“It’s the Cadillac of hawk watches,” my husband Bruce said as we were leaving the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
Not only does it have a wide, grassy field flat enough for lawn chairs, a picnic table, and a portable restroom back near the parking area, but also a pair of platform benches, fondly called “the Ritz” by some visitors, positioned for optimal hawk-spotting. What it doesn’t have are huge boulders to clamber over and perch on like many hawk watches in Pennsylvania. For older folks like us, whose balance might not be as good as it once was, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is perfect.
I settled down on one of the benches at the edge of the mountain next to Gene Flament (the builder of the benches) and his wife Nancy and didn’t move for hours. Above me, in the clear, blue sky of a breezy, early November day, raptors funneled southward. With the Flaments, their son Randy, and the official counter of the day, Jim Rocco, we didn’t have to wonder what species any bird was no matter how high in the sky it flew. These folks are all hardcore raptor watchers who were eager to share their knowledge with us.
Two golden eagles had already sailed past before our arrival, shortly before 10:00 a.m., and we hoped it would be a golden eagle day because when the wind is out of the east in November, as it was that day, adult golden eagles are numerous. Below us, we could see the field where Trish Miller and Mike Lanzone, of the Powdermill Nature Reserve and Todd Katzner of the Aviary, had live-trapped and radio tagged two golden eagles for the first time in 2006. Since our mountain — the westernmost ridge in the ridge-and-valley province — is the alternate migration corridor for golden eagles in the fall, where Trish Miller trapped and radio tagged another golden eagle in 2007, we had wanted to see this particular hawk watch on the eastern edge of the Allegheny Plateau. (See my three earlier columns on the golden eagle trapping project: Golden Eagle Days (Part 1), Golden Eagle Days (Part 2), and Golden Eagle Redux.)
In quick succession, at 10:20, 10:21, and 10:38, three adult golden eagles soared past overhead, their golden crowns and napes visible on their mostly dark bodies. And that was it for us, but altogether nine golden eagles passed the hawk watch throughout the day. Not an outstanding day for golden eagles at this hawk watch, which had as many as 51 on November 23, 2003, but with a seasonal average of 217, the chances of seeing at least a few on a November day are excellent. After all, as Tom Dick, the property owner, has said, “the golden eagle is the whole reason for the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.”
Probably the best bird we saw was a northern goshawk that swept past at 12:30, its dark hood and white eyebrow line making it unmistakable.
“Oh, that’s a good bird,” Randy said, probably knowing that of the yearly average of 13 birds at this site, most are seen during spring migration in March and April and even then, four were the most seen on a day back on April 14, 2003.
I was also pleased to have beautiful views of three of the 12 red-shouldered hawks that flew past during the day. The first accompanied several red-tailed hawks, and all were lit up by the sun. The second was high in the sky, its wings flapping, its neck craning. But the third flew low and directly overhead, displaying its rufous belly and black and white tail.
As with other species we saw (two northern harriers and a sharp-shinned hawk), October is their peak month with 82 for red-shoulders on October 26, 2004. That day must have been a marvel for those watching because it was also the one that had the highest red-tailed hawk count (1,156).
We didn’t see that many red-tails during our visit, but it was a red-tailed hawk day. In fact, it was the first bird we saw when we arrived as one dove and screamed at the carved owl decoy displaying a couple ruffed grouse feathers atop a pole stuck in the grass. I lost count of red-tails after 30 because often there were three to five at a time in the sky, coming in from every direction as if they were converging for a party. We saw the larger females and smaller males, dark phase and light phase, most with white breasts and black streaks across their light bellies except for the dark phase with its dark brown breast and belly — 113 in all for us and 148 for the day.
During lulls in raptor-watching, we admired the lovely panorama of fields and forests below. At 2,850 feet, the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch is the highest hawk watch in the state and looms 800 feet above the valley. Located in Bedford County on Shaffer Mountain near the Somerset County line, the property is owned by both Tom Dick and his wife Sally who generously open it to the public during spring and fall migrations.
Members of the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society, centered in Johnstown, help to maintain the site and have been monitoring the fall migration from late August through November since 1989. On a clear day, such as we experienced, we could see as far north as Blue Knob, the second highest mountain in Pennsylvania, and as far south as the I-70 corridor. With my binoculars, I could watch for osprey over Shawnee Lake and spot the Dunning Creek Wetlands near Pleasantville in Bedford County.
The Dunning Creek Wetlands, a 170-acre nature sanctuary also owned by the Dicks, was created from a failed farm in cooperation with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Wildlife program (now renamed Partners for Fish and Wildlife). Originally ditched and drained to raise crops, the farmland was often too wet to harvest and was abandoned in the late 1970s. By restoring the wetlands back in 1991, they attracted shorebirds and waterfowl in impressive numbers. Once Tom Dick spotted tundra swans at the wetland from the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and made a fast exit down the winding mountain road and back up the valley to the wetlands for a closer look.
Raptors aren’t the only migrating species that are counted at the hawk watch. Volunteers also count monarch butterflies and dragonflies and note the many songbirds they see there, both migrants and residents. A tent on the grassy field provides shelter for those banding migrating northern saw-whet owls. The evening before, Dave Darney had banded 20 of the little owls as well as one eastern screech-owl.
“The mountain is a major migratory corridor for saw-whets,” Tom Dick told us.
It also has the second highest count of spring migrating raptors after Tussey Mountain, which is the second most western ridge in the ridge-and-valley province and the mountain I see from the top of our First Field. From March until May volunteers also count raptors at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch.
But in spring, some brave volunteers do more than monitor the raptor migration. They tie nylon ropes around their waists and are lowered down the steep mountainside to cut the brush and saplings for better viewing. Other volunteers keep the grass cut on top during workdays.
A weather station records wind direction and speed, all of which is carefully noted during hourly reports online to the Hawk Count site, maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA), reports they’ve been sending in since 2002.
But the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch and the raptors they are counting, including the golden eagles, are threatened by the proposed industrial wind farm on Shaffer Mountain — ten turbines north 2.5 miles away and 20 turbines northwest 2.2 miles away. Miller and Lanzone’s golden eagle live-trapping site would be a mere 1.1 miles south of the nearest turbine.
These whirling turbines will be 400 feet high and threaten not only the raptors, but also the many migrating bats that use this corridor, bats that are already gravely threatened with extirpation, due to the white nose syndrome which is wiping out whole colonies throughout the eastern United States. The mountain has been designated a Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Area of Exceptional Significance because it has two of the highest-quality trout streams in the East, an endangered Indiana bat colony, and 11,000 acres of forest with only two dirt roads.
More than 3,000 people have signed a petition opposing this particular site, and most wonder why a huge former strip mine, two miles from the proposed project, can’t be substituted for it, especially since the same company that proposes to level a pristine area of Shaffer Mountain owns the land. They reason that more than 100 wind turbines have been constructed on the same kinds of strip mines. Why despoil an area with exceptional value streams, endangered bats, and the major flyway for migratory birds and bats.
Sadly, the wind companies aren’t waiting for the results of Trish Miller’s study of the effects of wind turbines on golden eagles — those turbines made of reinforced Fiberglass, weighing 3,000 pounds or more, and rotating as fast as 200 miles per hour at their tips. Even though wind companies claim that bird deaths are minimal, a turbine site at Altamont Pass in California kills on average 75 golden eagles a year. Since our eastern golden eagle population is much smaller than the western one, such losses would soon wipe out what Miller estimates is a migratory population of 1,000 to 2,000 eagles.
Of course, the golden eagle is one of many raptor species that will be impacted by those spinning blades. And already there is an industrial wind farm on Blue Knob. Another one is slated, also on the Allegheny Front, above Tyrone, and directly across the valley from our home, even though Trish Miller has already discovered that golden eagles like to pause and feed on the Tyrone watershed site during migration.
So little is known about this species in the East that she and her husband, Mike Lanzone, are making new discoveries every year about the migration patterns of these birds that breed in northern Quebec and Labrador and migrate south for the winter to eastern Kentucky and southwestern West Virginia as well as to southern Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, by the time her study is completed, golden eagles and other raptors will have many more wind turbine blades to avoid.
Knowing all this, I found it difficult to believe that the industrial wind farm would be built on Shaffer Mountain. As Jack Buchan of Johnstown, a Shaffer Mountain landowner and member of Sensible Wind Solutions wrote in a letter to the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, “If [the wind company] is permitted to build there — to degrade exceptional value streams and kill endangered animals — no place will be off-limits to the wind industry in Pennsylvania.”
The second and the last two photos are by Dave Bonta; all others are by Bruce Bonta.
I’ve been updating my journal from the notes I take in my pocket notebook. Here are some excerpts from the first half of February.
Bucks hanging out together, still wearing antlers
February 3. Three degrees at dawn and absolutely clear. Winds cleaned the air and lowered the temperature throughout the moonlit night.
At first, when I started out at 9:30, the wind was still, the sun bright, and the temperature eight degrees. A few birds twittered along Greenbrier Trail, but none showed themselves. While I was sitting on Turkey Bench, writing notes, the wind picked up.
I met our hunter friend Jeff Scott coming up the road and we stopped to chat at the big pulloff. Suddenly Jeff whispered, “Two deer coming down the mountainside.”
I turned to look as they paused at the stream. One was clearly a six-point buck, the second either a four- or six-point. The first one leaped the stream, crossed the road in front of us, and bounded up Sapsucker Ridge. Jeff struggled to get his digital camera out of his pocket and took a couple photos of the back of the six-point. The other buck bounded back up Laurel Ridge. We continued talking, and a few minutes later Jeff said quietly, “Here comes another deer.” He saw the antlers before I did. This one was a spike, although his spikes were nicely curved. He had obviously followed his buddies’ trail, proof to me that bucks hang out together in the winter. Jeff was surprised that they all still had their antlers, and when I told this tale to the visiting Shoup brothers the following day, they too expressed amazement that they still had their antlers.
Jeff headed up Rhododendron Trail, intent on finding where the bucks had come from, while I continued on up the road. The stream, although icy in places, still provides the only running water for thristy deer on the mountain, now that ponds are frozen solid.
Official start of sunbathing season on Brush Mountain
February 6. Two below zero again this morning. Three blue jays came to the feeders.
It was five above when I went out at 9:15 in the bright sunlight. Birds sang, especially chickadees and titmice, but I also thought I heard a Carolina wren answering a titmouse. Apparently they haven’t all perished in the cold, then. A pileated woodpecker drummed.
Along the Far Field Road the road bank is exposed and juncos and titmice scratched in the leaves. A pair of nuthatches landed on nearby trees; a woodpecker tapped and a red-bellied called. I started my official sunbathing season by lying against the bank, and remained warm except for my feet.
I warmed up my feet by walking over to the Second Thicket, following a highway of deer tracks. That area too is protected, and I sat against a fallen log listening for “toe-hee,” which I heard after a couple minutes. So the over-wintering towhee is still alive!
Steve told us that the river is frozen solid.
Woolly adelgids confirmed in Plummer’s Hollow
February 7. Two degrees at dawn and a skim of snow on the back porch. I walked down the road this partially sunny but cold and windy day.
Below the big pull-off, I counted more than fifty American goldfinches feeding on the black birch cones of one tree. A few more goldfinches and chickadees fed on hemlock cones nearby. Behind the hemlocks, among the hurricane-felled trees, titmice and cardinals dug in the exposed leaves while white-breasted nuthatches and a red-bellied woodpecker mined tree trunks.
I crunched over the hundreds of fallen hemlock cones and paused to sit beneath a small hemlock overhanging Waterthrush Bench. It was so cold that my pen refused to write. Cold air drains down our north-facing hollow so it remains the coldest place on the mountain.
Idly, I glanced up at the undersides of the hemlock branches, and my heart froze. There were little white spots all along the stems, just as in the photos of a beginning woolly adelgid buildup. I whipped out my hand lens and studied those telltale, woolly tufts. Then I looked more carefully and found other infested branches. No wonder the hemlocks have looked thinner lately.
Farther up the hollow road, in an isloated cluster of small hemlock trees, I found more woolly adelgids. So, the jig is up. I can no longer kid myself that the branch of white tufts that I saw along the Ten Springs Extension several weeks ago was my imagination.
Difficult as it has been to mourn the loss of older relatives and friends over the years, such deaths are expected, as is my own in not too many years. But to lose a whole species! First, we lost the butternut trees. They were few and scattered, though we were all attached to the one overhanging the guesthouse. It was the last to go.
Now, my beloved hemlocks. I must admit I cried as I contemplated the hollow, especially in winter, without them. How dreary will be the loss of their evergreen color, their boughs bent beneath the snow. Soon only a few white pines will color the monochromatic winter palette.
Possible goshawk sighting
February 11. Seven degrees at dawn and mostly overcast. I headed up First Field Trail, hearing only a distant woodpecker drumming. As I reached the Far Field, I looked up to see a raptor flap off. All I saw were its white underparts and long wings, and it looked larger than a redtail. Could it have been a northern goshawk? I got a second glimpse of it and still had the impression of gray and white.
Later, I checked my new Thayer birding software, and after studying many photos of the bird, it seemed the most likely choice. After all, the only northern goshawk I ever saw here — an immature — was in the very same place!
Great Backyard Bird Count
February 16. Five degrees and windy, but mostly clear. The white-throated sparrow brought a friend to the feeder area. Also, goldfinches appeared and added to a good feeder-count for the first day of the GBBC.
The tractor still wouldn’t start, despite a battery charger on for 24 hours, but the bulldozer did, and Bruce started down near 11:00 a.m. I followed at 12:00. It was hard going because the bulldozer makes a rough track, but where Bruce had scraped down to the ground with the blade, in the middle of the road, seven juncos foraged. So too did a white-throat and a female cardinal. The latter searched for and ate fallen tulip tree seeds.
The hollow was beautiful, heaped with snow. In places the stream disappeared beneath the white cover. In other places, it flowed around snow-covered rocks or slid beneath shards of ice. In the hemlocks I counted six chickadees, some titmice, nuthatches and downies. Farther down the hollow road, I found a hairy woodpecker and heard a pileated woodpecker. Altogether, a good start for the GBBC.
On my way back up, I encountered Bruce as he approached from behind on the bulldozer. I tried to keep ahead of him, but the ruts and uneven areas were too difficult to walk fast on. Finally, I stepped aside and let the belching machine past. Despite many layers of clothes, Bruce was very cold and red-faced because he was sitting while I was exercising hard and even threw my hood off several times.
February 17. It was 29 degrees by the time I got outside in early afternoon. I snowshoed across First Field and heard a raven. Dave had broken trail along Greenbrier Trail for me and had heard, this morning, a Carolina wren. He also saw a large bird of prey near the feeders — the Cooper’s hawk, no doubt.
In Margaret’s Woods, I noticed that the chestnut oak trunks were riddled with gypsy moth egg cases. I sure hope we don’t have a bad outbreak of them this summer.
Two cardinals called along Greenbrier Trail, and I heard a downy in the distance.
On the way up the road, I found a spot on the bank where junco feathers were scattered all around, as the accipiters do when they pluck their victims. That Cooper’s hawk must have scored.
February 18. Nineteen degrees and flurries at dawn. First twenty-six mourning doves, then sixty juncos came into the feeder area, along with some squirrels, five tree sparrows, two white-throats, and four cardinals.
I started out in a heavy snow shower and saw a red-tail take off from the side of First Field. I followed the snowshoe tracks of the other day up into the spruce grove. Gradually, the flurry subsided and the sun shone. I broke trail on Sapsucker Ridge Trail and flushed a deer. Then in the Far Field woods I picked up a golden-crowned kinglet, a hairy and downy woodpeckers, a white-breasted nuthatch, and several chickadees.
I so enjoyed breaking trail in the virgin snow this Sunday morning! I can’t understand why more people don’t get outside and move in this glorious weather. The shadows on the snow alone are worth the effort, not to mention the distant, bluish-white, snow-covered mountains seen through the open forest, the fallen trees piled high with snow, the clouds racing in the wind, opening and closing patches of blue sky and sunlight like the lens of a camera, the bits of bird life still striving and thriving despite the wind and cold.
I cleaned snow off a fallen tree and sat on it, my hot seat buffering my rear end, as the birds moved closer. Three chickadees bounced on limbs, gleaning minute insects from thin branches. A nuthatch landed on a small, dead snag, and poked and prodded the wood. Bird shadows crossed above me as the sun appeared again for a few minutes, and I felt more akin to the birds around me than I do to humans caught inside by the thrall of technology. I hoped to go see a foreign film in Altoona this evening, one I’ve been looking forward to, but given the choice of a mild winter and easy access to entertainment or this chance to once again snowshoe in a snow-covered forest, I’ll take the latter any day.
Six juncos harvested weed seeds at the Far Field, one specializing in broomsedge and close enough (two feet) to photograph if I had a camera. It was missing most of its tail, but it could still fly.
Beyond the Far Field, the sky was dark. Looking out at Sinking Valley, I could see a whiteout advancing. Then it was on me, a heavy, blinding snow shower as I negotiated around numerous deep holes deer had dug in the road. The snow lasted only a short time and again the sun shone on Laurel Ridge Trail. I was home by 11:30.