Hawk migration season runs through November and it’s time for the annual Hawk Watch at Rockfish Gap. Each year volunteers meet alongside the Inn at Afton to conduct the official count of this wildlife migration. The numbers are submitted to Hawk Count, the Raptor Migration Database sponsored by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). HMANA is a 501(c)(3), member-based group committed to the conservation of raptors through citizen scientific study, enjoyment and appreciation of raptor migration. There are more than 200 Hawk Watch sites in North America that provide count data for population and conservation assessments. Raptors such as bald eagles almost disappeared from the lower 48 states but, thanks to the Endangered Species Act, eagles, osprey, and peregrine falcons have made great population recoveries.
Raptors are identified as a bird of prey with a hooked beak for tearing, keen eyesight for locating prey and strong short talons for grabbing and holding. Hawks, falcons, eagles, kites, osprey, owls and vultures are all identified as raptors. The term “hawk” is used to refer broadly to daytime raptors. Only migrating raptors are counted in the Hawk Watch, which excludes vultures, Red-Tailed Hawks and owls. The count observes raptors that leave their northern breeding grounds in early fall due to diminishing resources. The first lesson of spotting them is to recognize the different silhouettes of Falcons, Accipiters, and Buteos. The Northern Harrier, osprey and eagle can all be distinguished by their silhouettes from the common turkey vulture.
Western Albemarle, northern Nelson and Augusta County residents and visitors are fortunate to live near a handicapped-accessible public site at Rockfish Gap. Anyone new to hawk-watching is welcome to participate. Follow the sign for the Visitor Information Center to reach the site. The HMANA website (www.HMANA.org) provides educational information to enhance the experience with a few tips that include bringing binoculars, water, a chair and a lunch so you can relax and stay awhile. While morning viewing at the Rockfish Gap site is shaded, a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and a rain jacket are advised, depending on weather. Most birds are seen from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the peak thermal activity provides for lift and speed.
Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch lists dated observations for over 20 species of migratory raptors on the web link, www.Hawkcount.org. “Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch has been counting the Fall migration from this site since 1976,” said Vic Laubach, a Waynesboro resident with a Ph.D. in molecular cell biology who runs a lab at University of Virginia. Laubach records counts of specific raptors on a worksheet for every hour he observes. “This is real citizen science” he said. Volunteer observers are needed now to help counters by spotting possible raptors. In time, volunteer spotters may become official counters through field experience. Hawk facts are provided on a large display in the area to help the watch process.
Laubach described a “kettle” as a “thermal updraft that gives birds a free ride up, allowing them to coast. These updrafts from the Blue Ridge Mountains are created when wind hits the mountain. Raptors that nest in Canada during warm weather follow these air currents all the way down to South America. At Rockfish Gap, as many as 20,000 Broad-wing Hawks are counted annually during this migration.”
While the August sighting count is much lower than September, on the opening weekend, Laubach recorded 28 Broad-wing Hawks, one osprey and one Bald Eagle in the first hour on Sunday. Five counters were on the lookout that day and invited three visitors to join in spotting the birds. Counters present for the first August Sunday included Baxter Beemer of Charlottesville. Beemer is the 18-year-old past president of Blue Ridge Young Birders. He was well equipped with a 100-400 zoom lens on his Canon digital camera in addition to binoculars and a spotting scope. The binoculars are a prized gift from attendance at the Cornell Young Birders Event. Beemer shared his enthusiasm, saying, “You never know what you’re going to see right here on Afton Mountain. It’s inspiring to care about nature. The Appalachian Mountains are a major flyway, with an abundance of natural resources to help the birds fly farther and faster.”
Beemer reflected on his study of birds affected by climate change. “The Black Rail is a species now lost to Virginia. This is a marshland bird that inhabited the Chesapeake Bay and all along the east coast. It is gone now due to the sea level rise effect on types of grasses and loss of habitat. Here inland, the mountain birds must retreat to higher elevations due to loss of habitat.” Beemer plans to attend Piedmont Virginia Community College with its field ornithology program and considers continuing to Virginia Tech.
Another counter, Diane Lepkowski, has been participating in the Hawk Watch since 2009 and explained the use of clickers when the sky is full. Lepkowski, equipped with a powerful lens, remembers a peak migration where 1,200 birds were counted in one of her photographs. Viewing on a clear day extends across the Shenandoah Valley, with the Allegany Mountains at the western horizon. Counters use landmarks to help locate birds for identification, referencing established markers such as the plateau at one mile, cell tower at one mile or the water tower at four miles, for example. Some markers identified may be five or six miles away.
Daily numbers of raptors surge in mid- to late September. The annual Hawk Watch open house on Saturday, September 21 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. is expected to be a peak migration day. Anyone interested is welcome to join a day of family- friendly events. Nature activities for the kids include a live raptor show from The Wildlife Center, planned from 12 to 2 p.m., tryouts of various binocular types and spotting scopes with the counters showing how to identify raptors. The Humane Society of the U.S., Wildlife Protection, and Augusta and Monticello Bird Clubs will provide educational presentations. An exhibit by a master naturalist on breeding monarchs will include a live exhibit. Refreshments will be provided. Check the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch Facebook page for more details and updates.