Unfortunately, none of the people watching for hawks from the lofty reaches of Pilot Mountain State Park have eyesight as good as their quarry.
So, it requires hours of intense peering through high-powered binoculars at miniscule dots on a hazy horizon, and trying to determine the shape of a wing or a telltale soaring pattern. But on occasion, the rewards can be spectacular for a dedicated birder when dozens of broadwing hawks suddenly appear on the flyway east of the Blue Ridge. “They just find those thermals and gain height and just glide away, and it’s a very efficient way of migrating thousands of miles,” said Phil Dickinson of Forsyth Audubon.
The annual hawk watch at the state park is essentially a two-week interpretive program. Audubon volunteers try to man the Pinnacle overlook daily for the last two weeks of September. They usually post a “tally board” showing the number and species of hawks sighted. Naturally curious visitors are given a natural history lesson about the raptors that migrate from northeastern states to Central and South America. The event doubles as a recruitment tool for Audubon when visitors become interested enough to consider birding as a hobby, Dickinson said. The most frequent visitor question, he said, is whether any eagles are spotted. The answer: one eagle every day or so.
More frequently, the watchers see vultures and ravens which often nest on the mountain as well as red-tailed or red-shouldered hawks, fairly common raptors in North Carolina that do not migrate. The broadwings are the prize, and they’re tracked from a series of watching stations north to south along both sides of the Blue Ridge, with results sent to the Hawk Migration Association of North America database.
The hawk watch experience resembles nothing so much as being in the crow’s nest of a ship at sea, since Pilot Mountain overlooks miles of rolling countryside of the northern piedmont in all directions. The observation point is a somewhat confined space that presents a broad panorama of horizon to scan. Dickinson said the best viewing times are usually from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. and from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. The hawks’ schedule depends much on the timing of thermal currents that develop when warm air collides with the mountainsides. Hours can go by with only local birds to keep company, and suddenly a large group of hawks – formally known as a kettle – will appear seemingly out of nowhere. In a normal year, the group tallies 3-4,000 hawks, and in one legendary sighting a few years ago, 1,500 hawks were counted in a half hour. Vera Cruz, Mexico is a choke point for the migration, Dickinson said, and hundreds of thousands of the birds can be seen in a day.
Audubon members began counting the hawks in the mid-1970s under the prodding of Ramona Snavely, a sparkplug member of the chapter. A lack of volunteers slowed the tradition for a time, Dickinson said. When Snavely died in 2006, the group made a new commitment to the task in her honor.