KEMPTON – In a word, the 2010 season was "outstanding" for outdoors enthusiasts who participated in the annual Autumn Hawk Watch at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
Highlighting the watch, which took place between August 15 and December 15, was an all-time record of 406 bald eagles being recorded as they flew past the lookouts at the world-famous migration watch site. In all, an above-average total of 20,498 birds of prey were recorded by the staff and volunteers.
According to HMS director of conservation science Dr. Keith Bildstein, the final bald eagle total crushes the previous season record of 255, and the total is 72 percent higher than the yearly average. This signifies a significant double recovery for the bird; first, from shooting during the early 20th Century; later, from the widespread mid-century use of the pesticide DDT which caused thinning and breakage of bald eagle eggs – leading to sightings of just a few dozen birds a year in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Not only are we seeing more Bald Eagles than our great-grandparents, but we're seeing twice as many," Bildstein said."It's possibly the greatest wildlife success story of our time and an unmitigated success for raptor conservation."
According to HMS senior research biologist Dr. Laurie Goodrich, much of the season's success can be attributed to ideal wind and weather conditions, which in turn helped to concentrate hawks along the ridge. "Ideal" conditions – many of which occurred on weekends when there are more visitors at Hawk Mountain include a large number of days with a northwest wind which creates updrafts which allows visitors at the lookout to get a great look at passing migrants.
"We enjoyed one of the best migration seasons in a long while with many days bringing hundreds of migrants zipping past the Mountain," Goodrich said."The high counts of eagles were a highlight, but I particularly rejoiced in the numbers of kestrels and sharp-shinned hawks, two species that have raised our concern in recent years.
"October was amazing because we hadback-to-backdays of more than 600 sharpshins. Now, I'm really looking forward to next year to see if this upswing continues."
As the world's first refuge for birds of prey, Hawk Mountain has long been considered the destination for hawk-watch enthusiasts. Located on the Appalachian Flyway, the rocky overlooks at HMS providean ideallocation to watchthe spectacle of raptor migration.
This annual migration count began in 1934, making the 76-year database the longest-running record of hawk migration in the world, allowing biologists to use long-term data to track the status of these unusually secretive birds. Declining trends in a raptor population can alert conservationists to potential problems in the environment, and raptor-migration counts are an inexpensive and effective way to monitor populations of these otherwise seldom-seen species.
"The hawks line up in particular places at predictable times of the year for an annual "head count," and all we do is sit back and record them as they pass overhead," Bildstein said. "Counting raptors on migration may just be the best job in wildlife conservation."
In addition to its scientific value, Hawk Mountain educators use the hawk count to introduce visitors to the phenomena of migration and the importance of raptor conservation. Using the annual event allows HMS to train young conservation interns, teaching them how to monitor raptors, record and analyze data, and interpret this wildlife spectacle to the public.
For more information on birds of prey and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, visit www.hawkmountain.org.