At sanctuary, migrating hawks are a flight to see

November 02, 2008|By CANDUS THOMSON | CANDUS THOMSON,candy.thomson@baltsun.com

KEMPTON, Pa. - These are exciting times on the wind-swept ridge of Blue Mountain, both in the sky and down below.

Migrating hawks draft on rising thermals, saving energy as they head for their winter digs. Their every move is being followed by hundreds of binocular- and camera-toting humans, who marvel at the grace and acrobatics.

At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, it stands to reason that the hawks are being watched like, well, hawks.

The mountain is only 1,475 feet tall by my GPS unit, but its location along the Atlantic Flyway means the air is a superhighway for southbound birds of prey, including golden eagles (more about them in a moment), vultures, osprey and hawks of all varieties.

The 2,600-acre sanctuary is in its 74th year. Generations of birds have followed an invisible path each fall to warmer weather. That, in turn, has attracted generations of wildlife lovers, grandparents holding the hands of kids, with middle-aged beasts of burden bringing up the rear, hauling lunches, gear and jackets.

"A lot of people come to pay their respects," says Mary Linkevich, sanctuary spokeswoman. "It's a conservation legacy."

Columbus Day weekend marks the start of the busy season, when 70 percent of Hawk Mountain's 65,000 annual visitors stop by. The crush will continue until after Thanksgiving, with the season officially closing Dec. 15, the end of the four-month Autumn Hawk Count.

"A good-weather day is a good day outside and a good day at Hawk Mountain," Linkevich says. "The saying is November is golden on Hawk Mountain, not only for the golden eagles but for the golden leaves."

That wasn't the case early last week. The weather that put the World Series on hold in Philadelphia did the same for bird watchers at Hawk Mountain two hours away. On Thursday, the morning was cold and damp and punctuated with big, wet snowflakes. Fog drifted in and out. But about 3 p.m., the sky cleared and hardy watchers were rewarded with the sight of six golden eagles circling overhead.

So far, spotters have logged thousands of sharp-shinned hawks and several hundred osprey, Cooper and red-tailed hawks. By the end of the year, more than 20,000 birds will have been identified and counted.

"The red-tails are the interstate hawk, the ones you see circling over the highways," Linkevich says. "But to see them in the air and by the hundreds is awesome. We'll start getting days with hundreds of red-tails."

The whole thing began in 1934, when a New York City conservationist named Rosalie Edge leased 1,400 acres of the mountaintop, created a wildlife sanctuary and invited the public to enjoy. Four years later, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary incorporated and became a nonprofit organization.

Of course, you don't have to drive to Pennsylvania to see migrating hawks and other birds of prey. The Hawk Migration Association of North America suggests Baltimore's Cromwell Valley Park and Fort Smallwood Park in Pasadena. Even the inner city gets into the act.

At Oliver Street Studios, tucked between Falls Road and the Jones Falls Expressway in Baltimore, Thomas Witt has logged 400 broad-winged hawks and smaller numbers of other members of the hawk family this year. The four-story building, a century-old warehouse converted to loft apartments, is along the original path of the Jones Falls.

These days, the Hawk Mountain visitor center is abuzz with activity. First-timers bone up on identifying species, using wooden bird carvings to get a sense of shape and size. You can bring a guidebook, buy one there for $3.50 or just depend on the kindness of strangers - and sharp-eyed volunteers - for help.

The closest observation point is just a football field away at South Lookout. North Lookout is less than a mile away. There are eight miles of well-marked trails to let you get away from it all.

On busy weekends, there might be as many as 3,000 people wandering the summit.

"It never quite feels like that many people," Linkevich says. "A lot of people don't mind [the crowd] because when you're looking for hawks, the more eyes, the better. There's a sense of community. We have an elite corps of volunteers, and that adds to the experience."

On Saturday, the sanctuary will have a live golden eagle and other raptors on display at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m.

"It's the only time we make a guarantee on a sighting," Linkevich says, chuckling. "We get a lot of visitors because of that."

Some tips: Dress in layers and bring a hat and gloves. Sturdy shoes will keep toes warm and make walking around the summit easier. Pack a lunch. Don't forget a folding camp chair or stool, binoculars and a bird book. Come early; the sanctuary has 300 parking spaces, but they fill quickly on weekends. Other tips are at www.hawk mountain.org, or the information line, 610-756-6000. Another good source is the Hawk Migration Association of North America, www.hmana.org.

Getting there: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a 21/2-hour drive from Baltimore (144.5 miles). Take Interstate 83 north to I-81 north to I-78 east. Go north on PA-61 to PA-895 east. After two miles, turn right at Hawk Mountain sign and drive two miles to the summit parking lot.

Cost, weekdays: adults, $5; seniors, $4; children 6-12, $3. Fall weekends: adults and seniors, $7; children 6-12, $3.

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