Each fall, the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch meets atop Afton Mountain to collect data on migrating birds of prey passing overhead. Reports by Randi B. Hagi of the WMRA.
[Sound of wind on the top of the mountain]
HAWK WATCHER: A wide kite and a coop! Both up there.
A rotating group of falcon watchers gather almost daily during the fall at the abandoned former Afton Mountain Inn. With binoculars pointed at the sky and on the horizon, they search for the dark silhouettes of hawks, eagles and hawks heading south for the winter. Their vantage point offers panoramic views of the Shenandoah Valley to the west and the Piedmont foothills to the east. David Hunter, who lives south of Charlottesville, has been coming here for over 20 years.
DAVID HUNTER: To see the passing of the season in hawk migration, here on such a large scale – we hardly ever get to see something like that in the wild. And standing here on the mountain, you can literally watch them coming, heading south every year, year after year, in droves, and it’s like watching the earth move. The living earth, invading everything. It’s phenomenal! And of course, the view here in both directions beats any day in any office! [laughs]
It is one of some 200 raptor monitoring sites across the continent that report their daily counts to the Hawk Migration Association of North America. The group monitors bird population trends and movement patterns.
HUNTER: Imagine that each of the birds we see here, in breeding season, sometimes has a kingdom of a square kilometer, right? And you see a thousand, or yesterday they had 7,000 hawks in one day. How many kings from how many kingdoms have come at the same time ?! It’s amazing when you think about it at this level.
Hunter noted that because the birds they observe are so distant, it takes time for your eyes to learn to discern the distinct silhouettes of each species. Falcon watchers use binoculars to search for raptors and, if necessary, follow up with spotting scopes at 20 to 60 times the naked eye magnification to identify birds.
Gabriel Mapel started honing these skills in 2010, when he was just 11 years old. He is now stationed in California with the National Park Service, but spent time at Afton Mountain last week on a return trip to New Hope.
GABRIEL MAPEL: We have this broad, expansive view here. It’s not quite a 360, but almost … birds tend to follow the ridge lines because there is wind along the ridge and they use it to gain height and facilitate their migration.
There are 13 species of raptors that the group observes regularly. The most common are the broad-winged hawks – their record is 11,000 in a single day. The broad wings, and most of the species they count, seem to be doing well.
MAPEL: I can speak for the Broad-winged Hawks in particular because it’s September 24th, so we’re near the end of their migration season… we’ve had almost 29,000 Broad-winged Hawks in total up to present this season. Like I said, our season is averaging around 20 or 21,000, and our all-time record for a season is 32,000, so we’re way above average, approaching a record.
He said you really have to look at population trends over a decade or more to see how a species is doing.
MAPEL: The American Kestrel, which is one of our little hawks, their numbers are decreasing. We have seen a steady decline. We don’t know exactly why. … They are not in danger or anything. It’s just that it’s a species that we’ve seen slowly decline over the last 10, 20, 30 years, so it’s something that scientists want to know, and then they can figure out conservation efforts from of the. This is why what we do is so important.
Besides the importance of collecting this ecological data, David Hunter simply appreciates the majesty of the animals they seek.
HUNTER: It’s really beautiful here. And if you are here when the hawks are running it can be a spectacular sight. It’s one of those once in a lifetime moments where you get a huge kettle of hawks in the sun, shining, spinning around each other like a moving funnel.
The migration season lasts until the end of November. For more information on the group and to stop to see the birds for yourself, check out rockfishgaphawkwatch.org.