I have long anticipated writing an article highlighting the many luminaries who have graced the Cape May Point Hawkwatch with their presence. So, before my memories fade, here are some of the best and brightest who dignified the platform.
I begin in 1976 with the Godfather himself, Maurice Broun, the first curator at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. One day he walked up to the Cape May platform unannounced, declining to introduce himself, and, frankly, I confess to feeling a bit miffed. Professional hawk counters were a tiny and elite class back then. But Maurice was on a fact-finding mission, wanting to verify for himself the outrageous numbers of hawks I was reporting at a time that raptor numbers at other established hawk watches were faltering. I’m happy to say, after introductions were finally made and following two days of raising binoculars together, Maurice Broun departed a believer.
Two other noteworthy visitors that first year were Davis Finch and Will Russell. Having no idea I was in the presence of the Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of birding, I was nevertheless impressed by Davis’ uncanny ability to detect high-flying Peregrines. It seemed that every time he brought his 10×50 Bushnell Customs to bear, they fell upon a Peregrine. Will, for his part, was particularly adept at sifting distant Red-shouldered Hawks out of the myriad of soaring raptors.
“Who are these guys?” I couldn’t help wondering.
Another visitor was the bushy eyebrowed Al Nicholson, artist and eagle mystic. His protégé, Clay Sutton, was also an infrequent visitor that first year. Both of these local hawk watchers allowed prevailing wind direction to dictate where they chose to conduct their observations. Me? I was bound by contract to Cape May Point State Park, where it was only on north winds that the flight was directly overhead, and I was treated to Clay and Al’s company. But on north winds, it was a rare day that Clay and Al were not present, which is why, one blustery November morning with four Golden Eagles and a juvenile Bald Eagle in view, I was shocked by Al’s absence.
About noon, the Bald Eagle set off across Delaware Bay, followed by one, two, three, and finally four Goldens. It was then that Al’s pale blue Lincoln flashed into view. Racing to the platform, he confronted me, asserting: “That certainly was the single most impressive Golden Eagle I have ever seen.” But it wasn’t long before Al picked up upon the excited banter around the platform relating to eagles (as in plural). “Oh,” he demanded of me. “There was more than one eagle?” I tried to find a way of dodging the question, but you don’t lie to a person like Al Nicholson.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Actually, there were three others not counting the Bald.”
He took it really well, just stood there stoically as his insides melted.
“Oh, good,” he intoned, turning, walking away with his trademark Zeiss porro prism binoculars tucked under his arm, a shattered man.
It wasn’t until the great Frank Nicoletti arrived, in the mid-1980s, that I met a hawk watcher whose skills matched those of Davis and Will. On one occasion, I was studying a soaring buteo out over Cape May when a raptor stooped upon it whose size, shape, and demeanor screamed “Peregrine.” The bird then began soaring somewhat wing-on. “Got a Peregrine out there, Frank, soaring over the church.”
The bird was way out there, the angle poor, but Frank was on it immediately. Another onlooker, somewhat mystified, asked of Frank, “How did he know that was a Peregrine?” To which Frank replied: “Cause he’s the best there is.”
It wasn’t true then, and it certainly isn’t true today. Even then, Frank’s skills humbled my own, and it wasn’t until Jerry Liguori became the official counter in the 1990s that I met a hawk watcher who could stand on the same platform with the Great Nicoletti.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, and when not engaged in drawing sketches for his future field guide, young David Sibley could be counted on to lend his extraordinary field skills to the hawk watch roster, and at times, he stood in as official counter.
For many years, an annual visitor to the hawk watch was Dr. Harold Axtell, one of Arthur Allen’s Wiz Kids at Cornell and arguably the finest field naturalist of his age. It was through Harold that I first heard of my (now) good friend Kenn Kaufman. Harold was mightily and rightly impressed by the young birder and suggested we might like to meet.
Harold excelled at conversation, and he had a genius for compounding diversions that would invariably circle back to the seminal subject. I once asked Harold how he started birding. “I’ll tell you,” he replied, “but it’s a two-day story.” It was, and it was fascinating.
Conversation run the gamut
Perhaps the best thing about hawk watching is all the time you have for conversation, and like Mulligan stew, no two days’ conversations are alike, and none are without merit. When A. Richard (aka Dick) Turner was on deck, conversations might incline toward the genius of Leonardo da Vinci. If Vince Elia showed up, Philadelphia Eagles football was sure to be on the menu. Pete Bacinski? Opera and popular music were featured topics.
So that’s my tribute to the Great Ones, the ardent hawk watchers who lent the strength of their talents to weave thousands of hours of insights and entertainment on the hawk watch platform under raptor-filled skies.
Only now, at the conclusion of this writing, do I realize that I neglected to mention one of my favorite figures, a retired fireman from the Bronx, one Walter Fritton. A dedicated hawk watcher, Walter used to drive out daily to Raccoon Ridge, in western New Jersey’s Kittatinny Mountains, when I conducted a spring hawk count there in 1976. With birds averaging less than 10 migrants per day (and sometimes no migrants at all), it was a testimony to Walter’s dedication. In the fall, he’d spend two weeks at prime Peregrine season in Cape May, and one of my favorite overheard exchanges on the watch involved Walter and Al Nicholson. The flight that day was lean by Cape May standards, and a first-time visitor allowed that she had never seen a Black Scoter. The gallant ex-fireman volunteered to show her one. Leaving the platform, the two sauntered over the dune just as an immature Bald Eagle glided into view. Upon their return, Al couldn’t help but chastise Walter: “Since when, Walter, is Black Scoter worth a Bald Eagle…?” then added as a further dig, “…Walter, never leave your post on a northwest wind.”
“Awahhh,” Walter wailed in consummate Brooklyneese.
You hawk watching newbies must realize that a Bald Eagle sighting was very special in the DDT-pauperized 1970s, and a missed opportunity to view one of these grand raptors was very painful indeed.
In re-reading of this essay, I noted the unintended male dominance of my list, which is certainly not to say that XX hawk watchers are nonexistent. But “dot watching,” as wife Linda disparagingly calls hawk watching, does appear to appeal mostly to men. Linda likes her birding less sedentary.
Two notable exceptions to this male-heavy brand of birding are Laurie Goodrich, Hawk Mountain’s Sarkis Acopian Director of Conservation Science, and the late great Else Greenstone, whose hyper-acute raptor-calibrated eyes scoured the skies over the Montclair Hawk Watch for 35 years, spring and fall. Else and husband Wayne were occasional visitors to Cape May, but their first loyalty was to that rocky outcropping just west of Manhattan where migrating raptors fly at altitudes that are barely suborbital. If you can identify hawks at Montclair, you stand shoulder to shoulder with the best in the business. And Else was one of these.
This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of BirdWatching Magazine in Pete’s column “Birder at Large.”
For the photo collage above: Photos courtesy Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pat Sutton (4), Louise Zemaitis (2), Clay Sutton, and Wayne Greenstone. Special thanks to Lillian Armstrong of the Cape May Bird Observatory for photo research.