While practicing social distancing, visitors to Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal join the spring hawkwatch atop Bradbury Mountain on May 5, to count raptors flying past the mountain. Credit: Courtesy of Freeport Wild Bird Supply

More than 1,800 raptors filled the air over Bradbury Mountain on May 3, migrating into Maine on a warm southwest wind. The number, tallied by birders participating in the location’s annual hawkwatch, shattered the previous record.

A hawkwatch is an activity in which people gather in a specific location to look for migrating raptors, such as eagles, hawks and falcons. On Bradbury Mountain, the spring hawkwatch runs from March 15 to May 15.

On May 3, the sight of so many birds soaring past the mountain lifted the spirits of all those participating in the hawkwatch, especially after a slow start to the season and the overarching gloom of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a special day, and our exact thought was: Hey, we have some really good news this year, and we want to share it,” said Derek Lovitch, who owns Freeport Wild Bird Supply with his wife, Jeannette Lovitch.

The store, located in the nearby shopping mecca of downtown Freeport, has sponsored an official spring hawkwatch on the mountain for the past 13 years.

Rising just under 500 feet, Bradbury Mountain is a popular hiking destination located in Bradbury Mountain State Park in Pownal. The mountain’s summit provides unimpeded views to the south and east, all the way to the islands of Casco Bay, making it a prime location for watching raptors as they travel north to breeding grounds.

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Each spring, Freeport Wild Bird Supply hires an official hawk counter to stand at the summit every day to identify and tally raptors that fly past. In addition, the Lovitchs often join the counter to assist, and regular volunteers from the community climb up the mountain to help as well.

While the hawkwatch is about counting birds, it’s also about educating the public about bird migration and scientific research. Last fall, the park installed a display at the summit of the mountain that offers information about the hawkwatch and up-close photos of the birds being counted, giving visitors a better understanding of the research being done.

“A part of our job is to talk to people,” Derek Lovitch said. “A really important part of the hawkwatch is that it’s research that’s not only visible to the public but engages the public.”

This year, the new displays at the top of the mountain have been especially helpful. While Bradbury Mountain State Park has remained open during the pandemic, the need for people to socially distance themselves from one another has limited interactions between park visitors and those leading the hawkwatch. The displays answer a lot of the questions people typically have about the project, Derek Lovtich said. And if visitors have additional questions, they can ask while maintaining “a turkey vulture’s wingspan” — or approximately six feet — distance.

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“I’ve also been wearing a mask a lot of the time,” Derek Lovitch said. “Before the governor’s stay at home order, it was often obscenely crowded up there, to the point where we were starting to feel uncomfortable. We thought the park would get closed, but we never got to that point.”

On May 3, hundreds of hikers stopped by the summit of Bradbury Mountain throughout the course of the day, said Derek Lovitch, who stayed on the mountain all day to help the official counter, Luke Fultz. In addition, three volunteers stayed on the summit for most of the day to assist.

“As the numbers [of birds] went up on the board, we definitely noticed more people lingering at the summit and asking questions,” Derek Lovitch said.

The data collected at the Bradbury hawkwatch is sent to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, which compiles hawkwatch data and makes it accessible to the public at hawkcount.org. And because of the longevity and thoroughness of the Bradbury hawkwatch, its data is also included in the Raptor Population Index, a project to track populations and trends in North America’s migratory raptor populations.

This year, the hawkwatch got off to a very slow start due to unfavorable weather for hawk migration, Derek Lovitch said.

“A hawkwatch relies on specific wind and weather to produce birds past where we can see them,” Derek Lovitch said. “Normally our best winds are southwest, and we’ve had almost no southwest wings this spring. That’s why it has been so cold.”

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Coming into the first weekend of May, the hawkwatch was on track for having the second lowest spring bird count since its inception. Fultz, the Lovitchs and the hawkwatch’s regular volunteers were seriously discouraged.

“There was kind of this feeling at the hawkwatch. It just felt like this spring sucked because of the weather, because of the birds, because of the stay at home order and this situation we’re in, everything,” Derek Lovitch said. “Then Sunday happened and it was like the floodgates opened and all the birds that were missing came together. It completely changed the perception of the count and our perception of the season. It was such a sudden one-day wonder.”

By day’s end, the hawkwatch had tallied 1,814 migrant raptors of 11 species from their vantage point on Bradbury Mountain. This greatly surpassed the hawkwatch’s previous daily record of 1,550 birds set on April 19, 2019. Among the birds spotted were 1,270 broad-winged hawks, 323 sharp-shinned hawks, 231 American kestrels and four peregrine falcons. This one big day surged the season tally from second lowest to well above average.

“It was just fun. There were birds all over,” Derek Lovitch said. “All the sudden, things didn’t look as grim. Especially with how messed up things are right now, it’s nice to have a little more positivity.”

Aislinn Sarnacki can be reached at asarnacki@bangordailynews.com. Follow her on Facebook: facebook.com/1minhikegirl, Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram: @actoutdoors. Her guidebooks “Family Friendly Hikes in Maine,” “Maine Hikes Off the Beaten Path” and “Dog-Friendly Hikes in Maine” are available at local bookstores and wherever books are sold.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.