BROOKLINE, Vt. (AP) – This time of year, there’s bound to be someone sitting on top of Putney Mountain.

Not for the foliage. For the hawks.

Volunteers park their camp chairs on the peak and point their binoculars at the sky, counting and identifying the migrating kestrels, sharp-shinned and red-tailed hawks and eagles soaring south over or past the mountain.

The information is included in data from about 200 sites in the U.S., Canada and Mexico kept by the Hawk Migration Association of North America to monitor populations.

“It’s just to see how the hawks are doing, like are we down on a certain one, are we OK with another one,” said Alma Beals, 74, of Westminster, who helped start the Putney Mountain count in 1987. “And then it is an awful lot of fun up here.”

From the mountain, some birds are just specks, thousands of feet in the air. Others swoop so low you can see their color, size and markings.

This year’s jackpot came on Sept. 16, when the group counted nearly 1,900 birds.

Hooked on hawks

That many birds could really hook someone to hawk watching, said Beals.

“What hooked me is my late husband and I were coming up and it was early in the morning and they shouldn’t have been coming through that soon and we had 900 in an hour that came through and that did it, I was hooked that day,” Beals said.

Starting in September, she treks up the mountain five days a week.

Another member of the group, 66-year-old Marshall Wheelock, tries to make it three or four days a week. At least one volunteer is on the mountain every day from September through November to make sure the census is taken.

Love of outdoors

The loosely organized group of about 20 is in it as much for the birds as for the scenery, tranquility and camaraderie.

“We’re here partially for the birds and partially just because we all enjoy the outdoors,” said Wheelock, of Brattleboro, an original member of the group.

But it’s the birds that get their attention.

“Bird,” one of the hawk watchers says while scanning the sky.

The talk stops and the five men and two women try to get the raptor into view in the bright blue sky.

“A glass above the horizon and two glasses north of Stratton, maybe three,” said Wheelock, referring to the binoculars and Stratton Mountain.

They uses landmarks to try to steer others to the birds –above the oak, to the left of the birch, in the wispies (clouds).

Then they fall silent as they watch in unison.

Most times they can identify the birds, but sometimes because of sheer distance they can’t.

Migration

The birds fly solo or in groups called kettles, taking advantage of thermal air currents caused by the sun heating the ground.

As the day gets warmer, thermals get stronger, and the birds get higher and more join in. It’s been determined that a bird – a broad-wing in a thermal – can go 10 miles per hour straight up, said John Anderson, 58 of Dummerston.

“So he can go up 4 or 5,000 feet in a very short time. And from that distance he has about a 10-to-1 glide ratio, so … he can glide 40,000 feet before he has to find another thermal. So they’re getting a real good free ride,” he said.

Most of the birds are going where the food is.

Broad-wings travel the furthest – to central and South America. Birds like the red-tailed are partial migrants and their populations shift south several hundred miles.

The migration tallies reveal how the populations are doing and what routes they take.

Raptors, which are the top of the food chain, also are a good indicator of the overall health of the ecosystem, Wheelock said.

They seem to be holding their own in the Vermont, although there’s been a dip in the kestrel population likely caused by a decline in undisturbed open fields. The biggest threat to the hawks are the use of pesticides in central and South America that are banned here, Anderson said.

The hawk watch also brings good news.

Bald eagles and peregrines, which were rare 20 years ago, are now rebounding. And there’s few things more exciting for the group than seeing a golden eagle.

“We’ve had 53 golden eagles in the entire history of the site,” Anderson said, estimating that in the 16 years the group had seen between 64,000 and 80,000 birds.

A day of hawk watching has its hazards. Some go home with sore necks and burning eyes from staring at the bright sky.

But like the birds, they come back – year after year.

Spouses don’t necessarily join in. Wheelock’s wife doesn’t mind him going; she calls herself “a hawk widow” in September and October.

Beth Hughes, 42, says the hawk watching feeds her in “this unsettling time.”

She headed up the mountain on Sept. 11, after the terrorist attacks.

“One by one, every active hawkwatcher left their jobs, spouses, home chores and came up to view 1200 hawks fly overhead. That is where we went to cope, to heal,” she said.


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