Hosko said, the buzzards were likely perched somewhere, waiting for their feathers to dry.

They glide in flight and ride warmer thermals rather than flap their 6-foot-long wing span to get around and scavenge for food.

While buzzards are migratory birds, Hosko said, they likely spent the winter in Hinckley this year because the temperatures were so mild.

But their return is not considered official until March 15, when Metroparks staff members trek through the park to look for them.

“This is a celebration of spring,” Hosko said. “When [the buzzards] are back, spring is right around the corner.”

Buzzard Day has officially been celebrated since 1957, but the legend dates back a lot longer than that.

According to official lore, the buzzards began to arrive in the spring of 1819 after the Great Hinckley Hunt.

Tired of losing livestock to predators, some 400 early settlers spread out over a 25-square-mile area and walked toward Hinckley to drive all the wolves, bears and other predators to one spot to be killed.

The buzzards then arrived to feed off the rotting carcasses of hundreds of animals, and they never left.

Hosko said the reservation’s terrain, with its many stone ledges and mature trees, is a more likely reason the buzzards have taken up roost there.

As for March 15 becoming the magic day for their return? You can blame a reporter — go figure.

In the 1950s, a Cleveland Metroparks patrolman told a reporter for the old Cleveland Press that he personally had clocked the birds’ appearance every March 15 for the previous six years. Others had noted the annual sightings even prior to that.

The news story about the sightings spread across the country.

When March 15 rolled around in 1957, some 9,000 spectators and dozens of reporters arrived in the sleepy town to witness the return.

The park and its rural surroundings were overwhelmed by the large number of visitors, with reports of small children stumbling into the nearby creeks. Area restaurants even ran out of food.

Nowadays, the town celebrates the arrival of the buzzards with a pancake breakfast and other events. This year’s festivities will be Sunday.

The fun history and sense of tradition got Dawn Potpas and her daughter, Ashley, out of bed at 5 a.m. to make the drive to Hinckley from Willowick, east of Cleveland.

“We went to Groundhog Day this year,” Dawn said. “We figured we would do something else goofy.”

Craig Webb, who attended his first Buzzard Day this year, can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3547.