Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Monday, September 17, 2012


There comes a time every September when a cold front pushes through, the wind comes out of the north and the sky clears to a cloudless, brilliant blue.

Sept. 11, 2001 was one such day, unfortunately.

But so was this past Saturday, Sept. 15. It was a day many of us in the birding community were awaiting because it means many of the birds that migrate south to Central and South America in fall would be on the move, that north wind giving them a big push and allowing them to conserve their energy in flight.

Mid-September is when broadwing hawks, the smallest of the buteos (a group that include redtails), travel south in the greatest numbers. Having a cold front pass through in mid-September and on a Saturday made it ideal for people like me to travel to one of the many hawk platforms in New Jersey and hope for a good show.

Pete Dunne
It was by dumb luck that I found out Pete Dunne - NJ Audubon official, prolific author and hawk identification master - was going to be at Scherman Hoffman in Bernardsville, NJ, at the sanctuary’s platform to watch for hawks, and hawk his newly revised second edition of his 1988 book “Hawks in Flight: The Field Identification of North American Migrant Raptors,” written with David Allen Sibley and Clay Sutton.

Scherman Hoffman, a New Jersey Audubon sanctuary, has one of the easier hawk platforms to get to - you take an elevator to the third floor. No climbing unless you take the stairs.

Having Dunne up there was both fascinating and depressing. He knows his stuff and his enthusiasm is contagious. Somehow, he always saw the incoming raptors. He’d be autographing books, or talking to people about their birding experiences or imparting wisdom on the way to tell the difference between a turkey vulture and an eagle in flight (the vulture looks like a man walking a tightrope) and suddenly he’d call out, “There are birds by that comma to the left of the cloud, about to come into the blue!”

What? Which cloud? What comma? What birds?

You would think something big like an eagle would be easy to see high up on a clear day, but you’d be wrong. Broadwings, despite the distinctive white stripe in the tail and black border on the wings, are even harder to ID when they are way up there unless, like Dunne, you can tell it by its shape.

(Broadwings are compact and more elegant than the larger redtail, which Dunne considers “lumpy.” The fans of Pale Male would likely disagree.)

What we were waiting for here on terra firma are the kettles, those groups of anywhere from a few to a few hundred broadwings that circle in a group on a rising warm current of air and then circle around (as tho’ being stirred in a kettle) and use the centrifugal force to give them more speed when they stream out.

As we mere mortals started getting frustrated - where ARE they? - Dunne talked us through, at one point standing behind a woman and literally raising her binoculars until she could see them.


“Thousands of people would kill to have what we have right now,” he said of watching hawks in the sunshine, the birds more easily visible as the clouds increased.

A local "lumpy" redtail, hanging out watching the hawk watchers.
The hardest part was standing for hours, desperately looking for a speck (at one point looking straight up), straining eyes, neck and back - especially the back - while trying to figure out what kind of bird we were seeing. After all, that's why we were there. I envied the couple who not only brought chairs but lunch in a cooler bag. They were in for the long haul and they were going to be comfortable.

The birds, meanwhile, soar above you, untethered to the land, seemingly weightless. For the moments I watch them I forget I am heavy, earthbound, as “lumpy“ as one of those redtails Pete Dunne made fun of.

Everyone needs to look up once in a while. Too often we go about our daily lives, in a rut, moving from point A to point B, and fail to see what’s flying over as we drive the highway or sit in the house with a videogame.

People need to learn. They need to get a book - maybe one of Dunne’s or one of the thousands of books now out there to help you find, identify or bring to your garden just about every type of bird out there - and learn something about birds and, by extension, something of the world around us.

At one point on the increasingly crowded platform, a young man of 16 started peppering Dunne with questions about the redtails he’d been seeing in his yard. As Dunne patiently answered his questions, looked at his photos and made approving noises about his illustrations of birds, I asked the teenager’s father about him.

His son has been birding since he was very small. They are always traveling around, the father driving and the son taking pictures. The father travels a lot for work, he said, and it is not unusual for him to take the red-eye flight home, get his son and go birding.

“So one day I’m in Singapore and the next I’m in Great Swamp,” he said with a smile, watching his hyperactive son.

It is good to see someone young and interested. Too often my husband and I are among the younger people in a crowd of birders. Interested young people won't sit by and do nothing when stupid people try to "overdevelop" the land or pollute the water or air.

Older people, if they have grown children and are lucky enough to have the time and be comfortable financially so they can afford the books and cameras and binoculars, will likely make up the bulk of those attending the conference Dunne is spearheading for New Jersey Audubon out of Cape May Oct. 26-28, a major money maker.

He’ll be charging people for the same tutorial he gave for free in Bernardsville.

Too often we are earthbound in our thinking. We are not the only species around. We are all interconnected.

That’s why we who are fascinated by birds stand or sit on the tops of mountains or man-made platforms and watch the hawks. We are all trying to survive. They are moving high above life’s constant turmoil from breeding grounds to below the equator where it will be summer while we have winter. We walk the Earth, also trying to get from point A to point B as well as we can.

While they face more danger, I think the birds do it with more style.

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