Marking The Seasons With Hawks...And Apples

Oct 4, 2013

At Carter Hill Orchard in Concord, the changing varieties of ripe apples measure out the transition of summer into autumn. Early Paula Reds, which ripen in August, give way to tart McIntoshes, juicy Macouns, and sweet Cortlands, as September wears on.  By early October, yellowed leaves and frosty mornings signal late-season apples with appropriate names: Gibson Golden and Honey Crisp. 

People that know apples can tell you what month it is by the varieties dropping off the trees.  The same goes for migrating raptors and people who watch them. I recently visited Carter Hill, where a dedicated group of hawk counters gather daily.  From early September through the end of October they perch on an elevated wooden platform with a vista that reaches north to the White Mountains. 

About 15 species of hawks are tallied over the orchard in this two month period.  This year’s count just passed a milestone – 10,000 raptors!

Like apples, some hawks are ready to go early, while the weather is warm. A trickle of crook-winged ospreys and energetic kestrels kick off the season. Others start their journeys later in the fall. In mid-September the skies fill with broad-winged hawks, rising in swirls referred to as “kettles” that boil up across the sky. 

These kettles can get pretty big, and each of these dedicated hawk-watchers remembers their largest kettle. Crawford Lyons, for one, remembered a kettle of about 300 birds, “that was one of the most cool things I’ve ever seen in my life…that day was spectacular.”

By October, with most of the migrating raptors already in southern climes, the peregrine falcons come rowing past. With red-tailed hawks bringing up the rear at the end of the season. Though, if you’re lucky, you might spot a couple golden eagles, too!  

And then there’s the view. Lyons reflects, “once it starts getting cold, you have the down side of freezing your butt off, but the upside is you get to see the changing of the seasons as the snows start to come across the top of the White Mountains. I’ve spent an hour just looking at that in binoculars.”

But the birds nearly always upstage the scenery. Some hawks pass directly overhead – close enough to see narrow gaps in the wings where flight feathers have molted.  These close-up birds are low-hanging fruit for hawk-watchers. But experienced observers, like Lyons, also pluck tiny specks out of the highest branches of the sky, using binoculars and spotting scopes to harvest every last possible migrant for the count.

So I was curious, why do they watch hawks?  Volunteer Tom Brewton’s had a few reasons at hand, “One is to have a glimpse into the wild world. Second is for the camaraderie of the other hawk-watchers, there’s a real bonding that goes on. The third reason is the ability to completely disconnect from my world of travel, clients, technology.”

Sounds a bit like therapy to me. Free nature therapy … not a bad idea!