Avian Biodiversity at Waggoner’s Gap

The Kittatinny Ridge is recognized as a globally significant migration flyway and Pennsylvania’s largest Important Bird Area (IBA). Waggoner’s Gap Hawk Watch is a 125-acre rock outcrop situated atop the Kittatinny Ridge and offers premier hawk watching opportunities. It is the second-oldest hawk watch in the United States, with 68 years of migratory bird data collection. This lookout is known for having one of the largest concentrations of raptors in the U.S., with 15,000 to 25,000 raptors passing through annually. Waggoner’s Gap is also one of the best sites along the Kittatinny Ridge to see Golden eagles, and other less-often seen raptors like the Red-shouldered hawk and State-Endangered American goshawk .

This hawk watch is managed by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, as part of State Game Lands 230 in Cumberland and Perry counties. Straddling the county line, the game land extends into Schuylkill County, protecting 1,290 acres in two parcels in this section of Kittatinny Ridge. Bisected by the Tuscarora spur of the Appalachian Trail the combination of hawk watch, long distance trail, and surrounding Game Land provides large scale access for outdoor recreationists who enjoy hunting, hiking, and birdwatching.

At least 16 species of hawks, eagles, falcons, and vultures, and more than 150 species of songbirds, travel the Kittatinny Ridge as they migrate south through Pennsylvania during autumn, and north during spring. Hawk watch volunteers also count monarch butterflies as they flutter overhead on their arduous trip to Mexico, collecting baseline information to compare changes in population numbers over time. The ridge and surrounding forests provide critical resting and feeding habitat for various wildlife species during their demanding journeys. Read on to discover some interesting facts about the most common avian species found at Waggoner’s Gap:

  1. Black & Turkey Vultures – Vultures are fascinating birds with two notable talents: soaring and waste management. Their diet consists primarily of carrion (dead animals), which helps to mitigate the spread of disease that may otherwise impact local food webs and potentially harm human health and the economy. Both species have unfeathered heads, an adaptation that reduces the risk of infection while feeding on bacteria-infested carcasses. Vultures are gregarious and can often be seen roosting, feeding, and soaring together. They inhabit a wide range of habitats – forests, fields, and rural countryside – where they follow other vultures to find food. In flight, turkey vultures have silvery underwings, tiny heads, and tails that extend well beyond the body. A bright red head is also a key feature in adults. Black vultures are slightly smaller than turkey vultures and are very dark overall. They have a wrinkly gray head, and the tips of the outer primary feathers are white.

  2. Bald & Golden Eagles – Aside from California condors, eagles are the largest birds in North America. Eagle populations have declined through time due to habitat destruction, poaching, and environmental toxins like DDT. Fortunately, conservation efforts have allowed their numbers to rebound. Strong talons, powerful beaks, and sharp vision contribute to their masterful hunting skills. Adult bald eagles have massive, dark wings and an unmistakable white head and tail. They tend to nest and hunt near water since fish are their primary food source. Golden eagles have a golden-brown plumage, with a head and nape of shimmery gold. They are common in the western U.S.

  3. Falcons: American kestrel, Merlin, Peregrine falcon – Falcons are some of the world’s most captivating aviators. These formidable hunters are adapted for high-speed flight and thus prefer the open landscapes of tundras, marshes, fields, and floodplains. Distinct size and plumage variations between falcons make identification fairly easy, but only if the observer can catch a good glimpse before the bird speeds by. All falcons have a distinctive dark mustache that varies in size and shape between species. American kestrels are the smallest diurnal raptors in North America. Kestrels are plumage dimorphic, with males having blue-gray wings, while the female’s are barred like her body. Merlins are stocky and angular, with sharp wing tips and a dark overall appearance. They tend to be solitary and aggressive towards other birds. Peregrine falcons can reach speeds upwards of 200 mph and often kill their prey upon impact. They are slate blue, barred darkly above, with a black cap and “mustache” mark below the eye.

  4. Accipiters: Sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, American goshawk – have broad, rounded wings and long narrow tails for nimble maneuvering in forests and thickets. Quick reflexes and a rudder-like tail permit agile and artful pursuit of their primary prey – birds. If a hawk is hunting around your bird feeder, it is most likely an accipiter. Similar plumage and size variability among accipiters make identification a challenge for even the most seasoned hawk watcher. Sharp-shinned hawks are blue-jay sized, and often travel in small groups during migration. Cooper’s hawks are crow-sized and solitary, hunting mixed forest areas for birds and small mammals. American goshawks, listed as endangered in PA, are secretive in nature and hunt large prey such as squirrels and large forest birds.

  5. Buteos: Red-tailed hawks, Broad-winged hawks, Red-shouldered hawks, Rough-legged hawks – Buteos are characterized by robust bodies, long rounded wings, and short rounded tails. They are known for their ability to soar for long periods on rising air currents and updrafts. Four species are seen in central Pennsylvania, two of which are most common. Red-tailed hawks rely on woodlands and grasslands for hunting and roosting and are often seen perched in trees along roadsides. The red tail is present in adults only. Broad-winged hawks are abundant in Pennsylvania during migration season. They gather to form swirling flocks or kettles that take advantage of rising currents of warm air. Red-shouldered hawks make their homes in moist forest habitats hunting reptiles, amphibians, small rodents, and birds. Rough-legged hawks are rare migrants in southcentral Pennsylvania and nest in the Arctic.

  6. Songbirds: Cerulean & Golden-winged warblers – In addition to raptors, a variety of songbird species utilize the Kittatinny Ridge during their long migrations south. The cerulean warbler and the golden-winged warbler are two such species, who find refuge in the shrub and forest habitats at Waggoner’s Gap on their way to Central and South America. Both species have experienced dramatic population declines due to habitat loss and are listed as Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Pennsylvania.

  7. Ruby-throated hummingbird – The ruby-throated hummingbird is the only breeding hummingbird species east of the Great Plains. Both males and females have glistening green-bronze backs and pale bellies, and the male sports a bright metallic-red throat patch. Hummingbirds may begin migrating south between early August to September, with occasional stragglers into October or later. Ruby-throats join many other birds in migrating along ridge tops. They can be seen in good numbers when a strong cold front ushers in a north wind.