Hawk Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania is one of those famous places in bird watching circles that all serious birders eventually visit. September is a good time to go there, so I worked it into this trip.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a private reserve in the Appalachian mountains, near the town of Kempton, PA. It is well known as a hawk watching site, and volunteers there keep an active count of the number of raptors which pass by the ridge. In an average fall season (September to November), counters tally about 18,000 hawks, eagles, and falcons!
I paid my entrance fee, and hiked the mile or so through the woods up to the North lookout, which is the principle hawk watching location. The hike up was quite pleasant; the forest was beautiful, and the sunny morning had a touch of autumn crispness. I stopped to study an eastern Hairy Woodpecker, which was bright white and black – as opposed to our pacific northwest Hairy, which is light gray and black.
Along the trail were numbered markers, but no corresponding interpretative signs. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has gone all 21st Century, using QR codes to store the trail marker information. If you are not familiar with QR codes, you can see an example of one in the photo below (it’s the pixelated square).
QR codes are like traditional bar codes, but they are able to store information in a more dense way (in 2-D instead of just 1-D). They are readable with a bar code scanner, or with any smart phone that has a camera and a bar code reader app (I use Red Laser on my iPhone). Advertisers often use QR codes to encode web addresses (URLs) so that interested customers can use their phones to go immediately to an ad’s website. But out in the woods on Hawk Mountain, you might not get cell service. No problem! QR codes can encode lots of different kinds of information, not just URLs. When you scan the QR code above, your phone’s app decodes the information and reveals the clear text (no internet connection needed):
Pretty cool, if you have a smart phone. But kind of a bummer that not everyone can read the “signs.” Gives me some ideas for a science lesson though when I get back to Lakeside…. By the way, you can check out more about QR Codes on Wikipedia (that page has some cool example pics!).
Back to the hawks! Why is Hawk Mountain such a good place for observing raptors? Well, these birds of prey are moving south, and they want to do so in the most efficient way possible. Unlike many songbirds, most raptors tend to migrate during the day, taking advantage of rising air thermals. The sun warms the land below, creating updrafts – especially along mountain ridges. The raptors can use these updrafts to rise high in the air and to carry them along on their journey. Here’s a sign from the trail:
So if you position yourself on a mountain ridge from mid-morning to mid-afternoon and look north, you have a good chance of seeing some migrating hawks. Finding my first one was easy!
Finding the next ones were a little more challenging. I made it up to the North lookout, and found a rock to sit on not far from the official counters. There were already dozens of other people hawk watching.
Hawk watching is different than most other kinds of bird watching because most of the time the birds are quite distant. You usually can’t see most of the normal field marks – the color of the legs and tail, the exact pattern on the underwings, the shape of the bill, the color of the eyes, etc. Most of these birds stream by quite quickly, and they might be a mile away or more. So you have to learn how to ID the birds based on overall shape (often in silhouette) and other clues like how fast they flap.
If you see them from below, some raptors have thin, “sharp” wings like falcons, while others have broader, “fatter” wings like the buteo hawks (e.g. Red-tails and Broad-wings). Ospreys tend to make an “M” shape with their wings and bodies.
If you see them from the side, some birds like Turkey Vultures fly with a definite obtuse dihedral angle (their wings make a “V” shape). Other birds, like eagles, will appear almost flat.
Other clues can help. Size is not one of them, since a Bald Eagle at a great distance is the same apparent size as a much smaller Kestrel which is closer. But flapping behavior can be a good clue. Some birds mostly soar, flapping very little. Others flap a lot. Some tend to flap in patterns: flap-flap-glide. In general, bigger birds flap more slowly than smaller ones (Golden Eagles have much bigger wing areas than Cooper’s Hawks, so they get much more thrust per flap).
All of these clues are important, because much of hawk watching comes down to “lump identification” – as I discussed in a previous post. Actually “speck identification” is a little more accurate. Here are some photos for you to try to ID for yourself (birds in the pictures are about the same apparent size and resolution I saw in my binoculars).
I was intrigued by the idea of hawk watching, but I have to say that after a couple hours of speck identification I decided that I like my birds big and close and in my face. Yep, hawk watching has an elegance and intellectual appeal, but that’s not mostly why I go birding. I did get to see some cool kettling – “kettles” are large groups of hawks that are rising together on the thermals.
Pretty cool, huh? (You must think it’s pretty cool if you are STILL reading this post about hawk watching!) The biggest kettle I saw had over 50 hawks. The biggest ones that form in a season might contain thousands. By the way, if you are ready for the IDs for the last three pictures they are: Bald Eagle (see the white head?), Red-tailed Hawk, and a kettle of Broad-wings.
After a couple hours on the mountain, I was ready to head down. The counters had already tallied well over 200 raptors before lunch (and 1600+ the day before!).
After Hawk Mountain it is on to Connecticut for a couple of days, and then my September trip to the East Coast will be winding down.