Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hawk Mountain

 Last week I took a road trip with my mother to visit her sister, who lives on the east side of Pennsylvania.  I had less than 24 hours to get ready to go, having gotten home from Traverse City and the mural job on Sunday mid-day, then leaving Monday morning for PA.  While I was ready to be home I was still excited about this trip as my Aunt Terry and her husband Joe live about 45 minutes from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.  OK, I was excited to see them too, and to have four days of doing pretty much nothing (we played cards a lot), but to be able to combine this visit with a trip to Hawk Mountain near the peak of migration was a chance I would not pass up.

Tuesday was a bright sunny but breezy day.  Wednesday held a chance of rain (which of course didn't materialize, at least at Terry's house) so we donned many layers and drove out to the mountains.

View from River of Rocks overlook

Hawk Mountain became the world's first raptor sanctuary in 1938.  In the early 20th century many individuals as well as governments apparently believed all predatory animals were in direct competition with us, and people were actually encouraged to kill raptors on sight.  The mountain ridge that includes Hawk Mountain is a major migratory route for birds of prey, who fly en-masse above its tree-lined slopes every autumn.  Hunters would line the ridge and shoot as many birds as they could.  Thousands and thousands of birds were slaughtered.

Enter Rosalie Edge.  A conservationist from New York, she saw photographs taken by young ornithologist Richard Pough, who had travelled to the area and walked the woods, collecting the bodies of the dead birds to record images of the slaughter.  In 1934 she leased 1,400 acres that included what the hunters called Hawk Mountain, banned hunting, then opened the area the following year to the public to come witness the migration.  The property was purchased in 1938 and given to the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association.

Who says one person can't make a difference.

Climb to the North Lookout

It was a gorgeous climb up to the observation area.  There were several groups of school kids, one of them from Philadelphia, who were having fun climbing on the rocks along the trail.

North Lookout

The official observer is stationed at the North Lookout.  This person provides the official tally for the day, and calls out approaching birds to the rest of the bird watchers.  We settled in a rather shady and breezy spot to wait and watch.  On the top of a pole was a taxidermy owl.  I was puzzled, as owls are usually used to keep unwanted birds away, but I later learned that this was to draw in younger, less experienced raptors who would come swooping in to chase the threat away.

West side of North Lookout, with stuffed owl "lure"

The birds seemed to be staying primarily to the north-west side of the ridge, riding the updraft from the cold west wind.  I was not quite prepared when we arrived, and didn't have my longer lens out, thinking the birds would be too far away to get any reasonable shots of them.  Thanks to this I missed a Bald eagle who passed quite close to where we sat.  I was ready though when this Red-tail soared past.

Red-tailed hawk
I wish that I had the counts for the day we were there but their website only has listing through October 4th.  (For the annual count to date, click here.) What I do recall is that it was peak Sharp-shinned hawk migration--every other bird was a "sharpie", a Blue jay-sized raptor that hunts primarily small birds. 

Sharp-shinned hawk

There were also a lot of vultures, like this Black vulture.  A nice treat since we don't seem to have them here in Southern Michigan.

Black vulture

We sat for about an hour, had a snack and tried to stay warm.  Just as we were getting ready to leave another Red-tailed hawk flew directly overhead.  I nearly fell over backwards trying to get shots of it.  I would guess we saw 30 to 40 birds in the hour we spent there. 

Red-tail two

 It was well worth the hike up and back.

Hawk Mountain in Autumn


  1. Hello, and what a well written commentary on Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. I believe you have summed up the entire Hawk Mountain history and purpose in a few cogent sentences. I am impressed with your Hawk Mountain "elevator statement," and your photography is certainly illustrative of your verbiage. Thanks for being here, and especially thank you for the exceptional write up. Craig George, Dtr. of Advancement, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

  2. George: What an honor to have you read my blog. Hawk Mountain was a great experience, I only wish I'd had more time there. I am sure I'll be back in the next year or two. Thanks for all the great work you do!