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
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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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