By Sarah Elkins
"Anyone who likes to watch birds at a feeder is a bird watcher. Anyone who takes it to the next level and becomes proficient at identification is considered a birder.” Rodney Davis is a birder, and this is his answer when I ask him the correct term for someone like himself. Davis is one of a handful of volunteers who maintain the raptor count at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Monroe County, West Virginia.
Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory, a tidy wooden structure perched upon a rock outcropping near Gap Mills, is the only official raptor monitoring site in the state, reporting bird of prey counts to the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). West Virginia finds itself on the very western edge of the eastern migration corridor. Davis explains, “That’s why there aren’t many counts in the state.” Most reporting sites for the corridor can be found to the east in Virginia and other states up and down the coast.
Twelve species of raptors, including hawks, eagles, falcons and osprey, are monitored from this point during the migratory season that begins mid-August and continues through December. Three-quarters of the birds observed from Hanging Rock are broad-winged hawks. In 2013, 4,509 of the hawks were observed passing through on their way to Mexico and South America.
Hanging Rock has been an official reporting site since 1952. Early counts, taken over a two or three-day period, were not thorough and didn’t provide much usable data for researchers. However, consistent, longitudinal data collected over the past 20 years by dedicated volunteers has shown, according to Davis, “a definite increase in bald eagles and peregrine falcons.” Unfortunately, he says, the problem with the disappearance of the monarch butterfly has become obvious over recent years.
Davis, who has logged days as long as 10 hours at the observation tower, remembers on a particular fall afternoon watching an immature bald eagle tearing down Sweet Springs Valley, not paying attention to his surroundings as teenagers are wont to do. Within 50 feet of the observatory, the bird realizes he is about to collide with one awe-struck birder, “puts on the air brakes,” and peels off around the tower. Encounters like this are a birder’s reward for full days spent watching the sky above and below Hanging Rock. Many raptor sightings occur in the expanse of sky below the tower.
Birders spend countless hours in hopes of spying a “kettle,” the term given to the flocks of migratory hawks that travel in groups of hundreds or even thousands, aptly named because the birds create the illusion of a kettle being stirred. In fact, the hawks are riding the swirling thermal systems to make lighter work of their long trip south.
“There’s nothing quite like seeing 400 hawks that look like a swarm of bees,” Davis smiles.
It’s difficult, though, to predict when you’re likely to have an up-close encounter with a raptor, let alone hundreds. The broad-winged hawks arrive fairly consistently within a three-week window beginning mid-September, but, as Davis explains, “it depends on the weather more than the time of day.” The third week in September is a good bet, and October offers the best chance of seeing every species.
He adds, “But, you come for the view. If you see birds, that’s a bonus.”
Actually, people have been coming for the view since the early 1900s. Hanging Rock is perhaps the only place in the state where you’ll find an unobstructed 50-mile view. On a clear day, even if there isn’t a bird in sight, you’ll see Cold Knob, 42 miles away in Pocahontas County; the Peaks of Otter, 50 miles away on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia; and Poor Mountain in Salem, Virginia. In winter, you can even watch snow being made on the slopes of Winterplace Ski Resort 45 miles away.
The Hanging Rock observation tower, found at the end of an easy hike, less than a mile long, is a perfect destination for a picnic or panoramic photo op, regardless of whether or not you choose the right day for the birds. The Blue Ridge Mountains roll along the skyline in the distance while farmland and forests dot the foreground.
If your interests veer toward quirky, you’ll be happy to know the outhouse at the observatory boasts the distinction of “best view from an outhouse,” according to the traveler’s guide Way Out in West Virginia by Jeanne Mozier. Some visitors have been known to take a photo of the view while seated in the outhouse. Whether you do that or not is totally up to you, but you’ll have to do it soon. Despite its claim to fame, the outhouse will soon be removed and replaced with a new one 200 feet down the trail. It seems not everyone is keen on such prominent facilities.
Hawks and eagles are not the only things you’ll find borrowing the airspace at Hanging Rock. Fighter jets train in the valley. Military aircraft occasionally use the tower as a mock target, buzzing just above before dropping into the valley below. Davis confesses, “It’s more scary than exciting.”
Last year, at the request of the HMANA, volunteers undertook the task of counting six species of dragonflies which follow the same migratory patterns as hawks. “You think it’s hard to tell one bird from another in flight, try doing that with dragonflies,” Davis says, holding up his forefinger and thumb squinting at an invisible dragonfly. He laughs, “Sometimes we see a hawk pick a dragonfly out of the air. We have to take that one off the list - minus one dragonfly.”
Those interested in taking the leap from bird watcher to birder are encouraged to visit Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory during the migratory season. Volunteer counters are present most days and eager to instruct beginners in the skills of identifying birds in flight, a wholly different skill than identifying a bird on a post.
Davis admits when he first became interested in the migratory highway at Hanging Rock 26 years ago, he “didn’t know a bald eagle from a turkey vulture.”
The counters are trained to be verbal, announcing to visitors what they are seeing. In addition, several formal trips are planned through organizations such as Pocahontas Nature Club and New River Valley Nature Club. Managed by the Forest Service, the tower and the trail are open to overnight campers as well. The tower is never locked, and, in fact, doesn’t have a lock.
For information about visiting Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory this fall or to follow the ongoing count, visit www.hangingrocktower.org. There you’ll find directions, accounts of recent sightings, photographs and more.