Scanning the Skies

Migrating Hawks Draw Area Birders

Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Robert O'Malley

Mount Tom - The spinning sphere begins to boil overhead as a kettle of broad-winged hawks seeks warm, rising air along the face of the mountain. Heads turn as the large birds swirl upwards, looking for a free ride from a friendly wind that will carry the birds south on their annual fall migration.

As surely as the weather and the season determine when the hawks will fly, the elements also draw the human watchers to the metal observation tower on Mt. Tom's Goat Peak. The "birders," as they call themselves, have come to watch the great annual hawk migration. All have binoculars pressed to their eyes. One has a clipboard with paper to record the number and kind of hawks passing overhead.

"Small one coming in to the right," intones Robert Moran, a postal worker from Amherst. "One coming in off the Seven Sisters (mountains that are part of the Holyoke Range). She's over the river, above the horizon. She's above the marina above the horizon."

With binoculars scanning the sky, with necks aching backward, the chant goes on throughout the morning as the birds continue to fly overhead heading for wintering grounds in Central America and South America, maybe near the Amazon.

Begins in September

For many of the small coterie of bird watchers who gathered at Goat's Peak yesterday, witnessing the hawk migration is an annual event. The migration begins in earnest early in September as flocks of hawks pass over the mountains here. Some say the Mt. Tom area is a good place to watch the hawks because of the updrafts created when valley winds strike the side of the mountain.

Everyone seems to have a theory for the migration but no one really knows why. It's a mystery of sorts, just like the hawks moving overhead in long graceful glides, carried by the wind. "Any bird of prey has a mystery about them," says Dean E. Easton, a student at Holyoke Community College who has arrived with a telescope, binoculars and camera.

"They're a lot smarter than us," says Sebastian Yenlin of Holyoke who has been coming to watch the migration for about the last 20 years. "They don't have to stop for a road map or for gas."

"Look at them," says one man who spots a kettle, aptly named because when hawks form a kettle - sometimes by the hundreds - they seem to boil upwards with the rising "thermals" of air. "Right into the sun." Quickly, there are other birds to follow. "Look at them," he says. "They're just disappearing into the clouds. That's something you don't see too often."

A long trail of broad-winged hawks is flying overhead directly from the north. The broad-wings, which have white underwing surfaces with black wing tips, tend to migrate in large flocks. At least 100 birds are in this group, say the counters.

Like an atom

But what really seems to awe the bird watchers here is when the flock begins to kettle, or form a sphere-like ball that seems to resemble what an atom might look like with its electrons in orbit spinning around and around.

The birds "kettle" because the hawks discover a warm updraft that allows them to move with the wind without having to flap their wings and thus expend energy, the birders say.

As the morning closes in on noon, the small observation tower begins to crowd with birdwatchers, all of whom seem to know each other and, in particular, seem to know Thomas Gagnon, the counter with the clipboard in the corner.

Gagnon, who has clipboard and paper on which he jots down the kind and number of hawks he sees, has been watching the hawks migrate for the last 18 years and is considered the on-tower hawk expert.

Yesterday was the biggest day of the year, he says, with 2,337 broad-winged hawks counted, as well as a variety of other hawk species, such as Cooper hawks, sparrow hawks (a small falcon), ospreys (also known as a fish hawk), march hawks, and sharp-shinned hawks.

According to Gagnon, yesterday was a good day because of the clear weather which followed about five days of gray skies, rain and sometimes heat and humidity. The hawks, he also suggests, had "at least five days to sit down and think about it."

Although yesterday wasn't the biggest day for hawk sightings in his 18 years, it was a good day, with relatively cool temperatures. The best wind, he says, for the migration is either a north or northeasterly wind. Yesterday was a good day even though the winds were variable.

Information forwarded

Gagnon sends the information he collects to Seth Kellogg of Southwick, who forwards it to the New England Hawk Watch Association and the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

While yesterday was a good day at Mt. Tom, Gagnon points out that at Fisher Hill in Westhampton - another hawk watching point for local birders - even more birds than at Mt. Tom were sighted yesterday. "Yesterday," Gagnon suggested, "might be the peak of the whole year."

What drives the birders to sit for hours and hours waiting for the next flock to arrive? "I just enjoy them. I don't try to get too technical about it," Gagnon said.

"It's a sensational phenomenon," says Andrew F. Magee, an illustrator from Springfield. "For anyone interested in natural history and (who) enjoys getting out, it's a phenomenon you can count on."

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