Articles‎ > ‎

Chimney Rock: The Little Known Hawk Watch

It was early autumn of 1990. I had just left my position as naturalist at Scherman/Hoffman Sanctuaries to pursue a master's degree and was looking forward to spending free time afield with my binoculars. I made all kinds of plans to "bird" and hawk watch in Cape May and Sandy Hook, as well as Montclair and Raccoon Ridge. It was while I was piecing together my proposed birding and hawk watching trips, that a friend of mine, Henry Kielblock, called and asked if I was interested in doing a little "birding"? As most people who know me will tell you, this is the same as asking me whether or not I would like to win a $10 million lottery. I asked Henry if he wanted to head up to Montclair to do some hawk-watching. But Henry didn't seem overly enthused about the thirty-five mile drive up there from Somerville. Yet he was still anxious to see some hawks, It was then that the magical words came from Henry's mouth, "Hey Chris, you ever been up to Chimney Rock to hawk watch?"

"Chimney what?" I asked. "Chimney Rock, ya' know, over in Martinsville," Henry replied.

When I explained to him that I had never even heard of it, he told me that he would pick me up in a half hour to go there.

When we arrived, I was amazed at the extraordinary view I was offered from the lookout, which is approximately 400 feet up on a bluff at the end of the first Watchung ridge. I could see nearly twenty miles out into the distance, and immediately started playing the "name the landmark game," just as one does when he goes to the top of the Empire State Building for the first time.

"Look, Henry, isn't that the 3M factory over in the Sourlands Preservation in Belle Mead? And what about that over there, that looks like the Holiday Inn over in Somerset!" I was really getting into this. But, I had not come up here to appreciate the view. I was here to see hawks. Within minutes of redirecting our binoculars from the scenery to the heavens, a pair of "sharpies," flew over us heading in a southwesterly direction, making them our first two official migrant raptors of that early autumn. Soon, many more were passing over us, mixed with kestrels and the occasional osprey. By the end of our five-hour visit, we had chalked up some fifty-three birds; not bad for the seventh day of September at a hawk watch I had never even heard of. Along with the migrants, we were overly impressed with the four black vultures, that mixed in with the many resident turkey vultures, circling over our heads for most of the day. On the way home, I thought, "Well, maybe it was just an accident; it couldn't possibly be that good and be just ten minutes from my house."

I decided to go back up bright and early the next day. When I arrived, the wooded lot surrounding Chimney Rock was jammed full of warblers. Within an hour I had counted fourteen species, and I had not even made it out to the actual hawk watch yet! I knew there had been a small weather front from the northwest that had pushed through within the last forty-eight hours, but this was amazing! Before my eyes in one field of view were three black-throated blue warblers, two black-throated greens, and two oven- birds. I began to wonder now if I might have found a truly special place. This was soon answered when I finally made it out to the lookout. The hawks were really moving for such an early September day. Sharp-shinneds, in particular, were exhibiting extremely good numbers, not to mention the merlin who flew directly out of the woodland from where I had come and proceeded to do a beeline for my head, veering to avoid me only at the last minute with a most impressive mid-air 90-degree angle turn.

I was having a great time. Better than I had ever had at any other hawk watch. At first I didn't really know why I was so enthusiastic about this site. Was it because it was my first visit there and it had the fresh appeal of a new place? Maybe. But there was something else. Gradually I began to realize what it was: low-flying birds. Not just that typical low-flying merlin, but the vast majority of the birds passing over me were right over my head; most were identifiable without binoculars. Some people have speculated that this is because Chimney Rock is located near the western end of the Watchung ridge, where the birds may be descending in anticipation of changing their flight course from a westerly direc- tion to a southwesterly one.

Whatever it is, the low altitude flight remained very consistent and rewarding, especially so when later that day an immature bald eagle passed over me at no more than 80 feet, heading southwest. I could literally see him looking back down at me as if to say, "You ain't seen nothing yet." He was right. By the end of that following October, Henry, George Hall, and I had logged three more of these "low flying" bald eagles for a total of four in a very limited amount of time at the lookout, along with impressive totals of all the other typical raptors.

During the next couple of months after the watch at Chimney Rock, I thought about just how good the raptor flight had been, not to mention the warbler fallouts that had occurred. With this in mind, I decided that Chimney Rock was certainly worthy of a "formal hawkwatch." So after making the necessary arrangements with the Somerset County Park Commission, I prepared for the following fall.

When September 1991 arrived, I was ready. Accompanied by a good number of hawkwatching friends, plenty of free time during the day, and a tolerance for standing in one place by myself for long periods of time, I set out to conquer the hawks of Chimney Rock. But would the numbers be anything like the year before? Had 1990 just been a good year for hawks along the western Watchung ridge? I needed to know. Fifty-five manned days later, (twenty days each in September and October, and fifteen in November), we know: It was not an accident. By November 20, we had logged 1495 sharp-shinneds, 525 kestrels, 198 ospreys, 10 peregrine falcons (in- cluding 5 in one day), 10 bald eagles, and 4 golden eagles. We also had counted approximately 9 percent of the total broad-winged hawk flight that had passed through New Jersey that fall. This is not to mention the hordes of warblers and other passerines that once again frequented the vicinity of the lookout throughout September and into October. (See Spring 1992 issue of Records of New Jersey Birds for totals of all individual species recorded at the Chimney Rock Hawk watch.)

When all the hawks had been tallied, the total stood at 5,740. A number I never really imagined possible. But then, probably anything is possible at Chimney Rock.

-Chris Aquila
New York City Parks

This article originally appeared in the autumn 1992 issue of New Jersey Audubon magazine. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author.