They gather at the crack of dawn in a barren field in Hinckley on March 15 every year for different reasons.

Some return because it's tradition. For others, it is bucket-list thing.

As for the buzzards, it is what they do.

Buzzard Day arrived, and once again the turkey vultures did not disappoint.

The watch began at 7 a.m. and just 58 minutes later the first one took flight over a crowd of about 40 oohing and aahing admirers. The second sighting — this time two — buzzed by just 12 minutes later.

For Suzanne Graham, the trek to the Medina County community was a 500-mile journey of a lifetime.

Graham, who lives in Rockford, Ill., said her birthday was always overshadowed by the wide-winged bird whose annual appearance in Hinckley is on the same day.

"My husband asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday and I said I wanted to go to Hinckley, Ohio," she said.

So for her 71st birthday, she found herself standing in the cold at the Buzzard Roost in the Hinckley Reservation with fellow birds of a feather, scanning the sky for the harbingers of spring.

Thom Kotulak of Parma figures he has only missed a handful of Buzzard Days over the last 60 years.

The Hinckley native carried a large staff covered with buzzard stuffed animals in every size imaginable, and wore buzzard-themed clothes for the occasion. He noted there were "a lot of first-timers" in the crowd this year.

Among those first-timers was Cleveland Metroparks naturalist Natalie Schroder.

As the legend goes, the sighting is not official until the Metroparks representative sees it. Schroder, who had a few false alarms with some Canada geese, was a bit tense.

"I was nervous about getting here on time," she admitted.

The weather was favorable for watchers Friday morning, dry with a relatively warm temperature in the mid-40s. The vultures glide in flight, riding warmer thermals rather than flapping their 6-foot-long wing span to get around and scavenge for food.

They didn't have to travel far. While the vultures are migratory birds, they likely spent the winter in Hinckley or didn't venture too far south.

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

Folklore says the buzzards began to arrive in the spring of 1819 after the Great Hinckley Hunt.

Tired of losing livestock to predators, some 400 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 rounded up and killed.

The buzzards then swooped in to feed off the rotting carcasses and never left, because the area's terrain with its many stone ledges and mature trees made a nice place to roost.

But where did the March 15 date come from?

In the 1950s, a Cleveland Metroparks patrolman offhandedly told a Cleveland Press scribe that he personally had clocked the birds' appearance every March 15 the previous six years.

The news story about the patrolman's observation quickly 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.

The annual rite of spring continues today and now includes a pancake breakfast and other events the Sunday after March 15.

Jacob McGrain, 18, said he came this year from Madison to honor his grandfather who made the trek decades ago. He even wore his grandfather's old buzzard sweatshirt.

McGran said he loves bird watching and proudly showed off images he caught of the first buzzard of the day on his camera.

"I see a lot of them at home," he said. "One time the entire lake was covered with them because of all the dead fish."

 

Craig Webb, who considers himself an old buzzard, can be reached at cwebb@thebeaconjournal.com.