Hawk watchers congregate on Putney Mountain

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(Host) The Connecticut River Valley is a major migration corridor for hawks and other birds of prey. During the migrating season, which is happening now, a ridge between the Connecticut and West River Valleys is a magnet for hawk watchers.

VPR’s Susan Keese has been climbing Putney Mountain lately to find out why.

(Sound of people walking, crickets.)

(Keese) Putney Mountain is one of those spots where you get a big reward for a relatively easy climb. At the top of well-maintained trail, there’s a summit with a bird’s eye view of the West River Valley. Across the valley, Stratton Mountain and Mount Snow melt into a parallel ridgeline winding south toward Massachusetts.

If you come between August and mid-November you’re almost sure to encounter the hawkers. They fan out over the summit with their lawn chairs and dogs, their binoculars fixed on a seemingly empty blue sky.

(Hawkers) “There’s a bird out there.”
“Yup, he’s going to the right of the red maple.”
“I think it’s a sharpie. Seems to be dropping down.”
“Oh yeah. There it is, got it. Sharpie I think – didn’t have quite as much head as a coopers, I would think.”

(Keese) One of the watchers writes it down in a little spiral notebook. He’s a silver-haired carpenter named John Anderson. During hawk season, he’s here almost every day.

(Anderson) “And we have a very strong group of people who come up here and do this, and they all take their vacation time, they just manipulate their schedule to be here at the critical times. So it’s very seldom that there’s no one here and yet it’s never organized or scheduled. And we have a raptor coming down, just a little sharp-shinned hawk going right over head.”

(Keese) The group reports its tallies to the Northeast Hawk Watch Association and the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Watchers at other points around the country do the same. Putney Mountain is Vermont’s only regularly staffed hawk watch.

But it isn’t statistics that bring the birders here. Alma Beals, a regular, says it’s the thrill of watching raptors fly.

(Beals) “And every once in a while there’s certain things that happen that you just remember. Like one year we had a goshawk that landed in a tree over there. It just landed right in front of us so we could watch it. Or if you happen to catch a huge migration of broad wings and they just come and the sky’s just full of them. And those sort of things catch you – and you’re a hawker.”

(Keese) The ultimate hawk watching experience happens in mid-September , when the broad wings begin their journey. They’re headed for the tropics, as far south as Brazil.

As heat rising from the river valley below mixes with sinking cold air it creates an upward funnel of warm air. The hawks congregate and spiral upwards in these funnels.

(Petrak) “As the rising thermal current gets high it starts to disperse and the birds stream out from that to wherever the next rising bubble of hot air is.”

(Keese) Chris Petrak writes a bird column for the Brattleboro Reformer.

(Petrak) “Susan, I wish you could be up here when we get a sudden big flight of birds because the excitement is just palpable. There’s so much energy and connection between the watchers and the hawks that are flying and the surprise and amazement at what we see.”

(Keese) On a cold morning recently the hawks were flying fast on a northwest wind. John Anderson was there, taking it all in.

(Anderson) “There’s a bird low over the oak tree, it’s a red tail. Look at him go – wow!”

(Keese) He stands there shivering like a man who’s just seen something powerful and important streak by.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

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