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Escapes: Saving the birds at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain

Birds used for demonstrations at the Hawk Mountain sanctuary can’t live in the wild because they have been injured or raised by humans. (James F. Lee)

I awoke to the sound of rain. Heavy rain. Monsoonal. Downpour. This didn’t bode well for our planned visit to Hawk Mountain in Kempton, Pa., to see the spring migration of hawks, flying to their summer breeding grounds in Canada. I looked out the window: The rounded crests of the Appalachians were shrouded in clouds. The smell of coffee wafting up from the B&B kitchen cheered me up a bit, but I figured that hawk watching was off for the day.

The rain let up after breakfast, though, so my wife, Carol, and I decided to take the 30-minute drive from the Partridge House Bed and Breakfast in Pottsville to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Created in 1934 as a haven for such birds of prey as hawks and eagles, the sanctuary offers guided walks, hiking on eight miles of trails, bird-watching overlooks and educational programs year-round on 2,600 acres of tree-covered Appalachian mountainside. A full-time staff of scientists and an army of volunteers provide public education, maintain bird counts and conduct scientific research. Visitors come year-round, but the best time to see hawks is during the September-to-November fall migration. The spring migration from late April to early May is another popular time.

As we drove up, Hawk Mountain was covered in mist, but we were just in time for a raptor demonstration at the visitor center. Because we’re not experienced bird watchers, this was a great opportunity to learn something. Volunteer Dan Mink explained that hawks are raptors, then asked the crowd of 35 what makes a bird a raptor. The smallest voice in the room, belonging to a little boy who looked to be about 7 years old, said, “A bird that eats prey.” Correct! A raptor also uses its talons to kill its catch, Dan added.

Dan brought out a large red-tailed hawk, a majestic bird with piercing eyes, a curved beak and deadly razor-sharp talons, and allowed it to perch on his arm. The birds shown at the sanctuary, he told us, can’t live in the wild because they’ve been injured or because humans raised them, and they are used for educational purposes.

As recently as the 1930s, hunting parties, believing that raptors were useless pests, would descend on Hawk Mountain to kill hawks for sport. Pictures on the walls of the lecture room show the results of the carnage, which is the reason the sanctuary exists. Despairing at the needless slaughter, forward-thinking conservationists created a haven where the birds could fly unmolested and the public could learn about them.

The rain continued intermittently while Carol and I debated whether to start the hike up the mountain. Just then, a tour of the native plant garden started forming at the visitor center front door. Carol is an avid gardener, so this tour was a must. The garden contains only species native to the central Appalachian highlands. Native, in this case, means pre-Columbian. Our guide, Jackie Shearer, now in her 17th year as a volunteer at the sanctuary, told us that native plants are vital to an area’s animals and insects, because they all evolved together. She urged us to eradicate the invasive species from our gardens and replace them with native plants.

“Native plants are easier to take care of once they’ve taken root in your garden, because this is the habitat ideal for them,” she said.

Most of the plants were just poking up through the ground, although the lovely white flowers of trillium and bloodroot plants offered a bit of color. Jackie pointed out digitalis, ostrich fern, ironweed, wild geraniums, witch hazel, wild columbine and thimble weed, among others.

After the tour, we decided to start our one-mile climb up the mountain despite the heavy mist enveloping everything. We had to walk carefully, because the rock-strewn trail was slippery. All the lookouts along the way were socked in, creating a murky, oddly beautiful world. Only occasionally did we see other people on the trail.

At the Sunset Lookout, the quiet was so intense that we could hear water droplets falling from the tree branches. The trees, black outlines against the gray mist, loomed above us and stretched down the mountainside until they were swallowed by the fog. Geese honked woefully in the distance. On another day the sunset might have illuminated the valley below with golden light, but today we got a different experience.

We didn’t see any hawks in the wild on our walk, but that didn’t diminish our enjoyment. Journeying into this dark, wet, secret universe provided a quiet respite from the busy world. As for the hawks, we can see them some other time. They’ll still be here, safe and sound.

Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.



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