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Sometimes you watch the hawk (and sometimes the hawk watches you)

September 20, 2010
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Pilot Mountain is a knob of quarztite that rises out of the Piedmont just north of Winston-Salem.  It’s a distinctive sight to anyone traveling in that part of the state, as it has been for as long as people have lived in North Carolina, as its unique shape, as well as the fact that it seems to appear our of nowhere, lends credence to its reputation as a waypoint on journeys west into Appalachia.   Interestingly enough, that same impulse that has always drawn humans to the mountain draws other stuff too, particularly migratory hawks streaming down the ridges in the far western part of the state, and perhaps becoming distracted by the bizarre spur just south and east of where they should be.

Most hawks stay farther west, but enough detour towards Pilot Mountain to make the hawkwatch on the nearby Little Pinnacle peak worth monitoring for local birders.  It’s not Hawk Mountain or anything, but it’s passable with a few thousand Broad-wings seen most years with others thrown in and the odd Golden Eagle to keep things interesting.   At the very least, it’s an introduction to a phenomenon that’s under-appreciated by the general public, so we decided to take the Wake Audubon Young Naturalist’s Club there yesterday to check it out and hopefully get our fill of southbound raptors

That was the plan at least.  When the dozen or so young naturalist’s (our largest outing yet!) pile out of the vans at the peak of the mountain, the conditions were less that ideal.  The hawk counters had had decent numbers of Broad-wings in the morning, but by the time we arrived the wind had died down, the haze prevented viewing more than a few miles out, and the only birds flying were the resident Turkey Vultures.  But there were a lot of them!

Eventually, high above the horizon, a single Broad-winged blew by so fast it left a jet contrail, and a few of the resident Common Ravens took to the air and kettled with the increasing Turkey Vultures, but it wasn’t enough to sate the excitement of several teens hungry for raptorial wonders.  Or maybe that was just me, because Turkey Vultures, and the few Black Vultures making the rounds, seemed plenty impressive enough for kids whose expectations were far more manageable.    I suppose I can’t complain then.

We spent some time at the hawkwatch platform and the retired for lunch and a quick walk around the mountain.  Land birding was equally slow, but a trio of Swainson’s Thrushes was nice and I picked up a heard Red-breasted Nuthatch, a new bird for the year thanks to Ali Iyoob and Matt Daw, who found it and sent me in the right direction.  That excitement was tempered by the fact that they’d just had a Bay-breasted Warbler that I’d missed while eating lunch with the rest of the group.  Serves me right, never eat lunch when there’s birds to be had.

When we returned to the hawk platform the birds were going higher and higher.  Any hope of a photo faded when the last Broad-winged we saw was a speck, barely even noticeable with the naked eye.  An Osprey was still higher, but a new bird for the day nonetheless.  And that was it, no other raptors passed the pinnacle while we were there, though the Broad-wing numbers increased after we left.  Those birds were impressive to those of us who cared, but for other kids the most interesting individuals were the Vultures who swooped ever closer over the outlook.

Not a flashy species by any means, but numerous and easy to observe.  Enough to fit the bill on this day, and hopefully to bring some of those kids back another time.

3 Comments
  1. September 20, 2010 4:48 pm

    What a cool place to watch hawks! Thanks for posting about it.

  2. September 22, 2010 12:22 pm

    Great post, it was a fun trip!

  3. Nate permalink*
    September 22, 2010 12:44 pm

    @Pat- My pleasure. It is a really interesting place.

    @Ali- Sure was. There’s talk about doing it again next year. Hopefully the hawks will be moving a little better.

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