Wednesday, October 14, 2015

PA: Waggoner's Gap, Cumberland Co. - Birding the Ridge

My favorite time of the year is now. The Appalachian Mountains are nearly at peak color and the migration season for birds is in full swing. I live just an hour from the famous Kittatinny Ridge that defines the top of the long hogbacked Blue Mountain  that runs 187 miles through Pennsylvania. The mountain is part of the Valley and Ridge region of the Appalachian Range and it rises steeply - almost suddenly - from the drop-faulted Great Valley region. It a barrier of sorts, though a very permeable one, to millions of raptors that come streaming south out of Canada and New England. The birds sail on the winds that carry them effortlessly southward against the north-facing slope of this wall of Tuscarora quartzite.

Entrance to Hawk Watch off of Rt. 74 (Waggoner's Gap Road) that passes through the high wind gap.

You simply cannot live in Pennsylvania and not be aware of the geology and geography of this huge state. What's more, the Pennsylvania naturalist is most aware of how geology and geography affect what kinds of plants and animals are found here, and how the changing seasons interact with landscape and wildlife. The mountains and river valleys determine how and why the winds funnel migratory species the way they do and if we can read these patterns correctly we can be in just the right place at the just right time for some spectacular encounters. Pennsylvania's many hawk watch lookouts are where to be when the winds blow just right - like today!

Blue Mountain rises like a sheer wall from the farming valley below.

Thanks in large part to conservation activist Rosalie Edge (1877-1962) the annual hawk slaughters that occurred along the Ridge (most horrifically at Hawk Mountain Lookout in the early 1900s) had been stopped by mid-century and hawk watching took its place. Now there are over a dozen well-attended lookouts along the Kittatinny Ridge from the  Delaware Water Gap to the Maryland Line. Waggoner's Gap is one of these and like the others it is staffed by volunteer spotters through the fall migratory period to count and record species and numbers of raptors. Blue Mountain funnels millions of accipiters, buteos, eagles, harriers. osprey and falcons on through great Appalachian Mountain chain that will carry them to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. Some birds will cross the open Gulf while others will join millions more funneling into Mexico and on to Central America.

Facing north to spot hawks coursing along the ridge.

The counts are very official, following protocol for identification and counting - and also very fun. The north wind made it feel more like an early winter day but it was just the "push" the migrating hawks needed to make hundreds of miles by sundown. The day's count from our lookout will be combined with counts from all the others along the ridge to add important data to a long history of hawk watching counts. This information will help ornithologists and conservationists to gauge how populations of raptors are faring. With solid conservation policy in place we know from these counts (which have been going on since the 1940s) that hawks and all their cousins are in pretty good shape along the Eastern Flyways. This is great news considering how some species like osprey and eagle were affected by DDT in the 50s and 60s.

Pennsylvania Audubon has done a great job with public education and signage. Well done!

When I found my place among the dozens of hawk watchers at the ridge, I learned very quickly what the landmarks were. "Over the red maple!" "Just above the oak!" "Look to the right of the mid-slope pine!" "There - above the big dip!" "Moving from the little dip to the big dip!" Hawks came in singles and in groups. Bald eagles were high above following the highest lift of the wind wave, while accipiters like Sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper's hawks moved just at tree height - sometimes just over my head!

Trail blazes mark the way to the top of the ridge.

Just a note for folks new to hawk watching: The trails here are a jumble of sharp quartzite blocks and I suggest hiking poles for steadying your walk up. Plan on spending several hours if a hawk watch is underway, but it may not be a great destination for young children who could get pretty bored if they cant use binocs or a scope.  You won't have any trouble figuring out where to look with the spotters making their calls, though. Everyone pitches in, even the non-birders were calling out 'Bird!" so that spotters and more expert watchers can identify them.


Every notable Kittatinny Ridge lookout that I have ever visited, including lookouts along the Atlantic coast, have an Owl-On-A-Pole decoy. What self-respecting hawk wouldn't love the opportunity to take a swipe at an owl? Sometimes a very close encounter can be had - as happened today when a Cooper's Hawk took two dives at the owl while I was sitting only a few yards away!

Cooper's Hawk.

Throughout the morning Red-shouldered Hawks surfed the crest of the wind wave along the north slope and Red Tailed Hawks took up the space between the very high eagles and the sharpies at eye level. We caught sight of two Peregrines power-flapping across the valley. A pair of Harriers was observed making a move through the gap right behind us. I gave up trying to record all my sightings and concentrated instead on watching and photographing everything I could.

Bald Eagle, Third Year.

What may not be so obvious to the new hawk watcher is the person sitting near the spotters obviously not watching for hawks. Instead, they are hunched over a check sheet with one or more click-counters in hand listening to the spotters confirmations of species. The counter this morning was very focused on his work and I didn't see him look up until there was a few minutes lull in the action.

Red Shouldered Hawk.

If possible, the spotter will identify the raptor by sex, age, color morphology, and quantities (if in a kettle or flying with a scattered group). The counter will mark a chart on a clipboard and sometimes call out the current  total for certain species. "Up to ten Balds!" "That's our third Peregrine!" Many bird clubs and nature centers will post their totals for the day/week/month and season on their websites or at the kiosks leading to the lookout. You can check the day totals against other sites on   When you click on Waggoner's Gap you can see too that spotters count a lot more than just hawks! In my few hours on the ridge I heard spotters call "Monarch!" "Cans! (Canada Geese) 100!"and "Is that a duck?"

Bald Eagle.

 Our raptor conservation partners in the south are watching too! Last year, spotters in Panama had a record 2 million raptors pass overhead in one day. One of the ladies on the lookout today had been there. Jean described the spectacle as "just rivers of hawks, vultures, eagles, falcons flowing over our heads like water." She recommended I look at a video (noted below) that she brought up on her smart phone. I really couldn't believe what I was seeing!And as of this weekend the Florida Keys hawk watch station recorded an all time high for peregrine falcons for one day at 1600!

Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Before I left my rocky perch to stretch my legs on the Songbird Trail, I checked with the counter to confirm what I thought might be our highest count hawk for the day. He nodded yes, the sharp-shinned hawk was topping the list. This very small, feisty little hawk is the size of a Blue Jay. Coming by the hundreds of thousands through the mountain chain from the vast forested landscapes of New England and Canada (it breeds in PA too!) I saw about about a dozen before I had to get up and stretch.

Cooper's Hawk attacking Owl-On-A-Pole.

The best look at a hawk I had was the Cooper's Hawk that took a dive at the owl decoy. I was lucky enough to fire off a dozen pictures with my 400mm lens even before those around me could find the bird in their viewfinders. This bird was missing two of its primaries and I saw in the pictures later at home that the replacements had just broken the quill sheath and were popping out. This hawk will do just fine on its way south.

The Cumberland Valley.

The Songbird Trail looped around the Hawk Watch Lookout and meandered through a dry red oak and pine forest studded with patches of witch hazel in full bloom. This is the last of the blooming plants of the season, a small tree found near water or in hollows. The trail climbed the boulder path to a secluded overlook that looked south across the Cumberland Valley.  It appears all farms and woodlots far below, but the valley has a long military history in Pennsylvania. Not far away is the town of Carlisle, home of the Carlisle Army Barracks. The U.S. Army War College Library and the U.S. Army Military History Institute occupy a large campus in town. This valley was an important passage too for both Union and Confederate troops during the Civil Way, slaves escaping to freedom, and for waves of settlers heading further west.

Witch Hazel blossom.

The geologic history of the valley is much more complex and involves a system of fractures, faults, and limestone karst topography. It is not unusual for a stream to disappear underground and reappear miles away. South Mountain frames the southern boundary of the valley and here it is the northernmost tip of the famous Blue Ridge that extends all the way to Georgia. The hogback ridge on which I sat and ate my lunch, high above the Cumberland Valley, is still actively eroding. A small ledge of rock just a few yards from where I sat suddenly dislodged and splintered in half.

Tuscarora Quartzite lifted facing southeast - a classic 'hogback' ridge.

I continued down the trail to finish my hike at the parking area and the sharp features of the hogback softened as a wide lump of collapsed overhanging shelf. Lichen-covered and studded with small maples, the footing here was precarious as I stepped from shifting rock to tilting ledge. Where leaves were caught and decaying, pockets of soil had formed and supported small stands of young birch, a fast-growing pioneer.  Though the day was a little chilly for people, I had to remind myself that any good Timber Rattlesnake would be enjoying the warm sun above his den on such a comfortable ridgeline. The large Tuscarora State Forest  just west of here contains some of the healthiest populations of timber rattlers in the state, and though I really wanted to find one, I didn't.  As I neared the parking area I heard for the last time that day a spotter call out "Red Tailed Hawk above the oak!"

A collapsed section of hogback ridge - left slope faces north, right slope faces south.


See what "rivers of raptors" looked like on one November day in Panama, 2014.

Bird the Ridge! contains a wealth of information by site, region, day, and species - even down to the hour. Really take some time to explore this site to find the nearest hawk watch to you.

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