PUTNEY — It’s been a banner year for the ragtag, ad hoc group of people who count hawks atop Putney Mountain, with more than 18,000 sightings and still counting.
“We recently surpassed the all-time high number of raptors flying over the site, more than doubling last year’s total,” said Annie Kellam on Sunday from her camp chair as wind whipped across the 1,647-foot summit.
Each Fall, John Anderson and approximately 20 other volunteers maintain a continuous presence on the summit from Sept. 1 to Nov. 15. For nearly 30 years they have kept records of the number and kinds of hawks, as well as the temperature, wind and weather, all of which they report to Hawk Migration of North America.
“My partner, Dan Labarre, and I, have been up here 20 times so far this season,” said Kellam. “We’re observers who help the real experts spot the birds. I am in awe of how they can identify birds from afar and it’s wonderful to listen to them as they figure out what we are seeing.”
Following Saturday’s rainstorm, birds were not in abundance on Sunday, said Anderson, clutching a pair of binoculars as he scanned the northern sky along the east side of Putney Mountain.
“The fact that the clouds haven’t lifted yet is holding the hawks up and the wind is a little bit out of the southwest,” he said. “When the winds get around a little to the northwest, then the birds come right over the ridge.”
When winds come out of the northwest, they hit the 14-mile long ridge and rise, giving a lift to migrating raptors traveling south for the winter.
“The birds can go into a shallow dive and as they are diving they are getting lifted,” said Anderson. “They can travel 14 miles without expending any energy.”
Established in 1974, Putney Mountain Hawk Watch is the only autumn raptor watch in Vermont that is monitored full time.
More than 200 species of birds can be spotted at the summit, including ospreys, northern harriers, goshawks, Cooper’s, kestrels, merlins and even a peregrine falcon from time to time.
“Last week we saw three sandhill cranes, some loons and some cormorants,” said Kellam.
Anderson said that during the 10 weeks of the season, he will spend almost 600 hours, between six and 10 hours a day, watching the raptors fly past the summit, all the while talking with people who come specifically for the hawk watch and those who just come for a gentle day hike.
“Most days are nice and slow and leisurely,” he said. “This time of the year, a big day would be 30 birds.”
The hawk watchers often host groups of people who arrive on the summit to watch and learn about raptors and to assist in spotting and counting.
“I led an introduction to hawk watching on Sept. 18.” he said. “It just happened to be the day we spotted 6,000 birds.”
That’s about 600 birds an hour, an incredible number that left many of the regulars in awe.
“It was a zoo,” said Frankie Knibb, of Putney, who was there on a 2,000-bird day. “They were just all over ... kettles here, there, everywhere.”
A kettle, for the uninitiated, is a collective term for a migrating group of raptors.
“I was the counter that day,” JoAnne Russo told the Reformer during a return visit to the summit on Tuesday. “It was amazing. They just kept coming up and over and over. It was like a river.”
When the birds kettled, she said, from a distance they looked like a swarm of insects.
Terry Armata, of Bennington, has been coming to Putney for the hawk watch for a dozen years.
“I just love hawks,” she said on Tuesday. “I love raptors. I love their grace and their beauty and I love the challenge of figuring them out.”
The volunteers love to share the summit with day trippers, but they only ask one thing.
“The one unforgivable sin is standing in front of somebody who is doing a bird count,” Anderson said on Sunday.
“There’s a bald eagle right there,” pointed Candy Hess, from Springfield, whose been coming to Putney Mountain with her spotting scope for nearly a decade. “It looks like it’s just taking a tour.”
Anderson said the eagles they spot are often resident birds, nesting along the Connecticut River. If they are traveling north and circling around, they are usually looking for food, and those birds aren’t counted, because the hawk watchers are looking for raptors migrating south along the ridge.
“One day we had six eagles go south and an hour later we had four eagles go north,” said Anderson. “A couple of hours later we spotted one going south, so our count was three, though we saw 11.”
Migrating birds are intent on traveling south and are not looking for food.
Some of them are traveling as far south as South or Central America, said Knibb, though bald eagles might only travel as far as Connecticut.
“We watch them and make sure they continue to go south,” said Knibb. “Some are a little bit wayward about it. Turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks are not always serious about migrating. We might see them go down and then come back.”
The last record year for the hawk watchers was 2018, with nearly 16,000 sightings. That’s a little less than double the number they spotted in 2019 and 2020 combined.
Anderson said that’s attributable to a shift in the wind.
“Some years we get fall winds quite early,” he said. “Like in September, and the birds tend to migrate more east of us.”
When it’s more easterly, hawk counts at Pack Monadnock, in Peterborough and Temple, N.H., go up. In 2019 and 2020, hawk watchers there spotted more than 30,000 raptors. So far this year, that count is just over 9,000.
It was a quiet day on Sunday, with only a handful of sightings of red-tailed hawks, a sharp-shinned hawk and one turkey vulture by noon.
While their eyes scan the skies, with binoculars at the ready in their hands, the volunteers chat about this and that, or talk to the occasional curious hiker.
“I was taught to do this 25 years ago by Marshall Wheelock and Alma and Waldo Beals,” said Anderson. “Frankie and I have been doing this since then and Dan and Annie have been up here close to 15 years.”
Another dozen or so people, including (but not limited to) JoAnne Russo and Terry Armata, and Martha Adams and Dan Clark, take turns at the summit.
“They defy any attempts at organizing,” said Anderson, to the laughs of his fellow birdwatchers, a particularly anarchic yet avuncular crew, he says, which sparks another round of chuckles. “But we have at least two people each day to keep a watch. Most of the people live within a 60-mile radius.”
Anderson said when it’s quiet on the summit, it can be quite the social circle, with people chatting about this or that, all the while keeping their eyes to the north sky.
“All of the people who come up here have other interests in the natural world,” he said. “We have people who are butterfly and moth experts ... all kinds of things. You can hear a lot of interesting stuff when you are up here. It’s kind of like a clearinghouse.”