I know a hell of a lot more about birds of prey than I did just 48 hours ago. We spent 24 hours immersed in a small paradise in Pennsylvania which is dedicated to raptor conservation.
The bird refuge at Hawk Mountain was started in 1934 by Rosalie Edge, my friend Deborah’s grandmother, when she learned that migrating hawks were being shot in the hundreds as they were carried by the thermal drafts that are so much a part of this site in Pennsylvania. She somehow found the funds to purchase hundreds of acres and declare a prohibition on hunting on that land. She goes down in environmental history with the likes of Rachel Carson and other legendary greats.
I had written about this amazing woman
2 years ago when Deborah first told me about her grandmother, but until this weekend I had not had a chance to see Hawk Mountain firsthand.
We were last-minute invitees for a Saturday evening dinner at the groundskeeper’s house (dating to 1700) which Deborah purchased as a Hawk Mountain auction item.
Upon arriving yesterday we hiked up to the North Lookout, where from August 15 on through the fall there is a volunteer counting the various species of birds that fly over. This counting of birds has been done continuously since the refuge was first established in 1934. There was a noticeable dip when DDT was so prevalent. In fact, Rachel Carson used this bird count as evidence of her theories. Since this is just the beginning of the migration season we didn’t see the huge numbers of birds that will be flying over in mid-September, but those that were up there could fly freely with no threat of harm.
Last night we had our gourmet dinner in the old house that was once an inn. The story goes that quite a few merchants stopped at that inn never to emerge again and the innkeeper at the time profited greatly from their goods. Some say the old place is haunted with the ghosts of those murdered merchants.
Haunted or not we sat on the covered patio after dinner and were treated to a natural sound and light show that illuminated the surroundings in an eery way. Joining us were 5 interns to the bird sanctuary who came from Spain, Argentina, and Ivory Coast. These young ecologists from around the world receive scholarships to come learn and study at Hawk Mountain so they can establish sound conservation practices in their respective countries. We spoke in Spanish, French, and English and that language of hand gestures that needs no words. They were a delight as they told us why they had come and what they hoped to do to protect birds back home.
Today we went to a “Hawk Talk”, where a staff member inundated us with information about raptors as he held a live hawk on a gloved hand. (The hawk is a resident of the sanctuary because it had been illegally kept domestically and could not be reintroduced into the wild.) Here are just a few facts that I picked up:
– The characteristic of a raptor is its ability to capture food by using its feet which have large talons. Among the group of raptors are hawks, owls, eagles, and vultures, to name a few.
– The most dangerous time in a raptor’s life is the first year, when they must learn to hunt successfully or they will not survive. (There is not the option to come back home to your parents if it doesn’t work out. After just a few weeks the young birds must be self-sufficient.) If they do survive the first year, they can live for 20-30 years.
– Whereas many animals find their food by smell, a raptor relies mainly on sight, having acute vision even in the dark.
– Much of their migration is accomplished by riding thermal updrafts so they don’t have to continuously flap their wings and use up so much energy.
– If the raptor’s wings are V-shaped in flight, it’s probably a turkey vulture.
I learned one other painful lesson. On the big hike up to the North Lookout, I used a walking stick and had no trouble negotiating the rocks. However, today on a rather simple path, I didn’t bring my walking stick and I took a fall. My good strong bones are fine, but my knees look like a 5-year-old’s knees! My doctor friend insisted I go rinse off the scrapes, but my pride was actually more seriously wounded. From now on, my walking stick goes on all hikes/walks on an uneven path. It’s just good insurance and peace of mind.
What a wonderful weekend with people I love. It was such a good way to prepare for the discussions back home that have already started.