Hawk Mountain Sanctuary has been called “the mother church of raptor conservation,” and for good reason.
On this high, scenic, wind-swept ridge in the Appalachians of eastern Pennsylvania, the world’s first refuge for migrating raptors was established in 1934. Today, this 2,400-acre sanctuary is renowned for both its annual autumn migration of hawks, eagles, and falcons, and for its global leadership in raptor conservation, having trained hundreds of young scientists from 75 countries.
Every autumn, some 20,000 raptors pass Hawk Mountain’s famed North Lookout, which will be the main—but not only—focus of our Reader Rendezvous. By the time we visit in late October, the foliage should be turning orange, and the skies should be filled with a remarkable variety of raptors—sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks, merlins and peregrines, bald eagles, harriers, and red-shouldered hawks, to name a few. Numbers of red-tailed hawks will be building toward their seasonal peak a week or so later, and the vanguard of the season’s golden eagles will be making an appearance. It’s a point in the three-month migration period when almost any of the 16 species of raptors regularly put on a show!
Of course, not all raptors migrate by day. We’ll also spend two nights at a local owl-banding station, where northern saw-whet owls are lured from the skies and into researchers’ mist nets—part of a project, in its 25th year, to study the movements of these secretive and otherwise seldom-seen little owls. No guarantees, but on a good night they can catch dozens of saw-whets. We will schedule our hawk days and owl nights based on the weather—we want chilly, windy conditions after the passage of a cold front for maximum hawk migration, and cold, calm nights after such days for owls.
We’ll also take a break one day to explore some of eastern Pennsylvania’s other premiere birding spots, with the exact location to depend on conditions and recent reports. One likely destination is Middle Creek Wildlife Management Area, a Pennsylvania Game Commission property less than an hour from Hawk Mountain in Amish country, with more than 5,000 acres of impoundments, wetlands, grasslands, thickets, and forest. Middle Creek is a rich birding spot, and reliable for locally unusual species like short-eared owls. While there, we’ll learn about the Motus Wildlife Tracking System, a global array of automated telemetry receiver stations (including one at Middle Creek) constantly tracing the movements of birds, bats, and even migrating insects using groundbreaking, highly miniaturized transmitters.
While at Hawk Mountain, we’ll have a chance to meet with that autumn’s class of conservation trainees, accomplished young scientists from around the world. The sanctuary’s international traineeship program, which has graduated more than 450 such emerging researchers and educators from 75 countries in the past four decades, is one of Hawk Mountain’s most impactful programs.
All this, and we’ll get a taste of the region’s rich Pennsylvania German (“Pennsylvania Dutch”) culture—and a taste of its delicious food! Shoofly pie, anyone?
BWD columnist Scott Weidensaul grew up practically in the shadow of Hawk Mountain, where he started hawk-watching at age 12. He’s been involved with the sanctuary for decades, most recently as the chair of its board of directors. He also oversees one of the largest owl-banding programs in the country. Scott will lead this tour along with a BWD staff member yet to be determined.
WHAT TO EXPECT & MOBILITY:
We will be traveling by personal vehicle to enhance social distancing, with plenty of free parking at all locations. Although there is an ADA-accessible trail to South Lookout (900 feet from the road), our primary destination while at Hawk Mountain will be North Lookout, which is a three-quarters of a mile hike, with a 300-foot ascent, up sometimes steep, uneven trails. This hike is somewhat strenuous. Once at the Lookout, seating is on boulders, so bring a pillow or a cushion for your buttocks!