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Birds in transition. September 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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Fall is coming, and with it, the arrival and departure of some of our most-loved backyard birds. Today, our friend Rudy, who’s a “counter” at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in nearby Kempton, PA—i.e., an expert birder who tracks the identity and number of birds migrating over the Kittatinny Ridge, of which Hawk Mountain is a part—called our friend Ben and Silence Dogood to check in, see how we were doing, and see if our Wednesday Night Supper Club was on or, since our hosts Carolyn and Gary are deeply involved with the Oley Valley Fair, which opens tomorrow, if we’re skipping a week.

Sad but true, we’re skipping this week’s get-together. (But please don’t pity Silence and OFB; tonight’s menu includes baked sweet potatoes, creamy pasta, green beans, and a huge, luscious salad, possibly with a dessert of grilled peaches and cream. We’ll miss the good company, of course, but otherwise I think we’ll survive.)

OFB was out walking our black German shepherd puppy Shiloh in the Independent Park that our township has generously opened just down the road from us when Rudy called, so I, Silence, took the call. Of course I asked Rudy what he’s seen while he was up on Hawk Mountain monitoring migrants, and he said the most notable birds right now are warblers, perhaps 20 species, heading South.

I pointed out in turn that we still have ruby-throated hummingbirds at our rose-of-Sharon flowers (Rudy says all of his have already migrated South); our goldfinches, year-round residents, are still gold; and we’ve suddenly started seeing chickadees, doubtless coming down for the winter and recalling our feeders. Doubtless our cardinals, juncos, sparrows, woodpeckers, bluejays, and other winter residents are on the way.  We’re looking forward to seeing them!

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!

A wing and a prayer. September 17, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters.
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When Rosalie Edge first came to Hawk Mountain in 1934, the mountain, which lies along one of the major migration routes for hawks, falcons, eagles, and other raptors, looked like a shooting gallery. As the noble birds of prey flew over in their hundreds and thousands, heading south for the winter, gunners mowed them down. It was like shooting fish in a barrel—even if you were a mediocre shot, it was impossible to miss. Photos of the time show hundreds of dead raptors strung on clothesline-long ropes held by beaming butchers.

Today, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association is preparing to celebrate its 75th anniversary as we move towards 2009. Thanks to Mrs. Edge, who purchased 1400 acres, including Hawk Mountain, along Pennsylvania’s Kittatinny Ridge, to found the Association, and the dedicated conservationists and bird-lovers who have expanded and extended her vision, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is the most important raptor site in the U.S., and one of the top five on earth. Today, the Sanctuary encompasses 2,600 acres, with 8 miles of trails, a staff of 16 full-time employees, 200 volunteers, nearly 10,000 members, a marvelous Visitor Center, and the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning.

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are members of Hawk Mountain, so we get all kinds of perks, like unlimited free visits, discounts at the gift shop, and a free subscription to the quarterly Hawk Mountain News. We suggest that you check out their website, www.hawkmountain.org, where you’ll find tons of fascinating information. We love heading up there anytime we need a scenic getaway (or to stock up on nature-related gifts for friends and family), but we especially enjoy taking visitors to “the mountain.”

If our guests can barely amble along, we take them to the gift shop in the Visitor Center, then up the short, gentle trail to South Lookout, which offers a breathtaking view of the Kittatinny Ridge, the countryside spreading away beneath you for what seems like hundreds of miles, and the extraordinary “River of Rocks.” This “river” looks like a dry gravel streambed far below, but is actually a boulder field full of man-high rocks, a gift from the last Ice Age, left behind when a glacier retreated ever so slowly from the valley it had doubtless carved.

If our guests are in better shape, we take them up the mountain to one of our favorite overlooks, the secluded “Hall of the Mountain King,” and then on to the top, the North Lookout, where the raptor-viewing is best and the view of the surrounding countryside goes on forever. (Note: We consider the hike up to North Lookout to be a serious workout, and we love it. But we’re regularly passed on the trail by enthusiastic 80-somethings and families with toddlers, so don’t pass it up because it’s rocky and steep. You can do it!)

Our friends don’t tend to be serious hikers, so we’ve never had anyone want to head off on the Appalachian Trail. But it’s right there if you’re interested. There are also several charming bed and breakfasts conveniently located for out-of-town guests.

Hawk Mountain is extremely kid-friendly. In addition to the many child-oriented items in the gift shop, there’s a wonderful feeder display at the Visitor Center where, on the gift-shop side of a huge plate glass window, kids (and kids at heart) can watch dozens of songbirds, woodpeckers, and the occasional squirrel or chipmunk foraging for birdseed in a specially bird-friendly landscape on the other side of the glass. If you’re particularly taken by a certian kind of feeder, chances are the gift shop has it for sale.

Visitors of all ages will enjoy the many workshops, lectures, and live raptor showings. Our friend Ben and Silence missed the mushroom walk on September 13, but we’ve marked down the live golden eagle appearance on November 8 and one of our favorite annual events, the Hawk Mountain Art Show, featuring, of course, nature-related paintings, photographs, and sculptures and held at Cabela’s in nearby Hamburg, PA on September 27th and 28th.

In case you’re wondering why our friend Ben is posting about this now, it’s because the autumn migration has begun in a big way and I urge you all to come to Hawk Mountain if you can, binoculars in hand, and enjoy the excitement of seeing hundreds of broadwinged hawks or a bald eagle or osprey soaring by. Or, later, a gyrfalcon, merlin, or golden eagle. The fall migration season at Hawk Mountain runs from August 15th through December 15th, and the type and number of raptors changes with every passing day, week, and month.

We’re fortunate to have a good friend, Rudy Keller, who’s a volunteer there and sends us e-mail updates of really good days so we can follow along. But you can find the counts by species at the Hawk Mountain website and at the Sanctuary itself. And if you don’t know a redtail hawk from a peregrine falcon, no worries. There are always interns or volunteers at the lookouts to tell you what’s passing overhead.

Hawk Mountain is open all year, and our friend Ben and Silence enjoy going during the off-seasons, too, when the great fall and spring migrations don’t bring lots of other visitors to see the miracle of hawks, falcons, eagles, and, yes, vultures in flight. (Despite its unprepossessing appearance close up, a vulture in flight is more majestic than anything.) But the miracle of the migration is not to be missed if you can get here.

Seeing the stately progress of the majestic birds, often so high up that they run the risk of colliding with jets, takes our friend Ben’s breath away and brings an appreciative tear to Silence’s eye. The beauty, the ultimate, clean, simple beauty of it! Some of these birds are bound for South America, making an annual round trip that boggles the mind. Others will decide that Pennsylvania is far enough south and spend the winter months with us. Needless to say, we’re delighted to have them.

Hawks in love: More signs of spring March 11, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, gardening, homesteading, Uncategorized.
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Our friend Ben saw another sure sign of spring’s arrival yesterday: courting red-tailed hawks. In the past few years, redtails have become year-round residents of my part of Pennsylvania, and I enjoy seeing them throughout the winter. (In fact, the bold, fearless, colorful redtail is our friend Ben’s totem animal and the reason behind Hawk’s Haven’s name, despite the irony of the resident Hawk’s Haven hawk actually being a Cooper’s hawk. But I digress.)

Once spring arrives, the redtails, who are monogamous, begin their courtship ritual. And it is spectacular to watch: They soar upwards, spiraling around each other until lost to sight, eventually returning earthward, still in their spiral flight. This performance is repeated throughout the spring courtship. I’m ashamed to say that I can’t recall if they actually mate in flight like some species or not–mating among birds being a momentary thing at best–I’ll have to ask one of my more ornithologically-inclined friends or check with the staff at nearby Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

But whatever the case, the redtails’ courtship flight is a sight to behold, both for its own acrobatic grace and for the assurance it gives us winter-weary gardeners and homesteaders that spring really is coming. Really. Our friend Ben’s heart soars at the thought like a redtail in flight.