Ridgetop Rachel and the Wing Watchers Raptorthon

By Rachel Iola Taras, Senior Educator
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

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Ridgetop Rachel and the Wing Watchers kicked-off an inaugural Raptorthon migration along 30 miles of Kittatinny Ridge at the Blue Mountain Ski Area parking lot located at Little Gap in Carbon County in Pennsylvania. Along with an adopted Char-Wills German Shepard Luna and a sprinkling of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary staff, volunteers, friends and family – we celebrated migration connectivity and our shared love of place, the importance of supporting organizations like HMANA, and protecting natural places like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Warming up our binoculars between the Poconos and Greater Lehigh Valley, we confirmed our migration path towards the beautiful Kempton Valley in Berks County. I had the privilege of encountering my feathered professional coworkers earlier in the morning: our red-tailed hawk, great-horned owl, and eastern screech owl. They support conservation because their lives depend on it!

Across the Lehigh River, we traveled into Lehigh County and spotted several turkey vultures gliding on thermals just above the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Simultaneously, North Lookout Hawk Migration Counters Paul Heveran and Bracken Brown made the one-mile journey up the trails at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, less than 20 miles east. Conservation Science and Education Trainees perched on the sandstone boulders scanning the Kittatinny Ridge learning hawkwatching techniques from Paul and Bracken. With the official start of our Spring Migration Count a day away, visitors were hopeful for early arrival migrants.

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The Wing Watcher mobile road survey through the Kempton Valley included countless corvids like crows and common ravens as we migrated to our first stop at Wanamaker’s General Store for a fueling of locally made beverages and delicious deli options – for seed and plant- eating herbivores and raptor-like appetites alike. With crops full, we migrated to The Nesting Box dairy store along the open farmlands of the Kempton Valley. We licked our homemade ice cream cones faster than a peregrine stooping on a pigeon while scanning for farmland raptors such as American kestrels and northern harriers. A quick visit to Dietrich’s Meats located off interstate route 78 showcased four generations, including family matriarch Verna who recalls the days of hawk shooting along the ridge. Finally, the Wing Watchers landed at the Kempton Hotel to toast our shared Raptorthon experience prior to ascending Hawk Mountain Road to join Paul, Bracken, and Raptorthon supporters at North Lookout.

My tail feathers twitched in delight to see so many supporters cheer and chip us on in the name of conservation. Together, new and familiar faces fell in love with the Kittatinny Ridge all over again. Officially at North Lookout, we tallied a total of 31 avian species with 11 raptor species including both turkey vulture and black vulture, angler of the raptor world, osprey, farmland raptors including 5 northern harriers and 7 American kestrels, 15 accipiters including 10 sharp-shinned hawks, and 5 Cooper’s hawks.

Rachel, trainees Momodou and Sandra, and young hawkwatcher Cooper.

Rachel, trainees Momodou and Sandra, and young hawkwatcher Cooper.

Speaking of Cooper, one of many superstar Wing Watchers was a 10-year-old birding-obsessed student named Cooper Diehl from Whitehall. Cooper dedicated his entire day to spotting birds, promoting raptor conservation, and learning as much as possible about conservation history, raptor identification, and opportunities to keep learning about birds. Cooper documented his entire Raptorthon experience on his YouTube channel inspiring others to take an active role in pursuing their passion for birding and beyond!

Similarly, 8 red-tailed hawks inspired conversations about adult vs. sub-adult plumage, as we were rewarded with 2 red-shouldered hawks and 3 merlin, providing a satisfying variety in raptor species for our inaugural Wing Watcher Raptorthon.  Finally, our national symbol, a Bald Eagle, amazed the crowds with recognizable field marks. Over 1000 visitors explored the Sanctuary thanks to unusually warm temperatures, blue skies, and gentle breeze – perfect conditions for hiking, admiring the viewshed, and making new friends.

Thanks to you, we raised over $2000 for raptor conservation. Fifty percent of what we raised goes to support HMANA and fifty percent supports Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for a comprehensive raptor conservation victory.