Maria Finn  

The New York Times, October 11, 2002

JOURNEYS; Raptors at Rush Hour, Homeward Bound

THE augurs of ancient Rome predicted fortune and ruin based on the flight and behavior of birds, believing that bird activity revealed the hidden patterns of life and the plans of the gods. Hawks and eagles portended the destiny of kings. The sight of hundreds of sharp-shinned hawks riding a northeasterly wind, or a peregrine falcon dropping into a 140-mile-an-hour stoop to nab a songbird, would give even the most seasoned soothsayer pause. But on the beach in Cape May, N.J., on a mid-September day, these were merely signs that summer was ending. ''Merlin chasing a gull, 2 o'clock,'' shouted Michael Retter, spotting a small, dark falcon. In almost perfect unison, the people standing on the wooden observation deck set up on the beach pulled out their binoculars and followed the flight and pursuit of the two birds; in a blink they passed over an open field dotted with salt marshes and disappeared beyond the distant tree line.

Mr. Retter and his colleague Denny Ariola, who was also working on the observation deck that day, are naturalist interpreters for the Cape May Bird Observatory. Their job is to keep official count of the birds of prey that pass by, along with helping visitors identify them. The interpreters keep a restless hand on their binoculars and at least one eye continuously on the sky above. ''We got a sharpie coming in from the north,'' shouted Mr. Retter, referring to a sharp-shinned hawk. ''This is a slow day. Winds are from the south. On Tuesday 80 kestrels passed by in 10 minutes. You want hard winds from the north for the big numbers.''

Then Mr. Ariola yelled: ''Osprey over the tree line. Looks like he's got a fish.'' Visitors hurried to the telescopes on the deck or pulled out binoculars. Along the New Jersey coastline, throughout the marshes and pine barrens, rush hour was under way. Passing songbirds, shorebirds, even migrating butterflies were touching down and stopping to feed and rest before crossing Delaware Bay in their southward migration. That meant an easy hunting ground for raptors passing south.

The annual hawk count at the Cape May Bird Observatory, which begins Sept. 1 and ends Nov. 30, usually tallies 50,000 to 60,000 birds of prey passing through on their way to warmer climates, a phenomenon that has earned Cape May the title ''raptor capital of North America.''

Because Cape May is one of the busiest flyways on the East Coast, it attracts many birders, and the crowd gathered at the hawk-counting platform grew by the minute as 10 a.m., considered prime time for raptor movement, approached. The 30 or so people on the observation deck were a mix of the merely curious, enthusiastic birders focusing their binoculars on the distant skies, and the very serious, dressed in camouflage, telescopes and tripods slung over their backs, heading off into the marshes with the grim countenances of soldiers going after an enemy sniper.

''They do not smile,'' commented Chris McCormick, visiting from Long Island with a group from the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, while acknowledging his own intensity. ''It starts out as a pastime, but quickly grows into a passion.''

Welthie and Walter Fitzgerald of Valley Forge, Pa., came to Cape May for a food and wine festival, but dropped by to see what the fuss was about. ''Now there's a swan,'' Mr. Fitzgerald said. ''That's the only bird I can identify besides the sparrow. And I know it's not a sparrow because those aren't white.''

Rick McElmurry of Champaign, Ill., rushed to Cape May from a business meeting in Philadelphia. ''I went on my first bird count with the Audubon Society of Illinois,'' he said. ''We counted 140 birds that day, and I was hooked. But birds of prey are my favorite. They're big, fast and mean.''

Jason Guerard, the official hawk counter with the Cape May Bird Observatory, has worked on hawk counts all over the Eastern United States. He considers himself a well-rounded birder, but said hawks were his favorite. ''Hawks and other raptors are the barometer of the environment,'' he said. ''They're the top of the food chain. If the number of hawks are declining, that means food sources are diminishing, and there's a problem somewhere.''

Hawks and other large raptors do not like to flap their wings, the Cape May bird experts said, so they tend to soar on the thermal winds coming off mountains. For the migration, older birds of prey fly along the inland Appalachian Ridge. Since they hunt well, and are territorial, they prefer to stay away from the crowd; the juveniles fly through Cape May. Either they have been blown off course, or, because they aren't yet experienced hunters, they need the abundance of smaller birds found on the peninsula to improve their odds of catching dinner, the experts said.

Like most birds, migrating raptors do not like to cross open water because that puts them far away from food and shelter, so they funnel down through Cape May, then rest before crossing Delaware Bay. Young shorebirds, not yet experienced at avoiding predators, are easy marks, and the open fields full of songbirds make ideal hunting grounds as well.

John Turner, the director of conservation programs for the Nature Conservancy on Long Island, who was leading the group from the Cooperative Extension, said he had gained an admiration for the wildness and vigor of birds of prey after seeing a goshawk up close. ''I'll never forget that,'' he said. ''Birding allows you to experience something much bigger than yourself. But my Holy Grail is the Connecticut warbler. My biggest fear is that I might die without having seen one.''

In fact, that morning, the birders had had excellent luck spotting rare warblers in the meadows and trees. The naturalist interpreters pointed out, however, that there probably aren't more rare birds in Cape May, just more expert birders who live in Cape May and are able to identify them. These experts run the programs offered by the bird observatory and are eager to share their knowledge and passion with newcomers.

Next to the platform, visitors watched a hawk-banding demonstration by Bill Clark, the author of field guides on North American, African and European hawks. He had netted a hawk that morning by baiting a net with sparrows and starlings, and he showed the crowd a close look at a 3-month-old female sharp-shinned hawk. Although fully grown, she was only about 12 inches long, not much bigger than a dove. Even ruffled from the capture, she still had the regal appearance of a predator, with bright yellow eyes, brown feathers on her crown and back and long, narrow tail feathers marked with bold, bark-colored stripes. Mr. Clark said he and others involved in the banding project, which tracks the movement of raptors, have learned that more sharp-shinned hawks are staying north in the winter because the numerous backyard bird feeders promise plenty of sparrows. The others head to forested areas throughout the South, many wintering in the Carolinas and Texas. Some have ridden hurricanes as far south as Cuba and Nicaragua.

Mr. Clark said counting hawks started as a hobby, and became a passion after he banded his first hawk. ''I never questioned why I wanted to spend my life banding hawks,'' he said. ''I thought, 'Why doesn't everybody want to do this?' '' The young hawk perched on his hand until he twitched it. Then she stretched her wings and flew off into the trees, startled, but ready to resume migration as the crowd cheered her on.


Follow the Flock; Where the Birds Are, From Sandhill Cranes to Tundra Swans

IF you are interested in following the migration of birds in the fall and winter, there are several good options around the country:


The Cape May Bird Observatory, at the southern tip of New Jersey, offers several tours and workshops for bird sighting and identification. Birding programs run in Cape May year-round, with a slight lull in January and February. The cost for workshops and tours ranges from $5 to $25. Contact: Cape May Bird Observatory's Northwood Center, (609) 884-2736;


September and October are the best times to see hawks riding the updrafts of the Kittatinny Mountains, which straddle the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border, on their migration south. Visitors can hike up Hawk Mountain and watch the raptors pass at eye level. Contact: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary: (610) 756-6961;


This wildlife refuge in Socorro, N.M., is the winter home to thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese. Desert birds like quail, pheasants and roadrunners are abundant, as well as coyotes and the occasional cougar. The Festival of the Cranes is Nov. 19 to 24. Contact: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, (505) 835-1828; or


This Midwestern hot spot for tracking migrating birds is in Oak Harbor, Ohio, near Lake Erie. Shorebirds, warblers, tundra swans and bald eagles skim the lakeshore. July through January is a good time to visit. Contact: Crane Creek State Park, (419) 836-7758;


The annual Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival takes place in Harlingen, Tex., Nov. 6 to 10. Options include trips to the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to see hummingbirds and green jays, children's presentations about raptors passing through en masse, and excursions to see the tropical birds of Mexico. Contact: Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival, (800) 531-7346;


Situated on the California coast, the bay boasts a remarkable diversity of birds, particularly water birds like cormorants and murres. It's also a popular stop for pelagic birds like albatrosses, shearwaters and storm petrels. The best time to go is October through April. Contact: Monterey Peninsula Audubon Society, (831) 663-0667;

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