The Best Kept Secret at Hawk Mountain

By Sean Grace, President
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Hawk Mountain and the Kittatinny Ridge are part of a global super-highway for bird migration. If you've been to the Sanctuary during fall, you have probably witnessed the grandeur of diurnal raptors migrating south. Hawk Mountain was the first in the fight to protect these apex aerial predators that are such an important part of a healthy ecosystem, but where does their ecosystem start and stop?


On May 13, I slipped into the woods behind my home which lies at the base of the Kittatinny. I’ve been a naturalist my entire life, and connecting with the land, especially where I live, is vitally important to me. It’s these adventures that help satisfy my desire to understand and immerse myself within my local surroundings. My goal was simple: connect with the land where I live and hike to the top of the ridge. What I discovered along that hike was amazing. 

Our woods are under pressure from both man-made and natural disturbance. New homes and other development fragments the forest, and in recent years, the tress here have suffered from repeated assaults by gypsy moths, leaf rollers, and periods of sustained drought. The result is a die-back in some areas of 60% of the chestnut oaks, which provide food in the form of caterpillars for migrating and nesting birds in the spring and act as an important mast crop for many of our resident wildlife populations during colder months.

As I ascended a series of escarpments that were strewn by boulder rubble, I realized that while the boulders make for difficult hiking, they also create a barrier to dissuade development. I also noted many areas where the overstory trees had died back, and beneath the looming skeleton trees, the new regeneration on the ground was the greatest. With death comes life. It was in such an area where I stumbled across what I can only describe as a super-cell of Neo-tropical migrating birds.

In a pocket where the overstory had died back and the understory was almost too dense to walk, I came upon a spot of auditory overload. Never in my life have I heard so many birds call simultaneously. A raptor flew overhead, causing hundreds of birds to drop into the forest surrounding me, in an effort to find refuge.

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Photo by Bill Moses. 

Hawk Mountain by location is connected to the Canadian Arctic and Alaska down through Central and South America by birds that breed here in North America and over-winter in the southern United States, Central America, and South America. Every moment and every day is different for those birds, and each year they survive the changes, man-made or otherwise, that are created across the landscape where they live.

Our annual raptor migration counts, the longest such record in the world, are just part of our story. We find and collaborate with the best and the brightest young minds in raptor conservation around the globe and invite them to Hawk Mountain to hone their skills as raptor conservation scientists. To date we have worked with 409 trainees from 80 different countries on six continents. These are the people that are shaping global raptor conservation. We continue to collaborate with others and work with all of the significant raptor migration corridors around the globe. In recent months our scientists have been from the Canadian Arctic to South Africa, from Taiwan to the straits of Gibraltar, and our education team has collaborated with colleagues from Zimbabwe, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.

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Our main goals include working to keep common raptors common and to prevent rare raptors from becoming extinct. By shining the conservation spotlight on raptors, we help to protect raptors and the ecosystems where they live.  Raptors in turn act as an umbrella, protecting other birds and wildlife that live within the same regions where these vital predators live, breed, migrate, and overwinter. Birds, like the hundreds I encountered during my walk, benefit.

This year is being coined the “Year of the Bird,” and Hawk Mountain, by the very nature of the work that we do, is perhaps the most cost-effective organization leading the charge in conservation science.  If you share my passion for raptors and other wildlife, I encourage you to become a member, act as a volunteer, or donate in support of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary and our mission.  And of course, stop by for a visit! I hope to see you out on that global super-highway of life.  

Yours in conservation,
Sean Grace

Springtime in Montana

By Dr. Jean-Francois Therrien, Senior Research Biologist
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

Spring sunrise in Montana, over the Mission Mountains.

It’s spring time in Montana. Well, at least according to the birds. Not that the weather has been any better than in the East lately, but birds are showing definite signs of a change in seasons. Following Hawk Mountain's global and inclusive mission geared toward collaborating with like-minded colleagues and organizations to lead lasting raptor conservation programs, I was recently invited by long-time researcher, collaborator, and friend, Denver Holt, from the Owl Research Institute, to get a feel of the pre-breeding season in his study area in scenic Mission Valley, Montana.

Holt, founder and leader of the Owl Research Institute, has been conducting field-based owl surveys for over 30 years now, including long-term monitoring of snowy owls in Alaska. Thus, there is an amazing opportunity to combine and compare results from our ongoing long-term research project in snowy owl breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic, and to learn about the population status of this charismatic species across North America.

In addition, spending a few days in the field in Montana allowed us to identify potential projects for future collaborative work. Among them, assessing the pre-breeding condition of individual owls and how it is affected by the previous winter conditions, and then how it relates to upcoming nesting success, is on top of the list. The fact that we know very little of the basic ecology for most of those species is not a surprise for any owl biologist. However, according to any source of available information, several North American owl species are facing an uncertain future. Indeed, population trends of long-eared and short-eared owls are both showing alarming decline on a continental scale. In light of the threats impending on these species, such collaborative research projects have to happen now.

Numerous accounts have recently suggested that to understand the reproductive ecology of any species in order to better protect them, we need to have a holistic view and turn our attention to the non-breeding season. With that in mind, there is an amazing opportunity for collaboration with the Owl Research Institute and their extensive field-based experience.

Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Dr. JF Therrien (senior research biologist at Hawk Mountain) and Denver Holt (founder and president of the Owl Research Institute) just before releasing a long-eared owl.

Those few days in Montana confirmed for me that they sure know the ropes of studying owls in the field: before lunch on the very first day, we had already captured and released 5 long-eared owls to assess their pre-breeding condition. We then proceeded to observe a phenomenal amount of great-horned owls (most of them sitting tightly on their nest), as well as short-eared owls flying and displaying territorial behaviors over the grasslands at dusk, among other things.

Research collaborations are an essential part of conservation science. Individuals alone can go a certain way, but with colleagues, we make real change. That is why at Hawk Mountain, we put much value in cooperation, team work, and network building. To learn more about our work with North American owls or any other species of raptors, or if you wish to financially support our research efforts, contact me at therrien@hawkmountain.org.