by Cindy Ross
Author | Speaker
They come on the wind in the fall – 20-25,000 of them. Hawks, eagles, falcons – migrating birds of prey, in search of a warmer climate and more abundant food. They are funneled to this ridge and use it as a guiding beacon to places as far-flung as Argentina. This ridge is a leading line- a direct path for their grand and miraculous journey south.
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a special place. It sits in a jog on the normally poker-straight Blue Mountain that cuts across Pennsylvania in a northeasterly direction. It is the first of multiple ridges, the Kittatinny Ridge, in the region known as the Ridge and Valley Providence.
But because of this jog, the V-shaped valley of Eckville creates spiraling updrafts that climb the steep-sided ridge and give the birds a mighty push southward. The birds pepper the skies surrounding Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s North Lookout from late August until December, making it one of the world’s best observation sites for the fall migration.
More data on migrating raptors has been collected here than any place on earth. People come from all over the world to climb to the mountain’s vistas and trace their glorious flight through binoculars. The scenic overlooks tower 1,300 – 1,500 feet above sea level and provide close-up and intimate opportunities to view the birds and learn about them. You can rub shoulders with knowledgeable biologists who can identify how old a specific bird is before you can even see them with your naked eye.
There are eight miles of trails on sanctuary property and many more if you connect to the Appalachian Trail, the longest continually marked footpath in the world. The Escarpment Trail is my favorite, as it entails using hand over hand bouldering with stellar views of the valley to the side. This is a great place to take your children, who love to scramble and climb. The main trail is gentle and meanders past the Hall of the Mountain King and the historic Slide, where remains of a quarrying operation that dropped carloads of sand down to the Schuylkill River via a gravity railroad is visible. Or, you can spend a greater amount of time hiking and take the River of Rocks Trail. This rugged trail skirts a huge field of boulders that once sat perched on the mountaintop before rolling down into the valley floor.
Even if you are wheelchair bound, you can get to South Lookout, with its gently graded trail. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary offers an all-terrain wheelchair free of charge that requires a pusher to help, but the incline is slight and well worth it. A stone and gravel platform next to South Lookout provides an ideal flat spot for people using wheelchairs who want to view the migration.
The Visitor’s Center features the Wings of Wonder Gallery with nineteen life-sized hand carved raptor models, featuring sixteen species of hawks, eagles, and falcons. A Native Plant Garden, observation deck, and bird blind all add to your enjoyment.
There are programs offered throughout the year, many are free, and during migration season, a spokesperson from the sanctuary sits on the lookouts assisting in bird identification.
Come for the day. Pack a picnic, bring some cushions so you can sit awhile and wait for that low-flying eagle at the end of the day,
the prize for those with patience. It is quite a bit cooler on the ridge top, so pack extra warmth, windbreakers, hats, etc. Don’t forget the binoculars and sturdy shoes as trails are ungraded and rocky (except for the one to South Lookout). Remember, some of the best flights are after a low-pressure system passes when the winds are from the north or west, temps and humidity are dropping, and barometric pressure is rising. If all else fails, call Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for advice!
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is located in Pennsylvania’s Americana Region.