Saturday, May 7, 2016

Following the Birds: From Nepal to Hawk Mountain

I sing a song Of the Blue Mountains that stand with pride
Of the cool breeze that passes by
And the magnificent raptors that fly by.
I sing the song of turkey vulture
That loves dancing up and down, back and fro,
Tickling my inner desire to dance and fly high
And inspecting at times if anyone is dead or alive. 
I do tell the tales of people and children
Who get captivated by the beauty of nature
Who come for pacifying their lonely hearts
Who come to rekindle long lost memories
And who make love with their beloved,
Enveloped in warm hugs and sweet kisses.
I also tell the tales of the rocks that rest, birds that nest
As they share about their life once when they were young.
“School in the clouds,” as said, lots to learn and lots of hymns.
My beloved Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, here I come!
Alarm buzzes at 6 a.m., boots tightened, equipped with my binoculars, field guide, notebook/pen, and my lunch, we head towards the mountain: Hawk Mountain. It has become my daily routine since March as a Hawk Mountain conservation science trainee at this small paradise in Kempton, Pennsylvania. Coming here was overwhelming already. I come from Nepal, a small and a beautiful country in Southeast Asia, where the USA is regarded as the distant land of dreams. Only some lucky ones will ever make it here.
I made it in a unique way: following birds!! Yup, it may sound strange, but my passion to know more about birds (raptors specifically) led me into this land and this amazingly awesome place called Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.
Making it here was a long and adventure-filled journey. On March 22, I was scheduled to fly from Brussels to Newark. Shockingly, the horrible, suicidal bombing in the airport interrupted my travel. I was waiting to board when it happened and got stuck there for next four days. On the fifth day, I arrived in the States without my luggage, which was still sealed inside the Brussels airport.
On the first day at the sanctuary, Erin and Dr. Laurie (Director of Education and Senior Monitoring biologists, respectively) gave a short orientation about the sanctuary, various raptors that we would observe, and what would be our responsibilities as trainees. I was enthralled walking along the beautiful trail besides mountain laurel, rhododendron, and trees such as maples and oaks—I was expecting a bustling city like NYC! This is much better.I was exhausted when I finally reached the Newark airport, but equally excited. I was moved by the love and care all the organizers and my new friends bestowed upon me at my arrival. Dr. Keith Bildstein, Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science at the sanctuary and leading scientist on raptor migration studies, welcomed me with warm clothes (knowing I had nothing with me); my new housemates from Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa and Ohio greeted me with chocolates! What else I could wish for! A cool thing about this traineeship is that it provides a wonderful medium to exchange education and culture, and even multicultural foods!

Finally, we reached the lookout. The place where historically hundreds of birds were shot each spring and fall has become world’s first refuge for birds of prey and an international center for raptor conservation. Hawk lovers rather than gunners gaze skyward, aiming binoculars.First, we reached the South Lookout, a rocky promontory at 1,300 feet above sea level. The lookout on the Kittatinny Ridge provides a beautiful window to nature seekers. It rises in New York, marches across New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, all the way to Maryland border. The native Americans gave the ridge its name; Kittatinny means endless mountains. It is the southeast edge of the Appalachian chain. We also learned about the various landmarks we will use to locate the birds on their migration. Then, we followed a trail towards North Lookout. Paulina, my Mexican roomie, helped me in identifying the birds we come across, including blue jays, brown-headed cowbirds, and chickadees.
                                                                          We follow her directions, and far above we see a dark-colored, large bird. Dr. Laurie says, “Do you see the white head and tail?” Oh my gosh, an adult bald eagle circling around the sky! I rejoice at this new treat to my eyes.We settled ourselves on the favored boulder facing southwest, since birds will be approaching from that direction heading north-northeast toward eastern Canada. We start scanning into the deep blue sky when suddenly Rachelle informs, “There’s a bird above the wind turbines, flying towards New Ring Gold, two glass views above the horizon.”

We learned how to record the data, which was equally exciting and more important. We have been counting the spring raptor migration since April 1 and will continue until May 15. Besides counting we also interact with visitors, conduct some programs so that we can inform them about what Hawk Mountain is doing and why, and how are we counting raptors, etc.
Every day we head to the lookouts hoping it will be better than yesterday. As the day gets warmer and air starts moving, it stirs the excitement to be able to encounter those mystical raptors flying by. Birds never schedule an appointment; they come and go as they will. Some days are disappointing for hawk-watching, but it’s never disappointing.
Hawk Mountain provides lots of other activities: hiking along the various trails, relaxing and enjoying the landscape view, including the Little Schuylkill River flowing beside an old train track along the base of the mountains and river. The sparse houses down in the valleys are no less than beautifully decorated dollhouses. Patches of Christmas trees farms, shadows formed by the clouds in the mountains, eastern tiger swallowtails flying around the North Lookout, blue jays and chickadees chirping, and a pileated woodpecker knocking wood is reverberated all over the forest—it is beyond mesmerizing.Hawk Mountain is a paradise for nature lovers and adventure seekers, too. Many times visitors ask in awe, “Is this a painting or real?” Clumps of mountain laurel, rhododendron, mountain ash, hemlocks, sparsely distributed birches, oaks, black gums, maples, mountain holly, and shoots of American chestnut are beautiful. The panoramic view of the beautiful ridge valley along with the diverse vegetation carpeting the view with the advent of spring is spectacular.
According to my experience, a few days after rain have been the best for seeing larger numbers of birds migrating as well as for enjoying the view. The soft breeze that still penetrates to the heart, raindrops shimmering from the leaves and the rocks, the skyscapes formed by scattered patterns of clouds are usually ideal for observing hawks. Among all the birds I have seen and counted so far, including buteos, accipiters, falcons, and eagles, my personal favorite is the red-shouldered hawk. One mid-April day I saw a hawk flying right above us, circling, the sun behind it and shining through the wings. It glowed, cinnamon-rusty shoulder patches on the dark wings, the translucent white crescent in the edge of the wings, the narrow white barring in the tail blushed. I had never previously seen one of these hawks, but given my observation, I exclaimed with certainty, “red-shouldered hawk!” I was never so sure about any other bird. That was a sense of victory and accomplishment and hence, my favorite moment. Most of the birds I see here (other than ospreys) are not species I’ve seen in Nepal!
Turkey vultures are the major attractions of the sanctuary. Even on a no-bird day, they ease our eyes, soaring and gliding around the North Lookout. I feel happy for the visitors who come from far and wide to see some hawks and still get swayed by the way turkey vultures teeter in the open sky—very close to us many times. When the thermals are perfect, we encounter large kettles swirling and enjoying the hot pockets of air.
Every boulder, every passing cloud, and birds that fly across rejuvenate the withered soul and quench the thirsty eyes of every individual patient enough to wait for them. Every day is a new lesson, either from nature or from the wide range of visitors who share their time with us.

 I feel privileged to encounter this beauty of nature, to contribute to conservation in every possible way, and to learn among the wonderful people who are striving to make it happen, proving Hawk Mountain to be the epitome of a “School in the Clouds.”

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