Flocking to watch birds of prey migrate
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WILKES-BARRE -- Ann Searfoss and Laura Adams sat patiently on the rock outcrop on Council Cup near Wapwallopen, Luzerne County, scanning the horizon. From their elevated perch approximately 700 feet above the Susquehanna River, Searfoss and Adams could see for miles.
They stared intently at three points in the distance -- the rock outcropping above them, a gap between the mountains over Shickshinny and a faraway ridge line. Their eyes scrutinized the overcast sky for any black dot, hoping it would signify a migrating hawk, osprey or eagle.
"We just want to see who is passing through," Adams said.
Searfoss and Adams were part of a Senior Citizen Hawk Watch conducted recently by North Branch Land Trust naturalist Rick Koval.
Last year, watchers counted more than 800 hawks in two hours migrating past Council Cup. The action was a little slower this year, but the group remained committed.
After an hour, Koval spotted a black speck hovering in the sky above the gap. A closer look with some high-powered binoculars confirmed his hunch that the speck was a turkey vulture and not a hawk.
"You can tell a turkey vulture apart because they rock when they glide," he said.
While the group waited for the first hawk sighting, members reminisced about last year's eventful watch. Large groups of hawks, or kettles, passed Council Cup utilizing air thermals. Koval likened the display to a beehive.
"The hawks bunch up and form into the thermals, rising as high as they can until they reach the pinnacle and string out, gliding down to the next thermal," Koval said. "Anything that could happen right that day happened."
"It looked like the hawks were caught in a whirlwind as they rode the thermals," Searfoss said. "We couldn't even eat lunch because they kept flying by."
The process of rising up on the thermals and coasting down allows the hawks to cover distance without expending much energy. Because the birds migrate to Texas and South America, the advantage offered by the rising air thermals is crucial.
Koval has been counting hawks from the top of Council Cup for 10 years, logging countless hours at the site during the migration season, which runs from August to December. Some years have produced 200 to 300 hawks in one kettle. On rare occasions, the birds will glide by at eye level.
"On certain days, this place is as good as Hawk Mountain," Koval said. "On a few occasions I saw an osprey fly by with a fish in its talons. Sometimes we'll see hawks roosted in the trees for the night and then form a kettle in the morning."
When it comes to hawk migration, the viewing opportunities at Council Cup are unpredictable. Hawk Mountain, in Berks County, always produces results because the birds have a long, continuous mountain ridge to follow. Council Cup has plenty of air thermals but consists of broken mountain ridges.
The action remained slow for the rest of the morning, producing a cluster of cedar waxwings and a few straggling monarch butterflies on their way to Mexico for the winter.
By noon, the overcast sky began to clear and the temperature started to rise. Cumulus clouds formed overhead, making for favorable hawk-watching conditions.
"The cumulus clouds create good thermals and give you a good background to see the hawks," Koval said. "The heat is also starting to increase, so we'll start getting some good thermals."
A few minutes later, four American kestrels rose above the rock outcropping, swirling inside the thermal.
"You can tell they're kestrels without using your binoculars. They have real pointy wings and they'll flap a couple times and then glide," Koval told the group.
Another half-hour passed as the group waiting patiently for the sky to produce results. From his post on the edge of the outcropping, Koval spotted the unmistakable shape of a red-tailed hawk.
Participants abruptly raised their binoculars as the large hawk soared into view. The raptor hovered above the edge of Council Cup for a minute before swooping down over the town of Wapwallopen to catch the next thermal.
The single sighting was brief, but it was enough to renew the group's interest.
"It's like a rush when you see one," said land trust member Stephen Chisarick. "I've read the history about these birds when they were shot and poisoned, so it's good to see their numbers coming back.
"When you see one migrate by, it reaffirms the fact that we're finally doing something right for their population."
First Published October 2, 2005 12:00 am