Laurie Goodrich Tracks Raptors by the Thousands From a Lookout in the Appalachians

This wildlife biologist has seen some surprising trends while counting birds of prey on Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain over the past 30 years.

Laurie Goodrich in the area of Hawk Mountain where hawks are usually counted, October 15, 2018

Credit: Hilary Swift for NRDC

A few minutes past 10 A.M. atop North Lookout at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, Laurie Goodrich glances down at her clipboard. “Five sharp-shinned hawks this past hour,” she says over a walkie-talkie, then jots down some notes. She’s been stationed here since dawn.

Goodrich, a wildlife biologist, is the director of long-term monitoring for Hawk Mountain, and she’s been counting migrating raptors for 30 years. On this autumn day, in addition to her spotting scope and binoculars, she’s brought a counting gadget with eight multicolored buttons, each labeled for a different bird species. She calls it the super clicker: “You can quickly click the buttons for the number of birds you see, and you don’t have to take your eyes off the sky.”

From mid-August to mid-December, roughly 18,000 birds of prey—including several species of hawks, falcons, vultures, and eagles—hug this notch in the Kittatinny Ridge of the central Appalachian Mountains. The thermal currents and updrafts of wind created along the 185-mile-long ridge allow the birds to do less flapping and more soaring and gliding—offering a welcome energy break along a migration corridor that can span thousands of miles into Central and South America. “It’s almost like bodysurfing at the ocean,” says Goodrich. “They just get their body in there and zoom along the ridge to the south.”

Goodrich uses various devices, like clickers, to count and categorize birds.
Credit: Hilary Swift for NRDC

Since 1984, Goodrich has been overseeing the sanctuary’s raptor migration count, the longest-running survey of its kind in the world. “We have data from 1934 to now, excluding the three years during World War II,” she says. (Since the 1990s, Hawk Mountain has also monitored the smaller spring raptor migration, from April to mid-May, when birds tend to fly north along more diffuse routes.) In addition to monitoring raptors, Goodrich’s team has been collecting data on 150 other migrating bird species for roughly 25 years. On this day in late September, in less than an hour they note small flocks of cedar waxwings, American robins, and American goldfinches.

One of Goodrich’s main duties is to make sure that the organization continues to collect data in a scientifically rigorous manner so it can use these numbers to understand raptor population trends and aid in their conservation. “Because hawks are rare creatures in the wild as nesting birds—they’re very difficult to detect—one of the best ways to understand how their populations are doing is by counting their numbers during migration, [when] they’re very visible,” she says.

Goodrich looking for hawks
Credit: Hilary Swift for NRDC

Back in 1990, Goodrich and her colleagues used migration counts to publish research that focused on how the pesticide DDT affected bald eagles, falcons, and hawks before it was banned in 1972. “If you look at our bald eagle numbers from that time, annual counts of bald eagles flying by ranged from 10 to 20 birds for the entire fall migration,” she says. “We had so few bald eagles come by that people would sit at the lookout and applaud after one went by because it was so rare and so majestic.”

In 2012, the researchers recorded Hawk Mountain’s peak bald eagle count: more than 400. “We’ve seen a dramatic recovery, but it took a lot of time—from 1972 to 2012—to get there,” she says.

To better understand broader population trends, Goodrich notes that since 2004, Hawk Mountain has partnered with three other nonprofits: Hawk Migration Association of North America, HawkWatch International, and Bird Studies Canada. Between 2006 and 2016, the group expanded from 25 sites to more than 60 sites across the United States and Canada where raptor counts are conducted in spring, fall, or both seasons. This collaboration produces yearly data that make up the Raptor Population Index (RPI), the world’s largest migration‑monitoring database as well as its biggest citizen science database. “I think [that] is pretty impressive,” notes Julie Brown, the monitoring site coordinator at the Hawk Migration Association of North America. “Most of the people collecting data are just volunteers.”

The type of data collected for the RPI has not only been instrumental in contributing to past success stories—as with bald eagles and peregrine falcons. It’s also essential to conservationists’ efforts to understand current and developing population issues, says Dave Oleyar, a senior scientist at HawkWatch International based in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“Long-term monitoring efforts, while not exciting on a year‑to‑year basis, are super important in understanding how things may be changing,” Oleyar says. He notes that researchers like Goodrich, who have pursued this work over decades, are a tremendous asset to the field.

Brown echoes the sentiment. “With her raptor migration and population knowledge, Laurie is one of the best people capable of interpreting raptor trends and coming up with species assessments,” she says.

Still, that decades-long experience doesn’t mean that Goodrich has seen it all. Back at North Lookout, Goodrich talks about some of the latest research findings that have caught her off guard. “Scientifically, one of the things that’s been surprising is how we’re already seeing climate changes affecting the timing of migration,” she says. “Not so much for the long‑distance migrants, but certainly for the short‑distance migrants.” This latter group includes red‑tailed hawks and American kestrels, a small falcon species.

“We don’t see as many red‑tailed hawks as we used to,” she continues. “It’s not because their numbers are declining. It’s because they’re not having to migrate as far to survive the winter. That has been a big change.”

Another of Goodrich’s endeavors has been monitoring the migration habits of broad-winged hawks that have been outfitted with tiny tracking devices. These stout, compact hawks are dotted with regal reddish-brown bars on their chests and an eye-catching white band on their tails; they migrate together in huge numbers—a spectacle that has been dazzling hawk watchers for decades. A whopping 3,308 of them passed by Hawk Mountain in a single day this past September.

“I’m very excited—two of our females are signaling right now. You can go online and see where they are, which I try to do every morning.”

A bald eagle soars through a blue sky.

Goodrich pulls out her smartphone and brings up a map of North and South America: thin ribbons of color span both continents. A yellow line shows the path of Rosalie, and a red line tracks Patty; they have been transmitting their location for more than two years. Both birds have been wintering in Peru, with Patty in the north and Rosalie in the southern part of the country. Patty has chosen the exact same spot both years, Goodrich notes, and last year, Rosalie settled in one about 20 kilometers from the previous year’s. “We’re finding that the birds are pretty faithful to their wintering spots and very faithful to their breeding spots,” Goodrich says.

Another female, Abbo, ended up flying all the way from Pennsylvania down to south-central Brazil—a marathon of more than 6,000 miles. “If you zoom in on where she went, it looks recently converted to agriculture. She turned around and went back north, but she never really settled down that winter. She started meandering slowly north.”

For Goodrich, this highlights the importance of interconnected conservation efforts all along the vast corridors these birds travel. “If we want to continue to have these birds in our backyard, so to speak, we really need to be thinking more globally with our conservation efforts, connecting with groups and people working in those areas to support them as much as we can,” she says.

And the vast numbers of birds flying overhead each fall at Hawk Mountain only reinforce that point, she says. She recalls a quote on the stationery of the sanctuary’s founder (and namesake of one of the tagged broad-winged hawks), Rosalie Edge: “The time to save a species is while it’s still common.”

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