The term “bird watching” has a rather derogatory tone associated with it, back in India. It became notorious across the corridors of Indian universities and schools, as a term used to describe the “art” of watching women as they pass by. But it was not until a year ago, when I heard my colleague describe his adventures chasing the bald eagles at the Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania that the “real” meaning of the phrase started to take shape. Being a photography enthusiast, the thought of shooting a bird in its flight, as it glides across the high reaches of the skies, has always intrigued me. But the real essence of this hobby caught on only when I watched the movie – The Big Year early this year. Now let me admit, I would still not call myself a complete bird watching fanatic yet, having joined just once with my colleagues on their journey to find the rarest of the rare species, a week ago. The place was Hawk Mountain , an international center for raptor conservation in Pennsylvania. The annual autumn raptor migration was at its peak with around 1650 sightings two days before our planned hike.
The drive was an hour and half long and we decided to leave at the break of dawn. As we cruised along the highways, my colleagues decided to give me an overview of the basic essentials. It all started with what goes into the backpack. To that day, I had believed that all you needed was a camera with an exceptionally fast lens. But that notion soon began to fade away as they walked me through the wide range of tools that came handy.
One of the most important equipment is a pair of binoculars. Birds almost never come close to an “army” of humans with a hoard of fancy “looking glasses” and “telescopic” cameras. Now depending on the steadiness of your hands, you can choose from a wide variety binoculars – Nikon 8X40mm model seemed to be the more common variety, with the steadier hands opting for a slightly higher version in Nikon 10X50mm . The seasoned professionals however tend to lean towards the scopes with Celetron 100mm being a popular brand.
A quick reference guide is next in the list. Here again, technology has left a significant mark. While the older of the crowd went for paperback guides such as the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America , the younger crowd looked out for “greener” pastures such as Peterson Birds of North America , the iPhone/iPad version. The obvious advantage of the app was its ability to listen to sounds and map them to the amazingly huge repository (150MB of data) of birds and of course record your findings as you go. Reaching up to the point where you can sit patiently waiting for a bird to flyby is a trek in itself. So all those trekking shoes, backpacks filled with water bottles and trail mixes are always a common sight among those bird watchers. It might perhaps be a good idea to pack a small meal as well if you plan on staying up in the mountains for hours. Camera, being an absolute essential, a good tripod is a recommended carry on, esp. if you happen to have a lens that go beyond 300mm. Hanging it around your neck could potentially give rise to neck issues in future if you happen to grow serious with this hobby.
By the time I was briefed on all of these, we reached the foothills of the Hawk Mountain. We hiked up to the visitors center to buy the tickets. I decided to grab a few bottles of water and a chocolate chip cookie to quench my sweet cravings and more importantly to keep a check on my already grumbling stomach. Although we decided to collect a map of the trail, it turned out to be not as mazed as I thought it would be. All you need was to take a quick peak at this bronze trail map at the beginning of the trail.
We decided to hike up to the North Lookout, one of those more popular lookouts at the Hawk Mountain. The trek was short, yet arduous. The climb indeed wore me out, having been completely out of shape for over a month. The steps and stones along the way did however help my cause. And half an hour later, we saw the “scarecrow”, the landmark that told us that the climb had ended.
As we meandered closer to this pole, I caught the glimpse of the real passion of being a bird watcher.
We soon found a spot to settle down, overlooking an array of peaks each named 1,2,3,4 and 5 as a reference to call out, every time someone spotted a bird lurking in the skies. There was an amazing air of silence as they waiting patiently for a bird to flyby. I found myself capturing the beauty of the fall colors that had begun to settle in across the mountains.
After almost an hour, someone in the crowd called out that they had spotted a Merlin at the foothills of peak 5 gliding its way down to the forest below. With the little that I could see through a naked eye devoid of a looking glass and through the rather amateur lens that I possessed, I caught a glimpse of this thing of beauty at a distance.
Soon followed a Sharp-Shinned Hawk and an Osprey, one of which actually gained the courage to hover over the us. A turkey vulture was perhaps what excited me the most, with its majestic wings and V-shaped flight. And I saw myself clcking away to glory.
But I heard later that vultures were rather too common to gain any significant excitement among those seasoned crowd of bird watchers. As it turned out, the day we chose was not the best of those, with winds rather stale and sightings, disappointingly scarce. I could see the look of disappointment in the faces of my friends as they stood for hours waiting for an American Kestrel that never showed up. Four hours later we decided to give up and start climbing down. We paused at the south lookout with the hope spotting some more but with no avail. As the sun slowly started to make its way into the mid skies, we left the place, with my friends slightly disappointed and me completely satisfied with my first experience watching actual raptors.
Some people call it a passionate hobby, traveling across the country listing down the number of varieties of species that they spot around the year. I for my own selfish reason call it a trek, with a chance to be outside watching the people around me silently waiting to spot one of those elusive raptors. With summer gone and winter soon to take over those colorful mountains, this was perhaps my last chance this year to be outside amidst the woods…..