Right in Our Backyard
Birds of Prey
By Bill Lawyer
Recently, some of my Pennsylvania relatives were staying at my daughter’s house in Mahopac for the weekend. They knew that they’d be likely to encounter wildlife in that rural, heavily wooded setting. Nevertheless, my cousin Jill was quite surprised and excited when she woke up and looked out to see a large bald eagle perched on a tree branch looking out over Lake Mahopac.
Nearly everyone’s reaction when they saw it was that they had forgotten how large bald eagles are, compared to most other birds of prey, let alone how big they are in comparison to nearly any kind of bird.
Fall is a great time to learn more about birds of prey, as they have begun their annual migration south. The obvious reason why raptors head south this time of year is that their normal food supply is less available. But not all raptors migrate — and where do they go when they get there? Migration study is helping to find answers to these and other questions, including the effect of climate change.
The Hawk Migration Association of North America — an organization of more than 400 members — is devoted entirely to the study and conservation of migrating raptors.
We now understand the importance of raptors (the general term for the many varieties of birds of prey). They actually help keep rodents in check and help regulate insect crop damage. But back in more rural times, things were different. Farmers considered them to be varmints, preying on their chickens, ducks, geese…and the list goes on.
In an area of northeastern Pennsylvania known as Hawk Mountain, hunters would get together to see who could kill the most hawks. Even the Pennsylvania game commission put a $5 price per hawk head.
But by the 1930s, attitudes were changing, and money was raised to establish a sanctuary for migrating birds. Fourteen hundred acres were acquired for protection, and as time went by laws were changed and more conservation programs were established in migration locations around the country.
Another major problem for birds of prey was the use of pesticides and herbicides by farmers all along the southern migration routes. These had serious consequences for raptor birth rates — particularly DDT and related deadly chemical formulas. This resulted in a ban of the use of these chemicals.
Changing the laws was not the only thing that environmental activist groups did. They also set up over 200 observation sites around the country, recording and tabulating the numbers and species of raptors on a yearly basis. This way scientists could determine if the populations were getting larger, smaller, or holding steady.
It is only a short drive to some great raptor viewing sites. Two of the most popular are Hook Mountain, in Rockland County (just over the Tappan Zee Bridge) and the Audubon Center of Greenwich.
To get to the Hook Mountain site, take the path from Route 9W (look for cars parked along the road), which leads you on a fairly easy hike to the top of the mountain — a little steep at the end.
There, walkers can talk with the friendly and informative volunteers who carry out the hour-by-hour collection of data by types of raptors. The migrating raptors soar on the thermal winds that cause the air to rise up to the top of the mountain. It’s not uncommon for several huge turkey vultures to come gliding up within a couple of feet of your head.
The Hook Mountain project is now in its 48th season. Longtime Westchester environmentalists Trudy Battaly and Drew Panko seem to be running the show. If you’re planning a visit, check out the website (www.battaly.com/hook), which contains mountains of information, in advance.
And be on the lookout for eagles in the trees, right in our backyard.
Eagle in backyard
The author and his granddaughter Isabelle on Hook Mountain