Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Up on the roof

I’d like to have a mansion on a steep hill, lots of woods around it, lots of hiking trails and plants and people to take care of them.

Since I don’t, the next best thing is to visit someone else’s.

So there I was, standing on the roof of the Hoffman part of New Jersey Audubon’s Scherman-Hoffman sanctuary in Bernardsville, looking for raptors last week.

There are many better-known places to look for hawks. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania may be one of the most famous, and you can learn about some of the others through the website .

I like Scherman-Hoffman’s hawk platform because it is not well known and is very easy to get to - a good thing for someone who can’t or won't climb. Just take the elevator to the third floor and walk up the ramp and out the door. (There are no chairs up there, so for a long visit bring your own.)

Last year was the first for the hawk watch because it was the first year the expanded Hoffman education center was opened after years of construction. The watch was staffed by an intern named Ben who showed knowledge of birds' field marks and calls beyond his young years. He is now at Cornell so this year we are on our own.

On the roof, alone on a sunny day, I was keeping my own checklist. Turkey vultures? Check. Black vultures? Yep, a circling kettle of nine. Redtail, sharp shinned and cooper’s hawks? Got’em.

Ospreys? A lot of them.

This is an inland location, so it is always a thrill when the osprey, also known as the sea eagle, flies over. Many did while I stood on the roof.

I always thought the osprey should’ve been the national bird instead of the bald eagle. It only eats fish and is a very good hunter, hovering over the water before diving. If successful it comes up, seems to shrug its shoulders to shake off the excess water and then flies to a tree for a well-deserved meal.

By contrast, the bald eagle will eat just about anything, dead or alive, and isn‘t a very good hunter. It is not above taking a fish away from another bird, usually the osprey.

Besides, ospreys look so cool up there in the blue with that head and wing pattern.

After 30 minutes of standing on the roof, I took myself for a hike around the sanctuary to stretch my legs.

I have found all sorts of birds at the center’s new Field Loop Trail Spur, from the small gold-crowned kinglet to the redtailed hawk. I was not disappointed this time - an accipiter zipping across the trail, into the trees and to a branch just along enough for me to identify it as a juvenile cooper’s hawk. Thanks!

A hawk was expected. What was not expected was the pair of turkeys that crossed the path just before the cooper’s made its appearance.

Benjamin Franklin also thought the bald eagle was a bad choice for representing the fledgling United States, for much the same reasons I do. In a letter he said the eagle is a “bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly.”

By contrast he thought the wild turkey a “more respectable bird” and a “true original native of America” as well as a “bird of courage” that would “not hesitate to attack a grenadier of the British Guards who would presume to invade his farm yard with a red coat on.”

I suspect Franklin might have been writing with tongue in cheek, although I have heard stories of turkeys attacking people and cars and I've read they are increasing in number, spreading out across New Jersey.

The two turkeys that crossed my path in Bernardsville saw me and rather than attack - perhaps because I was not wearing a red coat - ran into the woods and just stood there, thinking I couldn’t see them.

Turkeys are not known for being smart.

However, these were smart enough to be at Scherman-Hoffman. If they hang around on the sanctuary's property long enough they will avoid the fate of their forebears at Thanksgiving.