Fall mornings are cold on the razor-edged ridge of Peters Mountain in West Virginia. After trudging up a short, steep ribbon of the Allegheny Trail, the wind scrapes across rocks and exposed skin, stealing the sweat and the heat from my body. I begin to shiver and wonder why anyone as afraid of heights as I am would be stupid enough to climb a mountain.
In September, broad-winged hawks rise with the sun, their wings rigid like sails. They float up and hover for a moment over the crest of the ridge. Someone points and says, “There’s one; I see one; over there.” All the necks on the mountain crane around, searching. The birds seem to gain speed as they rush up and over on the air. One after another they come, sometimes in the hundreds.
People have been coming to Hanging Rock Hawk Observatory in Monroe County, WVa., since 1952 for the annual raptor migration that begins in September and can go on sporadically until December. Before West Virginia built the fire tower on the ridge, Princeton-born naturalist Jim Phillips says people used to stand or lay around on the bare rocks waiting for the hawks.
In 1956, the state built the fire tower, and hawk watchers ducked inside to get out of the cold wind. Use of the tower was discontinued in 1972 when planes started watching for fires. Hawk watchers took over the maintenance of the tower until 1996 when vandals torched the landmark.
But hawk watchers are by nature patient and persistent people. They convinced the Forest Service to rebuild the tower and even found the original blueprints. It reopened in 1997.
Cold fronts moving down the Appalachian range bring raptors from Canada and the Northeastern United States, funneling them into South America. The birds ride “thermals” — patches of cold air thrown upward along the ridges by the heat of the sun — expending very little energy. Using this technique, birds of prey can migrate thousands of miles.
It’s not usual for hawk watchers in Vera Cruz, Mexico to see a million hawks a day at the height of the migration, says Clyde Kessler, a self-described “citizen scientist” who has been watching hawks since the 1970s.
Jim Phillips was a teenager in the 1970s. Because of the pesticide DDT, eagles were in danger of extinction. “When I started watching birds, I was afraid I’d never see a bald eagle,” he says. “Now we get an average of eight a year [at Hanging Rock].”
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries biologist Jeff Cooper says more than 16 species of raptor use the Appalachian mountains as a fly range, including kestrel, merlin, gold and bald eagle, osprey, vulture, peregrine falcon and a wide range of hawks: broad-wingeds, red-taileds, red- shouldereds, Cooper’s and sharp-shinneds.
But people-watching is also fun at Hanging Rock, and it doesn’t require expensive binoculars. Aged and responsible people have been known to shriek like children when they see a rare bird. They argue benignly over identifications, and they log their counts, religiously.
Every hour on the hour, designated volunteers fill out detailed forms, recording weather conditions, number of birds sighted, species of birds sighted, height at which the birds were flying, number of people counting the birds, wind direction and speed, among other data. This information is reported to the National Hawk Migration Association, which monitors raptor migration across North America.
“Birds are a great indicator of the [health of] the environment,” says Alyce Quinn, president of the Roanoke (Va.) Valley Bird Club. Her organization monitors a watch point on Harvey’s Knob at Blue Ridge Parkway milepost 95 in Botetourt County. But David Holt, a long-time watcher at Harvey’s Knob, points out that low hawk counts don’t necessarily mean an unhealthy raptor population.
Jeff Cooper agrees: “Weather is a big factor. If it’s a mild winter up north, the birds don’t move.” The counts do help scientists spot trends over long periods, but Cooper says scientists need at least 10 years’ worth of counts along with other data — nesting pair counts and number of young produced - to accurately assess the health of bird populations.
So why do people, many of them elderly, huff and puff up Peters Mountain to stand on the railing of an old fire tower and shiver as hawks fly by? “The hawk is a stunning bird; it’s like watching a jet fighter,” Cooper says. “People relate to predatory birds because they are charismatic.”
A plastic owl sits atop a pole wedged into a crevice between some rocks on Peters Mountain. Owls and hawks have a contentious relationship. Occasionally a hawk will dive from the sky, legs trailing behind it, heading straight for that owl.
Suddenly, the hawk throws out its talons, spreads its tail feathers like a brake, and crashes into the owl. Cheers erupt from the rocks. The hawk flies away, no doubt bewildered by human behavior. When To Go
September is the month for broad-wingeds, with the most spotted in the middle or latter part of the month. On Sept. 22, 930 broad-winged hawks were counted at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory. October sees the arrival of Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks. These forest dwellers are smaller and don’t migrate in great kettles (groups), as broad-wingeds do. Golden eagles and red-tailed hawks fly by Hanging Rock in November.
Other birds spotted at Hanging Rock include bald eagles, peregrine falcons and kestrels. In 2000, counters spotted the first gyrfalcon ever seen in West Virginia from Peters Mountain.
The climb from the grassy parking area is steep and rocky, so wear good shoes and watch your step. It is usually windy and cold on the top of the mountain, so bring extra clothing. Volunteers have placed an outhouse on the ridge for your convenience. For directions to Hanging Rock, get on the Internet at www.hangingrocktower.org/map.htm.