History of the Montclair Hawk Watch

Hawk Watch Coordinator Else M. Greenstone


On September 18, 1959, The Montclair Hawk Lookout, all one acre of it, became NJ Audubon's smallest sanctuary, a gift from the Montclair Bird Club. Today, a crushed stone-filled platform sits atop a rock cliff on a basalt ridge of the First Watchung Mountain and commands a panorama of nearly 360 degrees, offering views of landmarks up to fifty miles away. Woodland and suburban development surround it, while the skyline of New York City rises thirteen miles to the east. This is the first ridge west of the lower Hudson River valley and runs from northeast to southwest. What makes the site unique during migration is the mixture of both coastal and ridge flights.

Some twenty years earlier, the Raritan and Passaic Valleys Ornithological Club (later renamed the Urner Ornithological Club) had made regular observations of raptor migrations in the Watchungs for seven seasons. But it wasn't until the Montclair Hawk Watch was formally organized in 1957 by three members of the Montclair Bird Club -- Ruth Edwards, Suzanne Haupt, and Ruth Breck -- that "Operation Hawk-Watch" began.

When the lookout appeared doomed by the onslaught of urban development, these three formidable women, together with a great many other birders, were galvanized into action. They aspired to set aside as a sanctuary this bald outcropping of rock, a vantage point to observe the annual spectacle of migrating hawks and other species of birds on their way south, so that future generations of nature enthusiasts could watch, study, and enjoy the spectacular autumn hawk migration.

The original site, three small parcels along the east edge of the ridge, was acquired for the Montclair Bird Club by George Breck when it was sold by the town of Montclair for non-payment of taxes. The club reimbursed George and donated the land to NJAS. Since only a part of the site actually used by the hawk watchers had been acquired, and the access was through private property, it took the extraordinary efforts of board members Milt Levy and Jean Clark to make the present lookout a reality.

Milt jumped at the chance to negotiate a land swap when adjoining property was being subdivided for development in 1982. Negotiations went on for several years in a complicated and exquisitely orchestrated land swap that finally secured the smallest of parcels for the dearest of causes -- a hawk watch in northern New Jersey. "Joy all around!" Milt concluded, when the settlement was complete. As part of the arrangement, a stone platform was constructed which allows use of the site by the many human visitors who appear as suddenly as the hawks arriving on the northwest winds at the height of migration.

The Montclair Bird Club has conducted an official fall hawk count since 1957, the longest official hawk migration count in the state. A letter to the club dated September 29, 1966, from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, acknowledged that "except for the reports from Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, those compiled by the Montclair Bird Club (and its friends) are the most complete and the most consistent of all that we receive from anywhere in the United States. We congratulate you not only on the large numbers of birds seen and identified but also on the very fine organization that makes possible such splendid daily coverage."

The meticulous records were kept for twenty years by Andrew Bihun, Jr., who had started his hawk watching in the early days at Hawk Mountain and brought these skills and dedication to Montclair where he taught a new generation of hawk watchers. The lyrical chroniclers of the Montclair Hawk Lookout have been Else and Wayne D. Greenstone. On the occasion of Bihun's death in 1986, Wayne wrote in New Jersey Audubon:

On September 21, 1981, I first visited the Montclair hawk watch. Andy was there, jubilant at the sight of thousands of Broad-winged circling in huge kettles over the valley between the ridge and New York City. Skilled observers were counting out loud, seeing what seemed beyond the scope of ordinary vision, shouting numbers from all directions, and there was Andy in the center of it all, recording each sighting . . . His excitement, joy, and enthusiasm for the autumnal pageant was infectious, touching all who journeyed to the lookout."

On September 16, 1988, pone hundred friends and admirers of Andy Bihun gathered at the hawk watch to dedicate a newly constructed platform in his honor. There were tributes and a splendid reception. However, the greatest tribute to the man was the number of hawks recorded before, during, and after the ceremony -- 17,420 -- the greatest single day count in the history of the Montclair Hawk Watch.

Else Greenstone was Andrew Bihun's dedicated and gifted pupil, and when he died, she took over the teaching and recording duties of the hawk watch with the same enthusiasm he had demonstrated. On the occasion of the lookout's fortieth season, she wrote in Records of New Jersey Birds (Summer 1996): "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 antumnal wingspan, we reach out for an increased knowledge and a growing awareness of the plight of the birds of prey."

Reprinted from One Hundred Years and Still Counting, by Libbie Harrover Johnson, 1997.


Learn more about the Montclair Hawk Watch


Read about the Dedication of the Montclair Hawk Watch


View Spring Totals for the past few years


View Fall Totals for the past few years