Friday, September 19, 2014

Hawk Watching on the Hook

     When I was first dating my husband, what seems like now, eons ago, I remember the first hike he took me on to Hook Mountain, better known as "The Hook." Little suburban Long Island me, was super impressed by being in the mountains, surrounded by woods, and less impressed by the steepness of the climb, but for my husband, it got him points for helping me up the scary steep parts. The top of the hike gives you 360-degree views of the Hudson River, Rockland Lake, the Tappan-Zee Bridge, Westchester, the town of Nyack below, down to Piermont, and beyond, even the skyline of Manhattan is viewable, off in the distance.
     Hook Mountain has a trail accessible off of Route 9W, the trail is rocky and steep. It is not a long hike to the top, but for those who are not good with hills, this hike may be challenging. With leaves already falling from some trees, the marked paths (I followed the yellow marked trees) can at times be slippery. Just wear a good pair of shoes or boots, and take your time, being mindful of where you put your feet. Chipmunks will greet you along the way, and if you're lucky, you may see some deer.
     This time of year is big for migration, birds are making their way from their breeding grounds to where they will remain for the winter (Mexico, Central, and South America). Not only do little song birds get a move on, but raptors, birds of prey, need to move too, especially as much of their food (the little birds) fly south!
     Hook Mountain provides a clear space to view hawks and other raptors as they move from the North, pass overhead, and continue South. Devoted locals and visitors compile data of the birds each year passing over The Hook, and have been doing so since the 1970's. Much of that data can be viewed on the Hook Mountain Hawk Watch website. I had the pleasure of viewing birds today with Trudy, the maintainer of the site, and Drew another devoted naturalist. I spent over 6 hours on top of Hook Mountain today and in that time learned much about the birds we watched, the ecology of the area, the history of the area, and the geography. It was an awesome experience, and the totals for the day (migrants only) can be viewed on the HMHW site and my totals (I counted all views) on ebird.
     The total number of birds for the day was well over 100, and just for broad wing hawks, over 150!
On the way up, the tree just to the left of the middle has a yellow dot, a trail marker that leads you both up to the top from 9W and back. This isn't even the steepest parts of the trail.
At first, birds were slow going, but this one bird, a B29 from WWII flew over us quite close. These planes, I learned from Drew, were the first with pressurized cabins and are bomber planes, the same type responsible for dropping the atomic bombs in Japan. During the lulls of birds, we found plenty of things to ID and talk about, planes being one of them.
Soon, we started seeing broad wings, they seem to have these wings that are nicely boarded by black and a white band across the tail, when viewed from below. Immatures, look a bit darker than the mature birds.
We viewed two main types of hawks today, buteos (like this broad wing and red tails) and accipiters (like Cooper's and sharp-shinned). Buteos has larger wings and these wide shorter tails.
Another buteo hawk, a red tail, surveys the construction on the Tappan-Zee Bridge over the Hudson River. The hawk watch was recording migrants only, migrants tend to fly VERY high up, many red tails are residents, and if they do migrate, may leave later in the upcoming weeks. This red tail, being at eye-level from at the top of the mountain, was not counted as a migrant, but probably holds territory in this area.
Turkey Vultures, also not migrating (yet), have that red-pink head and hold their wings so when looked at straight on, appear to take on a V-shape. These birds soar, using thermals to gain altitude, barely ever needing to flap. Vultures were good guides in finding hawks, who also used the thermals to gain altitude before soaring south ward, to reduce energy use in their many miles that lay ahead of them.
When broad wings migrate, they tend to do so in groups. These groups will, like the vultures use thermals to gain altitude, this gathering within a thermal is called "kettling" and in one of the kettles we saw, 50 birds, if not more were counted. As they reach the top of the kettle, the highest altitude, you then see them peel off and just glide South. These groups, I learned, follow one another; hawks have amazing eye sight and one kettle of hawks will look for (and see!)  the kettle ahead to reach the next thermal to once more gain the altitude they lost when soaring from their last thermal.
Between birds, we saw mantis fly into the grasses atop the mountain, ID'd butterflies, song birds, or just talked about our collection of wildlife stories. 
My husband says there has been a faux owl on top of the Hook for years, well today I learned how that owl proves useful... Sharp Shinned hawks despise owls. Apparently red tails go for it too!
More between birds wildlife, a black swallowtail. We also saw some migrating monarch butterflies, ABOVE us on the mountain! They really get high up! 
A black vulture, which hold their wings more horizontal than turkey vultures. They are also identifiable, because they have lighter color under their wing tips, and sometimes dangle their feet in flight. 
Black vulture.
Quiz yourself- black or turkey vulture?
Another sharp-shinned hawk flies by inspecting the owl. Unlike the broad wings, sharpies are accipiters, unlike buteos, they have stubbier wings, for flight through the forest to hunt smaller birds. They also have a longer tail.
One last mantis, and after over 6 hours in the sun, its time to go.
     This was my first hawk watch ever, my first viewing of wild broad wing hawks, and a full day of raptors. Bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcon, and merlin were also viewed and very cool to see. If you get the chance, hawk watches happen all over the area, even out on Long Island and in New Jersey, anywhere along the migration route, it's a great way to learn, meet people, and socialize, the old fashioned way over a common interest.