Soaring Beauty

The NJ Audubon Montclair Hawk Watch 

By Laurie Pellichero 

It’s an incredible sight to see each fall, flocks of birds making their way down south for the winter. One of the best places to witness the yearly pilgrimage of a variety of hawks and other birds of prey is the NJ Audubon Montclair Hawk Watch Lookout, a crushed stone-filled platform that sits on a basalt ledge high on a ridge known as First Watchung Mountain in Montclair, New Jersey.

The site provides a panoramic view of nearly 360 degrees, including beautiful wooded areas and landmarks that are miles away, including the Statue of Liberty, the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the New York City skyline, the Palisades, and the Ramapo Mountains.

According to NJ Audubon, an official hawk count has been conducted at the Montclair site since 1957, making it the second oldest continuous hawk watch in the nation. Only Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania can claim a longer record. What makes the site especially unique during migration is the mix of both coastal and ridge flights.

 “The positioning of the ridge at Montclair along the flyway, coupled with the great visibility and rich and lengthy history, make it a great place to view raptor migration,” said Brett Ewald, program director of both the NJ Audubon Montclair and Cape May Hawk Watches.

 The Montclair Hawk Watch was formally organized in 1957 by three members of the Montclair Bird Club—Ruth Edwards, Suzanne Haupt, and Ruth Breck—who monitored the site from September 10 through September 29 each fall. When the lookout was threatened by encroaching urban development, these women, along with other birders, worked to save it for future generations. The Montclair Bird Club was able to acquire the land, and gifted it to the NJ Audubon Society in 1959 to be preserved as a sanctuary. The stone platform was later constructed to allow use of the site by the many visitors “who appear as suddenly as the hawks arriving on the northwest winds at the height of migration,” according to NJ Audubon.

Ewald noted that the Montclair site is now covered seven days a week from September 1 through November 30, with counts done each day from sunrise to sunset. He said that they are in their third year of operations using Trektellen software, which also records weather conditions and provides a livestream of each day’s counts. Birders can monitor the Watch online to determine the best times to go to the Lookout and get amazing views of the hawks and other species as they fly by on their travels.

Ewald said that hundreds of birdwatchers come to the platform each fall to see an array of species including Sharp-shinned Hawks, Osprey, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, and Bald Eagles. Broad-winged Hawks are frequently seen, and often appear in small groups known as “kettles.” October is prime time at the Lookout, offering the greatest diversity of species including the Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Turkey Vulture, Merlin, Red-shouldered Hawk, and the Peregrine Falcon, the fastest bird in the world. Golden Eagles have also been spotted.

“The count gives us a great deal of information,” said Ewald. “We keep track of which species are going up and going down in numbers, so specific actions can be taken. The populations of Osprey, Bald Eagles, and Peregrine Falcons have rebounded a great deal since the banning of pesticides that were used in the 1960s and 1970s. Factors changing the counts each year also include climate changes, food availability, habitat loss, and other predators.”

The count varied quite a bit from 2015 to 2016 for a number of species (see chart), and Ewald noted, “Raptor migration can vary greatly from year to year, often having to do with weather systems—in the fall, cold fronts with north-west/northerly winds and falling temperatures can produce large flights—some years the conditions aren’t optimal.”

NJ Audubon runs a week-long Hawk Watch Training Program at the end of each August, when interpretive naturalists give the counters for the upcoming season a broad-based orientation on how to cover the Hawk Watch, including important areas such as when the hawks are expected to migrate, how to count them, and how to tell each species apart.

And where are hawks going as they head south? According to Ewald, “Depending on the species, they will be wintering anywhere from the southern U.S. to the tip of South America. Many will follow the coast around the Gulf and funnel through Mexico, while lesser numbers cross the Gulf.”

When the hawks come back north in the spring, the NJ Audubon Montclair Hawk Watch again resumes its count from March 16 to May 15. That is conducted at Essex County Park of Mills Reservation, which is directly across from the Lookout facing north, because the visibility to the south is better from there.

Along with the official count, the NJ Audubon Montclair Hawk Watch Lookout is a popular gathering place for birders. Chris Neff, director of communications for NJ Audubon, said, “There is a camaraderie among all birders and wildlife supporters, from the young to the old. It is a community—we share stories, point out to others birds we see, and take the time to explain why these birds are so fascinating to others. Once a birder, always a birder. We have people who learned birding at the Watch when they were just kids, and they return to the Watch to relive those memories and make new ones. Birding brings families outdoors.”

The platform is open to the public, although Neff said that it is not recommended for small children or those who have difficulty climbing stairs, as there is a steep set of steps going up the side of the basalt outcrop.

To reach the NJ Audubon Montclair Hawk Watch from the Garden State Parkway in Bloomfield, take exit 151 for Watchung Avenue and head west on Watchung to its end at Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair, about 2.1 miles. Make a right turn and go north on Upper Mountain 0.7 miles to Bradford Avenue. Make a left turn and go up Bradford 0.1 miles to Edgecliff Road and make a right turn. Go up Edgecliff 0.2 miles and park on the shoulder. The Lookout path is on the south side of the road.

NJ Audubon recommends that you wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers according to the season, and bring binoculars, sunblock, patience, and a “smile in your heart.”

Else M. Greenstone, a longtime volunteer with the Montclair Hawk Watch, once wrote of the importance of the Watch:

“One need only look at a child’s face beaming at the sight of a soaring Bald Eagle or the glorious colors of an American Kestrel to realize that while the count itself is important, it is the shared experience of the beauty of these birds and the mystery of migration that is at the core of the Montclair Hawk Watch. While sharing in the quest of the autumnal wingspan, we reach out for an increased knowledge and a growing awareness of the plight of the birds of prey.”

Photography by Chris Neff

Great Fall Birding and Hawk Watch Locations Also Include:

Cape May Hawk Watch, Cape May County

The command post for this watch is a multi-layered wooden platform in Cape May Point State Park, on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean at the southern tip of New Jersey.

Chimney Rock Hawk Watch, Somerset County

This watch is located in Washington Valley Park, on the First Watchung Ridge in Martinsville.

Racoon Ridge Hawk Watch, Warren County

One of New Jersey’s premiere hawk watches, it is located at 1,563 feet, on top of the Kittatinny Mountains, in the western reaches of the state.

Scott’s Mountain Hawk Watch, Warren County

Started in 1973, the watch
is held daily from September 1
to November 30 at the
Tower Parking Lot of Merrill Creek Reservoir.

Wildcat Ridge Hawkwatch, Morris County

This watch was established in 1996 and is located the the Wildcat Ridge Wildlife Management Area in Hibernia.