By Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo, Spring 2017 Conservation Science Trainee
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary
I was born in the golden, warm and thorny savanna plains of Matabeleland in Zimbabwe; where the grass is soet veld (sweet fields/grassland) and elephants, kudus, impala are at home and the lion is their “king." The savanna is born of fire. Successive periods of fires resulted in this beautiful ecosystem from forest to open plains; she is golden as though purified by the fire and all the life from her is tough, resilient and rough around the edges. It is beautiful to watch her at dawn when the sun comes up over her while the birds sing, when the sun goes back to her at sunset, and her sky line becomes the towering giraffes and the acacias, and when the constellations above her smile on everything as it sleeps.
Pennsylvania is certainly the opposite of home, the beautiful mountains covered in dense forests of old tall hemlock and oak trees. The valleys have perennial rivers winding around the beautiful landscape as though every scene is from a painter’s brush. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is nested in this beautiful state and is by far the best way to experience America for the first time if you are an African that loves the wilderness.
It is beautiful here, seeing the changes from just the view of your window and more so from lofty heights of North lookout as you sit on the humongous boulders and try to take it all in. Much has changed on the mountain since I first got here, and it truly has been to my joy and delight. The freezing snow I experienced for the very first time in my life when we arrived had engulfed everything in a blanket of white, even the surroundings of the mountain were in a cloud of fog and not much could be seen. However, as the days went by, the weather became more forgiving and the snow melted away. The grass was green and everything began to bloom. The sun came out and my shivers ceased and now, well now I cannot wait to go out in my shorts and hike.
I am an avid bird watcher and am so excited to be in the middle of a brand new world of birds here. Hiking was not really my thing, and, in my defense, the savannah is fairly flat grasslands, but if I have to hike up and down to see the birds here, I will.
As a bird lover, it has been such a joy, a dream come true even, to be around others like me, to talk all day about birds, oh what a joy! Others may not relate with this, but when you love raptors and birds the way I do and get the chance to talk about them in all kinds of conversations like whether it's serious talk (“sciencey talk”), casual talk, experiences talk, and even when you are making jokes, you are in bird lovers’ heaven with the saints.
I sit on the lookouts and face to the east, my mind tells me that far in the distant horizon past the ocean is my home, but my heart tells me this is my home away from home. This place so different from everything I know, but also so parallel to all that is familiar, so filled with opportunities to learn with each passing moment. This place, though not golden, is colourful beyond what I could ever have imagined. It’s ironic that one can find that his home, his place of utmost peace self discovery and growth, is a place that is the total opposite of what he/she has always identified with and has always called home. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is that home away from home for me, and I am sure many like me have come here and felt the same; this is a special place, the school in the clouds as they call it.
Hawk Mountain has been my place of a lot of firsts. This is so exciting for me, knowing every single day is certainly going to be different from the previous, knowing I will probably see or do something I haven’t done before. This is what being alive is. In any living thing, when growth ceases, decay begins; I am fortunate to have this experience and be conscious of it. I was in snow for the first time, shaking like a leaf but loving every moment of it. I saw and held salamanders, newts, and bears for the first time in my life, wildlife that you could never find in Sub-Saharan Africa. I also rode a bicycle for the first time since I was 5 years old on those bikes with side wheels.
It is definitely the place you go to and don’t stay the same; it is one of those very few places in the world where you can truly feel and see yourself change and grow. Hawk Mountain has certainly made me realise that I can be better than I was a day ago, that, if I work on it, whatever it can be, I can be better at it, that curiosity is good and asking questions, however silly you think they are is important for learning, and most importantly, listening to others from all over the world talk about their experiences, is a great way to learn about the world.
Who knew, in the 1930s when all those birds were being shot out of the air, that this small rural corner of America tucked away behind the mountains in dense forest would become the launching pad of hundreds like me? Young scientists who love conservation, some who have at some point second-guessed their abilities and felt hopeless when faced with the challenge of their local situations. Like Rosalie Edge and the Brouns' believed they could bring to an end the culture of shooting in their day, just by counting the hawks, I believe too that I can be part of the force that will stop the poisoning of vultures among other ills in Africa.
Any challenge in conservation can be overcome, perceptions, attitudes, and wrongs people do can be changed, and it is up to us to be part of the force that brings the change.