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Binocs on the Rocks

The watchers. From left to right: Sean McLaughlin, Jon Kauffman, and Nick Bolgiano.
The watchers. From left to right: Sean McLaughlin, Jon Kauffman, and Nick Bolgiano.

The 10:20 plane from Dulles motors over the Pennsylvania ridges. Below, nestled among the rocks on a powerline cut sit a handful of people, so bundled against the cold they hardly look like people. The pilot gives a squint. “Those crazy hawk watchers are back.”

I spent the 2021 spring season as one of those bundled individuals. This is the Tussey Mountain hawk watch, a mecca for eastern Golden Eagles, departing the Appalachians for their breeding territories in eastern Canada. Scanning the skies diligently from late February to late April, the watch recorded 189 Golden Eagles this season.

A heavy snowfall year made it an interesting arrival on Day 1. Waist-deep snow drifts covered the trail, and the rock pile that was my office was just an igloo impression. As the snow receded (encouraged by my shovel), the birds began to flow by. Just a trickle at first, but then a steady stream.

The first three weeks of March are peak season for Goldens. During this time, Nick Bolgiano and I spent many hours picking large, dark birds from the clouds and declaring, “This looks good.” But what is a good bird? We announced the arrival of Golden Eagles with this phrase, but I think a good bird can be a lot of different things. The joyous return of birds after the bleak late winter is good. The first Eastern Phoebe, warblers, and Tree Swallows were all good. The local raptors were good when they entertained me and themselves on long afternoons.

A silhouette of a Golden Eagle against a clear blue sky.
A “good” bird.

I was astounded by the community that was drawn to these raptors. I had a visitor almost every single day, and some days, overwhelming company. I met travelers from all over PA, and even out of state, that were drawn to see migrant birds. And even more astounding was that they all knew each other! I saw friends reunited after months or years apart and new friendships form. Hawk watching is a solitary lifestyle, but has incredibly strong community foundations. I feel so lucky to have dipped a toe into this lifestyle and to have felt the heartbeat of a beautiful community.

One of the most common questions I was asked was, “Are you a college student?” Very understandable, as I am college-aged, and I explained my time off school and that this was a real job. One child asked, incredulously, “You get paid for THIS?” Although I was not a student in writing, it cannot be understated how much I learned this season. I feel as though I now have a degree in raptor identification, storytelling, public speaking, philosophy… I could go on. Being a hawk watcher is very much a part of my education, and these skills are lifelong, and not limited to birds. Instrumental to the success of my education was the presence of mentors Jon Kauffman and Nick Bolgiano.

My number one takeaway from being a hawk watcher is perseverance. Through challenging, cold, windy days, it is the hawk watcher’s job to continue, as it is also their job to greet those challenges in life. There was never a day when I didn’t walk away from the cut with a grin on my face, regardless of whether I saw 3 birds or 100. To persevere is not just to survive, but to succeed.

Thank you to the birds, the mountain, and the community for this season.

2 thoughts on “Binocs on the Rocks

  1. Hi Sean, You are not only a successful bird watcher but you write beautifully! I am so proud to call you my grandson…..you always make me smile! I’m so glad that you enjoyed your job and you got PAID for it too! I forget what your mom told me about how many jobs you had during your “gap year” from college but it was impressive. Riding your bike through the mountains is certainly good exercise. I’m glad you went to Cape May with your folks. Those are always good trips and a good way to balance your time with different scenery and different birds. We will be at your house for our anniversary coming up soon. It will be 63 years for us on June 9 and your mom is coming to get us the day before. Love, Grandma Bobbie :-))

  2. Beautifully written, Sean, and I loved lurking on the Bird Club listserv and reading your daily write-ups. Thanks for doing this. It means a lot to so many people – not to mention the birds!

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