February 29, 2012

The New Digs

 This is a beautiful ridge site in the heart of Pennsylvania.  Stretching 80 miles SW/NE and reaching down to the border of Maryland, Tussey Mountain is a critical flight path.  The length of this mountain is one reason I get to see one of the most majestic creatures to ever take flight: The Golden Eagle.

Now, I knew going into this count that I'd get to see Golden Eagles.  However, I always am pessimistic in my mind regarding birds, especially legendary ones.  "This will be the low year," I tell my self.  Or, "Maybe I just can't pick them out."  However, on my first day, a day I wasn't supposed to count, I found 2.  One came from the NE and kited in front of me before heading up ridge again.  The other was soaring far South in Stone Valley.  That's all it took.  A measly 3 hours on the ridge and I was hooked.  I knew I was here for the long haul and was ready.

Spring hawk watches different from their brothers in the fall.   Birds are in a hurry to get North and establish territories.  They don't linger.  In the fall after a cold front, you could have days of great numbers.  In this spring, it could be a day or maybe even a few hours.  During the fall migration, many raptors specifically follow ridges, using them as guidelines to their wintering grounds and benefitting from the lift the winds provide.  However, in the spring, many birds aren't as dependent on the ridges and will cut straight north.  All of this means that spring hawk watchers like myself have to be vigilant.  We have to be ready at all times, because some days will make or break the count.    There won't be as constant a stream, and weather can lead to great flights and many sensory depriving lulls.  The numbers at Tussey will never compare to some of the famed fall watches and some spring lake watches.

But the Golden Eagles.

Nick Bolgiano, a regular counter on the weekends, and an excellent naturalist, said it best.  "Any day you see a Golden Eagle is a good day."  I found myself cleaving to those words.  My first day on the job, which I'll post on later, never saw temperatures above freezing.  Winds were blowing hard, and snow squalls throughout the day brought the visibility down to under a half mile at times.  Sitting on my duff on a cold rock, with the right side of my face going numb, I felt myself begin to internally murmur.  Nick casually called out a bird.

"What?!" I screamed over the howling wind.  Nick, again in his casual tone, repeated himself.

"Golden coming over Stone Valley."

There it was.  In full glory.  Right in the midst of blizzard-like conditions it glided past the ridge, seemingly undeterred in it's goal of reaching the breeding grounds.

It might as well have been spring break in Miami at that point.  All the wind and snow melted away as he cruised over.  That's why I'm out here.  I'm counting Golden Eagles.  (Don't worry...I love all the other ones, too!)

At Tussey Mountain, the Golden Eagle numbers are high and it is critical that a count is held here full-time   This data is giving us new knowledge of what these mysterious high country birds are doing during spring migration.  Hopefully, it will help us protect them, as many energy companies are hoping utilize wind power on the ridge tops. We are finding Golden Eagles still use them to migrate North.

So, get ready for plenty of updates from the ridge.

P.S.  I'm at 18 Golden Eagles for the season.  Not too shabby for late February!


February 9, 2012

Quiz Bird

This quiz bird is not that difficult.  I'm in the process of organizing all of my "throw-away" shots, which encompasses about 90% of my photos :)

Tip for the day: Always take as many pictures of a bird as possible.  Photos of a bird in all positions, including flying away, add to the knowledge we have of that species.  Perfectly posed photos might lead to magazine covers, but only do so much to increase knowledge.  It's those other photos that depict what we really see in the field!


February 7, 2012

Tussey Mountain Times

Golden Eagle (photo by Vic Berardi)

This spring I have the privilege of being the official spring raptor counter for the Tussey Mountain Hawk Watch.  Located only miles from Penn State, this ridge site is one of the best places to witness the spring migration of Golden Eagles.  A small population of Golden Eagles nest in northeastern Canada and are known to use the ridges of the Appalachians as leading lines to their wintering grounds in the eastern United States.  Every spring, these birds migrate back along similar routes, utilizing the lift provided by the ridges.

With such a high number of Golden Eagles, the watch has a focus on these majestic birds, with extra documentation needed for them as they pass the ridge.  The count hopes to better understand the spring migration patterns of Golden Eagles and help protect them.  Besides Golden Eagles, Tussey Mountain annually records 16 species of migrating raptors.  The count site is located along a power line cut on the ridge of Tussey Mountain, with the majority of raptors following the south facing ridge with Stone Valley below.

Being an official counter at such an important spring site is an honor for me.   I can hardly wait to be spending my days on the ridge.  This count can be cold.  It can be quiet and sometimes even lonely.  However, there will be eagles and lots of them.   Being outside and having the opportunity to teach others about birds is what makes me come alive.

This blog will be the place to see updates on how I'm doing at the count and I hope to update it frequently.  If you're interested in the numbers, check out Tussey Mountain's hawk count profile.  Hawk Count is the brain child of HMANA and is where most data for hawk watches across North America are recorded and archived. I'll be uploading daily on this site that and will hopefully be including some spectacular numbers of Golden Eagles!