Hawk watching is a specialized branch of birding in which raptors are identified and counted during their daylight migration. The optimal time for observing the greatest number and variety of migrating raptor species in Western Massachusetts is from the second week of September through the third week of October.
In our region, this annual spectacle was observed for the first time on September 14, 1935, when Joseph A. Hagar watched a flight of raptors passing over Mt. Tom in Holyoke. During the 1930s, Hagar played an instrumental role in the campaign to ban the shooting of hawks on the Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
In 1971, a group of hawk enthusiasts formed the New England Hawk Watch. They stationed sky watchers at various sites to record the amazing mid-September passage of thousands of broad-winged hawks through Massachusetts and Connecticut. One of these mountain-top sites is Blueberry Hill in the town of Granville. Easily accessible, the hilltop commands a panoramic view reaching as far as Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire. The property is owned by the New England Forestry Foundation, and is open to the public. Since then, several Allen Bird Club members have been actively counting hawks at this and other local sites.
Informal part-time counts were made at this site by Seth Kellogg each year from 1983 until 2001, while Tom Swochak conducted a nearly full-time watch on Mt. Tekoa in Russell from 1991 to 1999. After the devastating Shatterack/Tekoa fire in April 1999, Tom and John Weeks moved the full-time watch to Blueberry Hill. With the help of several other experienced observers, John has maintained the watch on Blueberry Hill up to the present time. Along with 17 species of raptors, the site boasts a checklist of over 130 species of non-raptors recorded over the years, along with the occasional moose!
Meanwhile, in 2004, Tom found a superb vantage point on the ridge of Shatterack Mt. in Russell and started a new watch that has since racked up impressive numbers of migrants. The topography of the site produces wind currents swirling off the slopes that drop away from the lookout, as well as heat thermals rising from the valley below. Together, these often yield exciting close-up views of passing migrants. At times the birds will linger, providing extended views of their natural flight behavior. A short fifteen-minute, moderately uphill walk brings you to this hidden gem in western Hampden County. Between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM during "prime-time" in the fall, the visitor to the rocky summit can anticipate a memorable birding experience.
A special event each fall is the Club's hawkwatch picnic on Blueberry Hill. On a Saturday in mid-September, members of the Allen and Hoffmann Bird Clubs come together for camaraderie and a chance to marvel at the peak flight of broad-wing hawks. When conditions are just right, hundreds, if not thousands, of this flocking species can stream overhead in a single day.
Both of our fall counts now form part of a network of hawk watches stretching from Quebec to Central America, an effort organized by Northeast Hawk Watch (formerly New England Hawk Watch) and the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Regardless of your level of skill, you too can participate in these watches and enjoy the breathtaking spectacle of hawks wending southward in the fall. So come on up to "the Hill" or Tom's high perch on Shatterack Mountain and gaze in awe at these magnificent birds of prey as they soar and glide past.
The 2014 fall season at Blueberry Hill kicked off on August 30th and ran until November 23rd. During September, the watch crew tallied 4,658 broad-winged hawks, the majority of them in three waves (Sept 13-14, 18-19 and 24). The total of all raptor species observed during the season was 5,804. In terms of numbers, it was an average year for Blueberry Hill. However, the statistics cannot convey the wonderment and delight induced by many of the sightings we enjoyed, such as watching a perched kestrel devouring an enormous caterpillar, marveling at the adroit maneuvers of a northern harrier as she quartered the hilltop, and gazing in awe as a golden eagle soared nearly out of sight high overhead. Non-raptor species also gave us some very pleasurable moments; we had good looks at 14 species of wood warblers and some nice close-up views of Philadelphia vireos. John nearly stepped on a Lapland longspur skulking in the grass. Monarchs, wood nymphs, painted ladies and other species of butterflies, along with praying mantises, a caddis fly in November (!), and a smooth green snake on a rock outcrop added welcome variety.
In recent years, the early onset of inclement weather — perhaps due to climate change — has dramatically shortened Blueberry Hill's fall season, which used to run into December. Personal factors have also contributed to the decline in hours of coverage (212 this season). We are eager to have new Club members come and help us to restore some of these lost hours. It doesn't matter what your level of expertise is; even beginners are most welcome. We'll teach you what you need to know!
— John Weeks
During the 2014 fall season, from September 9th through November 2nd, hawkwatchers provided 169 hours of coverage at the Shatterack Mt. lookout. We had the highest seasonal total (8,942) ever at this site for broad-winged hawks, with four big days when kettle after kettle passed overhead, each with hundreds of birds. Total numbers and dates of these flights were 2,792 broadwings on Sept 15, 869 on Sept 18, 1,672 on Sept 19, and 2,811 on September 24. The sharp-shinned hawk is the second most numerous migrant species each year. High daily numbers counted were 48 on Sept 19, 49 on Oct 19, and 51 on Oct 24. Some other notable species totals for the season included 47 coopers hawks, 27 harriers, 63 ospreys, 58 kestrels, 13 merlins and 16 peregrine falcons.
This year two lucky Allen Bird Club watchers were treated to a half-hour aerial display by two of those migrating peregrine falcons. As they circled and glided high and low over the lookout and out over the valley, they teamed up to harass any unlucky bird that might pass by, first a turkey vulture, then a red-tailed hawk, next a raven. The show ended with one of the peregrines going into a spectacular 500+ foot stoop, his target a sharp-shinned hawk in the valley below. Then the peregrines were gone, continuing their journey south.
Allen Bird Club members are encouraged to visit Shatterack Mt. this coming fall. If you would like additional information, contact Allen Bird Club member Tom Swochak: (413) 485-8378 or email email@example.com.
— Tom Swochak