Hawk Mountain: If it isn’t on your bucket list it should be. To be surrounded by thousands of migrating raptors — some even flying BELOW you because you are so high on the escarpment — is a site not to be missed.
Note that this article is from several years ago so any dates will be wrong.
By Bob Quarteroni
The stairway to heaven will soon be open to all.
Heaven in this case is divine Hawk Mountain, where each autumn you can watch literally thousands of raptors pass by, on a mountaintop enclave so high that sometimes the birds fly below you.
But, until now, access to the birders’ paradise has been very challenging to physically challenged individuals.
But now, they’ve getting their wings and can join the rest of the earth angels to enjoy the heady view.
That’s because an accessible trail to the site’s South Lookout is under construction. A grand opening is scheduled for Sunday, July 26, the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The trail is two years in the planning. Hawk Mountain leadership was concerned that even though there is a short walk to the closest overlook, steep grades were an obstacle to many.
“It’s our job to connect as many people as possible with our raptor conservation mission,” says Hawk Mountain President Jerry Regan. “The chance to watch for passing migrants from a Hawk Mountain lookout is the best way to spark an interest in nature and in raptors.”
Hawk Mountain Communications Director Mary Linkevich added that “People don’t come to Hawk Mountain to sit inside the Visitor Center. They come for the chance to see raptors pass by on their migrations, they come for the incredible views, to be in a forest surrounded by the sounds of the mountain. This trail will mean more people on the mountain, people who want to protect natural places like this, and the raptors that pass overhead.”
So why should you be excited about Hawk Mountain?
Because what Augusta National is to golf and Yankee Stadium is to baseball fans, Hawk Mountain is to birdwatchers – who prefer the term birders. This is THE place for some serious gazing at birds of prey – collectively called raptors.
Consider that in its best year, 1978, an astonishing 40,689 raptors were counted cruising past Hawk Mountain during the fall migration. While broad-wing hawks were the vast majority – 29,519 of the total – also spotted were ospreys, bald eagles, golden eagles, merlins, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, goshawks and others.
(The “others” make for an even more interesting view. For instance, last Oct. “Skeins of Canada geese were seen all day on Tuesday, and 3,256 were counted by day’s end. Tuesday also had a good woodpecker flight with one red-headed and 9 red-bellied woodpeckers and 16 northern flickers,” according to the Sanctuary website. Other unusual guests have included turkeys, a whistling swan, a sand hill crane and even dragonflies with pretentions of greatness.)
While 1978 was a record, an average year still boasts an impressive 18,000 plus raptor migrants.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a national natural landmark, is located in Kempton, about 65 miles south of the Wyoming Valley. Physically, it’s a one-mile journey to the North Lookout, a ridge 1,521 feet above sea level. Spiritually, it’s like ascending bodily into heaven.
The sanctuary was founded in 1934, in a time where no legal protections for these animal existed and hawk heads carried a bounty. After photos of dead hawks lining the forest floor became public, conservationist Rosalie Edge purchased the property and turned it into a largely undisturbed sanctuary for hawks and eagle.
Since then, the 2,600-acre sanctuary has matured into an international conservation training site, a wildlife sanctuary open to the public year-round and the world’s largest member-supported raptor conservation organization. And, of course, one of the best places in northeastern North America to view the annual autumn hawk migration.
“The birds fly south for the winter not because it’s cold, but because they have wings.” Jarod Kintz.
And, boy, do they ever use them. On top of the sanctuary mountain you can see, on a clear day, as far as 80 miles. What you may see – with the Little Schuylkill River and some majestic scenery thrown in at no cost – are birds, lots of birds.
Hawk Mountain is a raptor mecca because of its location: It’s the last in a series of northeast to southwest ridges that act as a rock funnel for migrating birds of prey. Fourteen species of hawks move along these ridges on flights up to 6,000 miles, some traveling as far as South America.
Hawks use the ridges as both compass and fuel. The ridges act as maps for the birds and the updrafts allow them to ride the billowing air currents with little or no effort.
The fall migration – migration in spring is minimal – starts in August and continues into December. At Hawk Mountain it reaches its apex in the middle of September through October brings the best variety, good numbers and the vaunted flaming fall foliage.
Many days, you see quite a show. The raptors fly over, around and – sometimes – under the lookouts. At times, they stop and do an aerial ballet. Broad-wing hawks, often in the hundreds, ride thermals, doughnut-shaped rings of warm air currents, high in the sky. More and more hawks join in, mixing and circling. This gathering of many hawks in a single swirling updraft is known as a “kettle” or “boil.”
When they have spiraled high enough, they pour out of the kettle and float south, toward the next thermal.
Along with the birds, Hawk Mountain has a lot to offer. It has eight miles of trails, incredible scenic outlooks, raptor education programs, a native plant garden and Visitor Center.
“Hawk Mountain is different from other place in that we are a sanctuary versus a park,” Linkevich says. “We keep it as natural as possible.”
Additionally, Hawk Mountain has also become an internationally recognized name in raptor research, education and advocacy. Linkevich says that since birds of prey gained legal protection in 1972, the sanctuary has undergone “a major change from a local to a global organization.”
While summer is a delightful time to visit, if you want to see the migration, fall’s the time.
“Our fall hawk count begins August 15 and the first southbound raptor is usually spotted in late July. First migrants are ospreys, American kestrels and bald eagles,” Linkevich said.
If you go, you are advised to bring a blanket or cushion since the rocks are hard and unforgiving. Binoculars are a must and can be rented for $5 at the Visitor Center. Sturdy shoes are just as important and, since you may linger for hours, bring water and food that you carry in and back out.
The 1,383-foot South Lookout, now accessible by wheelchair, is steps from the trail entrance up a short, wide path. The 1,521-foot North Lookout is ¾ mile away, straddles the ridge and offers a 200-degree panoramic view and is the site of the annual spring and fall migration count
For more information about Hawk Mountain and this year’s upcoming migration, visit their
Website at hawkmountain.org or call (610) 756-6961.
Go to the mountain, watch the show and you’ll feel like like King Solomon: “The way of an eagle in the sky is too wonderful for me.” Me too.