For true fall spectacle, try Hawk Mountain

In autumn, thousands of predatory birds fly through preserve

Short Hop

October 19, 2003|By Bob Downing | Bob Downing,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

An in-your-face wind from the north or west would have been ideal.

That would have brought eagles, hawks and falcons riding thermals - updrafts - eyeball to eyeball with visitors to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania.

Instead, the wind was from the south, and most of the migrating raptors did not follow the rugged Kittatinny Ridge west of Allentown.

The birds cut instead across the valley of the Little Schuylkill River. That provided some long-distance hawk-watching - with the birds a half mile to a mile away but clearly visible through the ever-present binoculars and spotting scopes carried by visitors.

An early November visit last year made it clear why the 2,380-acre preserve is so favored by birders, with its impressive and almost-magical aerial show.

Eagles, hawks, more

Within 15 minutes of my arrival at South Lookout, a pair of golden eagles with 7-foot wingspans swooped, soared and flapped past.

Then a dozen red-tailed hawks - such a collection is called a kettle - fluttered south across the valley.

Moving to the rocky North Lookout, I came almost face to face with a "sharpie," the nickname given by hawk watchers to the small, acrobatic sharp-shinned hawk.

The hawk was cruising south along the ridge top when it came upon a dozen hawk-watchers sitting on rocks at the 1,521-foot North Lookout, which offers a 200-degree panorama and 70-mile view. The bird lifted and veered sharply to the east - as it flapped over our heads.

Hawk Mountain is not the only place to see migrating hawks. But its history and its numbers make it an almost treasured place among bird-watchers. It is home to a unique, feathery autumn spectacle created by topography and weather. What you see can be awesome.

By last November, Hawk Mountain had tallied more than 21,000 migrating eagles, hawks and falcons - 16 species in all - in the summer-fall migration that runs from mid-August to mid-December.

That's up a little bit: The typical number is about 18,000 migrating eagles, hawks and falcons.

You very well may see other migrants: as different as geese, waxwings and hummingbirds.

The most common birds at Hawk Mountain are broad-winged hawks. They are chunky, barrel-chested birds with wide wings and fanned tails with distinct black and white bands. They soar in spirals on wings that rarely seem to flap as the birds collect in the sky in impressive flocks.

Last year, the broad-wings were joined by 3,166 sharp-shinned hawks and 2,525 red-tailed hawks. There were also 177 bald eagles, 65 golden eagles and a record 62 peregrine falcons.

Changes by the month

Bird-watching at Hawk Mountain changes month to month. In August and September, you are more likely to see bald eagles, American kestrels and ospreys.

In September and October, the birds include broad-winged, Cooper's, sharp-shinned, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks. In November and early December, the birds are likely to include golden eagles, rough-legged hawks and northern goshawks.

Part of the reason for Hawk Mountain's appeal among bird-watchers is the possibility of being there for what's called a Big Day. Depending on weather conditions and the vagaries of the migrating birds, birders at Hawk Mountain may see as many as 3,500 birds flood past in a day - at eye level, not a thousand feet above.

There were actually two Big Days last year: Sept. 19 and Sept. 20, when more than 6,300 birds, mostly broad-winged hawks, soared and flapped past the official counting station at the sanctuary's North Lookout, a boulder field atop the ridge.

The biggest movement of birds typically occurs when several overcast days are followed by a strong northwest wind with an approaching cold front.

The birds, cruising at speeds of up to 40 mph and covering 250 miles a day, rely on the thermals in soaring and gliding southward. The northwest wind hits the top of Kittatinny Ridge, a 300-mile-long barrier also called Blue Mountain. The wind then bounces up, providing additional lift for the birds. The birds conserve energy by surfing the air currents to the south.

Some of the migrating raptors will winter in Central and South America, others in the southeast United States.

Daily count

The day I visited - late in the migration season - the counters at Hawk Mountain logged 58 birds. That included 43 red-tailed hawks and five golden eagles.

The day after my visit, the count was 178 birds, and it was 105 the day before my visit.

A beat-up plastic owl is affixed to a tree atop the North Lookout, and it frequently comes under attack from migrating hawks, especially merlins and sharpies.

Kittatinny Ridge gets its name from the Lenape Indians. It was, to them, the endless mountain, a sacred place beloved by the hawks and eagles that represented guardian spirits that provided guidance and protection.

Hawk Mountain does not get as many birds in the spring. That's because prevailing easterly winds south of the mountain push the birds to the west. But up to 300 hawks a day may be seen there in April and early May.

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