Thursday, October 7, 2010

A trip up Hawk Mountain

The beautiful, rustic visitor's center at Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pennsylvania. Countless thousands of raptor enthusiasts have passed through these doors. Raptors, conservation, and Hawk Mountain are synonymous, and no place has become more steeped in legend than has the 2,600 acres that comprise this sanctuary.

Hawk mountain was an ENORMOUS gap in my list of travels, and it was indeed fulfilling to finally get there last weekend. As I usually do, I dug into the place, looking high and low, talking to staff, learning about the operation, and of course hawk-watched. It is a very impressive operation, completely privately funded, and their outreach work is amazing. I was inspired enough to join, and become one of the nearly 9,000 members.

The view from below, looking up at the main ridge at Hawk Mountain. We'll eventually work our way up to the second-highest hump, just right of center: the North Lookout.

But before climbing aloft, we've got to stop in at the visitor's center. It's a stunning building and filled with raptor-related goodies and exhibits. I do want to give kudos to the staff and volunteers - Hawk Mountain runs like a well-oiled machine, and this is entirely due to the seventeen staff members and their legion of volunteers. Everyone is unfailing polite and helpful; they make you want to support the place. It's a lot of work, too. A nice fall day in the peak of raptor migration might bring a thousand people or more, and managing everything is a handful.

This is a gruesome visual of the need for conservation, and the reason that Hawk Mountain Sanctuary came to be. Rows upon rows of raptors of many species, all shot from the skies from Kittatinny Ridge lookouts. Scores of men and boys would hike to the summits, and train their weapons on hawks streaming south along the crests of the mountains.

These slaughters became so prolific that some authorities estimate that as many as 30-40% of the birds that were attempting to migrate long the Kittatinny were gunned down in especially bad years. This carnage took place in the early 20th century, a time when raptors were widely regarded as vermin, and their importance in ecosystems was poorly understood.

Enter the human dynamo, Rosalie Edge. Singlehandedly at first, she labored tirelessly to stop the shooting of raptors, and eventually her efforts gained traction and support. Edge's work led to the establishment of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in 1934, which not ironically was the same year that the Duck Stamp was created. The early half of the last century was a tough time for birds, and out of the gloom and doom of dust bowl era wetland losses and raptor persecution were spawned two of North America's most iconic conservation success stories.

Well, it's time to hit the trail, and we'll begin a 2/3rd mile long, 300 foot ascent up the path to the highest, best lookout. And learn a lot about geology along the way, whether we want to or not. These 500 million year old mountain crests are liberally strewn with ankle-breaker rocks and boulders. They lend enormous charm to the habitat, but also force one to watch their step.

My eye was frequently drawn to the artistically arrayed greenish blotches that adorned many of the stones. Perhaps to many they are just crusts of some sort, but I found that most were the elegant Rock Greenshield Lichen, Flavoparmelia baltimorensis.

The woods that cloak the Kittatinny ridges are lush Appalachian mixed mesophytic forests, filled with Tulip Tree, Yellow Birch, White and Red Oaks, underlain with Great Rhododendron and Mountain-laurel in places. The summits are dominated by tough Chestnut Oaks. I was delighted to notice a great many American Chestnut sprouts, still thrusting forth from old rootstock.

Historically, American Chestnut dominated in Appalachian forests, and its summertime blooming would turn mountain slopes whitish. An imported fungus known as Chestnut Blight was first found in New York in 1904, and the floodgates soon opened. By 1950, billions of trees had succumbed, and towering giants are almost unknown today. Sprouts, such as the one above, reach a certain height and are attacked, girdled, and killed by the blight.
Another botanical goodie that I was quite pleased to see was Striped Maple, Acer pensylvanicum, sometimes known as "Moosewood". It's quite the stunner, with big boston ivy-shaped leaves and that glorious green bark, liberally striped with cream. Striped Maple is endangered in Ohio, barely nipping into the northeast corner of the state, so for me it was like finding a treasure.

Anyway, we are just about to the rocky embattlements of the North Lookout, where one can see for seventeen miles across ridge and valley on blue days. I'll be back with big birds soon.


Anonymous said...

Great report Jim. Have never been here but have heard about Hawk Mountain. You did it well, looks like a special place.
Gary Wayne

MaryLink said...

What a wonderful post, thank you for sharing your trip on the blog. We're SO glad you could visit Hawk and are grateful for both your enthusiasm and your membership support. Hope to see you on the lookout again sometime very soon!!!

Mary Linkevich
Communication & Grants Manager

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks Gary and you'll have to make the trip next year.

I appreciate your note, Mary, and all of the hard work that you and everyone else does to make Hawk Mountain such a success!


Jared said...

Wow! Just getting into trees, shrubs, etc myself. That striped maple is a stunner! Can't wait to get back out Thursday to look at more trees!