Superstorm Sandy brought a path of destruction to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States. But this natural event also brought an unprecedented migration phenomenon to the Bake Oven Knob autumn hawk count. While no one is celebrating the storm, the hawk counters did record an amazing natural event.
Veteran hawkwatchers know that storms often "bottle up" the birds for a few days, and those storms are often followed by excellent migration counts. In addition, large storms also divert raptors from their normal migration routes. In the case of Sandy, both of these effects probably combined to influence migration counts for almost a week following the storm.
The most notable species to be affected by the storm was the Golden Eagle. When Hawk Mountain's first curator, Maurice Broun, reported seeing Golden Eagles migrating along the Kittatinny Ridge, many naturalists refused to believe him until they visited Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and saw them with their own eyes. In the past 10 years, an average of 92 of these magnificent birds were counted at Bake Oven Knob. But in five days from Nov. 1 to Nov. 5, 121 Golden Eagles were counted. So far in 2012, 142 Goldens have been counted, surpassing the previous record count of 137 in 2003, with more than three weeks left in the count season.
Eastern Golden Eagles breed mostly in the tundra regions of Canada around Hudson Bay and to the east. They migrate south through Pennsylvania and spend the winter foraging in the Appalachians and surrounding areas. This population is small compared to the western population of Aquilla chrysaetos, as the bird is known by its scientific name. The Golden Eagle also occurs in Europe.
To understand the incredible nature of this five-day flight, consider that in 52 years of autumn hawk counts at Bake Oven Knob, the total number of Goldens for the season only surpassed the 121 total from these five days two times – in 2003 and 2006. The one-day total of 42 birds on Nov. 3 exceeded the annual total for 35 of the years for the count, which began in 1961.
Golden Eagles were not the only migrants seen in larger than normal numbers. Only once in the past 30 years (in 2006) have this many Red-shouldered Hawks (106) been seen in a five-day period. Red-tailed Hawks have been seen in low numbers in the past four years, but put on a strong showing in this period, with 1345 of the common raptors counted. And 25 Bald Eagles made their way past the ridge over this five-day period, each one a record-setting bird, as the Bald Eagle season record was surpassed already on Oct. 17. A total of 277 Bald Eagles have been counted migrating past Bake Oven Knob already this season.
It is not too late to catch the migration along the Kittatinny in 2012. An intern or volunteers will remain on duty at Bake Oven Knob until Nov. 25 and Hawk Mountain counts until Dec. 15, but the migration often slows considerably after mid-November. Look for a day with moderate winds and head to the ridge with your binoculars to catch the tail end of this natural phenomenon which occurs each year along the Kittatinny ridge right here in the Lehigh Valley.
Lehigh Gap Nature Center is a member-supported, nonprofit conservation and environmental education organization based at Lehigh Gap north of Slatington. It is the sponsor of the Bake Oven Knob autumn hawk hount. For more information, contact the Nature Center at firstname.lastname@example.org or (610) 760-8889. Migration counts can be located online at www.hawkcount.org.