Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory

September 30, 2013 |

The third week in September is normally the peak season for broad-winged hawks to migrate through West Virginia. Hundreds of volunteers will also travel to Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory in Monroe County to help count the migrating hawks, eagles and falcons.

Rodney Davis, a retired heavy equipment operator from Sinks Grove, is one of the most active volunteer counters at Hanging Rock. “I don’t know what draws people, specifically. I don’t know if they’re drawn to the raptors when they come up here, or just the fact that it’s just such a beautiful place to come.”

The Hike to Hanging Rock is moderately difficult, located just off the Allegheny Hiking Trail outside of Gap Mills.

On Tuesday, volunteer counters at the Hanging Rock Observatory tallied 347 raptors-including 7 bald eagles. That’s down from 1,592 total raptors they counted last year on the same day. Volunteers say that fewer colder days in September might be the reason the migration has been slower this year. They expect more broad-winged hawks to fly over Hanging Rock in the next week or so.

Jim Phillips is the official counter at Hanging Rock, submitting data every year to the Hawk Migration Association of North America. He also works at Pipestem State Park, and he participates in other eagle surveys throughout Southern WV. He says that wildlife biologists are finding that bald and golden eagles are not only migrating here, many more eagles are coming to live in West Virginia year round in areas near Hanging Rock.

“The numbers are coming up and we’re getting good numbers on the Golden Eagles. The wildlife biologists have actually been doing studies in the Appalachians here, this part of West Virginia to the north of us and then what borders in Virginia and they’re finding that the greatest population of golden eagles in the East occur in this area.”

But it’s a fragile balance that the volunteers at Hanging Rock don’t take for granted. Rodney Davis, a retired heavy equipment operator from Sinks Grove, is one of the most active volunteer counters at Hanging Rock.

“We used to never get Peregrine Falcons, and we’ll get probably a dozen migrant peregrine falcons every year,” said Davis.

Atop Peters Mountain, you can see as far as 60 miles in a 360 degree angle.

Rodney has also volunteered with Ron and Wendy Perrone who are helping to bring Peregrine Falcons back into West Virginia, releasing them into the New River Gorge Area. “But even on days when you don’t see anything, you have this incredible view in all directions,” he said.

The original Hanging Rock Observatory was used as a fire lookout for the Forest Service in the 1930s. A series of structures has been built, and rebuilt, since then, and the Jefferson National Forest, as well as a group of dedicated community volunteers from near and far, have helped to allow a tower here to remain, amid the changing times and one unfortunate incident of an accidental fire which burned the tower to the ground. And though many people come here to watch the raptors migrate south, many more come here year round to enjoy a serene and spectacular view of the Allegheny, the Ridge and Valley, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. “The tower sits at the crest of Peters Mountain, at 3812 feet, and from this vantage point you can see probably 60 miles in almost a 360° circle,” says Brian Hirt, one of the volunteers at Hanging Rock.

For those of us watching from the observatory deck, the steep and slanted ridge below us reveals an incredible view of rolling farmland. We can see as far East as the Blue Ridge Mountains in VA, and as far West as the Winter Place Ski Resort, about 70 miles away in Raleigh County, WV. We don’t have wings, but every now and then a gust of wind lifts our hair, and it sure feels weightless, just for a brief moment.

Then, coming towards us from the north, a hawk seems to be tracing an unseen spiral in the sky. Gliding with outstretched wings, she navigates the columns of warm air that rise from the sloping peaks of Peters Mountain. She gains altitude, gently reaching our eye level, then above our heads she begins to soar. The movement, called Kettling, will sometimes propel a raptor to glide up to 200 miles without flapping their wings even once.

Directions to Hanging Rock: From US 219 and Gap Mills, WV: Take US 219 to Union, then travel on Rt. 3 east towards Gap Mills for 8.8 miles. Just before the Cheese n’ more store, take a sharp right on Zenith Road and proceed 3.5 miles to Limestone Hill Road. 1.4 miles after you turn left onto Limestone Hill Road, there will be a hairpin turn to the left. You will notice it has been widened to accommodate parking along the road. Your best bet is to proceed another 0.4 miles until you top the hill. At this point there will be a parking area above the road on your right, but you have to watch for it; it is easy to miss. It is a small gravel area that will hold 8 or 10 cars at most. If you start going down hill you have missed it. The tower is a hike of a little less than 3/4 mile from the lower parking area and between .8 and .9 mile from the upper lot. The hike from the upper lot is a little longer but somewhat flatter on the lower half. The trail entrance from this lot is marked with yellow paint which signifies the Allegheny Hiking Trail.

For more information about the Hanging Rock Observatory, click here.

For more information about traveling to Monroe County, click here.

We recommend getting a sandwich for lunch at the local Cheese n’ More story in Gap Mills: (304) 772-5211.



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