by Sue Ann Rybak
Fall is finally here. And if you’re looking for a great way to spend a cool crisp autumn day, then you should head over to Militia Hill in Fort Washington State Park for its annual Militia Hill Hawk Watch, which takes place from September 1 to Oct. 31.
The Militia Hill event is in its 26th year, thanks to Oreland resident Marylea Perot Klauder, 75, a volunteer who founded the Hawk Watch as a way to get people engaged in the park.
Many of the volunteers describe Klauder as the heart and soul of the Hawk Watch. Although Klauder has retired from organizing the annual watch, she still visits almost every day.
“Mary is always quick to welcome folks,” said Rich Conroy, 50, of Glenside, who coordinates the Hawk Watch with two other volunteers.“ She has a wonderful presence that makes people feel comfortable asking questions.”
Conroy said it’s one of the reasons the watch continues to grow every year.
Klauder said Militia Hill gets more hawks each year than Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton.
On Sunday, Sept. 15, Militia Hill broke the daily record for broad-winged hawks. Conroy said there were 18,055 broad-winged hawks counted out of a total of 18,101 recorded raptors. The original record was 13,079 broad-winged hawks on Sept. 18, 1995.
“Typically when hawks migrate they like to use ridge lines – both for geographic markers and the lift they get from thermals – updrafts of hot air,” said Conroy, who has been birdwatching since he was a kid.
Laurie Goodrich, a senior monitoring biologist at the Acopian Center for Conservation Learning at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, said Militia Hill is unique because it is not on a ridge or coastline and receives a large migration of broad-winged hawks. She added that it was an important site to monitor off-ridge migration in the region.
“We have learned a lot [about bird migration] but there is much we do not know,” said Goodrich, of Orwigsburg.
She said hawks soar on thermal air currents during migration to conserve their energy. Broad-winged hawks are one of the most common hawks in North America. They are one of the few raptors that migrate in huge flocks called kettles.
“Migration is a dynamic behavior,” Goodrich said. “Some birds are complete migrants, such as the broad-winged hawk, where 99 percent of the species vacates North America in the winter. Others, such as the red-tailed hawk, are partial migrants, where only part of the population migrates.
Andy Fayer, 47, of Whitemarsh, who also is a coordinator of the annual Hawk Watch, said that with an elevation of only 330 feet, and no large body of water, Militia Hill has no geographic features of great importance to migration. Despite this, he said all 16 species of East Coast raptors have been recorded at the Militia Hill Hawk Watch.
Volunteers at the Hawk Watch report the numbers to the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), a nonprofit organization that coordinates hawk watch sites across North America and maintains long-term databases on hawk migration. Its mission is to conserve raptors through scientific study, enjoyment and appreciation of raptor migration.
Goodrich said monitoring hawk migration provides wildlife and conservation organizations and the public with information on the population of health and status of wildlife in the environment.
“It was declines in peregrine falcons and bald eagles and other birds that led to us to realize how detrimental DDT and its derivatives were to the environment,” Goodrich said.
Fayer said visitors are always surprised at how many birds are at the park that they never noticed before.
“Once you know about raptor migration and songbird migration, you wonder how you ever missed 1,000 broad-winged hawks over your head or the dozens of orioles, tanagers and warblers coming through your area,” Fayer said.
“Seeing a large kettle of broad-winged hawks is an amazing experience,” he added. “Even now, when I find a large kettle in my binoculars my heart skips a beat. It takes a few moments to confirm that the specks in the distance are hawks. Once I am sure of what I am seeing, I get my bearings and let everyone on the deck know where I am seeing the birds.
“This past weekend [Sept. 15], when the birds were coming through in huge numbers, the oohs and the aahs and disbelief from people on the deck were the best part,” Fayer said. “Even the veteran hawk watchers were dumbstruck. We counted over 18,000 birds – a new one-day record at Militia Hill.”
Fayer said one of his most memorable moments birdwatching was seeing a lift-off of 10,000 plus broad-winged hawks.
“At one point, I counted the 14 large kettles along the ridge to the East. The kettle that came up out of the trees between the deck and the Roxborough Towers was so large that it was impossible to count. Once the birds moved off for the day, less than 10 birds were counted the rest of the day.”
Conroy said he loves birdwatching because he never knows what he will see.
“Every year offers the chance for a new experience,” Conroy said. “Sept. 15 was an awesome example of when weather, wind and broad-wings cooperate to put on a show at Militia Hill. This year, we hope to pass 300,000 raptors counted in the history of Militia Hill.”
Conroy added that it was “an attainable goal this season” because the Hawk Watch was only about 3,000 birds away with six weeks still left in the season. Last year’s Hawk Watch final count was 24,085.
As of Sunday, Sept. 22, the number of raptors counted at Militia Hill was 23,010. Readers can find out what the current hawk count is by going to www.hawkcount.org and selecting Militia Hill.
Hawk-watch sites are supported by volunteers and contributions from the public. People can support the network by becoming members of HMANA. For information, go to www.hmana.org for information.