The first time I wrote about the Soddy Mountain hawk watchers was in 2002, although they've been at it since 1994. The Soddy Mountain hawk vigil is still alive.
When he's not working at the Tennessee Aquarium, Bill Haley spends many of his waking hours in the fall perched on a scenic bluff atop Soddy Mountain. Looking a little bit like Jeremiah Johnson with a floppy hat and binoculars, Haley told me, "there are people all over the country at literally hundreds of different sites that monitor (hawk) migrations each year."
I doubt there are any who are more dedicated than he is.
Birdwatching is a passion for millions of Americans. Haley takes it to the next level.
Looking for an Edge
Hawk watching is a specialized form of bird watching. Some hawks are "resident birds," living out their entire life in one general area. However most hawks actually migrate, just like ducks. Like most migrating birds, hawks take advantage of a north wind in the fall, heading south for warmer climates for the winter.
Migrating is hard work so every bird looks for an edge. For hawks, the edge is literal. Strong winds good for migration often blow against area ridges and mountains creating significant updrafts. Those updrafts allow hawks to soar effortlessly, expending relatively little energy on their southerly migration.
A perfect place to spot them flying the edge of the Cumberland Plateau is Soddy Mountain. If you drive up the mountain from Soddy toward Dunlap on Hwy. 111 between September and November, there is a good chance Bill Haley or his partners are perched on a bluff, yet out of sight, just above the highway. Folks driving by never realize there is important scientific research going on overhead.
Through rain, wind and cold, Haley and those who join him count hawks for the Hawk Migration Association of North America, a clearinghouse for all hawkwatch data. Their observations provide important population trends and in recent decades, those numbers are improving.
"Most of the people that are collecting this data are volunteers," Haley told me. "Soddy Mountain is the only site in Tennessee that's ever been monitored for the entire migration season. So we’re giving the only snapshot of what's coming through Tennessee right now."
Learning the Lingo
When I visited the Soddy Mountain Hawk Watch site, I got a lesson in hawk watching terminology. I was instructed to memorize various landmarks on the horizon -- T1, T2, The Dip, The Lone Pine, The Bushy Oak, Cell 1, Cell 2 and my favorite, Fred, a conspicuous pointed hill in the valley below. When a bird is spotted, watchers use the landmarks to get others looking the right way.
Hawkwatching is a distance game. A bird within a mile is about to fly down your throat. Good binoculars are an absolute must or else you can't play the game. Even with 7x50 magnification, many hawks appear as tiny pinpricks in the clouds.
"One guy calls me Flyspeck Bill," laughed Haley.
Amazingly, he can usually identify those flyspecks. Their size, the shape of the tail, the position of the wings or the cadence of the wingbeat provide important identity clues. The most common species in October is the sharp-shinned hawk, or "sharpies." The counters, however, regularly monitor and record fourteen different species.
Haley lives for the days when the weather is right. That's a strong cold front shoved along by a stiff North wind. On the right day hawks are liable to appear like manna from heaven. Hawkwatchers live for the days when 1,000 or even 2,000 hawks will soar by their lookout point. It happens.
Haley also lives for those days, even though he is usually alone on the lookout. He's been at it now for 25 years. On the Soddy Mountain Hawk Watch Blog he writes, "Unfortunately whenever I age out, I figure it'll be the end of Soddy Mountain hawkwatch as we've known it all these years. My 'little baby' will become just a footnote in Tennessee ornithological history. But I'm not throwing in the towel!!!!"
He would welcome any newcomers to pay a visit, even if it is a one-time shot. The Soddy Mountain Hawk Watch location is actually specifically noted on Google Maps. There is much more information on the Soddy Mountain Hawk Watch Blog.
But even if no one visits, like the lonely Maytag repairman, Haley will maintain a regular vigil on the hawk watch. With the floppy hat and binoculars pointed skyward, he is a modern day mountain man just counting his blessings as his hawks soar across the distant horizon.