Sunday, October 10, 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain

In my last post, we left off partway up the trail to the summit of Hawk Mountain, high in the Kittatinny Ridges of Pennsylvania. Well, we're almost there, our goal being the fabled North Lookout, the best place to watch for raptors drifting south along the crests of the mountain.

Your blogger in repose, staring up at hawks passing overhead. The trick here is to find the softest available rocks, fluff them up a bit, and settle in. The view from North Lookout is stunning, and one can see for seventeen miles on a clear day.

You'll have plenty of company atop Hawk Mountain. Drawn by the allure of birds of prey, hundreds of spectators descend on the place on fall days. There are people of every stripe and ability, from hotshot birders that can ID distant specks, to those that didn't know of the existence of a Sharp-shinned Hawk prior to their visit.

Note the pole thrusting skyward in the upper right corner of the photo.

That mast supports Bubo plasticus, a fake Great Horned Owl spackled in real feathers. The thing looks real, and I heard one newbie shout out "Owl!" upon emerging onto the rocks and spotting the dummy.

Why a fake owl? To give the raptors passing by a target to strafe, and provide an incredible show for the assembled throng. Sharp-shinned Hawks in particular will drop from the sky and roar in at top speed, and give the owl a smack. When you're perched on the rocks 20 feet away, this is quite the dramatic show. I think that mounting a cam on the owl would be cool, as enough birds of prey take a swipe at this thing that awesome footage would be guaranteed.

Skies of azure; not a cloud to be seen. This is the sort of weather people fawn over, and it brings the masses out to relish a spectacular autumn day. But, clear skies are not optimal for raptor-watching. The birds tend to soar high aloft - probably too high for our eyes to see in some cases - and they don't show up as readily even when in sight. Best is an overcast sky; the birds pop out much better against a gray backdrop.

Plenty of Turkey Vultures roamed the area, and I spent many a pixel trying to capture them with my camera. Since I was a little kid, I've admired these carrion-scrapers. Wouldn't want to be one, but only because of the dietary regime. But it's hard to top the flying abilities of vultures, and I still like to watch them as they gently rock through the sky on dihedral wings, taking nary a flap for miles. On top of Hawk Mountain, ones gets the unusual perspective of often looking DOWN on the vultures.

Far less common are Black Vultures, but a few are going to wing by. They're quite different beasts from the Turkeys, in appearance and temperament. They look like a large flying wing, due to the short tail, and the base of the primaries sport conspicuous white flashes. Black Vultures also have a curious habit of dangling their feet while they fly.

No bird, and I mean NO BIRD elicited the reaction that this one did. Hardened veteran birders may inwardly ho-hum, but it's important to remember that most visitors to Hawk Mountain and many famed birding locales are NOT experts. Thus, when this gorgeous adult Bald Eagle soared over, at great height, the collective reaction was tremendous. As if sensing its earthbound admirers, the eagle coasted majestically right over our heads, and many an ooh and ahh was heard. A record number of Bald Eagles has been seen this fall at Hawk Mountain, and the final total should be well into the 300's.

My favorite, the pint-sized Sharp-shinned Hawk. What they lack in size, they more than compensate for with sheer attitude and chutzpah. These accipiters are feathered balls of testosterone, and so aggressive that I'm afraid it wouldn't be safe for us people to sit conspicuously atop Hawk Mountain were they the size of Whooping Cranes.

Like avian thugs, the sharpies routinely strafe their larger brethren, and this habit helps to identify them at great range. Basically, anything that comes within shouting distance of a sharp-shinned is liable to be attacked, and that long-suffering owl that I showed previously gets bombarded all of the time.

Why do they act this way? Some have speculated that Sharp-shinned Hawks suffer from a Napoleon complex, but I don't think so. These birds are natural born killers, and if you ever get up close and personal with one you'll see an untamable, savage ferocity gleaming from their eyes. Every fiber of their being strains to capture and kill other birds, and the hormones that make them this way constantly flow. I think they're so full of aggression that it's simply impossible for them to resist any opportunity to try and kick some butt, even if the target is a Red-tailed Hawk that doubles them in dimensions and weighs eight times as much.
Speaking of Red-tailed Hawks, we had plenty of fine specimens float over, including this smashing adult. It seems as if the occasional bird's curiosity is piqued by all of the people sitting on the rocks, and in they'll come for a close flyover. This red-tail appeared to be looking right at my camera as I photographed it.

It's not just raptors that fly by Hawk Mountain. We had tremendous numbers of Canada Geese winging past high overhead. The honking of the flocks could often be heard for well over a mile, alerting us to their impending appearance. Think what you may of Canada Geese, but there are few spectacles in the natural world as soul-stirring as a large skein of wild geese passing high overhead, winging south from Arctic breeding grounds. The age-old peregrinations of geese have drawn people's eyes aloft since the times of the ancients, firing our imaginations over the generations. This is probably one of the first birds that really got people pondering the mysteries of migration.

The Hawk Mountain daily toteboard. Click the photo and you should be able to read the results. The staff is good about promptly posting results, and the top gun hawk-watchers on the mountain's summit call observations in to the base camp every hour.

GO HERE for Hawk Mountain's website and up-to-date info. If you've not been, put it on your 2011 destination list.


Randy Kreager said...

Great articles on Hawk Mt.! I can't wait to visit the place some day. Maybe those of us at BSBO can organize a trip. Thanks again for a great article.

pambirds said...

Your Hawk Mt trip sounded awesome - thanks! Fun to see the word "peregrinations" in use in relation to C Geese. I still wonder when seeing their V formation in the sky.

Janet Creamer Martin said...

Very cool! I think it would be fun to see the sharpies whack the owl.

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone, and I hope you make the trip someday. It'd make a great BSBO foray.

And Janet, that's not very nice, wishing for an owl to get whacked by a sharpie.


nina said...

Autumn atop a mountain.
No intrusions of man, a wide sky yawning overhead, great birds riding a warm breeze.
A bed of rocks for watching the sky.
Very nice, Jim.

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