Volunteers keep eagle eye on hawk count in Acadia

As he peers through binoculars, Jim Zeman spots a couple of raptors soaring on the horizon between two islands off Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park.

Jim and Kathy Zeman, volunteers at Hawk Watch in Acadia National Park

Jim Zeman, left, and his wife, Kathy Zeman, peering through binoculars, are longtime volunteers at the hawk count on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

Zeman quickly shares the hawk count with the others on the mountain top on a sunny early September afternoon.

“Over the water, I see them,” Zeman says. “They are crisscrossing each other – two Broad-wings.”

Zeman and his wife, Kathy, both of Bucksport, are longtime volunteers in the Hawk Watch program on the Cadillac Mountain summit in Acadia National Park. The annual hawk count is conducted partly by volunteers like the Zemans and Carol Thompson, who logs the daily numbers from Cadillac on an internet site maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

September is peak season for the hawk count. On Sept. 11, for example, volunteers counted 579 birds of prey in flight including 289 Broad-winged Hawks, 129 Sharp-shinned Hawks, 108 American Kestrels, along with others such as 14 Osprey and five Bald Eagles.

hawk watch

At Hawk Watch atop Cadillac, you may not even need binoculars when a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops close by, as photographed by one frequent volunteer in an earlier season. (Photo courtesy of William Lawless)

Using their binoculars or spotting scopes, volunteers identify the birds on the fly.

During a visit on a sunny early September day, Thompson pointed to a red-tailed bird diving on the horizon over Sheep Island, one of the Porcupine Islands.

“He’s a little kestrel,” responded Zeman, a retired AT & T manager. “An American Kestrel. He has like pointy wings. Look at the tail. He flies around like a butterfly.”

Thompson, who is from Bath, N.H. and volunteers at the park, clearly enjoys the hawk count. “I love seeing the birds, being able to talk to people and families and tell them what’s happening with the wildlife,” she said, adding that her husband, Russell, is a driver for the Island Explorer.

The hawk count is open to the public each day, depending on the weather, and is located off the Cadillac North Ridge Trail, which starts off the parking lot at the top of 1,530-foot Cadillac Mountain. This week is a good one for watching because it is International Hawk Migration Week. People should bring binoculars, though the birds can be seen with the naked eye. If this is an activity you would like to be a part of later on down the line, looking into a guide similar to this License-to-Shoot comparison of binoculars may make your decision of choosing what the best ones are a lot easier. We’re sure you’d want to make the most out of this experience.

The best conditions are when the winds are coming from the north or northwest, allowing the birds to fly south and glide on thermals and drafts. With a southerly wind, people likely will not see many birds.

Raptors follow migrating songbirds, Jim Zeman said. “They will stop and take a songbird for a meal if they can,” he said.

Hawk count on top of Cadillac can bring close-up views of raptors

northern harrier

A Northern Harrier can be distinguished by the white patch at the base of its tail, as it soars above Acadia’s peaks. (Photo courtesy of William Lawless)

While the numbers of the hawk count on Cadillac may not be as prolific as some other sites in New England such as Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts or Putney Mountain in Vermont, the view from Cadillac can be ideal for watching the birds of prey in flight. From the north ridge of the tallest mountain on the US Atlantic coast, people can look down at the birds and use the Porcupines and other islands as reference points to help pinpoint the locations of the migrating raptors.

“We get them below us and right overhead,” said Kathy Zeman. “We don’t get the quantity but we get the quality.”

Sometimes, the birds can be in the low trees right in front of the Hawk Watch, or just behind the site. On Friday, for example, volunteers received a close look at a Merlin that perched behind the count site.

“You get great views of the birds,” said Jim Zeman. “If you have a camera, you can get a great shot.”

Hawk Watch is a collaborative effort between Acadia National Park’s interpretive division and the bird ecology program at the Schoodic Institute.

Carol Thompson, volunteer at Hawk Watch

Carol Thompson, a volunteer at Hawk Watch on Cadillac Mountain, points to a possible bird of prey in flight.

Seth Benz, the Schoodic Institute’s Director of Bird Ecology, said Hawk Watch boosts public participation in scientific research aimed at obtaining a better understanding of migration.

Benz, coordinator of the data collection effort and mentor of the Schoodic Institute volunteers at Hawk Watch, said in an email that the program attracts many visitors and provides many first-hand opportunities for teaching people about the birds.

Hawk migration sites are located around the world and help promote “one planet awareness” by connecting continents, habitats, predators and prey.

“Birds of prey have long been icons with cultural meaning for humans,” Benz wrote. “Sites devoted to hawk migration bring people closer to these awesome birds…..”

Hawk Watch is staffed by interpretive park rangers from 10 am to 2 pm Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays through Columbus Day, according to Thompson. The site is also staffed 9 am to 2 pm Saturday to Wednesday by Thompson and other volunteers.

All days are weather permitting, she said. The Zemans may continue the program through the end of October on their own, she added.

A bird’s-eye view of Acadia hawk count from atop Cadillac Mountain

hawk watch

A Broad-winged Hawk soars over Hawk Watch, an annual event in Acadia, running from August through October. (Photo courtesy of William Lawless)

osprey in acadia

Osprey over Hawk Watch, as photographed in an earlier season. (Photo courtesy of William Lawless)

An American Kestrel (male). (Photo courtesy of William Lawless)

View from the Cadillac North Ridge Trail in Acadia National Park

The view for Hawk Watch, located off the Cadillac North Ridge Trail in Acadia National Park, includes Bar Island, the long island on the left, and the four Porcupine Islands, left to right, Sheep, Burnt, Long and Bald.