Some sit patiently waiting. Some stand — their bodies pivot, arms upraised, binoculars in hand. They speak in quiet tones like people waiting for a golfer to hit a crucial shot. It’s easy to tell the serious hawk watchers from the everyday tourist or curious spectator. For one, they have equipment. Serious equipment. Binoculars are slung around their necks. High-powered binoculars rest on adjustable tripods with high-powered names like Swarovski, the official sponsor of the Hawk Watch, Nikon and Leica.
The official bird counter, on this day Chris Vogel, whom colleagues described as an “ornithological gypsy,” stands at the top of the observation deck calling out the names of birds he spots: “Sharpie (Sharp-shinned Hawk) swooping down next to a Cooper’s Hawk over by the lake.” “Where are the Balds?” Eagles, that is — Bald Eagles.
It is a good day for Hawk watching. A cold front has moved in along with strong northwesterly winds providing optimum conditions for the migrating raptors.
This is the 27th Hawk Watch. Cape May Point, is a funnel for hawks, Monarch butterflies, and other migratory birds. From September 1st through November, Cape May Point is their stop-off before they cross the 14-mile stretch of the Delaware Bay to land, then continue to points further south on the other side.
As Mark Garland, senior naturalist at the Cape May Bird Observatory and author of Watching Nature, puts it “They come here to stop, rest and refuel. I equate it with telling a someone, ‘you have a 14 -mile run and if you stop before the 14 miles have elapsed you’re dead.’ These are not water fowl. They cannot land on water. If they do, they die.”
Cape May Point State Park is the spot they pick for their hiatus, and the hawk count begins just as they take flight over the bay. Official tallies have range from over 88,000 hawks to as few as 22,000 hawks per year, with an average of 55,000. Some watches are more spectacular than others. Garland noted that in a recent Hawk Watch, “we counted 19,000 hawks in one day.” Last year, however, the count plummeted to 28,849 total sightings. Unusually warm weather the past two years has been blamed for the decrease in numbers.
In warmer weather, Garland explained, the winds are generally unfavorable coming not from the west or northwest, which also ushers in a cold front, but rather from a more southerly direction.
“We don’t know if this weather pattern is going to be a trend or not, but that is the point of the Hawk Watch to collect data in a consistent way in this and other Hawk watches so that it serves as a good census for long term trends of what’s happening. It’s difficult when the wildlife is dispersed to tell what the trends are.” That’s the importance, he said, of the Hawk Watch particularly in Cape May where so many birds congregate in such a small area.
Data collected serves as a barometer for what is happening in the whole of nature and in mankind. Garland cites as an example the noted decrease in population of the American Bald Eagle and the Peregrine Falcon back in the 50s. The decline was attributed to the use of DDT as a pesticide. Later, similar negative findings were found in the breast milk of women, also attributed to the use of DDT.
The possible extinction of the two species, as well as the problems the human species faces as a result of pesticide use, found a voice in Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, which triggered the environmental movement of the 60s. “The research,” Garland said, “that made those discoveries possible started with bird watchers.”
Conversely, the banning of the use of DDT has brought about a surge in population of the Bald Eagle, the Peregrine and the Osprey.
An observation deck in Cape May Point State Park has been built with the Hawk Watch in mind. It is very unlike the first observation deck. When Pete Dunne, author of The Feather Quest and Tales of A Low Rent Birder, climbed up on a lifeguard stand 27 years ago and became Cape May Point’s first official Hawk Watch counter, he was completely unprepared for what lie ahead.
Hired by Bill Clark, a member of the New Jersey Audubon Society to make the fall count for the newly formed Cape May Bird Observatory, Dunne said, “Up to that point, I counted for mostly for myself. I’d participated in a spring bird count but that amounted to maybe 3,000 birds.” In fact, he counted 21,800 birds of prey that first day.
The official count for fall, 1976 was 48,245. “And I missed two of the best days,” he said. “I couldn’t come in. Those were the best days of the watch. I’m sure I would have counted 80,000 total for that year had I not missed them.”
Dunne describes the observation site in 1976 not as a pristine wilderness waiting to be cultivated but a wasteland filled with discarded concrete, old utility lines, and debris from years of military construction. There was no parking lot and no roof over the pavilion. In fact, he says there wasn’t even any vegetation. The Cedars and greenery which currently surround the site have all been planted since that first Hawk Watch.
What Dunne nor any of the founding members of the Cape May Bird Observatory could predict 27 years ago was the explosion in popularity birding watching would take and the growing importance the Cape May Hawk Watch would assume. Its reputation has made it a Mecca for bird watchers.
“People don’t have to turn to Antarctica or the Equator to see a great spectacle of nature,” said Dunne. “It’s right here in their own back yard. As we become more estranged from nature, there is more and more a need to integrate with nature. Here, on this observation deck, we can provide the mechanisms to bring people and nature together without the not-so-serious birder becoming intimidated.”
Dunne scanned the observation deck and pointed out those people who were seasoned birders (again that equipment thing) and those there for possibly the first time. “Everyone can enjoy this and maybe someone coming here for the first time will go back and buy a book on birding and become a little more curious.”
That is why, according to Mark Garland, the Observatory makes sure they always have two staff people in addition to the counter on hand to answer any questions.
As an example of what can await the patient observer, October 5th brought birders the chance to see 298 Peregrine Falcons cross the Delaware Bay. The Peregrine is the darling of bird watchers. Its species numbered between 30 and 40 back in the 60s because of the use of DDT.
And the Peregrine for thousands of years was considered the “sport of kings.” It is a powerful bird and one of the fastest in world. When stalking prey, it folds itself up like a bullet and swoops down on a flock of birds to attack traveling 150-miles an hour. The Peregrines threatened extinction became the symbol for environmentalists, not only as a sign of the environmental problems which caused its decline but also a sign that solutions are possible.
“Long term consistent data is so crucial,” said Garland. “Decision-makers need data. In order to collect that data, we need to save the habitat so the birds have a place to rest and refuel. Development is inevitable and we need to understand which areas are more critical for wildlife and keep those areas safe and protected. We need advocates and that’s our purpose. We identify the problem and act a solution.”
As morning slips into the noon hour, Chris Vogel jumps off his observation perch moving swiftly across the deck. “Look. To the right of the cedars — a Red Shouldered Hawk.” Like an event out of synchronized birding, 150 bodies, arms upraised with binoculars in perfect eye-gazing position, simultaneously swing in the direction he is pointing to view the raptor. Almost apologetically, he looks back at the non-binocular people, “This is a good day.”