Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Gone hawking

Let's face it, August was lousy. New Jersey was hit with heat, humidity and then, for good measure, an earthquake and a major hurricane.

Put it behind us. September is here and things are looking up.

Literally: It’s hawk watching season.

From the largest Canada geese to the smallest hummingbirds, birds are moving south. If the wind is strong and out of the north they will fly as far as they can before having to stop and refuel.

With luck, the small landbirds will be in your backyard in the early morning, particularly in trees full of seeds or fruits and getting the first rays of sun. But they can be hard to see in the leaves because they don't need to wear gaudy mating colors and don't sing to protect territory.

Not so the larger daytime raptors: eagles, vultures, buteos, accipiters and falcons.

Wait for a warm, sunny day, preferably with some clouds and a strong wind out of the north. Go to a ridge or mountain top and look north. You’ll need your binoculars, lots of patience and maybe a camp stool. At some point you will see some specks that, with a lot of practice, you will be able to identify as one or more of those daytime raptors.

There is a wonderful website,, a compendium of data on hawk watches across the country. It allows you to see how many raptors are seen at a particular hawk watch in a given month (you can also check daily totals).

Not all the sites are kept current but here are two that started the 2011 season on Sept. 1: New Jersey’s Montclair Hawk Lookout in Montclair and Scott’s Mountain at Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, Warren County. One of the oldest hawk watches, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pa., began fall migration counts in mid-August.

Montclair, built on a quarry on First Mountain, doesn’t have much parking and you have to walk up a long staircase and then pull yourself up a metal ladder screwed into the rock. But once you ascend the final slope you are on a flat platform that has chairs and several watchers. For sheer numbers, try here in mid-September when the broadwing hawks are flying in.

If you can follow directions to Merrill Creek Reservoir you can find the Tower parking lot and drive to the Scott’s Mountain hawk watch. Plenty of parking, a view over the reservoir and eagles, among others. A lot of friendly watchers here will offer you help in identifying the specks (and also offer whatever snacks they have).

Hawk Mountain is such an important place for birders because it offers a unique perspective - bird‘s-eye viewing. You park and then you start to climb. There is a lookout relatively low down and near the parking lot, and if you don’t like exerting yourself this is where you stop.

My husband and I went last September and there was no way I was going to stop on the lower level. Luckily, MH has many years of putting up with me on bird trips. We are not regular climbers but we went slowly and I am glad we did. We found many types of warblers and other landbirds in the early morning cool that were so concerned about eating they didn’t mind our presence. They were also lower in the trees or on the ground, which was a relief to our necks.

We continued the climb (there are several places to stop and look out) and it can be very rocky. No sneakers here! This is for birders like me on a mission. I was hoping for warblers - hence our early start - but as the day wears on the warming air rising off the cliffs provide the wind beneath a raptor’s wings. That is when many birders come up.

Be warned: No seats up here. The website - which you MUST read before visiting here - suggests what to bring to make yourself comfortable for a few hours and we had it - layers of clothing we could remove and sit on, backpacks with food and water, sun screen and, of course, our cameras and binoculars. (Bathrooms are a short way down from the summit.)

Raptors fly south at different times in autumn. September seems to be the preferred month for broadwings, the smallest of the eastern buteos. Later in the season you will get more diversity as the red-shouldered and redtailed hawks, the osprey, the bald and golden eagles, accipiters and other, nonraptor, birds head south.

We were there on a weekday morning and the place quickly got filled with people. I am told that in mid-October, especially on the weekends, the crowds are huge.

Some make the pilgrimage every year. I was glad to do it last year and will go again someday, legs willing.

But this is September, so I will continue to look up wherever I am and continue to be amazed by what I find.

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