It’s been a rough month. Late November and early December are probably the most challenging times to hawk watch on a cold ridge in Pennsylvania. It can be a clear, crisp morning in the valley, but as you turn into that last switchback on the crest of the ridge, there’s a chance you’ll be blasted with the low cloud ceiling of doom and a mixture of frozen precipitation that keeps most raptors as nothing more than a thought in your mind until it clears. It’s the thought, though, of seeing something great, like a Northern Goshawk or a Rough-legged Hawk, that keeps me going back, at least (that, and my boss!). Raptors aren’t kettling anymore or moving through in groups, so you’ve got to be attentive and keep a constant look out, so you don’t miss these single birds. Golden Eagles made another small push earlier this month, and are still coming through the state in small numbers, and, after a month of Goldens, there is still nothing more exciting than watching such an intimidating raptor on a mission to head south. Red-tailed Hawks are still moving through and lingering to hunt. Rough-legged Hawks have been seen in Pennsylvania, but I just haven’t been lucky enough to catch one passing my site (or elsewhere, for that matter) this season, or ever. I dream of the day I look up and see one kiting over me in PA on a ridge top.
The last few weeks have been marked by what seems like hours upon hours of scanning a frozen, lifeless landscape; the most perfect back drop to do some soul-searching. As hard as this month has been, I truly appreciate the experience of being able to spend so much time in such a beautiful place. That aside, the few Red-tailed Hawks or Golden Eagles I’ve seen have given me extreme moments of happiness, and I usually can’t tell if the tears in my eyes are of joy, or because of the bitter cold wind. In fact, sometimes I feel like my eyeballs have actually begun to freeze. Basically when hawk watching in extreme temperatures, you have to fight the urge to either curl up in a ball for warmth, dig a snow cave, hide in your car, or start a small fire when faced with relentless winds on a ridge top. I’m not a hunter, but I imagine the same thoughts cross their minds, as I am joined in the forest daily by a handful of them. I also hope no hunters have set up shop close enough to see my hourly routine of stretches, or occasional (becoming more frequent) instances of running in circles like an idiot to keep warm, because quite frankly its the only way. While I’ve been wearing 2 down counts and an uncountable number of thermal pants, I am just convinced there is no way to stay physically warm below 30 degrees (although pocket hand warmers REALLY help). This season I have truly understood the process of hibernation, as my body has responded to the cold by wanting to eat constantly (upping my intake of bacon unintentionally) and wanting to sleep as much as possible when I am not at work. It doesn’t help that I just purchased a new Canon 7D, and have basically been standing there with it, in a frozen state, waiting for something to appear. Unfortunately, nothing has passed close enough for a photo, or whatever has passed has been in a white-out. So, while I can’t share any photos this week, I can share some photos from a friend, and I hope they bring all of you cold hawk watchers the inspiration you need to keep searching for that bird you are looking for, as they have for me. They are out there, and they just need someone to see them.