Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

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

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Eyes Like a Hawk

My late great-uncle Elly, in a letter -- yes, a real letter, not an email -- responding to my description of visiting a hawk platform that fall, said you have to have eyes like a hawk to find one. He was right.

I have seen enough raptors in my time to be able to tell the differences between an osprey and an eagle, a black vulture from a turkey vulture and, perhaps most difficult, a sharpshinned from a Cooper's hawk and both from their larger accipiter relative, a northern goshawk.
One of many bald eagles on Scott's Mountain. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
That's when the birds are relatively close. When I go to a hawk platform, I might as well be a novice.

If you are on a hawk platform and you are counting the number of, say, broadwing hawks flying south to their winter grounds in order to give a complete count, you have to be able to see a speck in the sky, then be able to train your binoculars or scope on it and then identify it, all while the bird is hundreds of feet high and flying fast with a stiff tailwind.

For that is what raptors do, they wait for the wind to come hard out of the north and then allow themselves to be pushed along ridge lines where they can be kept aloft by warm air off those ridges. The Hawk Mountain platform in the Blue Mountains of Pennsylvania is one such spot. So is the Chimney Rock Hawk Watch between the two Watchung Mountains of New Jersey and the Racoon Ridge Hawk Watch in the Kitanny Mountains.

I have been to many of these hawk platforms and a few others - the New Jersey Audubon Scherman Hoffman sancturary, the Sandy Hook platform, the Cape Henlopen platform in Delaware - including my own unofficial platform, back when I was working in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, atop the Palisades. (I'd come out on my break and watch eagles, ospreys and assorted hawks follow the Hudson River south.)
(RE Berg-Andersson 2015)

I enjoyed my time at these places, but my favorite hawk platform is atop Scott's Mountain over the Merrill Creek Reservoir in New Jersey, a short flight from the Delaware River.

We try to go at least once a year, and have become such irregular regulars that when we made our first 2015 visit in late September, several people thought we had been there earlier. Alas, no, we missed the big week when the broadwing hawk - the smallest of the buteo hawks of eastern North America - flew through in the thousands. These are early travelers. As autumn goes on, the number of broadwings will decrease and the number of eagles - bald and golden - and accipiters and redtailed and redshouldered hawks will rise.

We drive up to the top of the mountain, get our folding chairs from the trunk, then say hello and sit down, binoculars at the ready. Then I have to get back in practice picking fast-flying birds out of the sky. It isn't easy.

Unlike a lot of the other hawk platforms, where the counters are serious and those real regulars stick to themselves and ignore irregular visitors such as myself, the regulars at Scott's Mountain are very friendly, very helpful and very good spotters. Paul, the lead counter the day we showed up, was on birds no one else even saw coming. He usually is, even when he's not the official counter. At least for my old eyes, I couldn't even see the dot in the sky.
One of many sharpshinned hawks on Scott's Mtn. (RE Berg-Andersson 2015)
Standing at a hawk watch once with Pete Dunne, he told how to look for broadwings beneath clouds and how turkey vultures fly like a man walking a tightrope with his arms extended out and slightly up. I tried to apply this knowledge but when you can't even see a dot, you have to trust that the lead counter or his assistants (there are usually four, spread along the parking lot to see as much sky as possible) is right. Paul was always right, and he was always patient in directing me to find the bird.

It is nice to be able to sit, too. Most platforms are hard climbs to the top and when you get there at last you have to find a seat on rocks that are far from comfortable. Or, you carry your chairs with you (or a pillow) and then hope that if you can make it all the way up without falling you can find a big enough space to open the chair and sit down. Neither is a given. 

From my chair on Scott's Mountain a few of the birds stayed low enough for me to easily find: the two resident bald eagles taking off after another eagle passing through and too close to their nest; an American kestrel, the smallest of the falcons, looking so colorful against the deep blue sky; the skein of migrating Canada geese found as I was looking at some broadwings Paul had pointed out.

Goldfinches, backyard, Sept. 27, 2015 (Margo D. Beller)
This is, without a doubt, the easiest birding I do except for what I see out my back porch.

(And there has been quite a lot. Thanks to an investment in a thistle sock and enough seed to put in a second feeder, we've had as many as 20 goldfinches feeding at the same time. Whether it be the weedy plants drying up or yanked out by homeowners or no one else having thistle feeders up, we have been reaping the benefits.)

MH was told decades ago he'd never see a bald eagle in the wild in his lifetime. That was after the overuse of DDT nearly decimated the eagles and the falcons. Luckily, that scoutmaster was wrong and we've seen many majestic eagles since then, and other birds, too.

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