Hawk Count at Mahogany Rock Overlook

Each fall thousands of hawks and eagles migrate southward along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  The Blue Ridge Parkway, with its overlooks and sweeping vistas, offer numerous opportunities to observe this annual migration.  One of the most popular spots is located near milepost 235 at the Mahogany Rock Overlook.

Jim Keighton and other members of the Blue Ridge Birders spend countless hours at the overlook observing the passing hawks.  They then log the numbers and types of birds seen into a Hawk Count summary which can be viewed here.

Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

The birders also spend time talking with visitors about their work.  A silhouette chart helps novices identify the various species as they pass overhead.  Often little more than black dots, the birds standout especially well on days with high clouds.  The white clouds offer contrast that make the birds more visible. While the birds often pass singularly or in small numbers, occasionally observers will see flocks of over 100 in what are known as “kettles” as the birds circle in updrafts to save energy for the flight to South or Central America

Kettle of Broad-winged hawks over Grandfather Mtn. photo by Monty Combs

Kettle of Broad-winged hawks over Grandfather Mtn. photo by Monty Combs

While various species of hawks are most commonly seen, both Bald and Golden Eagles also use the Blue Ridge as a travel corridor.

A Blad Eagle passes over Grandfather Mtn. Photo by Monty Combs

A Blad Eagle passes over Grandfather Mtn. Photo by Monty Combs

Weather permitting, volunteers can be found at Mahogany Rock Overlook most days from September into early November.

Mahogany Rock is located less than 1½ hours from Charlotte, Winston Salem and Greensboro.  The overlook offers a large grassy area that is perfect for picnicking while the hawks pass overhead.  No admission fees are required.

Other popular hawk watch sites in western North Carolina include Grandfather Mountain and Pilot Mountain State Park.

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Jim Keighton and the Blue Ridge Birders

Alleghany County possesses a rich tradition of wildlife related activities.  The New River offers a premier smallmouth bass fishery.  Miles of streams and creeks give trout anglers’ many opportunities to catch rainbow, brown, and brook trout.  For the hunter, both turkeys and deer are abundant.

Yet one of the most popular wildlife related activities is wildlife viewing.  According to a 2011 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, 2.4 million North Carolina residents participate on wildlife viewing.  One the favorite activities of this group is bird watching.

James Coleman helped organize the Blue Ridge Birders (BRB) in 1997.  The group was formed to address two broad goals:

  • To share information and educate people about both resident and migratory birds in Alleghany and surrounding counties
  • Promote habitat conservation that benefits both birds and all other species
Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

Jim Keighton watches for passing hawks at the Mahogany Rock Overlook

These days, Jim Keighton, is one of the more visible members of the group.  He can be found most days from mid-August through November at the Mahogany Rock Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  There, he and other enthusiasts, track the hawk migration as the birds move south for the winter.  Maybe more importantly, Jim talks with visitors traveling the Parkway about their birding project and about Alleghany County as a whole.

Jim is a former middle school science teacher.  He taught in Pennsylvania, Delaware and finally at the Carolina Friends School in Durham, N.C.  After 23 years of teaching school, he went to work at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham.  There he designed exhibits and continued to teach, but focused on teachers, for another 13 years.

When they retired in 1996, Jim and his wife Alice moved to Alleghany County.  They were drawn to the mountains and the rural environment.  Alice is a volunteer at the Books and Friends Bookstore which aids the Alleghany County Library.

Alice and Jim Keighton

Alice and Jim Keighton

Even in retirement Jim remains a teacher at heart.  He seeks to broaden and diversify the membership base of the BRB.  He has a strong desire to see more kids involved in birding.  He points to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project Feeder Watch as a simple way of exposing school aged kids to citizen science.  The students set up bird feeders and then conduct a two day count of the number and species of birds that visit the feeder.  They then enter their observations into Cornell’s data base.  The BRB also takes part in Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count.  The local counts or “circles” report their observations in the North Carolina Regional Summary.  Again, this is a scientific survey conducted by citizens across the country.

Birds are often referred to as ecological barometers and as such serve as indicators environmental health.  Maybe the same can be said of birders.  Jim and Alice Keighton are great examples of the diversity of the people of Alleghany County.  Jim seeks to connect people with nature and help them to experience the richness of our mountains.  Both Jim and Alice are committed to being lifelong learners and view the world with an inquisitive eye (often aided by binoculars!).  Most importantly, they want to take others along on their learning journey.

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For more information about the Blue Ridge Birders, Hawk Watch NC, or how you can expose kids to birding, contact Jim at brbirders@skybest.com.  Or you may be added to the Blue Ridge Birder list serve at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/blueridgebirders