Raptor Attention

Story and Photos by Richard Wilson

As autumn progresses, local residents and visitors to the Northwest New Jersey Skylands gather to watch the raptor migrations as they fly along the thermals created along the path of the world's oldest mountain range ­ the Appalachian Mountains.

Bald Eagle

Raptors are birds of prey. They are big birds and readily noticed. Some of the common raptors seen in the Sussex/Warren hills include bald eagles, golden eagles, red tail hawks, red shoulder hawks, broad wing hawks, rough-legged hawks, northern goshawks, cooper's hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, northern harrier or marsh hawks, ospreys, American kestrels, merlin, peregrine falcons, turkey vultures and black vultures.

Photos Top Left: Northern Goshawk
Top Right: Redtail Hawk
Bottom: Broadwing Hawk

While this may seem like quite a list there are other raptors that may appear at any time. It takes time to become familiar with the raptors. But don't rush. Set your sights and proceed according to your own personal schedule. Expect the unexpected! Nothing is guaranteed with birding except that you should have a most enjoyable day. Don't forget to "stop and smell the roses!" It is hard to beat a clear cool day on a Skylands Mountain.

Above Left: Golden Eagle; Right: American Kestrel
Middle Left:Osprey; Right: Harris Hawk (rare sighting)
Bottom left: Coopers Hawk; Right: Peregrine Falcon

Birds are indicators as to the quality of life on our planet. As you gain experience, patterns in their behavior will start to take shape. If and when these patterns change, you'll want to know why. As you learn, your interest and concern for our natural environment will increase.

Many observation sites exist along the Appalachian Trail, and easily accessible areas such as Sunrise Mountain and High Point State Park are very popular during this time of year. At these observation points there will be many friendly "birders' who will help the novice identify birds in the flights of the day. Remember that nothing can be guaranteed. Some days you can see as many as 600 or more birds in an hour's time. Sometimes you get left with nothing. More times than not you will be rewarded. Bald eagles are always a special sighting, particularly the first time. Listen to the comments of those around you. It is always a thrilling experience, for even the most veteran of bird watchers.

Sometimes birders will bring a fake owl mounted to a piece of plastic pipe to the mountain. This will set some hawks crazy ­ notably the broad wing hawk. Broad wings drop in to buzz the owl, trying to attack the artificial bird. This gives observers a good close up view of broad wings.

Checklist for an enjoyable raptor watch.

  • The best migration days occur during a clear cold front with a northwest wind blowing in your face ­ cold enough to have tears run down your cheeks. For this reason it is better to have too many clothes than too few! Remember to layer your outerwear. And don't forget a pair of substantial shoes or hiking boots. There can be a remarkable temperature change during the day, and as you walk to higher elevations. Stay home if there is any sign of bad weather.
  • Bring something special to snack on and a thermos of something warm to drink. You're going to burn some calories. Remember to bring all your garbage out of the area.
  • Once the hunting season begins, it's always safer to do your birding on Sunday. Hunters are free to hunt private hunting grounds on Sunday, but state lands are out of bounds.
  • Bring binoculars. While many prefer an eight-power binocular, anything in the seven to ten powers will do. A camera is optional. While hawks are very difficult to photograph, the scenery is always beautiful. Bring an extra roll of film; you never know!
  • Get a good field guide such as A Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson, Peterson Field Guides Hawks by William S. Clark/Brian K. Wheeler or Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley and Clay Sutton. Matching the pictures in the book with the real thing is quite satisfying.
  • Bring your children or grandchildren. With some guidance and proper dress, they will love the trip. Remember that they will get hungry.
  • Make a realistic time schedule. Plan on spending between 2 and 4 hours observing. Planning to observe for a full day becomes a chore.
  • Bring a notebook and pen or pencil. Some birders keep life lists of all the birds that they have seen, and, with over 8,000 bird species in the world, your list may someday be quite long.
  • Be aware of reptiles as you walk rocky terrain. In the early morning, snakes warm themselves on rocks.
  • Bring a cell phone for emergency.
  • Bring a medium size empty cardboard box. Should you find an injured raptor you can place the bird into the box and get help from a state and federally licensed rehabilatator. A good starting place would be The Raptor Trust. Remember it is against the law to possess a wild bird- alive or dead- a wild bird feather, a wild bird nest or a wild bird egg without federal and state permits.
This story was first published: Autumn, 2002
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