Saturday, November 11, 2017

Hawk Watch

Every fall since I have lived nearby, I have made my way up to the NJ Audubon Hawk Watch on the Montclair-Cedar Grove border in Essex County.

Though it was no doubt used for observing earlier, it came to be in September 1959 and is the organization's smallest sanctuary at one acre. But it is big in reputation, being the second oldest continuous hawk watch in the nation.

The Hawk Watch will be open between 9am and 5pm, from September through November 30th.


Climbing the stairs
From the street, a short but steep trail and stair climb will bring you atop a stone-filled platform on a 500-foot basalt ledge. This is a ridge of the Watchung Mountains. in Montclair, New Jersey, is a well constructed,  that is the site of the Montclair Hawk Lookout, a sanctuary of the New Jersey Audubon.



This is the first ridge west of the lower Hudson River Valley, and runs from northeast to southwest and migrating birds use the ridgeline and the thermal to move south.

This place is a small oasis in a densely populated county. Looking south and east on a clear day, you have a view of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the New York City skyline including the Statue of Liberty and northeast to the Palisades. 

View to the west

To the north and west, you can see peaks from the Ramapo Mountains and the edge of the Second Watchung Mountain.

Directly north, really across the street, is the Essex County Park of Mills Reservation. A ledge there still has a concrete pad that is the remnant of the Nike tracking system that ran along the Watchung ridge in the 1960s. From the Mills reservation site, the Spring Hawk Count is conducted, as it has the best visibility to the south to see returning birds.

Chris Payne on his watch

The lookout is monitored for three months in the Fall and two months in the Spring. On my most recent visit, I met ​Chris Payne who is on duty for NJ Audubon this autumn.

He said that it has been a good year, particularly for Peregrine falcons who have totaled more than 70 as of early November. Most of them have already moved further south.

He tries to distinguish between migrating birds and those who stay in the area. "Locals" will circle and hunt in the area rather than ride the thermals south.

Red tailed hawk

Red tailed hawk riding a thermal
The numbers for broadwinged hawks are down so far. There are many buteo jamaicensis, or red-tailed hawks, which is the mascot of the nearby Montclair State University. Red-tailed hawks can be found on campus, where they perch in trees and on utility poles.

An unusual sighting for Chris this fall was a Northern goshawk, a species that, as its name suggests, does not usually go south.


You wouldn't think that raptors would be fooled by a plastic owl atop a pole, but Chris told me that the owl is sometimes attacked. Locals learn it is not real and ignore it, but migrating birds will sometimes spot it and attack. This makes for some good photo opportunities and closer looks for visitors.

The day I visited it was late in the day (3:30 pm) and getting cooler, so there wasn't much activity. It is also late in the year for some species to be still moving past this area. But it is still a nice little climb and a great view.

The platform will be closed at the end of November. As an alternative, try the ridge at Mills Reservation across the road.

Using GPS directions to 42 Old Quarry Rd, Cedar Grove, NJ will put you at the street entrance to the Hawk Watch. There is street parking and a small parking area just west of the entrance along the edge of Mills Reservation, which you can enter from that parking area and find a trail to that other lookout. 


Video: A visit to the Montclair Hawk Watch - North Jersey Video 2:55 Oct 12, 2017




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