Last summer when I encountered my friend Henry Kielblock at Forsythe NWR, NJ, I told him I would visit him, other old friends, and the Broad-winged Hawk migration at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir, NJ this fall. Today I made good on that promise, and it was a fine day to do so. A cold front had passed, and winds for the mountain were forecast to be NW going to N going to NE, perfect for this site. My daughter Rebecca joined me and the cast of characters that make this watch one of the friendliest birding sites anywhere.
My promise was not only to Henry. It was to myself. I love the hills of rural northwest NJ. People unfamiliar with this state need a reality check, because it is truly a natural gem despite its ill-gotten reputation. I grew up in and spent the first part of my adult life in these hills, and going back still feels like going home to me.
Early on, meaning beginning at 9:00 a.m. or so, birds were flying, including plenty of Bald Eagles. These included the local breeding pair and their offspring, and a number of migrants. As Bald Eagles have increased and spread throughout the U.S., counting them at hawk watches has become increasingly difficult. The official counter must watch each bird that passes and make a decision as to its provenance - a migrant, or one of the locals? A great problem to have.
One of the more amazing sights of the day was when the local adult Bald Eagles took a break from chasing off any migrants to renew their pair bond:
Despite the many other great birds present or passing, we were all up at Merrill Creek to see Broad-winged Hawks. The spectacle of the mass departure of this raptor from the forests of North America to wintering grounds in Central America and South America is without question one of the greatest natural phenomena a naturalist can encounter, and is one I've been addicted to since I began birding over 35 years ago. We loved the Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, American Kestrels, Merlins, Peregrine Falcons, Red-tailed Hawks, vultures, and everything else today - but the Broad-winged Hawks made the day what it was: spectacular. And it wasn't even a big flight by Broad-winged Hawk standards, "only" 2,457 for the day. By comparison, Cape May had. . . 5 today. That would be 0.2% of Scott's Mountain's total for Broad-winged Hawk today. Regular readers of this blog know I am the last person who would malign Cape May's birding, but. . .
In my home grounds of Cape May, NJ, we don't often get truly large Broad-winged Hawk flights, since these birds seem to prefer to follow the inland ridges southward. Only if strong and persistent west or northwest winds coincide with mid-September does Cape May get big Broad-winged Hawk numbers.
I made some feeble attempts to video the Broad-winged Hawk kettles over Scott's Mountain today, using my DSLR on a tripod. Here's the best I could do; the conversations in the background are almost as fun as the birds!