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Montclair Hawk Watch

It is that special time of year. Hawks are in the air, you have heard them call, you have seen them circle high in the sky. You have been enriched by their overwhelming beauty, and the privilege of knowing that those magnificent birds soaring at the top of the food chain are once again on their way south for the winter. You hope it was a successful summer with healthy broods and ample food to strengthen them for their long journey. You long to reach out, you long to soar with them and you long to learn so much more about their plight and migration. The Montclair Hawk Lookout is indeed one of those very special places from where to watch the Hawks in Flight.

Nestled atop a 500-foot basalt ledge on a ridge known as the First Watchung Mountain in Montclair, New Jersey, is a well constructed, stone-filled platform that is the site of the Montclair Hawk Lookout, a sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon Society.

This is the first ridge west of the lower Hudson River Valley, and runs from northeast to southwest. What makes this site interesting during migration is the mixture of both coastal and ridge flights. In some years, exceptional Broad-winged Hawk flights have been observed in the Fall.

The view from the platform is spectacular, considering its location amidst one of the most densely populated areas in the country. While participating in the "hide and seek" search for hawks in the ever spinning billowing clouds above, one can be treated to the south and east with a view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the entire New York City skyline including the Statue of Liberty, all the way northeast to the Palisades. To the north and west, peaks from the Ramapo Mountains can be discerned, and the beginning of the Second Watchung Mountain. Directly across from the Lookout facing north is the Essex County Park of Mills Reservation from where the Spring Hawk Count is conducted, as the visibility to the south is better from there.

The Montclair Hawk Watch has been conducted since 1957. It is the second oldest continuous hawk watch in the nation. Only Hawk Mountain boasts a longer record. With this long history, a glance over the shoulder is appropriate.

A Look Back..

In 1957, the Montclair Hawk Watch was formally organized by three members of the Montclair Bird Club--Ruth Edwards, Sue Haupt and Ruth Beck--and ran from September 10 through September 29. Today, the Lookout is covered for three months in the Fall and two months in the Spring. These many years later, hawkwatchers still climb to the top of the ridge to observe the migration of the magnificent birds of prey.

There have been extraordinary changes during that period of time. We have witnessed the near-demise of the Peregrine Falcon, and the threat to the Bald Eagle and Osprey, due to the flagrant misuse of pesticides during the 1960's, and the ongoing recovery of these birds. We have seen the development of lands surrounding the Lookout, and the encroachment upon access to the site. We have witnessed unparalleled flights of Broad-winged Hawks, and marveled at every single bird passing along our little ridge during these many seasons. We have enjoyed the camaraderie amongst hawkwatchers, and the wealth of knowledge shared by those who stood on this ridge long before we ever climbed to its summit.

Despite development all around, the Lookout is now a protected sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon Society, due largely to the extraordinary efforts of former NJAS President Milt Levy, Trustee Jean Clark and President Tom Gilmore. In 1959, George Breck, a former president of the Montclair Bird Club, advanced the funds to purchase the property for the Club, which in turn donated it to NJAS in September of that year. At the dedication, George Breck explained that the Lookout was being preserved as a sanctuary in perpetuity "so our children's children can enjoy such spectacles as we see here today."

Many such spectacles were enjoyed and treasured during the following years. There were the good seasons, the slow seasons, young people with keen eyes spotting distant specks and wise veterans recognizing the unique characteristics of form and movement that placed a fleeting talon-print across the sky. 1986 marked the passing of our dear friend and leader Andrew Bihun, Jr., who had started his hawkwatching in the early days at Hawk Mountain, and brought those fine skills and dedication to Montclair, where he kept meticulous records for more than 20 years and taught a new generation of hawkwatchers the joy and wonder of nature's annual pageant.

In a fitting tribute to his devotion, the Lookout was dedicated to Andy's memory on September 16, 1988. On that day, some 17,420 hawks were observed, the biggest single day count ever made from the Lookout.

A Journey Through the Season

Early September gives hawkwatchers the chance to polish their tools and work on their identification skills as the Sharp-shinned Hawks, Broad-winged Hawks, Osprey, American Kestrel and an occasional Bald Eagle are spotted from the Lookout. By mid-September the excitement builds as the Broad-winged Hawks begin to appear in small groups (known as kettles). The Broad-winged Hawk is the "special" species for which the Montclair Hawk Lookout is well known. The peak flight days, if weather conditions are right, are usually during the third week of September, when groups of hundreds and sometimes thousands of these beautiful birds can be seen in one day.

At the end of September, the skies are filled with hawks on the move, as the number of Sharp-shinned Hawks increases, Cooper's, early Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks begin to join, and the Falcon families take to flight. In addition to the hawks, numerous songbirds are seen and the graceful peace of the migrating Monarch Butterfly is felt throughout the month.

October may be the most interesting time to visit the Lookout, as it offers the greatest diversity of hawk species. Chances are now better to see Merlins or even a Peregrine Falcon or two. However, by mid-month the Broad-winged Hawk flight will be over for the season, as other species begin to peak. The Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawk will be most numerous at the end of the month.

As November winds sweep the land, the skies are reserved for the big birds (no, not those big yellow fuzzy woolen ones). The Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks continue to greet us and a special visitor from the far north, the Rough-legged Hawk, is a possibility. Finally, the majestic sight of a Golden Eagle is sure to warm even the coldest soul.

 

One need only look at a child's face beaming at the sight of a soaring Bald Eagle or the glorious colors of an American Kestrel to realize that while the count itself is important, it is the shared experience of the beauty of these birds and the mystery of migration that is at the core of the Montclair Hawk Watch. While sharing in the quest of the Autumnal wingspan, we reach out for an increased knowledge and a growing awareness of the plight of the birds of prey . . .

--Else M. Greenstone

 

Directions:

To reach the Montclair Hawk Watch from the Garden State Parkway in Bloomfield, take exit 151 for Watchung Avenue and head west on Watchung to its end at Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair, about 2.1 miles. Make a right turn and go north on Upper Mountain 0.7 miles to Bradford Avenue. Make a left turn and go up Bradford 0.1 miles to Edgecliff Road and make a right turn. Go up Edgecliff 0.2 miles and park on the shoulder (to avoid parking problems, please park well off the side of the road). The lookout path is on the south side of the road.

The Montclair Hawk Watch is easily reached via mass transit, as it is located in the heart of northern New Jersey's urban complex, an important factor in these days of high traffic congestion. Walking time from the railroad and bus station on Bellevue Avenue in Upper Montclair is about 15 minutes. Take Bellevue west (up the mountain) to Upper Mountain Avenue, turn right and follow the directions above.

What to bring:

Patience, dress in layers according to the season, wear comfortable shoes, binoculars, sunblock, and a smile in your heart.


The Sanctuary is open to the public from September through November.


Look at a History of the Montclair Hawk Watch


Read about the Dedication of the Montclair Hawk Watch


See the Spring Totals for the Last Five Years


See the Fall Totals for the Last Five Years