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 maintained the watch on Blueberry Hill full-time through the fall of 2015 and sporadically since then. 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.
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.
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" for the potluck picnic or visit Tom's high perch on Shatterack Mountain and gaze in awe at these magnificent birds of prey as they soar and glide past.