by Brian Hardiman
The commanding views stop many as they clear the trees and reach this mountaintop bald. For others it’s the seemingly out of place plastic owl sitting high on a wooden pole that first attracts their attention. Or it could be the sharp-shinned hawk ripping by at eye-level or the buzz of a timber rattlesnake that freezes them in their tracks. When it comes to the combination of raptors, wildlife, sensational vistas, and the effort to reach the lookout, it is safe to say no place in New Jersey compares to Raccoon Ridge, the spectacular hawk watch perched on top of the Kittatinny Mountain in northern Warren County. Simply put, Raccoon Ridge’s “Wow” factor is huge…from its well-documented raptor migration and the “in your face” looks that one often gets, to its views of the Delaware River and the distant Catskill Mountains, to the diversity of wildlife that can be seen.
The autumn hawk migration at Raccoon Ridge begins as only a trickle in August with a small vanguard of northern harriers, ospreys, bald eagles, broad-winged hawks, and American kestrels counted among the ranks. In the coming months, however, this trickle turns into a torrent as the season’s cold fronts push large numbers of raptors south to their wintering grounds. It is a spectacle of nature witnessed at Raccoon Ridge dating back to 1935 when naturalist Lee Edwards first discovered the site (see “The Origin and History of Raccoon Ridge” by Timothy D. Koebel in the autumn 2000 issue of New Jersey Audubon magazine for an excellent historical perspective on this storied hawk watch).
The topography of Raccoon Ridge makes it an ideal vantage point to observe the fall raptor migration. The lookout is situated on a narrow ridge where to the northeast several spines of the Kittatinny Mountain converge. This produces a funneling effect that concentrates the hawks along this narrow ridge and past the lookout. Some of the best flights are on days with winds from the northwest—these deflect off the ridge and create updrafts that raptors ride in an energy-saving glide. These conditions often give what we like to call a “classic Coon look,” that is, eye-popping encounters with the ridge-hugging hawks as they pass the lookout. A day or more of rain followed by a clearing front can produce some of the best flights.
The first major movement of the season involves the broad-winged hawks. Like clockwork, the bulk of their migration takes place within a seven to ten day window in the middle of September, and this time offers the best opportunity to see thousands of these birds in a single day. Less dependent on the ridge and northwest winds, broad-wings rely more on thermal development to move south in an energy-efficient manner. Often flocks or “kettles” of broad-wings are spotted in the valleys far off the ridge. While not known for big broad-wing flights, Raccoon Ridge observers counted 14,106 during the 2011 season. This represents the second highest total of broad-wings counted at Raccoon since 1970. The 2011 flight reached its peak when 2254, 1914, and 7977 broad-wings were tallied on the 16th, 17th, and 18th of September. The count on the 18th approached the one-day record of 10,485 broad-wings set on 15 September 1975. The broad-wing flights are often unpredictable but by sticking to that relatively narrow window of opportunity in mid-September, good flights can be observed. Osprey numbers also peak in September. Again the key is watching the weather forecast for those approaching cold fronts. Recent high counts include 47 and 49 on 16 September 2008 and 25 September 2010, respectively. These birds also exhibit late day pushes—38 of the 47 counted on 16 September 2008 passed after 5:00 pm!
September is also a good time to see migrating bald eagles. They have become a more common sight at hawk watches as their population rebounds from DDT-induced lows. In just the last three years the bald eagle season record at Raccoon Ridge has been broken twice. It stands at 244 set in 2010. Between the area’s resident and migrating bald eagles, it’s a rare day on the ridge when we do not have an eagle sighting. As regular as they have become, we never tire of watching this massive bird pass in its rock-steady glide. Cold fronts in late September and October carry with them the bulk of the season’s sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks. It’s a day of thrills when a seemingly never-ending parade of sharp-shins pass the lookout, with many of them drawn to the owl decoy like moths to a flame. Falcon flights coincide with this time period, and while numbers are just a fraction of their coastal migration, they add further excitement to a day on Raccoon. The colorful little American kestrel dazzles observers with its acrobatics as it catches and eats dragonflies on the wing. Merlins typically appear out of nowhere and blast by the lookout as a dark blur. And they have an attitude to match their speed, often harassing larger raptors or making repeated stoops on the owl decoy. But the falcon that arguably is cause for the most excitement at Raccoon Ridge is the peregrine. This is due in part to its Mach IV speed and its low numbers—over the past ten seasons at Raccoon an average of only 24 per fall have been counted. On the magical day of 5 October 2002, however, a record 22 peregrines passed the lookout and its wide-eyed observers. Not to be outdone, an impressive total of 29 merlins and 91 kestrels were also seen that day. The first half of October is an outstanding time for the chance to observe the greatest diversity of raptors with the possibility of seeing twelve to thirteen species in a single day. As October progresses, the migration enters a special part of the season that is a favorite for many Raccoon Ridge hawkers. If you can stand the cold and wind, it’s these kind of bone-chilling late autumn days that can offer the greatest reward. This is when the red-tailed hawk migration starts in earnest. Hundreds of red-tails may pass on a day with strong northwest winds. Spicing up these red-tail flights are other late season migrants such as red-shoulder hawks and the rare rough-legged hawk. But the major attraction at this time is the possibility of seeing two species that many consider the crème de la crème among all of Coon’s raptors—the northern goshawk and golden eagle. Sandwiches are dropped, coffee is spilled, and conversation is halted in mid-sentence when one of these magnificent birds is spotted. A goshawk or golden eagle in flight is all about power, size, and sheer presence…in a word, spectacular. High counts at Raccoon include a record 17(!) goldens seen 20 November 2003 and 12 goshawks on 14 November of that same season.
Situated along the Appalachian Trail on the forested Kittatinny Mountain, Raccoon Ridge also provides a migration corridor for other birds and is surrounded by prime habitat for many other kinds of wildlife. A day on Raccoon brings with it not only the keen anticipation of the hawk flight but the excitement of knowing any number of bird sightings and other wildlife encounters is possible. August and September is a good time to see a nice mix of neotropical migrants on the ridge including the awe-inspiring ruby-throated hummingbirds as they zip by the lookout on their way to Mexico and beyond. Equally fascinating is the monarch butterfly migration that is easily observed from the lookout. Occasionally the increasingly hard to find ruffed grouse is flushed from the trail on the hike to Raccoon. On the other hand, ravens are relatively easy to see. It’s the exception when a raven is not seen or heard from the lookout. Resident birds provide daily entertainment and migrant flocks are sometimes seen. On 18 September 2010, a single flock of an astounding thirty three ravens was seen and photographed at Raccoon.
Snow buntings are a regular treat late in the season, with some seen or heard as fly-bys and others spending all day at the lookout feeding and resting before moving on. Canada and snow geese, brant, and loons are other regular migrants to be expected. Other wildlife seen at Raccoon Ridge during the course of a season ranges from five-lined skinks to timber rattlesnakes and other snakes, to coyotes, bears, porcupines, and bobcats. It makes a great day even greater when one of these animals is observed, and for an area to support such species is a testament to the quality of the habitats found on the Kittatinny Mountain and in the nearby valleys.
Raccoon Ridge has much to offer and there is no better feeling than walking off the mountain with friends, as dusk is falling and coyotes are serenading, and recounting the events of a day well spent in the field. Of course to experience Raccoon Ridge you have to get there, and there is no easy way. The lookout is located in Worthington State Forest and the best access remains the Appalachian Trail from Camp Mohican Road. From the pullout where the white-blazed A.T. crosses Camp Mohican Road near the Mohican Outdoor Center in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, it is a rugged 2 ½ mile hike south on the A.T. to reach Raccoon Ridge. For more information on Raccoon Ridge including ten years of count data and complete directions, go to HawkCount.org, a site maintained by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.