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

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