Leica in the Field: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

by Jennie Duberstein

In the early 1900s the Kittatinny Ridge in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania was well known by gunners as the place to go in the fall to shoot hawks. By 1934 Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was founded along the ridge to put a stop to the massacre. It was the world’s first refuge for birds of prey and a game changer for conservation. (If you’ve never heard the story of Hawk Mountain, I highly recommend reading Rosalie Edge: Hawk of Mercy, by Dyana Z. Furmansky and Hawks Aloft, by Maurice Broun).

From 1996-1997, I played a tiny part in this story by spending about seven months as an education intern at Hawk Mountain.

My first “real” job was with a group working to reintroduce Osprey to western Pennsylvania. That job, during the summer between my junior and senior years of college, is what really sparked my interest in birds. I’d always loved nature and animals, but spending the summer catching fish and feeding them to ravenous youngsters, who eventually grew and flew off to learn to catch fish on their own, was what helped me realize that birds were where I wanted my focus to be, and raptors in particular.

At the end of the summer I headed back to Blacksburg, Virginia, to finish my degree in wildlife biology at Virginia Tech. I graduated the next spring, and a year after that I was living in northern New Jersey, directing a day camp at an urban nature center. The job was only three months long, so I was pretty much immediately on the lookout for something for the fall. My sights had been set on moving to the western U.S., but when I saw an opportunity at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, I knew I had to apply, and I was lucky enough to be selected.

From September 1996 through March 1997 I was an education intern at Hawk Mountain. I honed my skills at developing and leading educational programs and hikes during the world-renowned fall migration, learned to design educational displays and how to identify raptors in flight (and to teach others to identify them), banded birds and learned how to use GPS for the first time, and so much more.

The author with a Barred Owl, part of the Sanctuary’s live raptor program,  Fall 1996.

The author with a Barred Owl, part of the Sanctuary’s live raptor program, Fall 1996.

The author on duty at North Lookout, Fall 1996.

The author on duty at North Lookout, Fall 1996.

My time as an intern at Hawk Mountain was truly a watershed experience for me. I met so many people who would go on to impact my life in the future, gained a tremendous amount of knowledge and new skills, and solidified my career goals of working in bird conservation and education. I remember the thrill of having Pete Dunne attend my raptor identification talk at South Lookout and compliment my presentation, the excitement of being in the field with people like Scott Weidensaul and Laurie Goodrich, meeting the legendary Jim Brett, learning from weekly intern meetings with Keith Bildstein where we’d read and discuss scientific papers, and the feeling of being part of something bigger than myself.

My stint at Hawk Mountain was also where I really began to learn about optics. I spent one afternoon grilling the extremely patient Pete Dunne, who was there to give a lecture that evening, about what binoculars I should consider to replace my well-used porro prism Bushnells (with Insta-Focus! Remember that little wedge-shaped focus knob that toggled back and forth? If you look closely in the picture above of me standing on North Lookout, you can see these gems in my left hand.)

In short, my time at Hawk Mountain impacted the very course of my life, in ways that I am still discovering.

In the past few years I’ve happily had the opportunity to reconnect with Hawk Mountain, serving as a member of their education advisory committee and helping with field logistics for their New World Turkey Vulture program in Arizona. (Have you ever seen a Turkey Vulture up close? I highly recommend it).

The author with a Turkey Vulture, May 2013.

The author with a Turkey Vulture, May 2013.

The author giving impromptu Spanish-language program before releasing a satellite transmitter-tagged Turkey Vulture, May 2013.

The author giving impromptu Spanish-language program before releasing a satellite transmitter-tagged Turkey Vulture, May 2013.

Hawk Mountain remains one of the world’s leaders in raptor conservation science and education and works to conserve birds of prey worldwide by serving as a model observation, research, and education facility. And in 2012 Leica became the Sanctuary’s official optics outfitter, providing Trinovid binoculars and Televid spotting scopes for use by interns conducting the fall migration count, which is the longest and most continuous record of raptor migration in the world. (What I wouldn’t have given to have a pair of Leicas to use up on North Lookout back when I was an intern!)

Kenyan intern Wendy counts raptors at North Lookout. Photo courtesy of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Kenyan intern Wendy counts raptors at North Lookout. Photo courtesy of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

I grew up in Pennsylvania, so certainly a little bit of hometown pride is part of why Hawk Mountain remains special to me. But there is something else—knowing that I am even a small part of this conservation legacy and a piece of a story that continues to be told…as the “implacable widow” Rosalie Edge (Hawk Mountain’s founder) said, “each link is a living chain that leads back to the mother of every living thing on land, the living soil.”

Counter Matt Wlasniewski at North Lookout. Photo courtesy of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.

Counter Matt Wlasniewski at North Lookout. Photo courtesy of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary.