Hook Mountain

Hawk Counting on Hook Mountain

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View of the Hudson. You can see the new bridge in front of the Tappan Zee, both now in use. © S.G. Hansen

Over the weekend, at my friend Anne Swaim’s notification, I connected with Trudy Battaly about standing in as the official counter on September 11 at Hook Mountain.

I have previously written about my Saw Mill River Audubon trips to Hook. This was my fourth year up there altogether, my first as a counter. Trudy, who compiles the data daily, told me I would be the only one for the day. I worried. Not only had I never officially counted before, but I am generally inexperienced with hawkwatching. How many birds would I overlook since I only have one pair of eyes for the 360° vista? How many ID battles of Sharpie vs. Cooper’s and Red-tailed vs. Red-shouldered would I face? Also, I don’t own a spotting scope. I was sure I would miss so many birds that my 10x bins couldn’t possibly catch.

Counters normally do a big sit at the top from 8-4. In the past, I have only stayed up there for 2-3 hours. I figured I could only last from 9-3, and that indeed was my time-frame for the days.

I saw my first hawks for the day – a pair of Red-tails – circling over the Executive Golf Course parking lot. The morning was sunny, cool, and windy; and the ascent quiet. I only heard a half-dozen Blue Jays, a crow, a goldfinch, and flicker.

Someone with a scope already sitting at the top. He introduced himself as Vince. He’d been coming up to Hook for years. A Rockland County local. I felt more at ease, happy to have help with the counting. Lucky me – he almost didn’t come up. Once he had read the previous day’s reports for Hook and other hawkwatches, and since he had already eaten breakfast, he made his decision. We rolled our eyes at how terrible last year’s hawk migration was.

Vince told me about the warbler fallout here the day before, and that they departed all at once just before nightfall. That explained the mountainside’s empty silence. (Thus my unfortunate streak of missing warblers this year continued…) Before I arrived, he had an Osprey, a couple of Broad-wings, and a Merlin. Slow overall. Thus began my counting. The owl prop I erected was also ready.

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Thar she stands. © S.G. Hansen

As time progressed, the day warmed up to the low 70s. The NNW wind slowed from 7 to 4 knots at the most. And the haze bordering the horizon gradually increased, especially towards the southeast. Our quiet morning continued with a couple more Ospreys, our first kestrel and sharpies, and up to 15 Broad-wings.

Carl, another Hook Mountain regular, joined us at around 10. Lastly, Tom arrived at 11 (if you know any famous birders named Tom, then you’ve already filled in the last name). Now with three scopes and three additional pairs of eyes to help me watch the skies, I was ecstatic.

I want to get the Broad-wings out of the way. The day before – the 10th – observed 100 migrating. We counted 839. I was shocked to see so many. My past trips didn’t have numbers like that. 839 isn’t extraordinary for Hook (more than two thousand in one day have been observed), but Vince remarked how this movement was rare for early September. “This is what Hook Mountain is all about, Sarah,” he said several times. He, Carl, and Tom were impressed, stunned even. We gawked at our panoramic view of constant, copious Broad-wing observations. A slight breeze on a warm day turned out to do wonders. Broad-wing activity picked up mid-morning just in time for Tom, but the crème de la crème activity occurred in the early afternoon. 12-1 got 354. 1-2 got 253. Kettle after kettle. Stream after stream. (When I’d make a move to take a bite out of my sandwich one of my companions would get on more Broad-wings. Wonders how I was even able to eat lunch.) Their flight was low enough for us to see them with the naked eye. In fact, some kettles were so low that we missed them from the north and only managed to catch them once they’d moved southeast. The kettles, so ephemeral, dispersed only after a few minutes of having fully formed, and afterward the Broad-wings gently streamed over our heads, reformed kettles far to the south, or evanesced entirely.

For one of our earlier kettles, after a short lull, I announced, “There’s a bunch over the Hudson.”

Vince put his bins on it. “WOooooooooaaaAAAHhhhh. That’s a bunch, alright.”

I put my bins on the kettle again. I thought I’d seen a dozen. Turned out there was double that. “Wooooaaaah.” Triple that. The patch of sky was littered with circling winged dots. “WOOOOAAAAAHHHH.”

I didn’t count how many times Tom, eyeing the south with his scope, exclaimed, “Uh oh. Uh oh.”

UH OHHH,” Vince would responded with exaggerated sarcasm.

After finalizing his decision to come up this morning, Vince hesitated whether or not he’d need his clicker. And he did bring it in the end. I’d have had such a difficult time tallying the Broad-wings if otherwise. I didn’t find one in the boxes that held the owl and the recording sheets. At his recommendation, I counted by the hour and rolled the clicker back to zero at hour’s beginning. While Vince, Carl, and Tom looked through their bins and scopes and declared numbers, I simply clicked away. At an earlier point, while I took down 62 Broad-wings, Tom uttered, “Ahhh, I love that sound.” Several times we’d get on a kettle, more and more Broad-wings would join from the bottom, prompting Vince to tell me to tack on four or twelve or twenty more at a time. Clickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclickclick.

Carl had to take off shortly after 1 for an appointment, very reluctant to miss further Broad-wing action. He witnessed part of the bulk of it, but starting at 2, the movement died off as quickly as it started. I counted 60 – mostly individuals or groups of fewer than ten passing by. I didn’t miss anything spectacular after I left at 3. Vince, who stayed until 4 with Tom, counted just 1 Broad-wing.

We observed a good amount other raptor activity as well. We got two instances of owl prop action, both in the morning. Three American Kestrels, including one gorgeous male, dove at it lightning quick. A while later, two Sharpies stooped for an assault at once. They unhinged their legs like airplanes ready for landing, but they didn’t unball their talons.

At another point, we heard an unfamiliar call from the south. I thought it was a jay making funny noises. We soon learned it was Peregrine was calling. We watched an immature Peregrine fly over us, pursued by an adult, who, it turned out, was the one calling. We concluded that the adult, a resident, was chasing the migrant immature away from her territory. After that, we saw her a few more times near the Hudson. She appeared displeased that other raptors traveled through her air space.

I was annoyed that I missed the Merlin that only Vince saw. I needed it for the year, and I’d only seen one Merlin previously ever. Finally, though, between 1 and 2, I finally got my Merlin – two in fact, one right after the other. They soared near the owl.

Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, and Red-tailed Hawk movements were low, as it is still quite early in the season. Truthfully, I screwed up their numbers; Trudy emailed me later saying that I took down too many. I should have considered the residents that fly close to the mountain multiple times, but I thought I was fine without asking for validation.

Our count of Sharp-shinned Hawks – some flew by themselves, some joined the Broad-wing kettles – totaled 42. We observed just two Cooper’s Hawks, one of which I didn’t get on. According to Vince, if there’s a large movement of Sharpies, there’s bound to be more Cooper’s. We counted nine Bald Eagle, a result of three per hour during the hours of 11, 12, and 2. The Ospreys were the most difficult to tally. It was hard to tell which were resident versus migrant, but Vince eventually went with increasing the numbers later in the afternoon when he saw them with the Broad-wings. As for Northern Harrier, only the one, a female.

Passerine movement was slow, with exception to a couple species. We observed a regular movement of over 150 Chimney Swifts throughout the day. Dozens of Barn Swallows flycatched around nine o’clock and disappeared before the hour’s end. 11 Ruby-throated Hummingbird individuals whizzed to the southeast. A Black-and-white Warbler zoomed to the north. A yellowish, greenish warbler – probably a Yellow – zipped over our heads too quickly for us to ID it with certainty. I watched Pileated Woodpecker cross from one side of the mountain to the other as it maniacally cackled. A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher silently foraged among the trees. I heard a couple jays, a chickadee,  and a goldfinch. A raven croaked consistently.

Vince and Tom become butterfly enthusiasts when the birds become boring, so we enjoyed buggy movement as well. During the Broad-wing lulls, Tom briefly departed to search for butterflies. We observed 11 Monarchs migrating. After I took an extended break from counting in the middle of the afternoon, Tom guided me to a spot where he’d seen a Hackberry Emperor earlier. We saw two of those plus a Dun Skipper – both new butterflies for me. Later, a Cloudless Sulphur – a small, bright, lime green butterfly – passed through us so quickly that it took Tom and Vince by surprise.

My descent down the Mountain was a little quieter only because the jays didn’t vocalize as much. I also heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a White-breasted Nuthatch. Unexpectedly, I flushed an Ovenbird from the path, not even a foot in front of me. Buffy crown ruffled, keeping its eye on me, it jerked to and fro and around.

You can find Trudy’s compilation here, and the official HawkCount compilation here.

A huge thank you to Vince, Carl, and Tom for their presence. If it weren’t for them, I would not have reported the numbers I turned in and I would have grossly undercounted. I was happy to share such a spectacular hawkwatching day with them.

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A present. © S.G. Hansen

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Revisiting Hook Mountain

I went to Hook Mountain for the second time last year. The numbers were a little disappointing because the air was so still. Not good winds. So it goes with raptor migration timing. We (it was a Saw Mill River Audubon trip) observed 8 species of raptor.

Only the Broad-winged Hawk barely exceeded the count of 10 (12). Most of them flew individually, but there was one group of 3, inspiring a joke that, in a situation like this, three Broad-wings make a kettle.

SMRA arranged three trips this year: two in September and one this October.

September 7 was hot and dry, and the air slow-moving. During the two-and-a-half hours, we saw only five raptor species, individuals for each species not exceeding 3: Osprey, Sharpies, Cooper’s, Broad-winged, Red-tail, and Peregrine.We also had fly-bys or Double-crested Cormorant, a Great Blue Heron, both species of vulture, and a small movement (4) of Chimney Swifts. The better parts of the trip were the hikes up and down the mountain. We heard and saw a late-singing Yellow-throated Vireo, and got very good looks at a Northern Parula and a couple Black-throated Green Warbler.

September 18 was even worse. Overcast and not much cooler. Sparse rain intermittently fell. Again, not good winds – not from the right direction. And again, the numbers were not exciting even though we waited for two hours, unless you’d count 30 TV’s a thrill: 1 Osprey, 1 Sharpie, 1 Cooper’s, 2 Broad-wings and 1 Red-tail. The hiking was quiet, too.

October 26. Autumnal colors burned against the sky and coated the mountainside. The gray-blue Hudson water glimmered.

Winds blew favorably.

Our ascent was quiet, save for a Red-bellied Woodpecker and few kinglets calling. I spotted a Brown Creeper working its way up several trees.

We stayed on the top for almost two hours. Our raptor numbers were small but more varied and constant than the September watches’. We observed a Sharpie movement – 18 in total, all individuals. They came close enough to easily determine which were adults and which were immatures. At least two fell for the owl prop, but they quickly saw through the trick and flew away when they drew near enough.

As typical, we saw a few Red-tails, including the all-year resident of Hook Mountain, as counter Steve Sachs noted. At a a certain point, we watched one Red-tail kite for up to thirty seconds. Hovering so still in one place, wings furled out, tail feathers twitching to match the wind, it looked as if it were pinned to the sky, as SMRA trip leader Anne Swaim put it.

Other raptor sightings included 1 adult Bald Eagle, several TV’s, 1 Black Vulture, and 1 Red-shouldered Hawk. I didn’t expect to see a Northern Harrier, which soared over Rockland Lake and then traveled east.

When the raptor show was lacking, the passerines filled the voids. A Golden-crowned Kinglet flitted around the lone juniper tree, deftly clinging to the thin branches. Two Purple Finches – a male and a female – fluttered over our heads. I alone heard a Red-breasted Nuthatch toot once. A Yellow-rumped Warbler flashed from bush to bush. Two individual Common Ravens flew around the mountain’s north side. A flock of half a dozen Red-winged Blackbirds traveled northward. One bluebird called a couple times. Unexpectedly, a Pine Siskin zoomed over. We were able to catch the yellow on its wings and hear its zhreeeeee call.

A chilly wind picked up as midday approached. We decided to call it quits. Just as we were about to leave, a Cooper’s Hawk slowly glided by, its crop full with breakfast. Our descent was slightly treacherous. We took care not to slip on the leaves. I nearly took a misstep on hidden rocks a couple times. A raven croaked. Blue Jays “jayed.” I found a dead junco – stiff and solid, likely to have collided with a tree – on the trail. A flock of three Golden-crowned Kinglets and a White-breasted Nuthatch foraged on low trees next. A Hermit Thrush darted through the trees mid-canopy. A Winter Wren skulked among a clump of half-rotted logs.

Hawkwatching on Hook Mountain

Two Broad-winged Hawks soared along the eastern side of the mountain, then around to the south to head west. They reached such a height that we had to shield our eyes from the mid-morning sun. “Look for the white narrow bands on their tails,” more than one person remarked. The bands were a strong clue which birders use to identify Broad-wings while hawkwatching, besides observing the flight style. These raptors were our first for the day. Some took it as a good sign for later.

 

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Photo of a Broad-winged Hawk, courtesy of Steve Sachs. https://www.facebook.com/pages/STEVE-SACHS-PHOTOGRAPHY/117329904967633

 

Sixteen of us stood on the bare rocks, scanning the sky our binoculars and scopes, or simply looking around with binoculars ready at hand. The sky was mostly clear, an intangible blue. Small clouds took shape all around us, far away enough to not interfere. In the south-east large cumulous clouds formed. A weak haze grayed the towns beneath us. And due south, the Tappan-Zee Bridge stretched across the Hudson River.

I didn’t know what to expect for my first hawkwatch. I only read about how difficult this kind of birding was. Raptors, at quite a distance away, were hard to see, hard to identify by species, hard to make out their age/sex, etc even with good equipment. I expected I’d be terrible. I had never seen any pictures of hawkwatchers, so I imagined that all of us eventually laying on the ground (to spare our necks from getting stuck in the look-up position), holding heavy 10x binoculars (at least 10x) or looking through scopes, and constantly narrowing our eyes just so that we could barely make out that those dark pinpoints – hundreds of feet away – might be hawks or vultures or whatever.

We paused when we nearly reached the top of the mountain. Charlie Roberto – an avid naturalist who led the hike up and exposed to us salamanders from underneath rotted logs – took the chance to talk about the raptors we might see and briefly describe the clues that indicate which is which. When he finished, everyone laughed – it was simply too much information in less than five minutes. As I knew I’d be overwhelmed as well. I don’t think anyone noticed that I tuned out mi-speech.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I'm the only person sitting. Courtesy of Saw Mill River Audubon.

Charlie Roberto demonstrating the flight of a Turkey Vulture. I’m the only person sitting. © William Kellner

About half-an-hour after we began our hawkwatching, we noticed a speck string of Broad-Wings soaring to the south-east. Some went in twos or threes. Others flew individually, keeping their distance from the ones behind and in front of them, up to a hundred feet. My binoculars (borrowed) were 8×42 Vortex Diamondback, a good pair for hawkwatching, according to Charlie, but right then I wished I owned a scope. The Broad-Wings were practically dots. Against the blue, they vanished. Then they reappeared, in full silhouette, as they flew in front of the clouds, a relief not just for me but for everyone. To our excitement, when we reached right of the cumulus clouds, we saw that the Broad-wings had formed a kettle.

While migrating, raptors use thermals – warm columns of rising air – whenever they can to conserve energy as they travel from as far up as Northern Canada to as far down as Argentina. They begin circling, slowly rising, rising, as if being stirred in boiling water in a pot. Hence, kettles. Depending, only one species forms a kettle. Or, there are multiple species, sometimes with a small group joining a larger. The number of raptors ranges from the double digits to the ten thousands. While birding in Costa Rica one April, Christine McClusky (who was in our group that day) said to me that she watched a line of thousands and thousands of migrating Broadwings. Quite a distance from them, she initially thought she saw was a thin cloud.

Our kettle only contained Broad-wings. It took the form of a broad tornado filled with scattered, methodically floating leaves, with each raptor soaring at its own pace. I didn’t bother counting how many there were myself – I’d never seen such a high concentration in one spot, and they kept moving. Goodness knows I’d mess up every time I reached ten. How can someone earn money from this? So much for having a hawk counting job at the Cape May Observatory. Two experienced, with scopes, agreed to having counted a little over two hundred. (They didn’t submit the eBird list I linked at the end of this post,) Even if I had already known that as many as ten thousand raptors could form a kettle, I would still be transfixed by this particular one before me. It presented a question: How did they teach themselves to do this? I asked how high the Broad-wings were. No one could give me an estimate.

I had to look away for my neck’s sake. I hadn’t keep track of the time, so I can’t remember exactly how long the kettle lasted, or when it finally dispersed or moved on.

No more kettles after that. But our hawkwatching wasn’t any less enjoyable. We mostly looked to the north and northwest. A few more Broad-wings flew by themselves or in twos or threes. Also going by were Red-tailed Hawks, Sharp-shinned Hawks, several Ospreys, one Cooper’s Hawk, and a couple young Bald Eagles (whose plumage is mostly brown with white patches). One of the birders with a scope spotted a Peregrine under a Broad-wing. Hoping to finally get a good look of this falcon, I scanned for it carefully. Blue. Still blue. And all the other the raptors soaring about. I heard everyone else exclaiming, “Found it!” Frustrated, I lightly cursed at the Peregrine. Well, this instance was bound to have happened at least once. Nonetheless, I didn’t add the bird to my eBird list.

Throughout the hawkwatch, Turkey and Black Vultures glided around the side of the mountain. Imposing statures. Darkly elegant. Their wingspans are nearly as long as those of Bald Eagles. The Turkey Vultures came near enough for us to see the lines on their red faces – which looked badly burned and raw skin – without binoculars. Most of the group paid them little to no attention. The rest, including myself, kept watched whenever they came into view. Never had we seen them so closely.

During the lulls, I sometimes kept my eye on the owl figure, which was stuck at the end of an erected twenty-foot pole. Placed near the rocks on which we stood, it was supposed to fool raptors into flying closer to the mountain and give birders a good look. For the first couple hours nothing took the bait. Then, as if a part of the birders’ sacrifice, half of our group departed. Minutes after, a Sharpie – an accipiter smaller than a crow and certainly smaller than that owl – went for the attack. But, in a flash, it realized its enemy was a fake within inches. It flew away.

A moment later, the owl attracted two Red-tails. They only checked it out, but that didn’t deprive us of a great view. They circled less than twenty-feet above our heads. I could see individual feathers on their breasts, dark streaks on soft white.

After two-and-a-half hours, I had to leave. Before I reached the trail that took me into the woods, I caught a glimpse of a Turkey Vulture soaring down the mountain. It swiftly disappeared behind the trees.

 

http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S19858567