The View on Raccoon Ridge

Fall Raptors

by John Smith

For those in New Jersey that fancy the habits of our wild avian friends (such people are know as "birders"), fall is the season to head for the hills to observe the annual raptor migration. A raptor is a bird of prey--a general descriptor that includes eagles, hawks, falcons, and vultures. The mountain ridges that run through the northeast US are highways for the raptors as they ride the thermals on their annual trip south. In New Jersey, this migration begins in late-August, peaks in September and October, and then trails off through November and early December. Some species, like the northern goshawk, golden eagle, and red-tailed hawk actually increase in numbers in November, but each species has its own window of time.

Hawk Mountain, near Allentown, PA, is world famous for hawk watching and, during a good day on a weekend in the fall, it would not be uncommon to find hundreds of people huddled together on the rocks there with binoculars and spotting scopes awaiting the air-show. On the other hand, the Skyland's own Raccoon Ridge, which shares a common ridge line with Hawk Mountain, will typically chalk up raptor counts only 10-15% below Hawk Mountain and, while somewhat more difficult to reach--at least for the foot part of the journey--will generally be a lot less populated.

Depending on when you visit Raccoon Ridge, you will have an opportunity to see the migration of any of the following: northern goshawk, Cooper's hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, red-tailed hawk (left), red-shouldered hawk, Broad-winged hawk, rough-legged hawk (above), golden eagle, bald eagle, northern harrier, osprey, peregrine falcon, merlin, American kestrel.

New Jersey is one of the top birding and hawk spotting areas in the USA. And, in 1994, the 12 New Jersey hawk-watches tallied 160,000 hawks during the fall migration. Raccoon Ridge alone, averages about 15,000 raptor sightings each year, during the September to December period.

Raccoon Ridge is most easily reached from Yards Creek Power Station, just outside Blairstown. But since the attacks of 2001, the route is generally inaccessible. The next easiest route is probably from the Mohican Outdoor Center on Camp Road on the ridge above Blairstown. Take Interstate Route 80 to Exit 4 and Route 94 North towards Blairstown. Drive about 6 miles until you see Mohican Road on your left. Turn left on Mohican Road and head uphill for 3.5 miles to Gaisler Road. Turn left on Gaisler and proceed a half mile to Camp Road on your right. The gravel road leads to the Mohican facility.

The Delaware River snakes through the valley below Raccoon Ridge.

Park you car and head from Mohican on the Appalachian Trail southwest about 2 1/2 miles, about an hour's walk to Raccoon Ridge. The views down the slope to the lower reservoir at Yards Creek are delightful, and serve as useful excuses to slow down the heart rate without confessing to your colleagues that you are definitely feeling the ascent. Woodpeckers seem to own this area, along with the ever-present chickadees, tufted titmice, and nuthatches.

On top of the ridge, if the day is clear, you will see panoramic views of the Delaware Valley, the best being from the Raccoon Ridge overlook itself. You will know you are there because there is a large pile of rocks that serve as a table for the official counter. If you visit there during the count, you will likely find quite a few folks taking in the show. If you are a novice, listen to the experts--they will usually call out key sightings.

Bring a picnic lunch and binoculars. The activity is best on a sunny day, when the wind is out of the northwest, but in any case the action often seems to come in waves--so be patient. If your legs need more action or you want more privacy for lunch, continue south on the Appalachian Trail. After a scenic walk of a little over two miles, and you will reach the north side of Sunfish Pond--a very nice place to have your banquet. But, be sure to return to the overlook to spend some time with the birding folks.

Raptors are wonderful to see. They glide quietly and effortlessly as they ride the thermals but, with the exception of the Osprey (the fish-hawk), most raptors will avoid crossing large bodies of water--they must conserve energy and need thermals to help gain altitude. That is why Cape May is such a good spotting area. The raptors will funnel down to Cape May and spend a lot of time thinking (oh that's right, birds don't think) about how to get to Delaware. They cluster there, and many will go back up the west coast of NJ until they feel better about crossing the Delaware Bay. Others will wait for a hefty tail-wind to help in the crossing.

Two species of raptors migrate well into South America. For example, the six-week-long caravan of broad-winged hawks will make a right turn when they hit the Gulf of Mexico. At that point they will follow the coast through Texas and Mexico as they head for central South America. The Osprey are somewhat more at home with water and will migrate all the way to Argentina, crossing both the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean--island-hopping along the way. Experts in navigation, all species of raptors will usually return to the same area year after year, often pairing with the same mate.

Birding is a wonderful pastime and, for many of us, it can become quite habit forming. But it is also very relaxing, and can carry you away from the noise and cares of the everyday working world.

Find out more about raptors and birding in general with a visit to the New Jersey Audubon headquarters at the Scherman-Hoffman Sanctuary in Bernardsville (Phone: 908-766-2661). The gift shop there has many books on birding, and it is a nice place to browse.

Hope to see you on the mountain.

John Smith is a principal author and photographer for the revised book, "Exploring the Little Rivers of New Jersey", originally written by James and Margaret Cawley, and published by Rutgers University Press in 1993.
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Skylands Visitor
05 Nov 2012, 06:14
Lorraine, Thanks so much for your thoughtful remarks. But, actually if you had taken the time to inquire, we are not the Guest Services that provides supplies for hotels around the country. We incorporated in 1990 when we set out to publish a magazine mainly for the benefit of visitors to the area; hence the name. Since then we have been fortunate enough to be able to provide a broader characterization of Northwest New Jersey for all kinds of readers... however redundant. Good luck with your blog!
03 Nov 2012, 14:19
This site belongs to a national hospitality company. readers might do better looking for local businesses and organizations like the Raptor Trust, the state audubon society, etc. for information. I had tried to start a business providing similar local information but didn't get that far with it. They don't date their articles and many are regurgitated from older information.
09 Apr 2012, 11:36
Access can be obtained through Yards Creek Generating Station through advanced notice. A nice bunch of guys !!!
06 Nov 2009, 15:27
You can get to Raccoon Ridge by taking the Kaiser Trail from Old Mine Road (2 miles) on the river side or taking the AT from Camp Mohican (2.5 miles).
richard goldsmith
30 Oct 2009, 15:47
My disappointment over being excluded from Yards Creek was made all the more pointed be seeing a hawk suddenly take off from right next the road and fly directly across my line of sight only a hundred yards down the road from the Yards Creek gate-house while I was dejectedly driving away.
richard goldsmith
30 Oct 2009, 15:41
You have ruined a perfectly good day. Your website advised me that I might reach Raccoon Ridge via Yards Creek, for which i would find a sign on highway 94. Well, for your information, Yards Creek access has been restricted for 8 years.....ever since 9/11....... and the sign to Yards Creek does not exist. No hiking is allowed across their property. It seems strange that you are trying to promote NW New jersey and don't know this. Your website says it was revised January 2009. Someone is not doing his jab very well! Having lost that day, first looking for the non-existant sign, driving from Blairs Town to I-*0 three times, finally finding the place and finding it closed to hikers, I would now like to know if there is another access to Raccoon Ridge without having to hike an inordinate number of miles on the AT first.
22 Jan 2008, 13:25
Hi..I saw a hawk a few times in Perth Amboy. Elizabeth is not too far! I have been in NJ my entire life, and have NEVER seen a hawk before. What is bringing them to the cities? And are there more in number than past years? I have little dogs and fear that the hawk may mistake them for a rabbit. I am amazed at the sight of them, but fearful for my tiny dogs that weigh less than 9 pounds. One is actually 5 pounds. Should I be afraid for them? Thanks..
Jacqueline Irwin
14 Jan 2008, 18:33
I spotted a hawk on the ground here in Elizabeth, eating a pigeon. I initially thought it a sharp-shinned hawk but the info I found indicates they are small and feed on smaller birds. Could it have been a Cooper's hawk? It was the size of a pigeon or larger. Can you help? Do sharp-shinned hawks feed on pigeons? It's not the first kill it hads made. Thanks for any help or referral to some sight that can help.
12 Jan 2008, 15:01
very informative.

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