By Jon Kauffman
As a child, I set foot on Stone Mountain many times with my grandfather and siblings. Riding up a narrow, steep mountain road in a well-recognized Jeep CJ. We would slowly work our way up the first ridge to the flat where our hunting camp sat for years as it hosted numerous hunters with their children and grandchildren. Through gaps in the landscape, I marveled at Big Valley below, seeing everyday life of the community as tiny specks.
At that point, I did not have the knowledge that, each fall and spring, hundreds of migrating birds flew over the landscape where I spent time and at no point in my youth did I imagine that I would be visiting Stone Mountain every fall, not as a hunter, but as a hawk watcher.
Years following, I attended Penn State University which eventually lead to a volunteer opportunity at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center. With the Center’s Aviary, I found myself eager to learn the ways of hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures. The Center supports the local hawk watches and I was given opportunities to visit these sites and talk with volunteers. I would pick their brains for information with questions like “How did you KNOW that was a Red-shouldered Hawk?”
Each fall and spring, volunteers put in countless hours sitting on scenic vistas that provide excellent views of the ridges and a clear line of sight for oncoming raptors migrating south through our region. Starting in early September, one can visit multiple locations in our region to join volunteers and observe avian migration at its finest.
Within this region, there are 3 well-known hawk watch sites that one can visit within day’s journey. Two of the three are ideal for the fall migration: Jacks Mountain to the south of Belleville and Stone Mountain bordering the north side of the valley near the small town of Allensville. The third is rarely staffed for the fall but is well-known throughout the Mid-Atlantic region for the spring migration.
Most raptor migration occurs along “leading lines” to guide the birds’ journeys north and south. These leading lines are geographic features, such as mountain ranges or coastlines, or are at bottlenecks and barriers such as oceans. Since raptors are a soaring migrants, they need uplift or thermals to travel great distances to conserve energy. Uplift is a term that refers to wind hitting a mountain range perpendicular causing the wind to deflect up and over. Thermal soaring takes place when raptors circle in hot pockets of rising air caused by the warming of Earth by the sun. Once a raptor soars high enough, it will exit the thermal and glide until it reaches another thermal further down ridge. Central Pennsylvania’s terrain and geographic location make this region a great resource for migrant raptors.
Similar to many migratory species of mammals, reptiles, and insects, bird migration does not happen all at once. The spaces where each raptor spends its time breeding and overwintering can highly affect the timing of when we, here in central Pennsylvania, observe them. The most diligent traveler of the eastern migratory raptors, the Broad-winged Hawk, travels from as far north as Canada’s boreal forest to the deep tropical forests of South America covering several thousand miles of migration. When should we expect them? Their ventures begin as early as late August for those individuals getting a head start, but the peak is mid-September with central Pennsylvania high counts reaching 2500 individuals in a day. From here, they continue south and are bottlenecked through the tip of southern Texas and into Mexico where hawk counters can tally one million or more in a day! A spectacular site to witness!
As the fall foliage begins to turn, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons push through the region, once again giving birdwatchers an opportunity to observe secretive raptors as they journey south. By late-October, we will experience the season’s first cold fronts and the larger raptors such of Red-tailed Hawk, Red-shouldered Hawk, and Golden Eagles are able to hold steady in the wind. Golden Eagles are the last migrant observed on the watches with their fall journey beginning as far north as the Hudson Bay and taking them through eastern Canada, the Adirondacks, the ridges and valleys of the Appalachians in order to over-winter in the southern Appalachian Mountain range. They are considered one of the most sought-out raptors to observe with their large wingspan, steady flight, and glowing golden nape. It takes a certain soul to sit patiently through the chilly November temperatures and the strong northwest winds to observe and record the last of the migrant Golden Eagles. But, once March arrives, Golden Eagles are the first to come through for the spring migration and once again hawk watching enthusiasts start gathering their winter clothing for another season of raptor migration.
To learn more about the regions hawk migration, visit hawkcount.org for daily reports, when to visit, and directions. All skills levels are welcome and a hawk watch is a great place to meet those in the community that enjoy sharing this natural phenomenon each fall and spring.
Keep looking up,