Hawk watcher’s job is for the birds

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • A red-tailed hawk, who is permanently disabled due to a once-broken wing, now serves as an ambassador for the New Hampshire Audubon, and was used as a teaching tool during a recent hawk watch on Pack Monadnock in Peterborough.  Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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  • Katrina Fenton of Peterborough uses a scope to scan the skies for migrating raptors at Pack Mon adnock on Saturday.  Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • —Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, September 19, 2017 8:55AM

To the north, there is a smattering of dark specks in the sky. Someone puts out the call, and immediately binoculars and scopes swing in their direction. Among them are Katrina Fenton’s.

Fenton, of Peterborough, is a seasonal biologist, and what she studies varies depending on the time of the year. But in the late summer going into the fall, she can be found atop Pack Monadnock at Miller State Park, with her binoculars turned to the sky, counting raptor migrants as they follow the ridgeline south.

It’s a phenomenon that officially cemented Fenton’s desire to work as a field biologist when she first experienced it as a 15-year-old high school student.

“I’ve always been interested in wildlife, and pretty much my whole life I knew I wanted to do something with science and animals,” said Fenton in an interview on Saturday. “But it wasn’t until I was climbing Pack Monadnock when I was 15, and that was the first year they were doing the hawk watch. I saw a golden eagle, which is rare in New Hampshire, and that was it for me.”

Fenton finds the raptors and their migration fascinating, she said. Broad-winged hawks are by far the most prevalent species encounted by New Hampshire hawk watchers, but there are more than a dozen other species that can be spotted over the course of the season. The birds follow the mountains to use the wind coming off the ridges, and thermals caused by changes in the landscape to make for easier flying, and pass over in the hundred or thousands each day, making migration season a bird watcher’s dream.

This year marks the 13th anniversary of the New Hampshire Audubon’s hawk watch on Pack Monadnock and Carter Hill Orchard, where enthusiasts count the migrating broad-winged hawks and all the other raptor species that use the Wapack range as a ley line, It’s the fourth year that Fenton has been an official counter for the Audubon. 

Migration is really the only time of the year when it’s possible to get an accurate sense of the population of these predatory birds, said Fenton, because they often have a large territory and rarely build their nests near humans.

“If you have upward of ten years of data – which we do now – you can start looking for trends in the population,” explained Fenton. “You can get a strong sense for how these populations are doing, and because they’re top predators, it can give a sense for how the food chain is doing. If there’s a factor that’s decreasing a particular population, there’s a chance we can figure out what that is, and we can fix it.”

Over ten years of data has started to show some trends, said Fenton. For example, eagle numbers have been steadily climbing over the past few years, showing a slow but steady recovery from the plummeting numbers caused by the use of the pesticide DDT, which thinned the shells of eagle eggs, causing them to crack before they could hatch. But while eagles are making a comeback in the state, kestrels are declining, likely due to a lack of suitable nesting grounds and competition for nesting sites with the invasive European starlings. 

The bird counts are pretty accurate, said Fenton, despite the fact that migrating hawks can come in groups – called kettles – of hundreds at a time.

And how does one become a hawk counter?

For Fenton, she learned on the job, starting as an intern in high school. She’s forgone college and a degree (at least for the moment) to continue to learn fieldwork through experience at the Audubon. 

From Sept. 1 through Nov. 20, the hawk’s migration season, that means Fenton is atop Pack Monadnock at Miller State Park at least five days a week, recording data. Not only the numbers and species of raptors that are coming through but the times they fly over and the weather conditions of the moment. 

Sometimes, when there’s a heavy southerly wind, an entire day will pass without seeing a single bird, said Fenton. Other days, Fenton will count more than 5,000 broad-winged hawks flying over. But there are always stand out moments throughout the season, she said. Fenton was there for one of two sightings of Swainson's hawk ever recorded in New Hampshire. She’s seen golden eagles, the bird that first inspired her to enter the field, on their way south, . And sometimes, it just takes a group of school children, and the excitement on their faces when they see a kettle of broadwings in the sky, to make it all fresh for her again, said Fenton.

“It’s a great community up at Pack Monadnock,” said Fenton. “There are people that plan their vacations around when the hawks come through.”

The height of the broad-winged hawk migration will last through Sept. 25. From late September to early October, hawk watchers will be able to see almost the entire spectrum of raptors that use the Wapack line. In October through Nov. 20, watchers will be able to spot the later migrants, including the red-tailed hawk and golden eagles.