Local lives life of a professional hawk watcher

DAVID BROWN/Special to the Sun-Gazette David Brown snapped this photo of an adult broad-winged hawk at the Ashland Hawk Watch in Hockessin, Delaware, on Sept. 23.

“There is a red-tailed hawk half a glass above the notch and an American kestrel circling over the right saddle!”

For three months last fall, I was the hawk watch counter at the Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, Delaware. My task was to stand on a hill and count migrating raptors for seven hours a day. Some days I was by myself and only counted a few birds. Other days I was surrounded by dozens of visitors as we counted thousands of hawks.

I called out the location of birds using a combination of cryptically named landmarks on the horizon and estimations of binocular fields-of-view, or “glasses” in hawk-watching lingo.

Seasonal birding jobs are most popular for young adults who want the adventure of dropping everything and moving to a new state for months at a time for long hours and low pay.

When I moved to Delaware, I didn’t know anyone except the two people with whom I had done my Skype job interview. I lived in an old farmhouse at the nature center with two education interns.

I quickly got settled into a pattern of waking up early, spending all day hawk watching, submitting the count data and processing my photos in the evening, then going to bed so I could repeat it all again the next day. However, it never got boring because each day came with the excitement of never knowing what birds I would see.

The people were just as interesting and unpredictable as the birds. Volunteers ranged from nurses and real estate agents to nuclear power plant engineers and even the captain of a tall ship. The hawk watch was a spot where birders of all skill levels came to hang out and get away from the stress of life. What all visitors had in common was an interest in witnessing the wonder of migration.

The day that I really felt like a legitimate hawk watcher for the first time was Sept. 23. I counted more than 1,800 broad-winged hawks in the late-afternoon of the day before and everyone knew that the next morning had potential for an epic hawk liftoff.

I got to the hill early and a crowd of visitors slowly gathered. Once the mid-morning sun began generating thermals, flocks of hundreds of broad-winged hawks began to rise up from the surrounding wooded areas. The others may have had time to enjoy and be awed by the spectacle but it was my job to accurately count the birds. Luckily there were many skilled hawk watchers present including two previous Ashland hawk watch counters.

I took charge and assigned groups of counters to different areas of the sky and I compiled all the totals as they were called out. In the first two hours, we counted over 4,000 broad-winged hawks plus a few hundred others of different species.

I stayed until the evening when all the visitors had gone and no more hawks were flying. That was the day I earned my wings.

From September to November, we counted 11,665 migrating raptors of 16 species and saw over 100 other species of birds. I returned home having made a lot of new friends and memories that will last a lifetime.

Brown is an avid local birder and photographer and is a board member of the Lycoming Audubon Society. He may be reached via email at davidebrownpa @gmail.com.

The Lycoming Audubon Society is a chapter of the National Audubon Society with responsibility for members in Lycoming and Clinton counties. Information about the society and events can be found at http://lycomingaudubon. blogspot.com.

The public is invited to share local sightings and join discussions at https://www.facebook.com/groups/lycomingAudubon.