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Hawk Watching September 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in critters, wit and wisdom.
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This is the time of the great autumn migration, when hawks, eagles, falcons, and other birds (and monarch butterflies) migrate in their thousands over the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania on their long flight south for the winter. At Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which is part of the Kittatinny Ridge, on a good day you can see an awe-inspiring number of thrilling birds of prey (collectively known as raptors), and it’s always exciting to see the monarchs drift past like flakes of living fire.

The reason the raptors and others follow the Kittatinny like an aerial road is that the ridge produces thermals, currents of warm air that can bear the birds and butterflies along almost effortlessly. They can glide on the thermals rather than having to constantly flap their wings, so by riding the thermals they save precious energy for the arduous flight.

To see a raptor swept up by a thermal is amazing. You’re watching a hawk, let’s say, flying along, when it suddenly shoots up into the air, in seconds becoming a mere speck in the sky before disappearing from view completely. Whoa! Where did it go?!!

Another thing about birds of prey: Like people, they have what are known as sighted brains, because for both, sight is the primary sense and it’s through sight that we receive most of our information. Sitting at North Lookout, the highest overview at Hawk Mountain, and looking way, way out at the patchwork of farms and forest spreading out below, our friend Ben can only imagine the scene from a hawk’s eye view.

One last thing before we get to the “art part” of this post: Much of the language used about raptors dates back to the days of falconry. When a falcon or other bird of prey drops down from the sky onto its prey, it’s said to “stoop.”

This poem commemorates a beloved relative who, in the autumn of the year, made the final migration that awaits us all.

(Once again, sorry about the spacing between lines. I don’t know why WordPress does this or how to fix it. Please bear with me!)

                       Hawk Watching

Through the sighted brain of a bird,

Movement or light, pressure of wind

Carries you to my boundaries.

Over ragged amaranth stalks

A Cooper’s hawk circles and stoops.

Now that the ground is conversational

And trees have lost all but the highest tones,

You’re brought to mind, stark Northern bird

Swept on the ridge and hurled

Up the warm air from this sighted world.

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.

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…