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Shadowing the Talon Scouts of Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

July 30, 1989|JIM LEVEQUE | Leveque is a free-lance writer living in Lindenwold, N.J.

KEMPTON, Pa. — The aptly named Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is the best place in the country to view hawks en masse.

There are two routes to the wintering grounds for these predators of Eastern Canada and the Northeast United States--along the Atlantic Coast, and down the Appalachian Mountains.

The inland-traveling birds catch the air currents to ride away from winter. They do this in the same manner as a surfer contemplates, then slides aboard, a well-shaped wave.

Hawk Mountain's location, near the terminus of what the Lenapi Indians called the "endless mountains," makes it about the last point at which the birds can catch a final, powerful comber toward the warmer southern climate.

The route can be spectacular. On an autumn day in 1948, for example, 11,000 broadwings, the most numerous species every year, were counted in their fly-by. This number is rarely equaled, but several thousand a day is not unusual.

What makes Hawk Mountain so attractive to the birds is the bowl formed by its ridges and the flat farmland surrounding it.

The cupped configuration is like a sea wall on which the surf breaks and thrusts upward. And the heat boiling out of the sun-warmed fields generates great currents upon which the hawks can elevate.

The word "boil" is used by hawkers interchangeably with "kettle," and describes the phenomenon of the birds as they collectively ascend a geyser of air.

They spiral effortlessly, ever higher, until the lift dies out. They may then sweep over to another, higher current to gain even more altitude. Or, if the height is adequate, they may take a southward heading and shoot away for the season.

The season for hawks and hawkers begins in late August when the broadwings begin to show. September is a very heavy month and, historically, Sept. 11-24 is the best time to watch the raptors pass in review.

There are always birds, however, from mid-August through early December, and the rare bald eagle appears in early September. Golden eagles, equally impressive but fewer in number, fly past in early November.

Becoming a hawker requires no particular expertise. Michael Harwood's book "The View From Hawk Mountain" is a good start for feather-and-beak data and a little romance.

"Feathers in the Wind" also is a good one. It's on sale at Hawk Mountain headquarters, offering tips plus a lot of interesting esoterica.

The book also explains what a hawker means when he yells: "Bird over No. 3!" No. 3 is one of the series of five small, consecutively numbered points on a ridge directly before the North Lookout.

They're indispensable observation points, but awkwardly are numbered from right to left. However, once a hawker gets used to it, the spotting is simple.

The walk to the North Lookout is about half an hour up a lovely rough forest path that ends in a tumble of stone about 1,000 feet above the countryside.

The view takes in 30 miles in all directions, which alone is worth the hike. For the more tender of foot, the South Lookout is five minutes from the highway. It requires less exertion, but offers less viewing opportunity, too.

The ambience around Hawk Mountain has not always been so receptive to the birds. It might well have been called "Massacre Mountain" in the past, due to the thousands of birds slaughtered from what is now the North Lookout.

Old-timers say that during the migration the stench of rotting birds was almost unbearable. But hunters had no problem putting up with it: hawks were predators.

Finally, conservationists won the day when, in 1932, it became the world's first sanctuary for birds of prey.

Hawks, it seems, are not just birds. Mythology associates them with death and a terrible aloofness. The dark side of man responds with a primeval, feral, growling acclaim to the frightening wonder of a killer for sport.

Eagles, however, eat things already dead and rotting. Some hawks subsist mainly on things as yucky as toads. But legends die hard, and the supreme arrogance of the rapacious raptor--lethal, amoral and totally without conscience--is something to which we all may be drawn.

-- -- --

Hawk Mountain is about a two-hour drive northwest of Philadelphia. Take the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike just outside Philadelphia, turn left at the Allentown exit and follow the signs to Kempton about 15 miles away.

A day at Hawk Mountain can include a journey through the Pennsylvania Dutch pleasantness of rural Berks County.

Reading, the major community, is accessible from the Morgantown exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Reading is the discount center of the Eastern Seaboard. The town calls itself "The Outlet Capital of the World" because of the 250-plus discount houses in the area.

Just before the approach to Reading is Hopewell Village. Known for its cast iron from which, among other things, came more than 65,000 stoves and a whole nation's worth of pots and pans.

The National Park Service supervises Hopewell, and has restored it to the 1820-1840 era, when Hopewell Village was most productive.

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