It was a motley crew if ever there was one: a man outfitted for a safari into deepest Africa, attired in a vest all hung about with various technological devices standing beside a high-powered scope on a tripod facing northeast. A woman in tweeds and sensible shoes and a deerstalker hat, with a pair of heavy 1950s binoculars held at half-mast and ready for use. A lank hawklike man with a bald head and aquiline nose in worn corduroys and a flannel shirt. And a small man in shorts and a black T-shirt with an image of a snarling pit bull on his chest.
The others, as many as fifteen or twenty all told, were equipped with various optical devices, ranging from huge spotting scopes, to cameras with immense telephoto lenses, to binoculars and smaller scopes—all of which were pointed eastward like artillery at a tiny dark speck circling above the horizon.
The identification of said speck was the subject of much discussion and was spoken of in code: It was perhaps a “tail,” or maybe a “wing” or a “shoulder,” or for that matter maybe a “TV.”
This was not Superman circling the eastern horizon. It was no plane. It was in fact a bird. But whether red-tailed hawk, or broad-wing, or red-shoulder, or turkey vulture, no one could say; and by the time the thing passed southward, two more specks appeared. All lenses spun northward, and this time the speck was more defined. “Wing” someone called out. No one disputed.
This was September. September the 21st—to be exact, 11:30 a.m., on the first full day of autumn, and some of these watchers had been here since early morning. Most had coffee and sandwiches with them, and, except for the young man with the pit bull T-shirt, most were attired for the weather—a stiff wind out of the northwest, clear skies after three days of fog, a good day for hawk watching.
They bore no ill will, these watchers of the skies. Their intent was to record the numbers and species of passing migratory hawks. But it was not always so.
There was a time, not so very long ago, when east coast peaks such as Mount Wachusett and Monadnock, all the way south to Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania and beyond, would also be crowded each autumn. The watchers on the peaks in those times were not carrying binoculars and scopes, however, and were not outfitted in the latest L.L. Bean sporting gear. In point of fact, they dressed in coveralls and were armed with 12-gauge shotguns.
Each autumn, as the hawks drifted down the great chain of the Appalachian ridge that runs from Maine to Georgia, hawk shooters would gather on the peaks and slopes and also at certain points along the coast such as Fishers Island, New York, and Cape May, New Jersey, and indiscriminately blast at anything that flew by, be it broad-wing, kestrel, or eagle. Of all the sites along the east coast ridge, the most famous was a height called Hawk Mountain in the Kittatinny chain of Pennsylvania. Each autumn the local farmers and tradesmen from the nearby town of Drehersville would climb to a spot called Lookout Point and sit there and wait. Hawks following the ridges would sweep so low over the mountaintop that all that was necessary was to lift the barrel and fire point-blank. You could hardly miss.
On certain days there when the conditions were right, there would be as many as 300 hawk killers collected on the peak, blasting away, until the slopes below were littered with the bodies of dead and dying hawks and eagles, some still flapping. The result of the massacre was staggering: thousands of birds each year at Hawk Mountain, more at Cape May, and one year over 14,000 at Fishers Island alone.
In 1932, the young ornithologist Richard Pough got word of the carnage, photographed the aftermath, and published the images. As word began to spread in the conservation community, pressure built on the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which not only sanctioned the slaughter but also offered a bounty on certain species. By 1938, urged on by a singular dynamic woman named Rosalie Edge, a conservationist as well as former suffragist, purchased 1,400 acres to create the world’s first refuge for birds of prey—Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. No shooting allowed. Now it’s a veritable Mecca for hawk watchers.
We have many other bird conservation problems in our time, some maybe even worse. But at least the current losses are inadvertent, and, as far as hawks are concerned, the days of outright persecution are over.