Monday, November 14, 2011

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary - Trip Notes

      It's November and we headed up to Hawk Mountain near Kempton, Pennsylvania for a couple of days of birding.  Hawk Mountain is part of the Kittitany Ridge in the Appalachians. It is one spot on earth where the conditions are right for raptors (hawks, vultures, eagles, falcons, etc.) to ride the thermals and make their migration a little easier.  So the ridge and valley forms a bottleneck of sorts and the raptors all funnel through on their way south for the winter.  We had low expectations of seeing many raptors this trip. We had originally planned to visit in September when the migration is at its height and hundreds and possibly thousands of raptors fly through on their way south but, woe is me, I had turned my ankle a week before our trip and broken the tip of the fibula.  With some disappointment but much wisdom, I figured I could not really enjoy hiking and hanging out on the mountain wearing a huge black boot...not to mention trying to walk uphill with a broken fibula. So we cancelled our trip and rescheduled it for November.  But November is nearing the end of the raptor migration season and, while some eagles were still passing through, most of the birds were well on their way to South America for the winter. So we figured we would just go to check things out and, if we saw hawks, then great; if we did not, then that would be okay too.  We also figured that we would enjoy the country side and knew that nature would provide some sights for us to see.

We set out around lunch time. The distance between here and Kempton would take roughly 3 hours so we had plenty of time until check-in at the bed & breakfast.  It was a pleasant drive. It is autumn in this part of the country and the trees were amazingly beautiful with mostly oranges and yellows.  As we drove north of Baltimore, the reds and bright yellows changed to gold and rusty brown as we drove into Pennsylavania.  I had wondered if the early snow in late October would have put a quick stop to autumn colors and left us with dead brown leaves but that was not the case.  There was still plenty of color as we drove north through farm country.  The harvest for the year was mostly completed but there were still plenty of hard-working farmers on tractors mowing down this year's corn stalks and clearing the fields.  As we drove into the hills and mountains, the farms were long grassy berms along the ridges so that the farmers appeared to be tilting somewhat sideways as they moved back and forth through the fields.  In each ravine was a creek and each farm we passed had a portion of the creek dammed up to make a lovely pond.  But I was surprised as we passed so many ponds that there were not more ducks and geese. For the most part, the ponds we passed were empty of all bird life.  I suppose we might have seen smaller birds, sparrows and wrens and such along the hedges near the ponds had we stopped to rest a bit but we moved on contenting ourselves to enjoy the farms and the peacefulness of driving through the countryside.

We checked into the B&B.  As always, the photos of the rooms on the internet made the rooms appear to be much bigger than they are in reality.  But the room was clean and warm so we would be comfortable during out stay.  We drove up to the mountain to check things out and were surprised by the number of people there.  The parking lots were full. But it is a sunny Sunday afternoon so allowed that we are not the only ones who are interested in birds and particulary hawks.  We were tired and didn't want to tackle the mountain at this point so we drove back down and contented ourselves with exploring back roads and farmland until dusk. 

We found Kempton.  It is a small forgotten looking town where the railroad tracks apparently end.  Or so it would seem.  A strip of railroad tracks ended and several railroad cars were parked along this last bit of track. All the cars were marked "Reading" and I was reminded that, back in the heyday of railroad transportation, taking a "ride on the Reading" was the thing to do.  Or at least, I am reminded that the Reading Railroad is forever immortalized in the Parker Brothers game of Monopoly® and every baby boomer knows "if you pass GO", you can collect $200.  And here were several old boxcars from the railroad itself. Later, I asked the B&B proprietor, Jim, about the bit of track and the railroad cars there and he confirmed our suspicions that the town of Kempton had a small museum there that featured the Reading Railroad and the cars were part of the overall display.  But I suspect that the museum doesn't get too many visitors unless peole like me visiting Hawk Mountain drop by on their way off the mountain.  At one time, the town was a bustling railroad junction and must have been the lifeblood of the community.  According to Jim, the children took the railroad back/forth to high school each day. I try to imagine being a teenager who had to run to catch the train every morning rather than the bus as so many of us had to do.  I am alway amazed at finding out things like this.  When visiting an island down in North Carolina, I was surprised to learn that kids still take a ferry to school each day.  What a miserable trip that must be when winter winds cut across the matter how modern, taking the ferry to school in winter has got to be cold.  At least the train would be a little warmer and I suppose it is no different than me (and thousands of other commuters) taking trains to work everyday even now.

      We had dinner at Dietsch Ecks in Lenhartsville. Jim had recommended the place for some local cuisine.  It was Pennsylvannia Dutch style and was okay.  The food would be what you would call, "solid fare".  It was relatively good and filled you up nicely.  It wasn't my best recollection of PA Dutch cooking but it would do. The restaurant was quaint and decorated in Dutch style with hex symbols and old photos on the walls. And, of course, the Yuengling (brewed in the area) was cold and good.

     Back at the B&B, we asked about wi-fi and Jim explained that it wasn't working so well since the "storm".  I am not sure which storm but assumed he meant the snowstorm in late October. We also asked about TV and he affirmed that there was a TV in the room but that it was antenna only and there probably weren't more than 3 channels.  That's okay. We had been looking forward to peace and quiet but hadn't expected to be "off the grid" as it were in terms of internet.  We were more off the grid than we thought. We also had no cell signals so my plans to use my smartphone as a "hotspot" to get internet coverage were shot. Looks like we were gonna get more peace and quiet than we thought.  But that was okay too. We had seen deer and raccoons and squirrels and doves and starlings and chickadees and titmice and pigeons on the way in so we were good to sit and watch a little football (it is Monday night after all) on the one clear channel on the 19" TV in the cupboard in the room.  

     During the night, I got up for a restroom visit and looked out the window.  No streetlights, just lots of dark.  But also lots of stars - thousands of stars, in fact.  Even way down in the valley looking up through the trees, I could see bright stars like I never see them anymore down near home.  No light pollution here.  I was tempted to grab my jeans and shirt and step outside the room to do some serious star gazing. But it is not only dark in the mountains, it was cold. And I was warm inside and way too tired to want to take a midnight walk down a dark country lane.  Oh well, maybe tomorrow night.

     Breakfast at the B&B was hearty - sausage and whole wheat pancakes with maple syrup. You can always depend on good sized meals in the country.  The breakfast would get us through the trip to the mountain.  One good thing about hawk watching is that the hawks do not get up early to migrate.  They wait until the sun comes up and warms the thermals so they can use the uplifts to save energy during their flight.  So, likewise, we did not have to get up early.  Today, the mountain was not crowded.  There were very few cars in the parking lot.  There is a very nice visitor center with a small museum showing the story of how the mountain became a Sanctuary and protected along with records showing the trends of past migrations.  Of course, the numbers for this year were posted.  It didn't look good for us.  The numbers of hawks and eagles had dwindled in the past few weeks.  But there had been some golden eagle sightings so we were optimistic as we headed up the mountain.

     Our first stop was the south lookout.  Only a single individual was there. We stopped to chat and look around. Getting to the south lookout doesn't require any climbing or hiking - just a straight path out from the visitor center. The young man at the lookout was from Nigeria. He is an intern who is here for several months to observe the migration and to study American raptors. He was very informative and pleasant. He explained that the "official" count takes place on the north lookout where the birds are usually spotted first. The north lookout counter reports in to the south lookout at recurring intervals. I surmise that this keeps the birds from being counted multiple times.  The intern advises us that it is pretty much past the season and there have been no sightings today.  But we were not discouraged. It was a beautiful day with a sunny blue cloudless sky. The view was amazing. Down in the valley we could clearly see the "River of Rocks" left there by some passing glacier or washed there by some ancient flood.  I think the latter since I am not sure glaciers were known this far south in the last ice age.  The sun had also warmed the chill away and it was quite comfortable sitting there at the south lookout notwithstanding we were sitting on rocks.  But they were rather large rocks that had been smoothed with many a butt over the years but it still wasn't too long before the hardness of the rocks made for numb butts and we were glad to get up and do a little walking.

The hike up to the north lookout starts out level and smooth....not much more than a pleasant walk in the woods. I wasn't sure whether or not I could make it to the top with my "new" knees and my still-healing ankle but I was certainly going to try. Pretty soon small rocks started to show on the path and then small strips of rocky areas to transverse and then much rockier areas on the path.  We noted the access point to the "Escarpment Trail" which was pupportedly the short cut to the top.  Seeing that even the first part of that trail appeared to go straight up over the rocks with no stairs or handrails, we wisely elected to stick to the basic trail.  And it was no picnic itself. There were some rough areas with handrails (thank you very much to the caretakers who placed the rails there) and there was one section that went more or less straight up over a natural rock staircase. Again, thanks to the handrails, I was able to transverse it okay.  We took our time having decided in the beginning to take it slow and easy. The attendant in the visitor center had told us that the climb would take about 30-45 minutes to the top. Well, we took about 1-2 hours....closer to 2 than 1.  We stopped at Sunset Lookout and had a snack. There was a bench there (what a luxury!) and, while the view was mainly blocked by trees, it was a pleasant place for a nice long break.  A sign there informed us that at one time there had been sand mining here on the mountain and a set of rails near the place where we sat that went all the way down the mountain.  Of course, we could not imagine anyone mining sand of all things since quite a bit of the rock we had seen was granite and we hadn't seen any sand piles or pits at all. And then we could not imagine anykind of tram car going down that mountain at that angle. There just wasn't anyplace we could see where the slope was less than 75-80 degrees. But I have always thought that if there is something that can be sold and someone can make money at it, a way will be found to get the product to market.....apparently even if the trip is straight down the side of a mountain.

      And then we were at the top at the north lookout. We asked about and there were still not hawks to be seen or counted.  No hawks, no eagles, not evan any vultures. They keep up with vultures because they are raptors and because they are short distance migrators but not because vultures are threatened or endangered. Cruise down any highway in America where there is road kill and you know pretty much that vultures are not really endangered.  But it is always good to keep track of things.  No one really believed passenger pigeons were in trouble until they were gone. We humans take far too many things for granted, especially birds.  At the top there were twenty or so people sitting around on the rocks waiting expectantly to see hawks.  I suppose they would have been happy with any bird.  The thing to do is to sit where you can see the official counter/ When he/she puts the binoculars up or calls out a hawk, then you and everyone else quickly grabs for binoculars and cameras to try to see what the counter sees.  That wasn't happening much today.  There was a group of high school seniors (all girls) here on a field trip and they were having a joyous time as teenage girls usually do.  They were somewhat entertaining and gave the rest of us something to look at.  The north lookout also had an intern - this one from Greece.  He was older and more advanced in his studies. He stopped by to chat with us and told us about his travels and birding trips. The interns rotated each day so tomorrow he would be a the south lookout. Several other folks stopped over to talk to us. I rather think they hadn't thought we would make it to the top and were a little surprised that we had and that we were not showing any signs of distress.  It was pleasant and the view was beautiful and the rest at the top was totally enjoyable. 

But there were no hawks.....then just as we were getting up to leave, a smallish bird flew by moving from east to west along the ridge.  The bird was a little larger than a dove and my first thought was that it was a dove.  I almost did not raise my binoculars to look at it...but I did.  I heard the intern say, "It's a little sharpie," just as I focused on the little hawk.  I hadn't realized that sharp-shinned hawks were this small. It was not as small as a kestral but not as large as a red-tailed hawk.  But I did get a pretty good look before he passed out of sight. The official counter and the group converging around him had spotted a red-tailed hawk way off in the distance gliding in circles over the valley to the south east.  We were able to view him in the binoculars but I would not have know it was a red-tailed hawk if the counter had not identified him for us. The hawk wasn't migrating and was probably a "resident".  He and the little sharpie were the only hawks I would see that day.  We headed back down the path taking our time - slow and easy again.  We stopped in at the south lookout for a bit but were soon on our way off the mountain.  Again, the hike took us about an hour whereas others (especially the teens) moved at a quicker pace and probably took no longer than thirty minutes.

We came to Hawk Mountain and we didn't see many hawks. But we had a lovely day. And my knees and my ankle held up fine.  We learned quite a bit about hawks and migration patterns using the thermals and wind currents. We drove down the mountain content but hungry having missed lunch.  For us, the day was a great success even though we didn't see many birds of any kind.  This is a place we will try to return to and a place we will recommend to others, birders or not. 

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