August 14, 2014

Annual Hawk Count now Underway

Nature's greatest airshow: now playing thru Dec 15

Counters at North Lookout. Photo by Linda Weller

Learn more about Autumn Migration
Visit the Raptorpedia

If watching a hawk, eagle or falcon lifts your spirits, good news has arrived: starting August 15, you have every chance of spotting one at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, the world’s first refuge for birds of prey and a world-recognized migration watchsite.

The marathon Annual Autumn Hawk Watch begins August 15 at the Sanctuary’s famed North Lookout and is conducted daily, weather permitting, through December 15.

“This is a great time to visit Hawk Mountain,” says president Jerry Regan. “Even if you know nothing about birds, our staff, volunteers and trainees help to spot approaching birds, point out where to look, and identify what you’re seeing. They make it fun and easy.”

Over the next four months, an average 18,000 birds of prey will soar over the Sanctuary’s rocky North Lookout, a 1,500-foot outcropping on the Kittatinny Ridge or “Blue Mountain,” in east central Pennsylvania. When winds are right, many can fly past at eye-level. People travel far and wide to glimpse the birds and the Appalachian Mountain scenery. Visitors bring binoculars, pay a modest trail fee, walk to the overlook, and start scanning the sky.

"Every season and every day here is different. Sometimes the weather is just right and we have above-average or record-breaking numbers. Sometimes its hot and still and the birds soar very high in the sky. Other times we have great flights and spot rarities," says Regan.

"It's like any other kind of wildlife-watching. Being at Hawk Mountain increases your chances, but there are never any guarantees," he adds.

For migrants, timing is everything, and different species migrate at predictable times. Passing through in late summer are ospreys, bald eagles, hummingbirds and monarch butterflies. In early mornings, colorful songbirds pass in waves on their own migration. This also is the last chance to enjoy the still-green, but subtly changing Appalachian Mountain views and balmy weather.

In mid-September, broad-winged hawk numbers build. These small, round-winged hawks fly in large flocks, and gain altitude in circling thermals, or rising columns of air, before gliding by gracefully. If your timing is right, you can spot hundreds of broadwings in an afternoon.

By mid-October, northwest winds bring the greatest species diversity—16 in all—and fall foliage is at its peak. During prime conditions, visitors can get good views of red-tailed, red-shouldered, rough-legged, sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, northern harriers, peregrine falcons, and merlins.

In November, the migration begins to slow, but this is when hawkwatchers can expect to see golden eagles and northern goshawks. By December, the skies have emptied, but the North Lookout draws visitors seeking solitude and an occasional bald eagle.

Raptor Migration

Sharp-shinned hawk photo by David McNicholas

The phenomenon of migration is an age-old story: raptors have followed the Appalachian Mountains southward for thousands of years. Weather determines how many birds will pass; the best flights follow a cold front, when northwest winds prevail. When the air is still and hot, fewer birds tend to be seen.

Raptors, or birds of prey, also use pockets of warm, rising air called “thermals” to fuel their long distance journeys. Thermals allow birds of prey to ascend quickly to thousands of feet and then glide in the direction of their destination. Because thermals do not occur over water, migrating birds hug the Appalachian Mountains, and grab a ‘free ride’ by soaring south on this energy-saving, migration highway.

Visiting Hawk Mountain
No one needs to walk far to enjoy the mountain and the migration. The first scenic overlook is just 100 yards from the parking area, and here, trails are smooth and wide. For those with limited mobility, an all-terrain wheelchair is available at the Visitor Center. A golf cart is on hand during autumn weekends.

In addition to intimate looks at soaring birds, Hawk Mountain’s overlooks provide sweeping views of the fall foliage and the patchwork of farmland and fields that dot the valley floor. The autumn colors of the central Appalachian forest traditionally peak in mid-October.

North Lookout, a two-mile, round-trip walk, straddles the ridge, offering a 180-degree panorama of ridges and valleys. Those who plan to visit North Lookout or beyond should wear boots and layered clothing, and carry a daypack supplied with all the essentials for a day in woods: water, light snacks, raingear, traveling first aid kit, binoculars, camera and whistle.

General Information
The Visitor Center, “Wings of Wonder” raptor gallery, bookstore and gift shop are open year-round, from 9 am to 5 pm, and from 8 am to 5 pm September through November. Located about 25 miles north of Reading, the Sanctuary is just 7 miles north of I-78 and Cabela’s.

Trail fees cost $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $3 for children ages six to 12. Children under six are free. On weekends, September through November, trail fees increase to $8 for adults and seniors. For more information call 610-756-6961 or visit