Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Mountain, Its Birds, and Its People

[The scene today at the Scott's Mountain Hawk Watch at Merrill Creek Reservoir.  This could just be the friendliest hawk watch on Planet Earth. Included in the scene or nearby: today's official counter, Paul Murray; Henry Kielblock, proprietor of this watch; Rich Kane, dean emeritus of NJ birding; Dave Dean, Kurt Zimmerman, Paul Shanahan, Norann Hein, Tom Koellhoffer, Don and Rebecca Freiday, and 40+ others.]

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.

[Here's the weather map as it stood tonight, after today's flight. You can see the blue arc at right with the arrows pointing right; that's the cold front that passed, with high pressure behind it. That's what you want to see for fall bird migration, generally speaking.]

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.

[Adult Bald Eagle today, flying beyond the American flag that waves prominently at the Scott's Mountain, NJ Hawk Watch. Click to enlarge. ]

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.

[Eagle flock: 4 Bald Eagles in one frame at Scott's Mountain today. I well remember the days when if you were lucky enough to find a single eagle, you would watch it until it disappeared, because you never knew when you would see another one. A success story of grand proportions. Click to enlarge.]

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:

[The Merrill Creek Bald Eagle pair in classic talon-clasping courtship. They hooked up perhaps 400 meters up, and tumbled almost to the water before breaking away from each other. Aerial foreplay. Click to enlarge. ]

[Wait, what? This is part of a flock of 30+ Lesser Black-backed Gulls, the first of many more migrants to come, and probably headed eventually to the landfill opposite Florence, NJ. It is amazing that we still don't know the derivation of the now hundreds of LBBG's that appear in the region each year.  Where are they breeding? Rich Kane told me this southbound migration of LBBG was a regular sight at Merrill Creek.]

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.

[There are hawk watches north of the Cape May canal . . .]

[Part of a "kettle" of 160+ Broad-winged Hawks at Scott's Mountain today.  Broad-wingeds don't so much flock together on purpose as need to move all at about the same time, headed to the same places, and so accumulate where migration conditions are favorable, such as ridges like Scott's Mountain where updrafts and thermals help them along. Click to enlarge.]

[Angels: Broad-winged Hawks against the halo of the sun. Broad-wingeds, and other raptors, often ascend so high during migration that scanning the perimeter of the sun for silhouettes is one of the best ways to find them. Click to enlarge.]

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!

[How many hawk watches have a bin of communal munchies (the owl is not edible, however)? How many have the official counter walk from one end of the site to other proffering fresh baked cookies? At Scott's Mountain, this is the norm.]

No comments:

Post a Comment