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Hawk Mountain Is Mysteriously Quiet

May 10, 1998

ON THE KITTATINNY RIDGE, Pa. (AP) _ A ponytailed young man with binoculars lies on a white boulder 1,521 feet up, scanning the blue sky and wispy clouds.

``Osprey,″ Rob Neitz says in a professional monotone.

A speck streaks overhead, and another check goes on a chart the bird-counters are keeping at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, one of North America’s finest lookouts for raptors migrating from breeding grounds in the northeastern United States and Canada to wintering lands.

Each fall, an average of 17,787 raptors heading south hit the 300-mile-long Kittatinny Ridge, the last major Appalachian range before birds reach the Atlantic shoreline _ the last good route south.

Many raptors ride its updrafts south toward winter homes like so many surfers on the waves, creating a wild spectacle for birders. But, curiously, only one-tenth to one-half return in the spring on their way back north.

``Hi, Laura. Things are starting to move here,″ Neitz, 23, reported over his walkie-talkie to the office, a 20-minute hike down the mountain. ``It should be a pretty good day.″

In September, a good day would be hundreds of hawks riding the hot-air spirals called thermals in this little valley, a sloped, horseshoe-shaped amphitheater. In all, folks here spotted 5,517 broad-winged hawks, 4,217 sharp-shinned hawks, 2,359 red-tailed hawks and 124 bald eagles last fall.

On this warm April day, Neitz, an environmental biology graduate from Lock Haven University, may count only a few dozen.

Other migrating routes that can bottleneck in fall also dry up in spring. Why? Biologists still are working on the answers.

``The birds tend to be in a hurry to get back to their breeding grounds,″ theorizes Keith Bildstein, director of research for the 64-year-old bird sanctuary.

The birds are believed to return to the same area each year, and they race back to claim prime real estate where they can raise hatchlings. ``So they tend to be more direct on the return trip.″

Another hypothesis: Food is less available. Rats and rabbits and smaller birds have been thinned out by the winter cold, so the birds of prey are less likely to linger.

But the main reason, Bildstein believes, is the wind.

Winds tend to blow out of the west in the North, so birds leaving Canada and New England are blown against the Kittatinny Ridge. On the other hand, when the hawks are returning from the tropics, the wind comes out of the east and sends to birds farther west.

Bird-watchers find the hawks spread out over Texas and Mississippi. At the Great Lakes, the birds turn sharply and head to New England or Canada. The spring path bypasses Kittatinny.

``The birds just want to get from point A to point B,″ Bildstein said. ``Initially in their journey, they are more compromising. They’re willing to be pushed off course.″

That makes sense. Heading south, they also try to conserve energy by soaring along thermals, which require 10 to 15 times less energy than flapping flight.

The wind patterns and the clear boulder lookouts at Hawk Mountain made the hawks easy targets for autumn hunters early in this century, when the predators were considered vermin because they ate poultry and ``prestige″ game, such as grouse, pheasant and rabbit. Shotgun-wielding Pennsylvanians downed birds by the thousands.

In 1934, conservationist Rosalie Edge bought the 2,380-acre ridge-top and turned it into the world’s first refuge for birds of prey. Hawk Mountain is now a nonprofit organization with 10,000 members.

Staff and volunteers have been counting the raptors for 64 years, providing scientists with a clear picture of the fluctuations of the bird population _ and data to press for legislation protecting the birds from habitat loss and pesticide.

Bildstein said they’ve succeeded and that springtime visitors shouldn’t read anything into the rarity of bird sightings. ``We’re doing really well. The population of most of our species since the pesticide-era lows of the 1960s and 70s is steady,″ he said.

That assures Neitz of continuing his favorite pastime _ at least in the fall.

``To me, nothing beats a cold October day after the sun has set and most of the people are gone and you get a few last birds,″ he said. ``It’s awesome.″