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Posts Tagged ‘Pilot Mountain’

“Guys… I’ve got some Broad-wings.  Above the Horizon…Near that white fluffy cloud.”  (White fluffy clouds covering 60% of the sky.)
“Oh Man!  Crap!”
“Guys… this is  looking good…”
“Guys…they’re starting to stream…OMG…Anybody else got them?  Oh my…. Guys…they should be viewable by eye now.”  (Birds still 10 miles out.)

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

Broad-winged Hawk. We did NOT get close views like this. Photo by Mike Stewart.

It’s a slow year at the Pilot Mountain hawk watch when Scott “The Hubble” DePue has difficulty getting other spotters on the migrating birds.  Broad-winged Hawks comprise the majority of raptors observed during the hawk watch and this year counters tallied only 2,172.  Last year 5,654 Broad-wings were counted with 5,756 in 2014 and 6,057 in 2013.  Jean Chamberlain wanted to know “Where were the kettles?”

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

The tally board. Photo by Marty Hughes.

State Park Ranger Jesse Anderson was disappointed, too.  One day he exclaimed “I’m done with it! I got my fill for the year… I won’t be up there until next year.”  But the very next day he raced James Williams to Little Pinnacle overlook where the annual hawk watch takes place.

Hawks follow migration patterns, but they are not perfectly predictable.  And, certainly, the weather played a role this year.  During the peak stretch this fall, the mountain was fogged in every morning and only somewhat cleared in the afternoons.  Jean, who took over as compiler of the hawk watch after Phil Dickinson moved to Washington state last year, reported “We were ready, expecting to see many birds when the weather finally improved, but we were disappointed.  The kettles didn’t come.  It seems the birds hadn’t minded the dreary weather and came through when we couldn’t see them, or maybe they just flew around us.”  Another weather oddity this year was the unseasonable heat; some described it as downright hot.  And, there were almost NONE of the usual stink bugs…and nobody missed them.

All eyes on the sky.

All eyes on the sky.

While Broad-winged Hawk migration was much slower than usual, we had a good year for other species.  We saw more Osprey (60) and more Peregrine Falcons (20) than ever before.  They passed through steadily throughout the watch period from September 11 to October 5.  We saw a normal number of Bald Eagles (32), Merlins (6), Northern Harriers (6), and Kestrels (18).

But, this hawk watch is valuable for more than the raptors counted.  It may be one of the friendliest and most welcoming to visitors of any in the country.  Our Broad-wing numbers may have been low this year, but education was soaring.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Wandering Glider. Photo by Jay McGowan.

Slow times for hawks gave Jesse the opportunity to have some fun teaching about and counting migratory dragonflies.  That’s right, dragonflies!  This year we added a new aspect to our hawk count and included counting numbers of four dragonfly species that are relatively easy to identify in flight.  Through the Migratory Dragonfly Partnership, hawk watchers can identify, count, and submit these numbers along with the daily hawk results.  Jesse’s favorite dragonfly to share with visitors and hawk watchers was the Wandering Glider (Pantala flavescens).  This brightly colored large yellow skimmer is easy to identify in flight and it happens to have quite an interesting natural history.  The Wandering Glider is considered to be the most widespread dragonfly on the planet, and it exists on nearly every continent!  Also, it is the highest flying dragonfly, recorded at over 20,300 feet in the Himalaya!  So, next year, before the large kettles of Broad-winged Hawks start moving through, come test your binocular skills and help count our zipping dragonfly friends, too!

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse showing a group of girl scouts how to look for raptors.

Jesse also led over 40 educational programs for more than 2,600 visitors including local and visiting boy scout and girl scout troops, 4-H clubs, school groups, and other visitors.  Jesse brought extra binoculars that were recently purchased by the park for visitor use.  They were a big hit with the crowd, especially with the kids, enabling everyone to join in the fun.  There could have been a future hawk counter infected with raptor fever due to his efforts.  A special kick-off event was held for Grandparents Day (September 10th /11th) when visitors of all ages, both the young and young-at-heart, could earn their badge as a Junior Ranger at Pilot Mountain.  Other programs included a live-raptor presentation from Jean (a Wildlife Rehab Inc. volunteer), Binocular-use 101, and Raptor Yoga.  Visitors were given introductions to raptor migration, identification of different species, and a brief conservation plug on easy ways we all can help.

Phil Dickinson, previous compiler for the count, was greatly missed this year, but Jean Chamberlain demonstrated excellent leadership and proved herself to be a worthy successor.  Jesse Anderson’s passion for all things that fly and his in-depth knowledge are taking education to new levels.  Volunteer hawk counters James Williams and Alan Firth contributed significantly by their presence on many days.  Thanks to these and all our other volunteer counters and visitors for making 2016 a memorable year.

Thanks to Jean Chamberlain, Jesse Anderson, and James Williams for their contributions to this story.

For a little history of the Pilot Mountain hawk watch, see Phil’s post Merlins Join Other Migrating Raptors at Pilot Mountain  And, if you want even more hawk watch stories, see Flights of Fancy at Pilot Mountain and Recapping the 2014 Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch.

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The Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch saw another great year in 2014. We tallied 5909 migrating raptors, including 5756 Broad-winged Hawks. Although these totals were about 300 birds less than we recorded in 2013, it was the fourth highest level since the 1991 beginning of the current hawkcount.org database.

September 22 can be a very good day to be at Pilot Mountain State Park. In 1993, observers counted a record 10,835 Broad-winged Hawks on that date. In 2013, 3600 birds represented the second daily total. The 22nd also was good this year with more than 1300 broad-wings. However, Saturday the 25th was even better.

broad-winged

One of 5756 Broad-winged Hawks

That day dawned bright and sunny. It was busy at Little Pinnacle early in the morning. A scout group was there to learn about hawk migration and work on a merit badge. It also was Mayberry Days, so Phil Dickinson, Scott DePue and Park Ranger Jesse Anderson spent much time sharing the watch with inquisitive visitors. “Do you really see eagles, here?” Yes, we do.

scouts

Scouts Work on Birding Merit Badge

So far as the birds were concerned, though, things were pretty slow until mid-afternoon. Then, several large kettles arrived between 3 and 5 p.m. One group of about 250 birds moved directly overhead. However, the largest one nearly got by us. Only the sharp eyes of Howard Coston and Scott noticed a lot of specks way out on the southwest horizon barely within view with binoculars. Training a spotting scope on them, we discovered twin kettles of at least 500 birds each moving over Yadkin County. For the day, we ended up with 2392 broad-wings. This was the third highest daily count since 1991.

broad-wings

Watching Broad-wings Kettle Overhead

It also was a good year for Northern Harriers and Peregrine Falcons. These species migrate only in ones or twos, not in large groups. This year, we saw 11 harriers and 9 of the falcons. Even veteran hawk watchers are thrilled to see these powerful flyers. Numbers of Ospreys and Bald Eagles were down a bit from 2013, but still respectable at about 30 each. We counted only one Merlin, though. Other raptor migrants included Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, and American Kestrels.

Raptors aren’t the only migrants to show up at Little Pinnacle in September. Take a leisurely walk up to the overlook from the parking lot on a sunny morning, and you are likely to see several species of warbler, including Pine, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green, Cape May and Black-and-white. One day, there was a Nashville Warbler, too.

Scarlet Tanagers and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also are frequent visitors, and this year a few Cedar Waxwings stayed with us most of the month. We also saw Veery, Wood Thrush and Gray-cheeked Thrush, and a Red-breasted Nuthatch was a good omen for the local winter birding season.

grosbeak

Immature Male Rose-breasted Grosbeak at Little Pinnacle

We probably cannot define a trend based only on two years, but certainly 2013 and 2014 suggest that eastern raptor populations are doing well – especially the Broad-winged Hawk. Recent numbers far exceed what was counted through most of the past 20 years. Are there more birds? Or is it just more observers, better local weather or just the luck of location? What will 2015 tell us?

Thanks to all of you who took part this year, including members of Forsyth Audubon and Piedmont Bird Club. It was a great mix of new participants and seasoned veterans. Photos by Phil Dickinson and Lon Murdick.

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“Here’s an eagle, on the horizon to the left of Sauratown,” All eyes turn in that direction but see nothing, even through 10x binoculars. Eagle-eye Scott Depue saw it though, and now calmly adds, “don’t worry, its coming right to us; you’ll see it.” Sure enough, a big bird slowly comes into view for everyone, and sure enough it is a Bald Eagle with white head and tail glistening in the sun.  We marvel at the majestic bird and at Scott’s legend eyesight. Regular observers at the Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch affectionately refer to him as “Hubble” after the space telescope.

baldeagle

A Majestic Bald Eagle Soars Overhead

Every September, bird lovers make the pilgrimage to Pilot Mountain to watch migrating raptors. Most of them are Broad-winged Hawks, which travel from their northern nesting areas all the way to Central and South America. They follow the Appalachian ridgeline and pick up the west coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Observers may only see one or two “broad-wings” at a time, but these birds often travel in large flocks or “kettles” as they spiral up on thermals, find a stream of air and effortlessly gliding a few miles before they repeat the process.

Broad-wings aren’t the only migrating birds of prey. At Pilot, watchers can find up to 11 species of hawk, falcon or eagle, plus both Turkey and Black Vultures.  The mountain is registered as an official watch site with the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). For about 40 years, Pilot Mountain volunteers have submitted migration data to the HMANA database at www.hawkcount.org, along with observers from dozens of other locations along the Appalachians and around the country.

hawkwatchers

“Hubbell” and Another Observer Have Their Eyes on the Sky

Sunday morning, September 22, was sunny and cool with a light breeze from the northeast. It was quite a change from the fog and rain of the previous day, when no raptor in its right mind would have been flying much less seen from Pilot’s Little Pinnacle. Mike Conway, Mike Tove and I were there by 10 a.m., and we were expecting a good day. Broad-wings like to move after a cold front blows through, and the conditions were ripe. We just didn’t know how really spectacular the day would prove to be.

Even on good days, the 10-11 a.m. hour can be uneventful because the heat thermals have yet to develop. However, this morning we had 19 broad-wings in these first few minutes, plus close-up views of a Peregrine Falcon flying by the knob. The falcons are amazing to watch, and their numbers are steadily growing after the species was nearly extirpated from North America in the early 1970s.  After 11 a.m., things really began to heat up, with thermals rising and broad-wings flying.

broadwing

Hawk Watchers Learn the Telltale Shape of a Broad-winged Hawk

For the next six hours, the broad-wings spiraled upward several times in “kettles” of 200 birds or more then streamed high overhead toward the southwest. Some were “nasty,” as Scott refers to distant specks above the horizons. Others provided great views close and straight overhead. From time to time 13 Ospreys, 11 Bald Eagles, a couple of Northern Harriers and another Peregrine Falcon distracted us from the main event. Visitors to the overlook always are thrilled when we can point out an eagle flying past us on its way to Florida or the southeast coast.

By the end of the day, we had counted 3622 Broad-winged Hawks for the second highest daily total ever at Pilot Mountain – surpassed only by a 10,000-plus day more than 20 years ago. We couldn’t match those totals the next two days, but the raptor watching was pretty darn good with roughly another 800 birds on Monday and 500 on Tuesday. On that day, one Merlin zipped by at eye level in the morning, followed by a pair in the afternoon. Merlins are the least frequent visitor to the knob, and these were only ones seen this season. The day’s observers also counted all other 12 expected species of raptor/vulture.

broadwings

Kettles of  Broad-wings May Have Hundreds of Birds

With those three days, the peak of the migration had passed. We did add slightly more than 600 birds the following week for a season total of 6247 migrants. This included 6057 Broad-winged Hawks. These numbers were double what we have seen many years and our second highest seasonal tally. Blessed by good weather and dedicated volunteers, it was an extraordinary September at Pilot Mountain.

Special thanks to Scott Depue, Jean Chamberlain and Carol Cunningham for their many days at Little Pinnacle both during the peaks and the slow times. And, thank you to everyone who took part. See you in 2014.

blackvulture

Black Vultures Enjoy the Little Pinnacle View, Too

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Josh

Josh Buchanan Spots Merlins and More

“Merlin,” Scott DePue shouted on a September morning at Pilot Mountain State Park. Sure enough, a small, dark raptor with pointed wings shot through the gap that separates Pilot Knob from the Little Pinnacle overlook where we conduct our annual hawk watch. Then, as we watched the bird zoom south toward Winston-Salem, a second Merlin followed the same path only a few seconds behind.

The Merlin sightings were particularly thrilling for me. We see very few even at the hawk watch, and three times last year I was looking one way while other observers spotted these birds going another. Seeing two within ten seconds was special.

Osprey

Ospreys Fly Over Pilot, Too

In Forsyth County, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Cooper’s Hawks stay all year. However, many hawks and other raptors that breed to our north migrate to warmer climes in the fall. Most notable in the eastern United States is the Broad-winged Hawk. Hundreds of thousands of these birds travel to Central and South America, often in large flocks or “kettles” of dozens, even hundreds, of birds. A large kettle is quite spectacular, as the hawks swirl up on a thermal rising off the ground and then glide out on a high current of air – a very efficient means of travel.

Pilot Mountain has been the site of an annual hawk watch for almost 40 years. In 1973, Ramona Snavely was there in early October and observed several Broad-winged Hawks riding the thermals on their way south. Since then, Pilot Mountain has joined many other watch sites from Canada to Mexico. Sites submit collected data to www.hawkcount.org, where they are available for scientific study.

At Pilot, observers can find 13 raptor species. Besides the species already mentioned, we see Bald Eagle, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, Peregrine Falcon, and both Black and Turkey Vultures. Park visitors often are amazed to hear that we see eagles and, even more so, when they get to see one themselves.

Bockhahn

State Ranger Brian Bockhahn Taught Raptor ID Classes

We get much satisfaction from talking with the visitors about what we are doing and seeing at the pinnacle. For this veteran, it is always a joy to see the “wow” look of  someone seeing their first eagle or a broad-winged kettle. Chuck Smith brought his natural history class from High Point University one day, and State Park Service Ranger Brian Bockhahn brought two groups of rangers and other individuals for a raptor identification class.

In 2012, we conducted our hawk watch from September 12-30. During that time, we counted 2592 Broad-winged Hawks. In addition, we observed 30 Osprey, 25 Bald Eagle, 14 Peregrine Falcon, 4 Northern Harrier, plus a few each of the other raptor species. Those two Merlins were the only ones seen. For butterfly enthusiasts, this also is a great place to watch the fall Monarch migration.

The 2592 Broad-winged Hawks was the highest tally since 2006. Sunday September 16 was a dream day for hawk watchers, as 1735 passed by, including over 1000 birds kettle after kettle between 3 and 6 p.m. We wrapped up on September 30 with another 632 broad-winged and six eagles.

Vulture

Turkey Vultures Roost on Pilot

For many years, Toby Gordon was synonymous with the Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch. Every fall, Toby was there most days often alone patiently waiting for those large kettles of birds to come through. These days, Scott DePue is the name that comes to mind. Blessed with extraordinary vision, Scott has been nicknamed “Hubble” after the space telescope by fellow Piedmont Bird Club member Julien McCarthy. Scott finds “specks” of birds on the horizon that some of us with old eyes never see. More than that, he has excellent raptor ID skills and always is ready to help less experienced birders understand what they are seeing.

Thanks to all of the many observers who made this year’s Pilot Mountain count a success. In addition to Scott, I extend a special thank you to Jean Chamberlain and Carol Cunningham for their many shifts as compilers at Hawk Watch and their extra efforts to make sure we did not miss any of those migrating birds. To learn more, visit the Hawk Watch page at our website, www.forsythaudubon.org.

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