Eagles and vultures and hawks—oh, my!

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Photo by Holly Johnson

John Weeks and Christine Chinni searched for and spotted bald eagles, sharp-shin hawks, broadway-wing hawks, ravens and vultures, as well as monarch butterflies, cedar waxwings, a chimney swift, flicker, ruby-throated hummingbird, and many other songbirds.

At Granby Public Library on Sept. 11, Granby resident John Weeks gave an entertaining and educational talk and slide show of the raptors (birds of prey) that live in or migrate through our area. “Hawks—the view from Blueberry Hill” presented an overview of the eagles, hawks, falcons and other birds that can be seen on this exposed hilltop about five miles northwest of Granville center. Known by many local residents as the place where the Sussmann blueberries are picked, this Massachusetts property is open to the public and provides spectacular viewing in all directions. On a clear day, one can see as far as Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, which is 65 miles away.

Blueberry Hill is situated between the Cobble Mountain Reservoir and the Barkhamsted Reservoir. Eagles and ospreys fly between these two bodies of water, and from Labor Day through December, other raptors stream past on their way to southern climes, making the Hill a perfect spot for observing these beautiful creatures.

Photo by Jay Harder

A pair of soaring raptors.

From 1999 – 2015, Weeks led regular hawk watches and bird counts on Blueberry Hill; he continues to do so on a limited basis. The data collected are submitted to an online database (Hawkcount.org), a clearing house for counts performed from Canada to Panama. He noted that the best day ever was Sept. 18, 2002, when he counted 2,478 birds on the Hill.

The four major groups (genera) of raptors seen on Blueberry Hill, in descending order by size, are eagles, buteos, accipiters and falcons. Their flying methods include flapping, soaring, gliding, and hovering—each of which provides clues as to their identification. Weeks noted that the birds are much easier to recognize when flying, as opposed to sitting still on a branch.

The buteo group includes the following hawks: red-tailed, red-shouldered, broad-winged, and the rarely seen here rough-legged. The accipiter hawks are the sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and the northern goshawk. The falcons include the kestrels, merlins, and peregrines. Weeks’ charts and photographs illustrated how it is often quite difficult to make precise identifications, especially between the sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. Ospreys, northern harriers and golden eagles round out the list of raptors that can be seen flying over Blueberry Hill.

Many of these birds, as well as many songbirds, almost became extinct because of the widespread use of DDT, which interfered with proper egg shell production. The chemical was finally banned in 1972, and most of the birds have made successful comebacks, although not all are exactly the same. For example, the peregrine falcon became extinct east of the Mississippi, but not on the west coast. The bird we see today is actually a hybrid of gene pools from the west coast and Europe.

Considering how common the turkey vulture is in our area today, it is hard to believe that they were quite rare here until 1970. We see them today, soaring in groups, riding the thermals. Likewise, the sandhill cranes of the Nebraska sandhills on the American plains (and northeastern Siberia) are now nesting in western Massachusetts. Bird life is certainly not static; the observations and counts carried out by birders such as Weeks are important tools in tracking the evolution of these interesting creatures with which we share the planet.