KEMPTON – Officially, another season has come and gone at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary with the completion of the annual Hawk Watch.
For outdoors enthusiasts who enjoy winter hiking and trail walks, however, there is no such thing as an "off" season. Lookouts and trails at the sanctuary are located on Hawk Mountain Road, off Route 895 East, between Molino and New Ringgold.
Trails are open daily, dawn to dusk, and the visitor center is open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sanctuary members and children six and younger are admitted free the year-around on the trails, and during the winter months, non-member visitors to the sanctuary's trails are asked to leave a donation at the entrance gate or pay in the visitor center.
In 2009, 15,559 birds of prey were counted during the Hawk Watch between August 15 and December 15. That total included a season record 68 Peregrine Falcons and an above-average 212 Bald Eagles.
"This season was significant, not so much for the hawks and the final tallies, but because it was our celebratory 75th anniversary year," Hawk Mountain president Lee Schisler, Jr., said. "Hawk Mountain is one of the best places to watch migrating raptors in the Northeast, but what brings people year after year is the legacy of Hawk Mountain."
From the trails and lookouts at Hawk Mountain visitors have some of the most awe-inspiring views anywhere on the Blue Mountain. Many of those views can only be appreciated fully during the winter, when they are unobstructed by foliage.
As for the data collected from the annual Hawk Mountain count, it makes up the longest running and most detailed record of raptor populations and migration statistics in the world. Hawk Mountain senior monitoring biologist Laurie Goodrich coordinates the marathon hawk watch and relies on a team of four staff and14 volunteers to cover each day.
This information allows biologists to track the status of these usually secretive birds, and dips in populations can alert conservationists to potential problems in the environment. The most famous example is when wildlife biologist Rachel Carson used Hawk Mountain data in her conservation classic "Silent Spring" to document the decline in juvenile Bald Eagles during the DDT-era.
"As always, there are many factors that can impact the number of birds we see here each year, and potential problems emerge only when we study trends over the long-term," Goodrich said. "Counting raptors on migration may just be the best job in conservation because the hawks do most of the work, passing south in particular places across the continent, and we simply tally their numbers and types as they pass overhead."
Although the annual count is over, Schisler said the Sanctuary is operated year around and open to the public as a nature tourism site. It has long been considered "the destination" for hawk-watch enthusiasts, and in addition, the sanctuary stands as a model on how to use wildlife watching to support key conservation research and education programs.
"Between August and December, more than 40,000 people from across the tri-state area and beyond will visit, which not only helps Hawk Mountain to spread its mission, but also makes an enormous economic impact on the local economy," Schisler said. "The incredible views, an invigorating hike and the chance to see large numbers of migrating raptors all make the sanctuary a favorite destination each autumn.
"Even on a slow day for seeing birds, or during the winter months, the mountain still provides a rewarding experience for people who enjoy the outdoors. And, there is always the chance of observing and photographing wildlife."
Hawk Mountain was founded in 1934 by New York conservationist Rosalie Edge to stop the shooting of hawks, eagles and falcons that passed the ridge in great numbers and at predictable times during their autumn migration. Lacking funds for a purchase, she negotiated to lease 1,400 acres to protect the persecuted raptors and quietly created the world's first refuge for birds of prey.
Edge recruited New England naturalist Maurice Broun who, with his wife Irma, arrived to protect the newly formed sanctuary from local gunners. According to Edge's biography, she then instructed Broun to post the property and to count and record every kind of bird that flew by the lookout each day and submit a weekly report.
Edge believed the flight data at Hawk Mountain would prove useful someday. Her orders to begin a systematic hawk count would last the rest of her life and beyond, and established a tradition that continues today, not just at Hawk Mountain but at other migration watch sites worldwide.
For more information on birds of prey and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, visit the Web site at www.hawkmountain.org.
2009 Autumn Hawk Watch Totals
Black Vulture 147
Turkey Vulture 461
Northern Goshawk 25
Sharp-shinned Hawk 4,299
Coopers Hawk 612
Unidentified Accipiter 29
Red-tailed Hawk 1,743
Red-shouldered Hawk 141
Broad-winged Hawk 6,440
Rough-legged Hawk 0
Unidentified Buteo 37
Golden Eagle 75
Bald Eagle 212
Unidentified Eagle 0
Northern Harrier 146
Mississippi Kite 1
Peregrine Falcon 68
American Kestrel 461
Unidentified Falcon 13
Unidentified Hawk 35