Per­fect time of the year to go bird watch­ing

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - LOCAL NEWS - Bill Ret­tew Jr. is a Ch­ester County na­tive and weekly colum­nist. He may be con­tacted at bill­ret­tew@ gmail.com.

It’s that time of the year when bird­ers and lovers of the great out­doors flock to Hawk Moun­tain.

Ev­ery year, for the past 24, Fa­ther Bob Uh­ler and son Tim, of Glen­moore, have made the mile-long climb.

Along the Kit­tatinny Ridge of peaks, about 90 min­utes north­west of Ch­ester County near Ham­burg, the fa­ther and son team viewed the spec­tac­u­lar fall mi­gra­tion of rap­tors at Hawk Moun­tain Sanc­tu­ary.

Tim is an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist and even as a 10-year-old, he was hooked on the out­doors.

Bob told me that dur­ing their first visit, Tim noted that a bird spot­ter’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a hawk was wrong. Tim told the bird ex­pert that the bird of prey was in­stead a Cooper’s Hawk. The spot­ter then de­clared that the pre­teen was cor­rect.

The Uh­lers added a new mem­ber to the party for this year’s out­ing, 18-month-old Eloise.

“We’re look­ing for­ward to keep­ing the tra­di­tion alive,” Tim said.

“Hope­fully she’ll bring her kids up here,” Bob said about Eloise.

I sat on a large rock pile at the North Look­out with Hawk Moun­tain Bi­ol­o­gist David Bar-

ber. Al­though we could see about 70 miles, and it seemed like the whole world was be­low us, we spoke in hushed tones, as you would in a cathe­dral.

From that same spot, Bar­ber has watched thou­sands of rap­tors fly by in a sin­gle day.

We watched dozens of sharp-shinned hawks seem­ingly ef­fort­lessly glide past us. These hawks are quite small but fast.

Bar­ber told me that rap­tors fly above Hawk Moun­tain from as far away as Canada, with some then mi­grat­ing as far south as Cen­tral and South Amer­ica.

I asked Bar­ber to dream about—to imag­ine—what it might feel like to be­come a bird.

“Turkey vul­tures can use the slight­est up­draft and glide, but I wouldn’t want to nec­es­sar­ily eat what they eat,” he said.

Af­ter 17 years at Hawk Moun­tain, Bar­ber can of­ten spot and iden­tify birds a mile and half away, with use of a scope or binoc­u­lars, and some­times even with the naked eye.

I also could view the rap­tors headed in our di­rec­tion from a long dis­tance away on this clear fall day as the trees be­low us put on a glo­ri­ous au­tumn show of color.

Last Sun­day, when we vis­ited, of­fi­cial bird coun­ters noted 16 bald ea­gles, or 291 al­ready this year, 217 sharp-shinned hawks, with 2,661 so far this year and 44 red-tailed hawks, for 801 to date.

As of Sun­day, so far this year, dur­ing the sea­son run­ning from Aug. 15Dec. 15, the coun­ters had viewed 14,170 birds of prey in the skies above Hawk Moun­tain.

I learned how rap­tors fly­ing at Hawk Moun­tain ben­e­fit from pre­dom­i­nantly north­west­erly winds dur­ing the fall mi­gra­tion sea­son. Those winds cre­ate up­drafts when hit­ting the ridge stretch­ing north­east to the south­west.

“Birds mi­grat­ing south use up­drafts and glid­ing, while con­serv­ing en­ergy,” Bar­ber said. “Winds con­cen­trate along the ridge in the fall. To the east, the air is a lot more tur­bu­lent and they flap more, use more en­ergy.”

Many rap­tors don’t eat along much of the way, but for those that do, the 2,500 acre sanc­tu­ary is ap­pre­ci­ated for both a meal and rest.

Bar­ber is asked two ques­tions more than any other. Many won­der why a fake great horned owl sits high on a pole above the ridge. He said that some of the birds, es­pe­cially sharp­shinned hawks, will dive bomb the preda­tor.

The an­swer to the sec­ond ques­tion is sim­ple. When asked how bird spot­ters don’t count birds twice, Bar­ber tells vis­i­tors that the birds only travel in one di­rec­tion and usu­ally pass the look­out just once.

The sanc­tu­ary was the world’s first refuge for rap­tors and at­tracts about 75,000 pay­ing vis­i­tors each year.

Birds of­ten fly dur­ing spe­cific times al­though there is a great va­ri­ety for the en­tire fall sea­son.

There’s a 52 per­cent chance you’ll see a bald ea­gle Sept. 1-14, an 89 per­cent chance that an os­prey will fly above you Sept. 1530 and a 98 per­cent prob­a­bil­ity that a sharper­shinned hawk will pass within view from Sept. 15 to Oct. 14.

The Uh­ler fam­ily will likely be back again next year, and 18-mon­thold Eloise will be a year older. Tim told me that his fourth-grade teacher who had a cock­atiel in the class­room sparked his life­long in­ter­est in birds.

Like her dad and grand­fa­ther, maybe Eloise will come to love those mi­grat­ing birds. She was car­ried in a back­pack this year, and grand­dad ex­pects that she might walk much of the way on her own next year.

It’s cer­tainly a tra­di­tion worth con­tin­u­ing and pre­serv­ing.

The pri­vate, mem­ber­sup­ported non­profit con­ser­va­tion or­ga­ni­za­tion charges an ad­mis­sion fee.

The rocky, 30-minute hike to the most vis­ited ob­ser­va­tion area is a mile each way.

The vis­i­tor cen­ter and trail starts near the top of the moun­tain and is a mod­er­ate walk with an el­e­va­tion change of less than 300 feet. A shorter 100step ac­ces­si­ble trail leads to a fine over­look.

For a wealth of in­for­ma­tion, in­clud­ing daily rap­tor count up­dates, call 610756-6961 or go to www. hawk­moun­tain.org.

BILL RET­TEW JR. — FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Mi­grat­ing rap­tors take ad­van­tage of the up­drafts at Hawk Moun­tain Sanc­tu­ary.

Bill Ret­tew Small Talk

BILL RET­TEW JR. — FOR DIG­I­TAL FIRST ME­DIA

Thou­sands of rap­tors an­nu­ally mi­grate south at Hawk Moun­tain Sanc­tu­ary, in­clud­ing many bald ea­gles.

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