Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
As I’ve said in my past Recovery Big Year posts, I absolutely fell in love with hawk watching after spending the 2013 fall season as the official hawk watcher at the Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, DE. And when it comes to hawk watching, there is no place more well-known than Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is essentially the birthplace of raptor conservation, and is world-renowned for their raptor banding research projects. Not to mention their hawk watching site is at the top of a 1,500+ foot elevation ridge along the Appalachian Mountains and features spectacular views of the surrounding landscape.
Climbing to the Top
I had wanted to visit Hawk Mountain for a while now, but the climb to the top of the hill was far beyond my physical capabilities. From the parking lot, the hike is only a mile to the top (which doesn’t sound like much, but requires nearly an hour of uphill hiking). Despite all of my success with improving my physical condition this year, this sort of exercise is still ‘pushing it.’ To add a layer of complexity, the trails are covered in rocks and even boulders, making balance and spatial awareness a necessity. But I knew I could do it; I was strongly motivated by the potential for a Golden Eagle or Northern Goshawk sighting, and the desire to knock “go to Hawk Mountain for the first time” off my to-do list.
I was absolutely thrilled to take in the landscape around me as Hannah Greenberg and I left the visitor center and began our way up the trail to the north lookout (where the hawk watch is located). Rocky outcrops in old growth forests are one of my favorite habitat types– I’ve always loved scrambling on rocks and boulders. The hike to the top was punctuated by awesome views of the surrounding valley.
From the south lookout, we could see the ‘River of Rocks’ (in the distance, just right of center in the photo to the left)– a boulder field remnant from the last Ice Age. As we made our way up the trail, the scenery became more and more magnificent until we finally reached the peak at the north lookout. I was spent and out of breath when we reached the top, but was overcome by relief that we had made it and excitement at what we were about to experience.
The Hawk Watch
The lookout was absolutely packed. I mean, far far busier than you would ever expect a mountaintop (or really any outdoorsy location) to be in early November. (It makes me happy to see people enjoying the outdoors and taking advantage of these natural spectacles.) There were easily over 100 people scattered across the rocks, most of which seemed to be part of school and scout group field trips, which made finding a place to settle in a bit challenging. We made our way over to large, relatively flat rock and paused to take in the surroundings before picking up the bins and looking for migrating raptors.
At that moment, I heard a familiar voice call my name and turned around to see my friend, Sally O’Byrne, behind us with a group of dedicated hawk watchers. In the group, I was happy to see another talented birder and friend– Holly Merker– who was the official counter for the day. So I got up and made my way over to Sally, who shared in my excitement about my first trip to Hawk Mountain. Sally and Hawk Mountain trainee, Jenni, took the time to teach me the general flightlines that raptors take as they migrate over the ridge and the nicknames for the primary landscape features. On northwest wind days, as this was, they said raptors generally appeared over the ridgeline straight ahead of us, then making their way past the watch to the left.
I was blown away by the amount of sky there was to search through; it made spotting raptors (and keeping track of them) much more challenging! Looking out over that much empty space was somewhat disorienting, but I was able to ground myself when necessary by directing my gaze to the rocks in front of me. Within minutes, we had spotted three Northern Harriers migrating together and a handful of Red-tailed Hawks. And later, we had a subadult Bald Eagle migrate past at eye level. But the highlight of the afternoon by far was a Merlin picked up by Holly, which seemed as though it would fly past to the right, before making a sudden turn in the direction of the hawk watch and fiercely approaching the Great Horned Owl decoy.
The watch was so exciting and spectacular that the sun setting was the only thing that could make me leave. I had to peel myself away from the rocks when it finally came time for us to head back down the trail. In the nearly three hours we spent at the hawk watch, I had a downright fantastic time. We didn’t see any Golden Eagles or Northern Goshawks, but I was still thrilled! I had finally visited Hawk Mountain, and it had exceeded the hype. To make things even better, I felt generally ok! Sometimes, pushing through my fatigue and dizziness can make me feel better, and I was lucky this was the case today.
As we made our way back down the trail, I felt downright elated. I was so excited to walk down the giant stone staircase that we had skipped on our way up by taking the lookout trail shortcut. My legs did start to feel a bit shaky and weak on our way down, but I was full of energy and nothing could diminish how happy I felt. It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was bedridden and having a day like today was an impossibility. I can’t wait until I can re-visit the hawk watch at Hawk Mountain again. Maybe next time I’ll get the Goshawk!