Outdoorsy types are encouraged to apply for the job of counting raptors at the Allegheny Plateau Audubon Society’s hawk watch near Central City.
As the chapter’s Baby Boomer membership continues to decline, Vice President Bob Stewart is searching for volunteers who can tell the difference between a sharp-shinned hawk and a Merlin falcon, as well as those who won’t mistake a turkey vulture for an eagle.
On-the-job training is included.
“We’re getting older, the counters,” Stewart said.
“And we’re probably, in the very near future, going to have to restrict our number of hours or something, because we’re not going to have enough people.”
The group’s volunteers gather at the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch to count the migrating hawks and eagles that use the edge of the plateau as a travel corridor.
Choosing days when they can dedicate several hours to observing and logging raptor activity during peak times in spring and fall, seasoned participants known as “compilers” gather information for continental data bases.
For more than 20 years, the chapter’s counters have helped track the migration patterns of hawks, falcons, eagles and more. The autumn migration window, which began on Aug. 15, will run through early December, and the spring event runs from late February to early May.
Located just a few miles east of Central City and Reels Corner, the hawk watch offers a spectacular vista of Bedford County from an elevation of 2,690 feet.
Counters posted on the edge of a steep drop-off often view birds at eye level, having close encounters with species that may be on their way to or from Central or South America or Canada.
Butterflies and owls also use the ridge line as an interstate in the sky.
“We record hour by hour the species we see and record the weather, and we put that into a national database that’s online,” Stewart said.
That database, Hawk Count, is the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s compilation of more than 200 hawk watches on the continent.
Fluctuations in species populations can reveal changes in local and distant ecosystems, as raptors are high on the food chain.
With the next-closest hawk watch being located in Presque Isle, maintaining a fully staffed watch in southwestern Pennsylvania is vital. Those willing to help keep it open for business may be pleasantly surprised by what they’ll see, as 16 species of raptors are regularly recorded, Stewart said.
From kestrels to Merlin and peregrine falcons to Cooper’s, broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks, new counters will be able to identify even by silhouette.
“This site is known for golden eagles. We see more golden eagles than bald eagles,” Stewart said.
An occasional swallow-tailed kite or osprey may cruise by as well. Each species has its own peak migration period.
The broad-winged hawk’s peak period will be Wednesday through Friday.
“You can have several thousand in one day,” Stewart said.
“Last Sept. 15, we had over 4,700 in one day.”
At that rate, counters must learn to “block” by estimating large groups at a time as they come by. But, he said, that was not a normal day, and some can be quite slow if there’s fog or rain.
“Then we see some things besides birds,” Stewart said. “We’ve had bobcats two years in a row there, which you don’t normally see.”
A typical day for a counter involves scanning the sky with binoculars or spotting scope once weather conditions are recorded.
Birds are tallied on the hour. Stewart said most counters are generally on site from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., one day per week.
“People who are learning don’t need to be out there that whole time,” he said.
Newbies can shadow veteran counters until they feel competent enough to be on their own.
“If they can even do a half day, that would free up some people,” he said.
Binoculars and field guidebooks are available for those who don’t have their own.
One tip that Stewart offered was to dress for the weather.
“More warm clothing than what you think you’ll need,” he said.
Some even tally birds from the comfort of their heated vehicles when windchill bites hard in late fall and early spring.
At a minimum, Stewart expects those who are interested in joining the chapter’s group of counters to commit to once a week for at least one migration season, unless they have a solid background in birding.
“Even if these people don’t become counters, we would enjoy someone who’s enthusiastic out there with us,” he said.
Those interested may complete a membership application on the chapter’s website or contact them via social media.