Sunday, September 18, 2011

Hawkwatching - Waggoner's Gap

 I've spent the past few days hawkwatching, my favorite fall activity.  It's something of an obsession, really, and has been for more than 20 years.  Most people view hawkwatching and hawkwatchers as some other breed of human, one possibly that's not quite human.  When I'm on a hawkwatch with other hawkwatchers, I'm with a group of people who seem perfectly normal (and treat me the same way).  Sometimes, when I'm surrounded by suburban denizens, I feel as though I'm from another planet.  That never happens when I'm on a hawkwatch.

View to the north from Waggoner's Gap
This week I've spent my hawkwatching at Waggoner;s Gap, not far from Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  The weather cooperated, producing a lovely partly cloudy or overcast sky that made finding hawks much easier than trying to find them in the "blue sky of death" that seems to occur all too frequently.  The hawks cooperated, too.  Over the past two days I saw nearly 6000 Broad-winged Hawks, including more than 300 in the sky at one time.

 Broadwings are one of the few species of North American hawks that fly in flocks, or as hawkwatchers call them "kettles."  The birds gravitate towards thermals, columns of warm air. In those columns the birds circle and rise every higher.  When they reach the top of the thermal, they "stream" out in a single file.  Then they glide, gradually losing altitude until they search for another thermal to take them higher again.  They travel down to Central America, and gliding conserves energy, making that long trip easier.

During this week, the broadwings are the stars, but they aren't the only hawk in the air.  I saw 15-17 Bald Eagles, plenty of Sharp-shinned Hawks, a few Cooper's Hawks, American Kestrels and a few Northern Harriers.

When the hawks aren't flying, those of us sitting on a hawkwatch usually talk about hawks, watch other species of birds or just take in the beautiful scenery.  Usually I do all three, though not at the same time.  One of my retirement goals is to spend an entire season on a hawkwatch, from the first day of the season to the last.  As it is, I probably won't get back until October, when the numbers of hawks are fewer but a wider variety of species is common.  And then there's always November, when Golden Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks fly.  The entire fall lies ahead of me, with as much hawkwatching as I can fit in.



John "By Stargoose And Hanglands" said...

It all seems fairly normal and sensible to me. I'd spend time there for the view alone.

Carolyn H said...

John: Oh, yes, the view is outstanding. I could sit and watch the clouds move across the sky all day, even if I didn't see any hawks when I was there.

Anonymous said...

I did not know there was such a thing as hawkwatching groups. The scenery splendid. Made a lot of trips to PA where I was raised last year. Parents health issues leading to their deaths. I would take Highway 220 from the Turnpike down to Cumberland Maryland. A road that runs through a beautiful valley. Never had time to stop and watch the hawks. I would see some only driving 55. A welcome break on those journeys. Thanks for sharing.

Grampy said...

Should have posted previous comment this way in case you wish to view some of the bird life and such at my site.

Scott said...

I went to the John James Audubon home at Mill Grove this Saturday for a novice's introduction to identifying raptors in the air. The program, offered by a member of Valley Forge Audubon, was excellent, but we were only able to try our new-found skills on one Cooper's Hawk; otherwise, the cloudy, drizzly skies were barren of raptors.

Carolyn H said...

Anonymous: Sometime when you are coming through PA, you should visit a hawkwatch and see some up close!

Scott: i'm surprised you only saw one hawk. Militia Hill and Rose Tree Park, both Philadelphia, had good hawkwatching in the past few days.

Grampy: Thanks for stopping by!