Hawks, eagles, owls, falcons studied at Berk's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary – Bucks County Courier Times


The graceful flight of an eagle or hawk is something to behold for researchers and the public in southeastern Pennsylvania.
The Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is a world-renowned facility in Berks County where raptors can be easily observed during their spring and fall migrations.
Sean Grace, 56, who has been the president of the sanctuary for almost five years, says the future of these birds involves studying them and sharing the research. “The three key things we do are education, science and stewardship.”
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The Kempton-area mountaintop is located on 2,600 acres that are in a permanent conservation easement.
“It is a very unique place, we’ve been doing raptor conservation work for 88 years,” Grace said, dating the first bird counts to 1934. “It’s a very scenic and beautiful area.” 
There are plenty of things for people to do and learn about birds and nature. “We have an extensive trail network. If you come here on a weekend, we offer 18 different free programs that are purely mission driven, including raptors up-close programs,” Grace said. The staff are also trapping and tracking birds through the use of transmitters.
The facility also features a new amphitheater that has unique carvings of wildlife made into the main beams of the structure.
There’s a one-mile hike to the outlook where the official bird counts take place from Aug. 15 to Dec. 15 and a month and a half in the spring. The official counters keep track of the birds and offer interpretive programs for visitors.
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“You’re seeing raptors migrating along the ridge, oftentimes they are directly overhead, people are pointing out the landmarks to get you on the birds and also telling you what raptor it is and oftentimes telling you how to distinguish it from other raptors. It’s a really cool location,” Grace said.
“I would encourage people to bring binoculars,” Grace said about viewing the birds from the lookout sites. He said sometimes the birds fly low and very close.
“The home-run days are when we have a couple days of rain here or north of here, and then you have a high-pressure system,” he said. “Anytime the weather is nice, it’s a great time to visit and there’s always raptors.”
The end of October and into November delivers the most varied number of migrants.
“I had one day earlier this fall where I was up at the lookout and accompanied by my former board chair, in one hour we had 22 bald eagles fly by the lookout,” Grace said.
Birds flying over Pennsylvania have migration paths to as distant as Brazil and the Amazon basin.
Grace remembers tracking one bird that returned to the same patch of woods for 10 straight years.
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“They know where home is, just like you know where home is, and they want to go back and find it,” Grace said.
“We are part of a global superhighway for migration,” Grace said about the facility’s location on the Kittatinny Ridge that is part of the larger Appalachian Corridor. The wind over the ridge creates a wave of air over the range. “And raptors are able to get on that and soar on that and essentially, the way I put it that people can connect with, is that it’s three-dimensional surfing. They surf their way down Kittatinny Ridge and are able to migrate,” Grace said.
He said birds are able to conserve energy by soaring on these waves of wind.
There are 16 species of raptors, like eagles, falcons, hawks and owls, that can be viewed there during the day. At night, it’s a popular corridor for passing migratory songbirds that feed on insects along the way.
“When people come here they are able to experience it, see it firsthand, and there are a bunch of friendly faces around that are sharing what they know and what they are passionate about,’ Grace said. “That’s the one thing everybody has in common that works here. They are all passionate about really all things wildlife, but a particular interest in raptors.”
The site is an international research facility and touted as the first global raptor conservation sanctuary in the world. They have a global training network. “We’ve now had 483 trainees through our global trainee program since the ’80s. Sixty percent of the graduates from that program are women and 50% would be considered as diverse candidates from 75 different countries around the globe,” Grace said.
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Endowments cover the cost of the training to remove financial barriers for students around the world to attend the program. “It’s a great way to populate the globe with people who want to do the right thing and want to go back and do conservation sciences and education work around raptors in their country,” Grace said.
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There are bird counters around the world, including Costa Rica, Mexico, Belize, Panama, and Colombia, working with Hawk Mountain to monitor migration. The Colombia counters recently had a 100,000-raptor day.
The sanctuary organizes the data for research purchase at rpi-project.org. RPI is a collaborative between four North American conservation nonprofits: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, HawkWatch InternationalHawk Migration Association of North America and Birds Canada, with each partner contributing population assessments. These raptor conservation leaders have combined efforts to share raptor migration count data from 76 sites across the continent to produce 10-year and 20-year trends for each species by region and continent-wide.
“We’re looking at the long-term health of raptors. What species are increasing and what species are decreasing,” Grace said.
One revelation the sanctuary reports from these new analyses is that one of the most commonly observed migrants, the sharp-shinned hawk, has declining counts at 48% of sites. Other concerning species declines include northern harriers, northern goshawks and American kestrels.
Grace said ending the use of the pesticide DDT has helped bald eagles. The chemical was found to weaken the egg shells of the birds.
In western Pennsylvania, where eagle sightings are more common than they were 20 years ago, he said it’s a sign that the habitat is improving. “You are looking at apex predators and we’re working to make sure there are habitats and ecosystems to support these apex predators. There is a certain amount of transference that we are creating healthy environments for people.”
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“Memberships are the lifeblood of our organization,” Grace said. Last year they had a 22-page calendar of events at hawkmountain.org for people to learn and explore. They work with early school groups through college level curriculums.
“I truly believe that all conservation starts with education,” Grace said. “Whether you are saving a species or saving habitat, you have to educate someone on why that’s important.”
Memberships, donations, endowments, a book store and gift shop, programs and admission fees are the main sources of revenue for the sanctuary. Memberships for individuals are $50 and there are rates for families and clubs. For nonmembers, the trail access is $10 for adults and there are discounted rates for seniors and children. The sanctuary has more than 9,500 members.
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Grace encourages everyone to learn more about raptors and birding. “If you are creating healthy environments for raptors, you are creating healthy environments for people,” he said.
“Understanding birds and what they do, is like a thinking person’s area of study. You can study them your whole life and still not know everything about birds.”  
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at bwhipkey@gannett.com and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on social media @whipkeyoutdoors.

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