Corrections or additions?

This article by Carolyn Foote Edelmann was prepared for the April

17, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Earth Day Soaring: Hawk Mountain

The entry route to Pennsylvania’s legendary Hawk


Sanctuary, located off Route 895, 10 miles northeast of Hamburg, leads

you, ironically, past Gun Club Road. "No Parking" signs blare

alongside the road through Stewardship Forest — a tribute to


crowds. But on this misty weekday morning, stark crows challenge my

right to be here. Three vultures fly practically into my lap, rising

from their doe feast. But I can see vultures at home — it’s


for whom I journey to this natural refuge, the first in the entire

world built to protect these powerful birds.

Friends challenged, before this trip, "What’s so special about

raptors?" My one-word answer, "drama." The very word


means that these birds kill to eat. They are generally of impressive

size, but family members the peregrines and the vivid kestrel are

not much bigger than jays. We’re told that for raptors, speed is a

distinguishing factor. They’re not kidding. A hunting peregrine falcon

can hit 200 m.p.h. To watch one strike is to have the breath halted

in your throat. I was stunned by "nature raw in tooth and


last month, as I watched a peregrine close cataclysmically upon a

black duck twice his size.

In search of migrants, as I am now, speed is not the point.


because they’re gifted at riding currents and thermals, circling


that loft these travelers over the Kittatinny ridge. Whether over

marsh or mountain, I thrill to the very silhouette of a raptor. They

are aerodynamically sophisticated, even ominous. When those black

specks materialize, as form emerges, viewers themselves become rapt.

In your binoculars, that mesmerizing gaze stuns. Powerful hooked beaks

seem invincible. Be alert for sharp edges, slim lines, inimitable

power and grace. Although some may be similar in size, raptors make

crows and gulls look dowdy. Consider the emotional difference between

watching a gull cruise for garbage and spotting a peregrine on the


If spring is laggard, sometimes only raptor concentrations convince

me that warmth and light will return. When spirits are leaden —

whether for personal or professional reasons — merlins and


red-tails and goshawks invite the witness to soar. Even in clouds

or fog, raptor persistence and surety can stiffen the viewers’ spines

for their own challenges. Part of the thrill on Hawk Mountain hill

is the privilege of being with their professional hawk spotters for

an entire day. Knowledgeable, witty, eager to share, reverent,


to awe — their company is a far cry from my experience in



Peak spring raptor migration takes place in April, especially during

the final weeks. Raptor travel is more diffuse in autumn — from

September through December for last eagles. Other spring species to

find now should include ovenbirds, wood thrush, warblers, tanagers,

vireos, tree swallows, barn swallows, indigo buntings, great crested

flycatchers, and, if you’re very lucky, hummingbirds.

My bird quest is no whim, not spur-of-the-moment. I’ve had to schedule

time off from work to experience Hawk Mountain. The being locked into

vacation time for hawking means I can’t wait for right winds. In


no one should try to see hawks unless wind is out of the northwest,

and blustery. In springtime, quite the other way: Visit this refuge

only on a day of southeast currents. Migratory birds ride the winds

like freight trains, preserving vital calories. The winged ones won’t

journey on a wrong day. I must.

For migrants over Kittatinny Ridge, all is predicated upon wind. My

first time at Hawk Mountain, I lucked out — treated to kettles

upon kettles of large dark birds which I then hadn’t a prayer of


Names did not matter, only that timeless day of dazzling sun, of


irresistible to boundless raptors. If you do have the luxury to key

your journey to the wind, rigorously check forecasts before you


Since you’ll likely be taking off in morning dark, do this the night

before. You can call Hawk Mountain’s information line at 610-756-6000.

Its website is also very useful, and even includes Weather Channel

links. If the wind’s not from the right quarter, go another day.

It’s still odd that I launch wilderness excursions via the Internet,

but it may be the best way where Hawk Mountain is concerned. (See

below). There you will discover much useful information, including

the season’s total hawk count to date. The highest daily count as

I departed was 1,849. Most people have not seen this many raptors

in a lifetime.

Hawk Mountain officials take the safety of visitors seriously, warning

that their eight miles of trail can be slick, mandating sturdy shoes

with gripping soles. "Backpacks and child carriers are


to keep hands free for balance." Their major destination —

North Lookout — does not seem a grueling jaunt. It’s only 200

steep feet, yet authorities fret over its ungraded rockiness. The

Sanctuary, in order to remain just that, admonishes that we leave

all plants, animals, rocks, sticks, exactly where we encounter them.

Lovely spring flowers should line the paths these days.

Keep an eye out for pink and white spring beauties,

several hues of trillium (lily-like against eponymous triple leaves);

white bulbous Dutchmen’s britches; lime-green Jack-in-the-Pulpit;

yellow trout lilies with their trout-spotted trout-shaped leaves;

the large white bloodroot with its golden center, whose roots


"bloodstain" the hands of human raptors.

This day, I’ve driven more than two hours through delightful New


back roads — from Hopewell to Sergeantsville to Frenchtown, then

north and west along the Delaware — for the privilege. Just do

whatever you do to get to 78 West, beyond Allentown. Near Hamburg,

Pennsylvania, signs will direct you. In dawn mist, I was the only

car on winding ways. Low sun through leaves created such spectacles

that I almost said, "It doesn’t matter if I don’t see any


Almost, but not quite.

You’ve done your research and you’re at the Sanctuary. You’re taking

in warnings of "Bear Territory, Do Not Approach or Feed."

You’ve probably made use of the composting toilets. You have your

water and binoculars and lunch and a stout stick for the trail. You’ve

entered the Information Building and picked up their terrifically

useful raptor identification materials, with which you might finally

learn the difference between accipiters, falcons, buteos. You’ve


the fine exhibits and thrilled to color photographs of raptors which

should captivate you upon the crest. You’ve probably stopped to read,

in the new Joseph and Helm Taylor Visitor Center: "Perhaps the

single act of counting our blessings will give us the inspiration

and determination to make ourselves heard above the destroyers."

You’ve likely been moved by enlarged wall photographs of Rosalie Edge,

founder of Hawk Mountain. In 1934, this feisty woman single-handedly

took her stand to stop slaughter on the ridge. Rosalie’s contributions

to the safety of raptors and expansion of awareness of the new concept

of ecology is oceanic. You’ve probably shuddered before enormous black

and white shots of Hawk Mountain lawns covered with slain raptors

blasted from these skies. These eerie scenes are titled, "Remains

of the Day." Captions describe "half a dozen guys lined up

next to you with guns, shooting those birds as fast as they came over

the ridge."

Guns are silent now on Kittatinny, thanks to Rosalie and subsequent

enlightened and determined ones. Only optics are turned toward the

sky. Many of them are "manned" by Hawk Mountain personnel,

who identify and count each black speck long before the uninitiated

even suspect avian presence.

A sign at the trail’s entrance tells what birds were seen the day

before. Eat your heart out, if, like me, your winds are from the wrong

direction. Worse, if — as today — ground fog persists in the

hollows. Start climbing the river of rocks — no, not the official

trail indicated with capital letters — which is a side trip —

but the trail which could easily earn that name in any rainstorm.

When you look at the real one, it glitters like permafrost in the

distance. No one walks there. But raptors soar with currents generated

by this spill of baked granite.

Follow coral blazes, eyes on your feet. It’s hard to decide which

are more perilous, slick leaves or round rocks. But it is worth it.

Only a few feet into the journey is a lookout, designed to be


to the handicapped. You could conceivably come here with someone of

limited mobility, settle him or her into South Lookout for the day,

and proceed on up to the top. On a good day, much can be seen from

South Lookout. Official spotters are on post.

It is very still, usually, up on top. Hawk Mountain regulars don’t

shout, merely observe, and utter expressions like: "Bird circling

just at horizon, glass and a half to the right of Donat."


teach us that "glass and a half" means the height of your

binoculars and half again as high. "Donat" is one of the peaks

visible from the lookout.) "Red-shouldered, vultures out


Every so often a swirl of dark shapes deceives the eye. But no, it’s

just leaves, flying — up. I dare a stupid question, "Do leaves

fly up? Could those be thermals?" Not ridiculous. I think of the

young people’s poem: "Who has seen the wind, neither you nor


The observation was valid: we have a thermal, revealed by rising


You do sit on rocks up here — no way around that.

You find your niche and claim it. It’s surprising how comfortable

rocks can become after awhile. I’m not sure who’s fitting itself to

whom. And also how proprietary you can become about "your"

rock. An older woman on her own stony perch sports a sweatshirt with

an apt Emerson quote: "Few know how to take a walk. The qualities

are endurance, plain clothes, an eye for nature, good humor,


good speed, good silence, and nothing too much."

The hawk spotters are in constant radio contact with Hawk Mountain

Central. Reports go in, sotto voce, every hour. It’s not great

that the report for the 10 to 11 o’clock hour is "Sharpie,


Puzzled children out on the point turn, stare idly through binoculars

at us, intently clustered around spotters and scopes. Birders


birders observing birds, taking me back to repeating Pet Milk images

in childhood. At 11 a.m. we’re taught Hawk Mountain shorthand: We

hold up our fists’ count knuckles. Each bump is named after a mountain

before us.

Frankly, not much comes into view. The pros become truly excited over

ravens. But ravens we have too much with us at home. Each time a wisp

of a monarch butterfly wafts its way to us, people applaud, cheering

them on their long journey. We are assailed by ladybugs. Children

find it hilarious to see teachers covered with orange insects.


are staying low," admit the experts. Fruits of "light


which are actually preferable to the breeze which, when it does rise,

is literally "in the raptors’ faces."

Spotters marvel aloud at one sharp-shinned hawk, soaring

skillfully up his thermal: "Quite an elevator ride!" To


monarch, "Go. Go!" Today’s birds seem lazy. I dare stupidity

again. "Are the birds really relaxing out there today?"


— they’re in no hurry." Even the star of our day is at peace

— an immature bald eagle drifting over the heights, in concert

with one sharp-shinned and a red-tail. All three are luxuriating in

the same thermal gift. "They got down really low. Started to


back up."

"How do you describe a kettle to people who think they belong

in the kitchen? Is there a minimum number?" Our expert, Eric,

laughs. "Takes two to kettle," he says, turning back to his


More questions, "Why the fake owl on the pole?" "Owls

prey on some hawks, especially when they’re trying to sleep at night.

So the hawks like to come in close to this (fake) owl, and strike

back. It’s a lure. Gives us a chance to check out plumage details

for age and sex."

Morning’s ground fog persists. Winds actually diminish. So our grand

count, when I reluctantly take myself down off the mountain, is a

mere 23 identified. But one was an eagle. I don’t have to settle for

that ugly statue in the parking lot. I’ve done Hawk Mountain, and

there’s that gorgeous drive ahead.

The experts’ parting words stay with me. "We need a cold front

passing. Then we’d be looking at a good number of goldens (eagles)

and a last push of accipiters. Good people day — bad hawk


— Carolyn Foote Edelmann

Spring Hawkwatch, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Hawk

Mountain Road, off Route 895, Hamburg, Pennsylvania, 610-756-6961.

Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Trail Fees: $5 adults; $4 seniors; $3

children 6 to 12. Fall weekend fees are $7, $3 children. Website:

Every Saturday and Sunday through November, programs include Raptors

Up Close!, Birding with Binoculars, Hawk Mountain Cultural and Natural

History, Flight Interpretation, and Habitat Garden Tours.

Earth Day Event. Volunteers from any non-profit


admitted free to sanctuary trails with I.D. Activities include Spring

Hawkwatch, Habitat Garden Tours, and Mountain Moonwalk (pre-register).

Saturday, April 20, 9 a.m.

International Migratory Bird Day. Activities include


for Beginnings, Challenges of Migration, Native Plant Garden Tour,

Birds of Prey Photo and Drawing Opportunity, Songbirds in the


Saturday, May 11, 8 a.m.

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