Hawk Mountain

By Patrick D. Hahn, Ph.D., affiliate professor of biology  |  Photos by Patrick D. Hahn

A marsh hawk comes zooming up from the valley below, executes a perfect hairpin turn, then vanishes.

I don’t even try reaching for my camera, knowing there are some moments in life that cannot be photographed.

I’m at the North Lookout at Hawk Mountain, Pa., home of the world’s oldest sanctuary for birds of prey.

There was a time within living memory when hunters, who no doubt fancied themselves as “sportsmen,” would ascend this mountain and shoot goshawks by the thousands.

In 1932, Richard Pough, a Philadelphia naturalist and photographer, came here accompanied by his brother and his friend Henry Collins. He took pictures of the hundreds of dead and dying hawks that littered the ground, and showed them at a meeting of the Hawk and Owl Society.

Rosalie Edge, a poet and activist, was so moved she raised the money to buy 1,398 acres of land to establish the first raptor sanctuary in the world.

Ornithologist Maurice Broun and his wife, Irma, were hired to guard the newly established preserve. The “sportsmen” did not take kindly to all this, but the Brouns stood their ground in the face of countless threats, and eventually the hawk killers got the message.

The naturalist and author Rachel Carson visited here in 1960, and in her book Silent Spring wrote:

Hawk Mountain is a picturesque mountaintop in southeastern Pennsylvania, where the easternmost ridges of the Appalachians form a last barrier to the westerly winds before dropping away to the coastal plain. Winds striking the mountaintops are deflected upwards so that on many autumn days there is a continuous updraft on which the broad-winged hawks and eagles ride without effort, covering many miles of their southward migration in a day. At Hawk Mountain the ridges converge and so do the aerial highways. The result is that from a widespread territory to the north birds pass through this traffic bottleneck.

Carson also mentioned that Maurice Broun, who was still serving as curator of the sanctuary, told her that the number of juvenile raptors passing through had plummeted in recent years.

Today, fifty years later, I have come here to see for myself how the raptors are doing.

I began walking from the Hawk Mountain Visitor’s Center toward the North Lookout mid-morning. The trail soon divided in two: North Lookout Trail (rated “easy”) and Escarpment Trail (rated “difficult”), which follows the mountain ridge formed by thousands of boulders left behind when the glaciers began retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.

I have to admit that at first I walked right past the entrance to Escarpment Trail, not even recognizing it as a trail.

I soon figured out that the safest way of traversing this ridge was not to worry about tripping, but just to let myself go, leaping from rock to rock and trusting that I would be okay.

Along the way I saw only three other people, a young couple and their little boy. A few minutes later I arrived at North Lookout a bit out of breath but pleased with myself for taking the road less traveled.

The view was stunning.

Of course, all I had to do was turn around and see industrial-strength tourism at work. The lookout was jammed with dozens of men, women, and children, toting an assortment of day packs, blankets, cushions, binoculars, and cameras, all hoping to catch a glimpse of something unforgettable.

It was then that the marsh hawk appeared, its underside a ghostly white, long wings swept back like those of a fighter plane.

I’ve been here before, many years ago, on a field trip for a course in ecology I had as an undergraduate. I remember we walked all the way up to the lookout (we took the easy trail), peered out over the edge, and saw… nothing. The fog was so thick we could see nothing of the valley below. Then a great gust of wind blew up, and to my overactive 18-year-old imagination it seemed as if the mists of creation had just parted.

Almost all of the people here at the lookout will go back the way they came, along Lookout Trail, but I elect to continue along a path marked Skyline Trail (rated “most difficult”).

I follow the orange dots spray painted on the rocks to the end of Lookout Trail, peer out over the edge, where Skyline trail begins, and think to myself, “Great. I left my parachute at home.”

There is no way I’m going to be jumping from rock to rock here.

The only way down is to scuttle like a crab, my feet out in front of me, my arms extended behind me for support. I climb up one side of a pile of boulders the size of Smart Cars and down the other. Finally the trail starts looking like a trail.

It’s the first week of autumn. Already a few leaves are beginning to change color. In just a little while, the entire forest canopy overhead will explode into a riot of scarlet and gold and vermillion, and soon after that the leaves will turn brown and fall to the ground, to become part of the soil from which they arose.

It has been 32 years since that day I first ascended this peak and watched the parting of the mists below. Unfortunately, that was the only worthwhile thing we did in that course. I still remember our professor—he was a brilliant scientist, and a really nice guy, and yet I learned nothing from being in the classroom with him. He was so tired of the whole thing, he had nothing left to give the students.

Now a professor of biology myself, I reflect on the fact that I now am older than our professor was when we took that trip. I wonder how my students remember me when I am gone, or whether they will remember me at all?

The trail takes me along more escarpments—by now I feel like an old hand when it comes to traversing these ridges—and finally splits in two. If I turn right and follow Golden Eagle Trail, I will end up back at the Visitor’s Center. If I turn left and continue along Skyline Trail, it will eventually link up with the Appalachian Trail. I could keep walking all the way to Canada.

I turn right.

The entire time I am descending the mountain ridge along Golden Eagle Trail, I don’t see a single other soul. Everything is very quiet. The only sound I hear is the wind whistling through the leaves overhead.

I pass banks of ferns growing in the sun-dappled shade. At the end of Golden Eagle Trail I reach the landform known as the River of Rocks, a long, snaking ridge of gray boulders left behind by a retreating glacier. I turn onto the River of Rocks Trail and begin ascending the mountain once more. After a few wrong turns and much huffing and puffing, I arrive back at the Visitor Center.

September marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. If Carson’s gloomiest predictions have not come true, that may be because of the environmental movement she helped create.

As I settle in my car for the drive home, I feel a pleasant tingling sensation in my legs. I definitely have more years behind me than in front of me, but seeing the marsh hawk gives me hope for the future.


Patrick D. Hahn, Ph.D, is an affiliate professor of biology at Loyola University Maryland and a freelance writer whose work has been published by Popular ArchaeologyBiology-Onlinethe Canada Free Press, the Baltimore Sun, and Loyola magazine.

“Hawk Mountain” details his excursion to our nation’s oldest raptor sanctuary, which he undertook on the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

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