If you’re weary of the sounds of honking horns or elevator music in life’s background, then a visit to the fresh air and serenity of Hawk Mountain will nourish your soul with mountain breezes carrying natural scents and the stillness interrupted by a woodpecker’s hammering or a bullfrog chirping.
Located outside of Kempton, Pa. in Berks and Schuylkill counties, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary provides excellent opportunities for avian enthusiasts, amateur and professional ornithologists and wildlife photographers to study many species of raptors undisturbed and up close.
With an elevation of 1,521 feet and its partner mountain “The Pinnacle,” Hawk Mountain is part of the Blue Mountain Ridge of the Appalachian chain. It was designated a United States National Natural Landmark in 1965. The 1,300 acres of both public and private land include the 2,600-acrea Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
The mission of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association “is to conserve birds of prey worldwide by providing leadership in raptor conservation science and education, and by maintaining Hawk Mountain Sanctuary as a model observation, research and education facility.” The one-millionth raptor was observed in 1992. Specific and up-to-date sightings and raptor counts can be found here.
Perching on any of the lookouts of the Sanctuary, observers might encounter the likes of our national bird Bald Eagles, Golden Eagles, Ospreys, Northern Harriers, Buteos, Falcons (American Kestrel, Merlin or Peregrine), Accipiters (Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawks) and the ever-present Turkey Vulture.
According to Director of Communication and Grants Mary Linkevich, “Our most numerous migrant is the broad-winged hawk, which passes through in small flocks or kettles during mid-September. These small, round-winged hawks ride columns of rising area or thermals to gain lift before they soar and then stream overhead, losing altitude as they go before finding the next thermal and gaining lift again. This species passes during a very concentrated window, usually a two-week span, and on peak days during the middle of this period we can say 1,000-plus broadwings. We average more than 7,500 broadwings.”
The second-most numerous raptor is the fast-flying Sharp-Shinned Hawk, which utilizes a rudder-like tail to make sharp turns in preying on smaller birds. With numbers picking up in October, the season average is 4,500. And passing late October and early November is the Red-Tailed Hawk, which averages more than 2,800.
“The most obvious increase has been in the bald eagle, which continues to break seasonal records, and the most recent 10-year average is 261 migrants each fall,” notes Linkevich. “More exciting, perhaps, is that our visitors are often treated to good looks at resident bald eagles, locals (not migrating, so not included in our count), so sightings are becoming more frequent and that's always a thrill. Bald eagle numbers peak in late August and early September, and then they also can be seen later in the season, in November.”
As North America’s smallest and most colorful falcon, the decrease in numbers of American kestrels is the focus of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary’s efforts encouraging local property owners to erect kestrel nestboxes to assist in boosting numbers. For more information, please see this page.
Because not of all the sights are in the air, visitors may see and hear all manner of wildlife. A tote board in the Visitors Center tracks the wildlife according to species and date. In spring 2014, for example, sighted were a Black Bear, a Timber Rattlesnake and an Eastern Milksnake, in addition to Mountain Laurel blooms. It’s important to remember that you are just a visitor in another’s home, and be aware of your surroundings.
For the hikers and geologists who visit the mountain, the River of Rocks is a fascinating display of boulders and rocks formed and deposited during the periglacial process during the “Ice Age” or Pleistocene Period.
Hiking this trail is more demanding and appropriate footwear to meet the rocky challenges is highly recommended. But it's best to be prepared for any challenges presented by the rugged terrain.
Veteran Hawk Mountain hiker Bob Scheidt of nearby Kutztown, Pa., prefers an “off the beaten path” that starts at the foot of Hawk Mountain, where the Appalachian Trail crosses Hawk Mountain Road.
Describing his trek, Scheidt says, “I walk north on the Appalachian Trail towards Maine, 2.9 miles to a great vista at Dan’s Pulpit. I then turn around and hike back south on the Appalachian Trail for one mile to a side trail leading to the right, where the sign says Hawk Mountain and the trail blazes turn to blue. This trail is easy at first, but then involves some rock scrambling. Be careful where you put your hands, as there could be snakes on those rocks. Eventually you will come upon the North Lookout, from the south, and scramble to the vista. Then simply follow the Sanctuary trails back to the South Lookout, and then one mile downhill, heading south, on Hawk Mountain blacktop road, back to your car. Total mileage is 7.5 to 8 miles. You view the valley from three fantastic vistas during this challenging, but rewarding hike.”
Because of the various attractions, anticipated wildlife encounters and the serenity, Hawk Mountain hosts more than 70,000 annual visitors. Most of these folks prefer to take in the naturally-painted fall foliage and the seasonal migration at the same time. Linkevich advises a weekday visit for best parking, or arrival before 9:30 a.m. or after 2 p.m.
What visitors see is greatly dependent on the weather and wind.
The visitors who see the most birds take a casual walk to the lookout, then spend a few hours relaxing,” Linkevich says. “The more time you spend on the lookout, the more likely you are to see raptor migrants.
“Also, carry a daypack with water, snacks, binoculars which are a must, sunscreen or hat and wear sturdy, comfortable shoes,” Linkevich adds. “The hike does include some rocky terrain, so take your time and know your abilities. A nearby lookout is best suited for those with limited mobility or who do not like to walk over rocky areas.”
Hawk Mountain is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and September through November 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to visitors. There is a non-member admission fee to use the trails and overlooks. However, there are several levels of Association memberships, which provide many benefits including free admission, as well as ensuring that future generations of visitors and raptors will enjoy each other’s company.
For a complete history of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, activities, timetables, and membership information, please refer to www.HawkMountain.org. You'll discover that Hawk Mountain is not just for the birds.