History
 

In the early 1970s an intrepid birder from the Lynchburg Bird Club through her extreme interest in hawks and hawk migration set out to find a hawkwatching site in southwest Virginia and beyond. The impact Myriam Moore had on hawkwatching in Virginia via the Virginia Society of Ornithology (VSO) and on the United States via the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) is a story of vast proportions of which the annual hawkwatch at Harvey’s Knob is but a part. The following is an attempt to tell the story of the Harvey’s Knob hawkwatch, its beginnings, its results, and where it fits into the overall picture of the migration of hawks in North America as well as its future.

As you know, in the early 1970s there was a great concern for the health of Peregrine Falcon, Osprey, and Bald Eagle populations to mention a few. Because of the difficulty of finding nesting sites for any hawk species, professional and amateur ornithologists were toying with the notion that, if one could locate a suitable site where the hawk migration could be noted, a measure of hawk species populations could be monitored via a semi-annual survey at that site. Hawk Mountain Pennsylvania had been such a site since the 1930s and there were others but they were few and far between. Hawk Mountain was well known in birding circles in the 1970s but most of the other sites were obscure. Myriam visited the Hawk Mountain site and absorbed as much of the lore from that site’s long running hawkwatch as she could, as well as all the literature on the subject she could find. Armed with a passionate interest in hawk migration and state of the art lore of the subject Myriam set out to find a site that would be a constant monitor of the populations via their migration counts.

The progression from determination to Harvey’s Knob took a few years and a lot of folks from the Lynchburg Bird Club and the Roanoke Valley Bird Club. Myriam studied topographic maps of the area around her home in Lynchburg and spread her study to areas close enough to travel to daily that emulated somewhat the topography of Hawk Mountain. She decided on Purgatory Mountain in Botetourt County. At the time there was an unpaved fire trail to the top of the mountain where a forest fire lookout tower was located. The lookout tower was appealing but it was also a vulture’s roost. Add to this that Myriam suffered from a fear of high places.

Her daughter’s all terrain vehicle and her determination to climb that encrusted tower did pay off on Myriam’s early watches there. The tower was situated where hawks utilizing the long NE to SW oriented Short Hill ridge were well in view. But after a couple of seasons Myriam decided to find another site. The problem with the Purgatory Mountain site was the hardship in attaining its summit. Myriam knew that if a proper monitoring site was to be established it would require a lot of people in attendance and in those days all terrain vehicles and tower climbers were in short supply. So let us go across the valley to the Blue Ridge Parkway with its pull outs and paved road, thought she.

As she surveyed the Blue Ridge Parkway (BRP) she looked for a long straight slope on the western side of a ridge oriented NE to SW just as it was at Hawk Mountain. She found the Purgatory Mountain overlook at milepost 91.0 on the parkway and set-up watch there for a few seasons.

But Myriam was smart and an organizer. While the watch was attended at the Purgatory Mountain overlook on the BRP she had as many birders from the Lynchburg and Roanoke Valley Bird Clubs watching from other sites. Mountaintop sites in Botetourt, Craig, Roanoke, Bedford, and Amherst Counties were covered simultaneously in the search for a viable site. Citizens Band Walkie-Talkies were used for coordination as well as spaghetti suppers at Myriam’s summer home at Green Valley. Can you imagine a CB radio with a 2 or 3 thousand feet long antenna operated primarily in sight of I-81, the trucker’s highway? Just another hardship rarely encountered.

The Purgatory Mountain Overlook was a successful site for a couple of years but it was a dangerous place to watch from. Concern for the masses of birders sitting in lawn chairs paying no attention whatsoever to the traffic at an overlook that was not separated from the main road became a cause for concern. There was definitely a safety factor to be considered.

Fortunately, in 1975 Dan Puckett a Lynchburg birder had been dispatched to the Harvey’s Knob overlook (at milepost 95.4 on the BRP) while the Purgatory Mountain overlook was still the primary site. Dan scored over 3000 hawks in one day and bingo, Harvey’s Knob was discovered! Harvey’s Knob was separated from the parkway by a grass and tree berm providing a higher degree of safety for the hawkwatchers than the exposed Purgatory Mountain overlook. Plus the fact that there was a view off the eastern slope at Harvey’s Knob that wasn’t available at the Purgatory site.

East slope views weren’t considered important in those days but it didn’t hurt that Harvey’s Knob provided that as well as the desired long view off the west slope. For the next two years the Harvey’s Knob site was well attended during the latter half of September during the Broad-winged hawk (BW) migration season. Myriam and all those who had been influenced by her settled in for a long term of migration monitoring with the sole purpose of gathering a monstrous amount of hawk migration data.

Since this was the period dedicated to the migration of the Broad-winged hawk, it was noted that it was a single species study. Around 1978 Barry Kinzie, another intrepid birder, convinced Myriam that there were probably Red-tailed hawks migrating past the Harvey’s Knob site in November. That year the hours of coverage at Harvey’s Knob were increased to include a few days of coverage during the Red-tailed hawk migration in November. Redtails were found in good numbers and the point of all this is to say that since 1978 the Harvey’s Knob hawkwatch has been a continuous hawkwatching site to the present day.

When the Redtails were found it left the Sharp-shinned hawk, a numerous migrant primarily in October. By 1979 it was decided that the Harvey’s Knob hawkwatch would include all of the migration period, September through November. Since 1979 the Harvey’s Knob hawkwatch has been the only all-volunteer hawkwatching site in the State of Virginia with a consistent full season hawkwatching count. And, probably the only all-volunteer, full season hawkwatching site in the entire United States. It has indeed become a monstrous collection of hawk migration data.

That data has been submitted to the Hawk Migration Association of North America which is another all volunteer organization created in 1974 for the purpose of collecting and storing data from all hawkwatching sites on the North American continent as well as promoting the value of hawkwatching. Most of it has been stored locally and published in volunteer publications. While developing the Harvey’s Knob site Myriam joined HMANA and soon sat on the board of directors, a post she anchored until the mid-nineties.

There were times over the past 30 years when the Harvey’s Knob hawkwatch seemed to lack enough hawkwatchers to satisfy the requirement of full season coverage. Full season coverage asks a great deal of the hawkwatchers but Myriam convinced us that it must be done. Anyone who has visited the site in September and October/November will see a marked contrast in the numbers of watchers attending during those periods. September with its balmy weather and great numbers of hawks will attract hundreds of watchers while October and November with its encroaching winter weather and far fewer numbers of hawks will attract watchers numbering less than ten.

In the mid-nineties Myriam could no longer fill in on those days late in the season as she had done before. But fortunately the watch became filled with another generation of watchers. Today as in the past ten years the site has not only been covered full time, it has increased its coverage substantially. Today the watch starts on 15 August and still continues through November with some diehards continuing into December.
The numbers of migrants have increased more than proportionately. Harvey’s Knob is an important southern Appalachian hawkwatching site.

Myriam passed away in 2006 after having to spend the past decade or so unable to practice her favorite endeavor. But it must be known that beyond Myriam’s home site at Harvey’s Knob she spread her enthusiasm for hawkwatching to the Rockfish Gap site and the Kiptopeke site. Rockfish Gap has struggled with full season coverage but it has undoubtedly contributed massive data to the hawkwatching lore of the mountains of the southern Appalachians. The Kiptopeke site became so valuable that it became a State of Virginia project with a full time observer. Myriam knew how to pick them.

A history of the Harvey’s Knob Hawkwatch cannot be written without including the efforts of its creator. I hope this brief essay sheds a little light on both because the Harvey’s Knob Hawkwatch, The Virginia Hawkwatch, the Hawk Migration Association of North America and Myriam Moore are one and the same. No mention of either of the preceding organizations can be mentioned without including Myriam, as she is the patron saint of hawkwatching.


David Holt, November, 2006