Thursday, September 15, 2011

Hawk eyes and more in Montclair

Following up on our hawk watch post a few weeks ago, Ivan and I ventured to the Montclair Hawk Watch site this past Sunday to see what was in the skies above. We'd been fortunate to see a variety of raptors (including a mature bald eagle -- extremely awesome!) at the Meadowlands Festival of Birding, so we hoped that we'd have the same luck a few miles south and a few hundred feet higher in altitude.

The Montclair Hawk Watch is New Jersey's oldest established hawk watch site, second only to Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain in longevity nationally. Local birders started scanning for hawks from this site on the First Watchung Ridge in 1957, climbing up a rough trail from the neighborhood below. The site was eventually obtained by New Jersey Audubon and adjusted to make it more amenable to hawk watching. Today, viewers enjoy a large, flat, rock-covered platform with a sweeping view of eastern Essex, Bergen, Passaic and Hudson Counties and the New York City skyline.

It doesn't take rappelling gear to reach the summit, but the way up to the platform is a bit more than a walk in the park. After parking in a small lot for the nearby Lenape Trail, we crossed the street and made our way on an unlabeled path into the woods. Soon enough, the path rises on a series of railroad-tie-and-dirt steps leading to a steep wooden staircase built into a wide crevice between two rock faces. Once you're up a bit, you walk atop a broad, slightly angled rockface until you get to a metal staircase that Ivan described as a pool ladder. It's more substantial than that, but you get the idea.

The afternoon of our visit, a handful of other birders were already up there, chatting while keeping a keen eye out for hawks and others on the horizon. I learned that the best way to spot is to take sweeping views horizontally across the vision field through your binoculars, then moving down to the next plain and zag across the next lower field. The lulls between sightings create opportunities for conversation, and it's a friendly crowd, so it didn't take long before I felt comfortable calling out a sighting in the distance. I didn't necessarily know what I'd spotted, but others didn't take long to voice their theories until a consensus was met.

While we were there, a decent showing of birds came by, including plenty of sharp-shinned hawks, some osprey, kestrel, merlin and even a bald eagle. I always get a big kick out of watching them soar -- they look as if they're having so much fun (I know I would be if I were them), and being at a 500 foot elevation brought them so much nearer than you'd generally see them. Some of them even circled above the platform, giving us a lovely view of their undersides.

The watch season is just gearing up, and broad-winged hawks should be making their appearance in kettles (large groups) next week if experience is any indication. Other species will take up the march over the next two months, until migration is largely complete in November. Stop by and check it out for an hour or two -- I guarantee you'll gain a new respect for those large birds that we often see as just specks far up above us.

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