Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Friday, August 30, 2013

Eyes to the Sky

When I was a child, I did not look forward to Labor Day. September in general and Labor Day in particular meant returning to school. This started to change when I went to college. The week or so before Labor Day meant heading back to Boston. I enjoyed being away from home.

Now that I am an adult, especially one who works from home in an office facing the street, I understand how my parents must've felt when it was time to send me back to school. I am greatly looking forward to having assorted children safely elsewhere during the day and then inside doing homework as the evening comes, earlier each day.

I only regret the usual Thursday after Labor Day this year is the Jewish holiday Rosh Hashana, new year's, and the children will have a few extra days of liberty before school starts the following Monday.

Migrating Cooper's hawk by Margo D. Beller
September 1 is the "new year" in another sense, too. It is when hawk watches, those areas where it is best to see raptors heading south take advantage of mountain ridges and rising warm air known as thermals, open for "business."

I've written before about the joy of standing on a mountain top and watching raptors - osprey, eagle, accipiters, buteos, falcons - flying over you. In the case of Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (one of the best-known hawk watches in this part of the country) you are up so high the hawks are practically at eye level.

But there's a price for this access. It is hard and in some places very rocky climbing up to the North lookout, the one at the very top. (There are others, with varying degree of view, along the way.) It is about as hard, if not worse, coming down. My husband and I have been up there twice. The first time, any discomfort we may have had was ignored as we found assorted warblers and others, including a life bird for us, a Bicknell's thrush.

The second time, however, we had no birds to distract us and we were a few years older. I nearly fell twice trying to balance myself on a rock as we were heading downhill. By the time we got back to the relatively easy bottom part of the trail, I had to admit we would never get up to North lookout again unless we grew our own wings.

Luckily, there are other hawk watches and not all of them require the same kind of strenuous climbing. In New Jersey the ones I have visited are Chimney Rock (a short, flat path from the parking lot), Montclair (a staircase until you get near the top, and then you use a ladder to get up the final rocks) and Wildcat Ridge, which has been counting since mid-August (you can climb this or cheat and use the road up to the cellphone tower, which is what the official counters do).
Redtailed hawk, 2013. Photo by RE Berg-Andersson

My favorite is Scott's Mountain, in Harmony Township, next to the Merrill Creek reservoir. You drive up, you park, you remove your folding chair and you watch the hawks with a great group of people eager to share tips, stories and snacks, led by Henry Kielblock.

The nice thing about this time of year - besides kids back in school - is you can see  hawks anywhere just by facing north on a day when the wind turns and comes from the north or northwest. When I was working in Englewood Cliffs, in an office across a highway from the top of the Palisades, the cliffs overlooking the Hudson River, I saw a parade of hawks just by coming out the office door during the warmest part of the day and looking north.

I have also found raptors in my backyard - Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, redtail and, the most unusual one, an immature northern goshawk.

Other birds will be migrating, too, of course. If you keep your eyes open, once you get the kids off to school, you'll be amazed by what you see.

Me at the Scott's Mountain hawk watch, 2013

Sunday, August 18, 2013

It's That Time Again...

As I write, in mid-August, we had a break from the usual hot, humid weather with cool, dry air and bright sunshine. In the evenings, the wind died down and the skies were clear and cold.

Black-throated green warbler
During that time, some birds started heading south.

It doesn't seem like that long ago I was heading into my favorite birding areas to seek the migrants heading north to the breeding grounds. Now, suddenly, I am reading reports of black-throated green warblers and American redstarts passing by the hawk watches of Sandy Hook and Chimney Rock.

As a kid I would get restless in August because I knew I would soon have to go back to school in September. As an adult, if I haven't taken a vacation - and nowadays as a contractor it costs me a day's pay to take a day off, including holidays - I get restless in August, remembering my family's annual vacation.

In August, the birds get restless to fly south. As noted, many birds are already on the move when the right conditions permit. Sept. 1 is when many of the hawkwatches, including the one at Scott's Mountain abutting the Merrill Creek Reservoir in Harmony Township, NJ, set up shop to count all the southbound raptors.

Is my desire to "fly away" in August because, after 10 years of following them, I am in sync with the birds as much as to have some time off from a stressful job? I think so.

Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch, 2012
I read a study recently, "No-Vacation Nation Revisited" by the Center for Economy and Policy Research, that found the U.S. was dead last of the 19 "rich" nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in terms of providing guaranteed vacation days and holidays.

This makes perfect sense if you consider we are a nation where you start a business, work hard and then expect your employees to work just as hard and be happy to be employed to keep the operation going. The Horatio Alger myth of picking oneself up by the bootstraps says nothing about a vacation once successful. Cheap labor working every day but Sunday was once the rule until unions were created and grew. Now, with unions on the wane, we seem to be backsliding.

Remember, the U.S. government has passed no law ordering private companies to provide vacation. It's not the American Way.

At one job we only got holidays off because the U.S. Mail wasn't delivered anyway. That was back when newspapers and other businesses needed the mail to get the product out. Now, with the Internet, that isn't necessary. You also need fewer employees. So my current, Web-based employer cuts back on staff - to which it would have to pay benefits - and bulks up on "contractors," to which it does not. 
House wren, 2013


And if you don't want to do it, there are lots of people looking for work who can replace you.

Birds don't have to worry about that. They just need to worry about mating, breeding, raising young and then getting back to an area where they can continue eating until it is time to go north once again.

In August they sense the days are getting shorter. In my part of New Jersey it is now dark before 8pm EDT. At the time of the solstice two months ago, it got dark 40 minutes later. It is also now darker in the morning, with the cardinals waking me at first light around 6 rather than 5:30am.

So the birds in the north know it is getting time to leave. When it gets cold there are also fewer bugs to eat. The young are flying and able to feed themselves on the seeds of spent flowers and weeds and shrubs. When the wind comes from the north, a small bird - such as the house wren that spent some time at the nest box I provided - instinctively will take advantage of that push southward. Every little bit helps on a long, perilous journey.

So here I sit, earthbound in August. I wish I could drop everything and fly south to where it will be warm and sunny and filled with good food and so enjoy myself for a few months before I have to head back north and return to my responsibilities.