Keeping a sharp eye

  • Sitting on a bench Divya Bobra, of Hanover, N.H., photographs the scene on top of Balch Hill Natural Area in Hanover on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, during a hawk watch led by the Hanover Conservancy. Bobra, a student at the Tuck School of Business started birding as a child in India and is now learning new birds in the Upper Valley. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to valley news phtoographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Carol Dillon, of White River Junction, Vt., left, and Julie Colt, of Hartland, Vt., watch for hawks on top of Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H., during a hawk watch on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Hanover, N.H., organized by the Hanover Conservancy. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • In addition to co-leading a hawk watch at the Balch Hill Natural Area in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, Gail McPeek also made cookies for participants. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

  • Sarah Howe, of Quechee, Vt., and her boyfriend, Aidan Saunders, of Woodstock, Vt., keep an eye out for hawks on Balch Hill in Hanover, N.H., on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. The Hanover Conservancy led the outing. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Jennifer Hauck

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/1/2022 9:29:49 PM
Modified: 10/1/2022 9:25:31 PM

HANOVER — The crowd stood at the top of Balch Hill staring out at the view. In the distance were the peaks of Killington, Pico and Ascutney.

Then someone shouted, “Bird!” and roughly a dozen pairs of binoculars turned toward the sky. The visitor flying through the sky was a sharp-shinned hawk, making its way south that just happened to stop by during the Hanover Conservancy’s Annual Hawk Watch on Balch Hill at Balch Hill Natural Area.

“It’s fun, and it gets you outside,” said Etna resident Angela Plagge, who was attending the event for the first time. “I’d like to learn more.”

Plagge and the rest of the roughly 15 attendees did just that, with help from David Merker and Gail McPeek, who led the event, and fellow participants. While fewer than a half-dozen hawks were spotted, stories were exchanged and advice was given about the best pairs of binoculars. Participants shared where they’ve spotted bald eagles, ospreys and other birds of prey.

The Hawk Watch has been taking place since at least 2001, McPeek said. Hawks begin migrating in late September and continue through the fall. Some years, they see more than a dozen and other years only a couple or none at all. It largely depends on the conditions. Birds of prey rely on thermal drafts — currents of warm air that come up from the ground — and updrifts from mountain ridges to help push them South. Clear skies, sun and north or northwest winds tend to make for better hawk-watching conditions.

“Those that do migrate are opportunists and they do not want to work too hard to get to where they’re going,” Merker told the group. “They can just set their wings and glide.”

One hawk put on quite the show, circling a couple times above the treeline before continuing on its way. In addition to the sharp-shinned hawks, the group also saw a Cooper’s hawk.

Among the participants was Divya Bobra, a second-year student at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, who attended the outing with friends. Bobra developed an interest in birdwatching while she was growing up in India.

“When I came here, it was like starting as a beginner again,” she said. “It’s been fun going on that beginner journey all over again and learning about birds in North America.”

Her favorite so far is the bright-red Northern cardinal, which she saw a lot of in Boston over the summer.

“I just love them,” she said. “For a local person, they were a common sight. For me, I’d never seen such bright a bird. It’s not commonplace in India.”

Julie Colt, of Hartland, is a longtime birdwatcher who has particular affection for raptors. In addition to how they look, “I’m fascinated with how they hunt and their habits,” she said.

Colt attended the hawk watch to learn more about them. “I just find them fascinatingly beautiful,” Colt said.

The Hanover Conservancy, town of Hanover and Dartmouth College work together to manage Balch Hill Natural Area, where they practice “viewshed management,” McPeek said. That means that every couple of years they trim back trees so that people can still see distant summits. Paths through the meadows are also mowed.

Birdwatching has played a part in the Hanover Conservancy since its founding in 1961. Spring bird walks, McPeek explained to the group, helped people become interested in conservation. McPeek brought along apples, apple cider and bird-shaped cookies for participants. There were also handouts to help identify hawks and information about the Hanover Conversancy.

“It’s very hit or miss. You just never know. You just hope for the best,” McPeek said in a phone interview Friday. “We get people that really know their birds, but we also get people that this is totally new for them. It’s just really fun to share whatever information you can.”

That enthusiasm was apparent throughout the two-hour gathering as people who just met bonded over birds.

Nancy Trottier, of Wilder, had been to Balch Hill before as part of an OSHER@Dartmouth class led by McPeek. She connected with Colt and the two spent time talking about other places to explore in the Upper Valley.

“I’m definitely going to do this again,” Trottier said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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