Contrary to popular belief, we do have four seasons up here in Alaska: fishing season, berry-picking season, ski season ... and hawk-watching season, which is in full swing right now.
Of course, if you want to see the hawks (and eagles) that are migrating on the heels of northbound waterfowl and shorebirds, you have to be in the right place: the pullout at Mile 118.8 of the Glenn Highway, about 2½ hours north of Anchorage.
You could visit that pullout on almost any day in April and have a good chance of seeing migrating raptors, but the very best time to visit is during a two-day party thrown by the Anchorage Audubon Society and the Mat-Su Birders Club Saturday and Sunday.
If you're wondering how it was discovered that a parking lot is the best place to watch migrating raptors, it happened pretty much as you might expect: Someone was in the right place at the right time, looked up and saw birds -- lots of them, sometimes hundreds in a day.
Word spread that it was a good place to watch migrating hawks, until it reached Bob Dittrick, a guide and past owner of Wilderness Birding Adventures. Dittrick is credited with starting the event, which became known as the Gunsight Mountain Hawkwatch.
"Somebody I knew had seen a bunch of birds out in that area, so we went out, checked it out," Dittrick explained when reached by phone. He and his buddies scouted the area between that pullout and Anchorage but couldn't find a better place for seeing the birds so close to the road.
After a few years of watching hawks over Champagne and beer, Dittrick said, "we decided we really probably should share this with people with a common interest." He suggested it to the Anchorage Audubon Society as a fun weekend activity, volunteering to kick it off with a talk about identifying the passing birds (this was in 1995, as close as he can recall). Just like that, the Hawkwatch was born.
A special place for birds
Nobody knows exactly why the hawks choose to migrate past Gunsight Mountain.
"You'd think that if you went 15 miles down the valley it'd be just the same but it's not," said Mr. Whitekeys, "commander in chief" of the Anchorage Audubon Society, also reached by telephone.
That's not the only mystery to the hawks' movements. Although their overall trajectory is north, the hawks actually pass through the valley traveling to the southwest.
"If you see a hawk that is going the opposite direction, you know that it's a resident (bird), not a migrating hawk," said Whitekeys.
One theory for that seemingly backward migration, put forward by Paul and Cecily Fritz in an article for the American Birding Association, is that migrating raptors headed for Western or Southcentral Alaska go out of their way north to circumvent ice fields, with the southwestern flight through the pass helping get them back on track.
Why dodge the ice fields? It might be because these raptors travel by gliding from one thermal to the next, using the rising air currents to help them gain altitude. That's also why the Hawkwatch doesn't start until 10 a.m.
"The birds like to sleep in and wait for the heat to build up in the land so they have the thermals to ride," Dittrick said.
Aside from the unexpected flight pattern and sheer quantity of birds passing through -- including golden eagles, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers and particularly Harlan's hawks, a subspecies of red-tailed hawk -- Gunsight Mountain is special thanks to the lingering snow cover, which bounces the sunlight up at the hawks like a giant reflector. This makes it easier to identify the birds by their markings, and also makes for spectacular photos of airborne hawks.
If you'd like to take part in the Hawkwatch, you should be at Mile 118.8 Glenn Highway by 10 a.m. on Sunday. At 10:30 a.m., Dittrick will give his annual talk on one of the most difficult tasks a birder can perform -- identifying hawks in flight.
Whitekeys still recalls that aspect of his first Hawkwatch: "You'll be looking out toward the horizon and you'll see a speck. And some guy will say, 'that's a light-morph Harlan's female, 2 years old, and it just ate.' And you're saying, 'What? How did you see that? I saw a pinpoint in the sky!' There are guys that are that good. It's just an astounding thing to see."
Of course, just having a crowd of a hundred people waiting and hoping doesn't guarantee the expected flood of hawks. If a big weather front is coming through, most of the birds hunker down and wait. Then, when the weather shifts to a clear day with the right winds, they come streaming through. One day the birds may travel just over the top of the ridge; the next they'll be nothing but tiny pinpoints overhead.
Nevertheless, if you're at all enamored of or inspired by birds, it's hard to go wrong with a weekend like this. Spotting scopes on tripods will be all over the parking lot, with experienced birders helping the newbies. Many birders camp out or stay at one of the local lodges, making an entire weekend of it; the fun continues on Sunday with a potluck hosted by the Mat-Su Birders. (Birders are advised to bring their own food and drinks on Saturday, with the exception of hot dogs that will be for sale to help defray the cost of trucking in portable toilets.)
Even if the flow of raptors slows, you can count on plenty of other action to keep you entertained. Chris Maack, a volunteer with Anchorage Audubon, said that "every year seems to provide some excitement due to birds that are right at the site with us, such as northern hawk owls in the surrounding spruce trees, a courting pair of merlins, a northern shrike feeding its young, or the friendly gray jays." Swans flying over are a common sight too, Maack said -- and "when two mountain bluebirds landed on the cut bank across from the Hawkwatch pull-out, they were the sensation of the day."
What do you do when you have a treasure like that? Whitekeys summed it up simply: "You share it."
The Gunsight Mountain Hawkwatch takes place at Mile 118.8 Glenn Highway Saturday and Sunday. You can get more information at anchorageaudubon.org. The Mat-Su Birders, who host the second day of the Hawkwatch, maintain their own calendar of events at matsubirders.org.
According to Maack, "Hawk watchers should bring warm clothing -- in layers, since the sun can make things fairly warm -- sturdy boots, sun visors or sunglasses, sunblock, snacks and beverages, a lawn chair for comfortable waiting since there can be long periods of low activity, binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras, field guides. Optics are essential as the birds pass over quite high on clear days. Best to leave dogs at home."
Alaska's birders are a welcoming crowd, with experienced members more than happy to help out beginners. But if you'd like to get a leg up on your education, Mr. Whitekeys and other members of Anchorage Audubon will give a beginning birding class at their monthly meeting, 7 p.m. Thursday at the BP Energy Center. You don't have to be a member to attend either event.