Ten Years: 100,000 Raptors

by | Oct 29, 1998 | Hawk Watch Updates

by Marylea Klauder

On September 7th, 1988 a small number of people scanned the sky over Militia Hill in Fort Washington State Park. They were looking for the first migrating raptor of the first official Militia Hill Hawk Watch. Bill Kershner was the compiler that day, he recorded 8 migrants and enjoyed the activity enough to return as compiler every Wednesday for the next ten years. One week later another compiler, Bill Murphy, spotted our first Bald Eagle in a large kettle of Broadwings. We counted 954 raptors for the day. By then we knew we had discovered a great location and we were hooked.

Two other compilers have been with us since the beginning. George Layne found us early in the season and joined at once. And Charlie Wonderly has braved many bitterly cold and windy hours in November searching for the Roughleg and the Golden Eagle. Over the past ten year’s Militia Hill has become known for its large migration of Broadwings, as many as 13,000 in a single day in 1995. More compilers have joined and the number of observers has grown to as many as 200 on the weekends.

September 1st, 1997 was the opening day of the 10th year of the watch. Warm early September weather was not conducive to raptor migration, but 60 members of our group turned up to get reacquainted, admire the expanded Butterfly Garden, and scan for the first countable bird. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and 2 quail were the highlights at ground level in September. Two “life” butterflies were added to the park list. The Firey Skipper and the beautiful Long-tailed Skipper, both southern species not usually seen in the area.

The first Bald Eagle arrived on September 3rd, low, majestic, and adult. Followed by a steady stream through the month for a total of 25. Five Bald Eagles were recorded on a single day, September 21st.

When the Broadwing season arrived, we started the countdown to the 100,000th raptor in the history of the Hawk Watch. At first the Broadwings came through in smaller kettles than usual, spread out over many days and across a wide area with other watches reporting similar small numbers. Finally on September 22nd, we found a kettle of about 75 Broadwings that contained the bird we had been looking for. The compiler, Ian Baldock, proudly recorded the 100,000th raptor. The Broad-winged Hawk was cheered on its way and we celebrated with photographs of the group, a sign, and balloons. By the time the migrant reached Veracruz, Mexico it would be just one among 4.5 million Broadwings. However, over Militia Hill it was our very special bird.

The fun was not over yet. Traditionally the Broadwing flight at Militia Hill has two peaks, the second being greater than the first. And once again we had another great day of 3005 Broadwings on September 24th for a total of 8647 Broadwings in September and 9,720 raptors for the month.

A single early Snow Goose on September 9th and a large Monarch Butterfly migration of over 100 a day added to the charm of September as we watched Bill Murphy mulch, weed, plant, and trim his beautiful Butterfly Garden.

Usually the Broadwings are birds of September, with only a few stragglers showing up in early October. So a flight of 139 Broadwings on October 1st with three Bald Eagles followed by another Bald Eagle on the 2nd along with thousands of Canada Geese and four Snow Geese, and then 52 more Broadwings on the 3rd, made a very exciting first week of the month. Two Common Nighthawks on October 4th and one on the 5th had been unusual too.

In contrast, the second week of October was hot and slow. Temperatures in the high 80s put migration on hold. Bald Eagles on the 7th and 8th picked up our spirits and visiting school classes got good close looks at local Redtails and Turkey Vultures.

Sharpies and the occasional Cooper’s made startling passes at the bird feeders almost daily now and the little quail disappeared, possibly becoming fast food on the journey south.

Butterflies and skippers continued and the sparrows arrived. Song, Field, Swamp, Chipping, White-crowned, Lincoln’s, White-throated Sparrows and Eastern Towhees ate the seed we scattered at the edges of the garden. Bob Putska and Bill Murphy were kept busy filling and refilling the feeders and the bird baths which they tend faithfully everyday all year long. So stop by in January and enjoy the birds of winter or stop by in July to enjoy the hummingbirds.

On October 16th, after a cold front, we counted 569 Snow Geese, and a total of 77 raptors including a group of 17 Turkey Vultures. Three Double-crested cormorants were also noted.

A good variety of raptors on the 18th included three more Bald Eagles, a male Harrier, and a Peregrine that stopped and circled, a real treat for us. The total for the day was 122.

The 19th we recorded a northbound Red-throated Loon. The second half of October was very slow with only an occasional Red-shouldered among the Sharpies and Cooper’s. The 23rd brought us two Lesser Yellowlegs and on the 28th a Common Snipe. Now we were seeing a few Common Loons.

October 30th was the day of the Lady Bugs. Thousands of the little insects surrounded us in what seemed like and endless variety of colors and markings. Little round disks from pale yellow to orange to red walked up our clothing, landed in our hair and even on our faces, and made us look carefully before sitting down. Where did they come from and where did they go?

Halloween, mild and sunny, was a perfect day for our annual picnic. Eighty people came to the pavilion for lunch and brought a grand array of good things to eat. Afterwards, we reassembled at the hill to wave goodbye to the port-a-potty and cut the ribbon for the official opening of the renovated bathrooms. We do find a lot of ways to have fun!

November means less people and more wildlife. Although the number of observers plummets during the cold spells, those who do come to the hill often enjoy a view of the more unusual creatures. A number of deer including an eight point buck crossed the hill from time to time, and on a rainy day a beautiful Red Fox came within a few yards of the butterfly garden. Even a skunk walked by one day.

The first week of the month was slow, migration seemed to have stopped. Then 7 Red shoulders on November 6th and 28 Redtails were a pleasant surprise, but they were followed by three days of rain.

Frank Welsh did not become a compiler until 1991 but with four mornings a week he has put in more official hours than anyone else has. Monday through Thursday mornings he is Mr. Militia Hill. On November 11th Frank counted 40 raptors and 40 loons on the 12th 40 Tundra Swans and on the 15th he recorded our first Goshawk of the season.

Around this time we enjoyed a Fox Sparrow, 3 Purple Finches, 8 Pine Siskins and both Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches at the feeders. Evening Grosbeaks flew over but did not stop.

Wind chills in the teens on November 18th brought 49 loons, more Snow Geese and hundreds of Canada Geese, but only 12 raptors.

Very cold days of November 24th and 25th brought a late Osprey, 7 Red-shoulders and a Peregrine Falcon among the 35 raptors counted.

Our Thanksgiving turkeys and a White-winged Crossbill were the highlights of what was otherwise a very soggy late November. The crossbill stopped briefly at the top of a tree, a new bird for Fort Washington.

A surprise in the form of Air Force One and 2 Tundra Swans were spotted among the 33 raptors recorded on November 30th. Then we were washed out on the last day leaving us without a Golden Eagle or a Rough-legged Hawk and a total of only 346 raptors for the month. But 11,182 raptors for the season made this the 4th best year out of ten.

As a group we have developed an interest in many different aspects of the world as viewed from our hill. From the tiniest insect to the flower it is attracted to. From the creatures that come to our garden for the food we supply, to those who come to our garden to feed upon the plants. From the raptors who migrate, to the nourishment they require along the way. The thermals that support them, and the winds that buffet them, and all that we find as we scan, from astonishing aircraft to snowflakes and rainbows. All these wonders and more will bring us back in September eager to start again.

This year, the Militia Hill Hawk Watch will be held only during September and October. I apologize for those of you who are disappointed by this decision, but I find that a compromise is necessary at this time. I am sure many of us will still find ourselves on the deck after a cold front just to see what November brings. But no official records will be kept after October 31.