These birders take their hobby to the next level
Some people are paid to take raptor counts in spots across North America.
PINE GROVE MILLS, Pa. (AP) -- "Sharpie!" shouts Tom Magarian, binoculars still pressed against his sunglasses, as he spots a sharp-shinned hawk.
Minutes later, he picks up a pencil, notes the siting in his log and returns to scanning he skies.
A simple hobby to most people, bird-watching is a profession for Magarian. He's not looking for chickadees pecking at a feeder outside the kitchen window; his "office" is a rocky overlook, 2,100 feet up, that many enthusiasts consider the best place in the eastern United States to spot golden eagles in the spring.
"I'm going to stay away from an office job for as long as possible," says Magarian, who is 26.
Most enthusiasts call it "hawk watching," though counters like Magarian typically track more than just hawks -- other raptors such as falcons and eagles are tallied, too.
Magarian's post on Tussey Mountain near Pine Grove Mills, about 88 miles northwest of Harrisburg, is one of just under 100 spring raptor watch sites in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Only about 10 of those sites use paid watchers, with the rest manned by volunteers.
The Tussey count, sponsored mainly by the Shavers Creek Environmental Center and the State College Bird Club, started Feb. 25 and lasts until April 25.
Organizers say it's part of a larger effort to track the population of eagles, hawks and other raptors -- many of which had seen declining numbers over the last century because of pesticides or because they were killed after being viewed as threats to livestock.
Magarian's day usually starts no later than 9 a.m.: He pulls his green pickup truck adorned with an "I love trees" sticker into a parking lot off a two-lane road that climbs the mountain.
Then there's a half-mile hike down a wooded trail, past a radio tower and electrical substation, before he arrives at the spot where he will spend the next eight or nine hours. It's not hard to miss: looming high above is a tower carrying high-tension power lines that stretch into the valleys below.
Most of the amenities he needs are stuffed into gray backpack. A thermos full of tea. Bags of peanuts or trail mix. His watch log and a small leather-bound journal in which visitors sign their names.
Bathroom break? "Just go out there," he said, pointing to nearby desolate areas on a gradually sloping part of the mountain.
The views of surrounding mountains and homes and farms that dot the landscape are spectacular, but Magarian keeps his eyes on the sky. A partly cloudy sky is best because it provides a better backdrop for spotting birds.
He's got gear to protect him from rain and snow, and he will abandon his post only if he knows conditions will be poor all day, when birds are less likely to migrate.
"When it rains for a couple hours, and then it lets up, and you stay, you can get rewarded," he says.
Bad weather can keep volunteers away, too. Tussey organizer Dan Ombalski and other volunteers manned the post for several years until 2001, when they hired paid, full-time watchers to maintain consistency.
"Volunteers don't want to spend time on the mountain when the wind is blowing and you are freezing your butt off," Ombalski says. "And we need a lot of coverage for golden eagle migration."
A cousin of the bald eagle, the golden eagle is named for the golden-colored feathers on its head and neck. The large, powerful birds have a wingspan of 6.5 to 7.5 feet.
It's unclear how many golden eagles there are in the country, though they are more common in the western United States because they prefer to winter in less populated, mountain regions.
Magarian says an estimated 1,500 golden eagles can be found east of the Mississippi River. He has counted more than 170 at Tussey this year.
Though the peak migration period at Tussey is starting to wane, spotters may continue to see golden eagles for the next several weeks.
Overall, though, Tussey is a good spot to catch the spring migration of golden eagles because of weather and topography, says Laurie Goodrich, senior wildlife biologist at the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, considered a top site to catch raptor migration in the fall.
Eastern golden eagles winter in the southern Appalachian mountains and then follow the ridges north to Quebec and elsewhere in eastern Canada to nest. Tussey is oriented in the direction of their flight path.
When a south-southeast wind blows against the mountain, it creates an updraft that helps the eagles in flight, Goodrich says.
Best times of year
Hawk watching is more common in the fall, but enthusiasts say springtime watches are getting more popular.
When the Tussey watch ends, Magarian will move on to another field job in Cape May, N.J., and will probably take part in another bird count there this fall.
But, like the birds, Magarian is getting restless. He's worked all over the country -- Iowa, Maine and South Carolina, to name a few states -- and wants to head West to see new vistas. He typically gets free housing when he picks up a new job, so money isn't that much of a concern -- he figures he needs about $1,000 a month to pay the bills.
"Most people," he says, "don't do this type of work for the money."
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