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Hawk Mountain celebrates. September 8, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are fortunate to live within a 30-minute drive of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the premier raptor-watching site in the U.S. (The word “raptor” refers to all birds of prey, including hawks, eagles, owls, falcons, and vultures.) This coming weekend, Hawk Mountain celebrates its 75th anniversary with events, food, live raptors, lectures, and, of course, hikes to see the hawks and other raptors that will be migrating overhead. Bring your family and your binoculars!

There’s even an online auction for raptor-related art and events at Hawk Mountain’s website, http://www.hawkmountain.org. You can also find directions, hours, a schedule of events, and fees at the site. On Friday and Sunday, you can park at the Sanctuary as usual, but on Saturday, because that’s the day the celebration kicks into high gear, you need to go to Cabela’s in nearby Hamburg and park in their lot, then take a bus up to Hawk Mountain. 

We love Hawk Mountain for its serenity and beauty, have a family membership, which provides season passes for as many family members and guests as you’d like to bring along, and tend to go to “the mountain” to escape deadline stress and take in the endless and endlessly beautiful view. If we’re lucky enough to see some birds of prey while we’re up there—and we always do—we’re delighted. If you go this weekend, you’ll be likely to see some of the early migrants, such as broad-winged and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as kestrels and perhaps an osprey or a bald eagle or two.

Hawk Mountain also has a wonderful Visitors’ Center full of educational displays and nature-related books, toys, clothing, DVDs, binoculars and spotting scopes, jewelry, hiking sticks, bird feeders, and much more, including treats and drinks for hungry hikers. And the Visitors’ Center windows look out on a wonderful display of plants, feeders, and water features that attract a wide variety of songbirds, squirrels, and chipmunks. There’s also a great native plant garden and pond next to the Visitors’ Center.

But Hawk Mountain wasn’t always a wildlife paradise. Quite the reverse: Because raptors migrated along the Kittatinny Ridge, of which Hawk Mountain is a part, every fall and spring on their way to warmer winter climes and then back again, in the 1920s it became a premier hawk-shooting site. Hawks and other raptors were then viewed as useless nuisance birds, and even the Audubon Society turned against them. A $5 bounty was offered for every dead hawk in 1929—a huge amount for the time—and hunters set up camp on the ridge and shot the hapless birds as they migrated over. It’s appalling to see the photos from the period of dead hawks stacked up like firewood.

Fortunately, we now know that hawks and other raptors provide a useful service, consuming rodents, carrion, and insects, and generally preserving the balance of nature so we’re not overrun by mice or worse. But it was the foresight of one woman, Rosalie Edge, that turned Hawk Mountain from a slaughterhouse to a sanctuary when she established the beginnings of what is now a 1,450-acre preserve in 1934. It’s a testament to what even one person with vision and determination can accomplish when they have a dream.

Silence and I find Hawk Mountain the perfect getaway, with its breathtaking views, raptor sightings, opportunities for exercise, and delightful Visitors’ Center. (We never pass up the opportunity to buy wonderful gifts for our nephews and nieces, not to mention the latest books, fun birdfeeders, and etc. for ourselves.)

Two things to keep in mind if you’re going: In keeping with its environmental mission, Hawk Mountain’s bathrooms feature composting toilets. We enthusiastically approve of this, but if you haven’t encountered a composting toilet before, let’s just say it will be an adjustment. And, while the walk up to the South Lookout is smooth and easy, if you proceed to the North Lookout, you’ll be scrambling over rocks of all sizes, including boulders, and hauling yourselves up several quite steep stairways. Mind you, Silence does this all the time in a long skirt and sandals, we see Amish and Mennonite women in their traditional dresses making the hike, and we’ve often been outpaced by senior citizens, so we don’t want to discourage you. But you might want to wear some comfortable hiking shoes. (Trust us, the view from up there is worth it!) There are always naturalists on both lookouts to help you spot migrating birds and butterflies and identify what you’re seeing.

If you love birds of prey and live anywhere near the sanctuary (located near Kempton, PA), we hope you’ll join the festivities this weekend. We envy you the experience of seeing Hawk Mountain for the first time!

Of falcons, parrots, and Plutarch. June 27, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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Our good friend and expert birder Rudy Keller sent us an e-mail this morning with a Chicago Tribune article he thought we’d find of interest. And indeed we did. The article explained that ornithologists at Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum of Natural History, in conjunction with scientists at seven other institutions, had conducted genetic studies on birds to determine their relationships. And they came up with some startling results that are going to call for fast revisions of the field guides used religiously by America’s 80 million birders. (80 million?! Oh, my.)

The biggest shakeup came in the raptor group—the birds of prey—though frankly, our friend Ben isn’t even surprised. After geneticists determined that vultures were actually related to storks rather than hawks, eagles, and falcons, I’m ready for practically any revelation. So today’s disclosure that falcons are actually related to parrots, not hawks and eagles, seems almost mundane. Peregrine, parrot, whatever. (Our friend Ben can imagine the outrage among falconers, past and present, however, upon discovering that their noble birds aren’t that far removed from shouting “Polly wants a cracker!”)

There were a few other upsets, including the revelation that hummingbirds, with their needle-like beaks, are related to nightjars, with their Julia Roberts mouths. (Our friend Ben entirely agrees with Hugh Grant’s apparently disastrous comment about his “Notting Hill” costar. Really, one’s mouth should not cover one’s entire face.) I think it’s safe to say that we can expect a whole slew of revised field guides in the next year, not one of them the least bit useful to amateur birdwatchers who would be best served by a field guide that grouped birds by similar appearance rather than by family. Sigh…

In any event, our friend Rudy thought we’d enjoy the news flash about falcons because of our parrots Plutarch (see our earlier post, “Plutarch and Lola: A love story” for more on him) and, especially, Marcus, our tiny, fierce bronze-winged pionus. Marcus looks like a miniature golden eagle and has a personality to match. If I broke the news to him about falcons and parrots being related, he wouldn’t bat an eye. Instead, he’d puff up to his full 6-inch height and stare me in the eye while muttering the equivalent of “So, what’s your point? About time those stupid scientists caught on. Haven’t I been trying to clue you in all this time that I’m a ferocious, noble predator? Geez. Get used to it.”

Okay, okay, fine. But that doesn’t mean I’m trading in Marcus’s honey-seed treats, sugar snap peas and blueberries for dead mice and roadkill. But I might give him a fragment of cheese and a little hard-boiled egg more often from now on…