Not long after 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, when the air was still cool and the sun was just a glow on the horizon, Melissa Roach and Pete Dunne saw it through their binoculars, riding in low over the cedars: an American kestrel, also known as a sparrow hawk.
They watched it for a while, then looked at each other and smiled. "Another year begins," Dunne said.
It was the first day of the annual hawk watch at the best place in North America to see the fall migration: Cape May Point State Park.
That's the assessment of more than 2,000 readers of Birder's World, one of the nation's top birding magazines.
The results were no surprise to the regulars who every late summer and fall head for Cape May to hang out at a large deck overlooking a wooded area, a freshwater pond, some dunes, a World War II ruin, and the open water beyond - where the Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay meet.
On a good day, maybe 2,000 raptors will pass overhead from as far north as Greenland, typically hugging the coast on the way south. Up to 400 people will be on the deck, binoculars swinging skyward in unison when someone shouts out a good sighting.
Residents of the Philadelphia region are within a two-hour drive of not one, but two, hawk hot spots.
No. 2 for Birder's World readers, also not surprising to aficionados, is Hawk Mountain in Berks and Schuylkill Counties, where southbound raptors take advantage of updrafts along the mountain ridges. Incorporated in 1938, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is considered hallowed ground for raptor-watchers.
It shows "nature is not far away," said Dunne, director of New Jersey Audubon's Cape May Bird Observatory. "You don't have to go to the Amazon or Kenya to see something extraordinary."
You don't even have to hike into the wilderness. The Cape May park has bathrooms. The bird observation deck, which has ramps instead of steps, is a mere 12 feet or so above a huge parking lot.
Watching raptors has become a kind of calling. Perhaps no other family of birds - perhaps including the NFL's Eagles - has as dedicated and ardent a fan base.
North America has more than 100 organized hawk watches, including ones at a gazebo at Rose Tree Park near Media and a deck on Militia Hill in Fort Washington State Park near Ambler.
Both sites, while anchored in the heart of suburbia, still log impressive counts. Last year, volunteers tallied more than 16,000 raptors overhead at Militia Hill. Then there's the one day in 1995, when a jaw-dropping 13,079 broad-winged birds flew by.
Although they're called hawk watches, the counts also take in ospreys, eagles, harriers, and other raptors.
Come fall, when raptors heed the ancient call to head for wintering grounds as far as South America, volunteers set up schedules for official counters - Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 for Cape May - and monitor spots along the flyway, recording every raptor that passes.
Hawk watches are social affairs. Don Freiday, director of birding programs at the Cape May Bird Observatory, likens them to "a bar without alcohol."
At Cape May, newbies can rub elbows with eminent birders; many are renowned for sharing their expertise.
Interpreters - paid by binocular companies, often young biology grads stitching together seasonal jobs - lift young children so they can see through spotting scopes, and help others see what's incoming.
But there's science at work, too.
The watchers are taking the pulse of the population. Their results are forwarded to a conservation nonprofit, the Hawk Migration Association of North America, where they're logged online at http://www.hmana.org/.
Ernesto Ruelas, the group's raptor index population manager, said that, though some counts have been operating 75 years, most groups standardized their protocols a few decades ago.
By now, the wealth of data is leading to breakthroughs in understanding migration patterns.
Author Rachel Carson used migration data from Hawk Mountain to support her assertion that bald eagles were in a serious decline.
Now, the counts are showing their comeback. Last year, Cape May set a record: 467 bald eagles during the season's count. The count in 1979 was just six.
Indeed, although American kestrels are in a population nosedive, perhaps because of declines in their farmland habitat, raptors are doing quite well overall.
Sitting atop their food chain and accumulating in their bodies any persistent pollutants affecting prey species, raptors are indicators of problems in the environment.
Maybe that's what so captivates raptor-watchers.
Or maybe it's that the birds are going so far, said Rich Conroy of Glenside, who coordinates the Militia Hill watch.
Or their wildness, the fact that they're fierce hunters, which stirs something elemental in the people watching them, said Gil Randell, board chair of the hawk migration association.
"You're seeing nature do what it does, and it's not in a zoo," said Bill Graupner, who retired to Cape May with his wife, Deidre, partly because it's such a prime birding spot.
Chris Pugliese, a landscape architect who coordinates the Rose Tree hawk watch, grew up two miles from the park, "but I never knew all this was going on above me."
The Rose Tree site is odd in that it shares space with recycling events, car shows, dog shows, you name it.
"The people who stumble across us, there's this 'aha' moment," Pugliese said. Maybe there's a bald eagle flying overhead. Rose Tree sees 200 to 250 of them in a season. "They're absolutely flabbergasted."
Cape May's count started in 1976 with Dunne, the first official counter, standing atop a makeshift table. He counts it as one of the best two periods of his life, the other being when he met his wife, Linda.
Last year, on the first day of the count, Cape May watchers saw 143 raptors, including 13 bald eagles, 44 osprey, 24 Cooper's hawks, and a merlin.
Nowhere near a record - that was set Oct. 4, 1977, when counters recorded 21,800 raptors.
Wednesday held little promise. Winds switching to the south would keep many birds farther north up the Jersey peninsula. But by noon, Roach, this season's official counter, had logged about 50.
And the regulars came by all morning anyway.
Tom Johnson had just finished his morning shift on Cape May's songbird count, which began Aug. 16. He'd logged 400 warblers.
"It's a different day every day," said Doug Gochfeld, another young "bird bum," whose previous seasonal job was in Alaska studying Hudsonian godwits. A dawn flyover of kestrels - 80 in less than an hour - is still a vivid memory.
At 12:05 p.m., one of the watchers called out, "Bald eagle by the lighthouse!" Wings flapping slowly and powerfully, it circled to the north and then disappeared.
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