Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch keeps tabs on raptors

Hawks aren't the only birds the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch volunteers spot and count. Here, an osprey soars above Afton Mountain. Photo by Vic Laubach. Hawks aren’t the only birds the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch volunteers spot and count. Here, an osprey soars above Afton Mountain. Photo by Vic Laubach.

On a slow September Saturday back in the early 1990s, Brenda Tekin took a drive up Afton Mountain in search of something to occupy her for the afternoon. She’d read about the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch, a group of birders who kept tabs on migrants from the parking lot of the Inn at Afton each fall, and decided to drop in.

The binocular-slinging crowd was buzzing about broad-winged hawks, but at first, she only saw a few distant specks against the blue.

“Then the birds came straight toward us across I-64,” said Tekin, an administrator in UVA’s Sociology Department who lives in Stuarts Draft. “There were just hundreds and hundreds. They were so close it was almost like you could just reach out and pluck them out of the sky. I never knew there were so many hawks.”

Just like that, Tekin was hooked, and she’s now one of the lead volunteers keeping the 36-year-old Hawk Watch going. The dedicated group triesto have people with their eyes on the skies at the mountaintop site from August through November, counting birds of prey and feeding the data to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, which tabs populations nationwide.

The numbers from HMANA and other count organizations are important, said volunteer Vic Laubach, who also works at UVA and lives in the Valley, because they provide a rare window into raptor populations for researchers and conservationists from key sites that see a steady stream of birds each year. The Blue Ridge Mountains, which lie along a major migration path for a number of species, narrow to a slender isthmus where the Rockfish Gap cuts through the range west of Charlottesville, concentrating the long-distance travelers following the Appalachian ridgelines to warmer climes. From their perch immediately south of the interstate exit for the Skyline Drive, dedicated counters and casual enthusiasts have a panoramic view of hawks, eagles, kestrels, and other birds coasting on mountain air currents.

The volunteers said it’s hard to stay away once the migration season starts.

“We sneak out, play hooky, take vacation or whatever we can during the weekdays to come up and count,” Laubach said.

Occasionally, high winds and bad weather force them down from the high gap, but Tekin said they return as quickly as they can.

“Once those fronts start moving out, we head up to the mountain, because we know that if the birds are in the pipeline, as soon as theweather starts breaking, they’re going to take to the air,” she said. Sometimes, the conditions are rough, even for the hawks. Tekin recalled one blustery day when everyone was confused by a hurtling shape they couldn’t make heads nor tails of.

“We knew it was a bird, but we couldn’t figure out what we were looking at,” she said. They peered through their binoculars, and realized it was a red-shouldered hawk flying flat-out backwards, powerless against the wind that was bearing it along.

Sometimes the drama is in the sheer numbers. Last year, the birders logged a new record when they counted 10,000 broad-winged hawks in a single day. Peak season is winding down, Tekin said, but a wide variety of species will be flying through for two more months, and anyone who wants to take a look and ask questions is welcome. Even those whose days and years on the mountain have turned them into de facto raptor experts find they have questions themselves with each new migration season. “It’s a learning process,” she said. “We’re all still learning.”