Hawking: Meet Jim Keighton on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Along the Blue Ridge Parkway

People often wonder what they will do when they retire, and many delay retirement because they feel uneasy about striking out anew. Jim Keighton, a retired middle-school science teacher, has solved the problem for himself. Jim has doubled-down on birding, especially with hawks, a hobby he started as a boy. As I wrote about hunting, retired men often return to activities from their youth.

I took a few days the other week to go motorcycling and camping on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Near the North Carolina-Virginia boundary I found a group of people with binoculars and telescopes at the side of the road. I figured maybe they had seen something special, but on a closer look, it appeared they were nearly camped there.

The next day, as I came back along the same stretch (near Milepost 235), they were there again, scanning the skies near Mahogany Rock with binoculars. I stopped to see what was going on.

It was a hawking—hawk watching—project. Every day, from September 1st until about Thanksgiving, one or more volunteers spends the day looking for migrating raptors. The volunteers count the birds, by species, and report their observations to hawkcount.org, a project of the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

Jim Keighton

Jim’s Story

Jim Keighton leads the effort at Mahogany Rock. Jim can be found there on most days during the autumn observation period. On September 27th, when I visited, Jim was joined by Bill Dunson, a retired biology professor from Pennsylvania State University, and Alice Keighton, Jim’s wife. They bring good binoculars, a spotting scope, some food and water, chairs designed for raptor watching, and their record-keeping equipment.

Alice spotted some raptors way off, and told Jim and Bill. Jim swiveled around in his chair and found them with his binoculars. He started talking aloud, “They are flying wingtip to wingtip, no obvious hawk behaviors, must be black vultures.”

Bill Dunson

Lots of people stop to chat and see what’s up at Mahogany Rock, and Jim gladly obliges, always talking with at least one eye on the skies above. Meanwhile, motorcycles pass by, some fast, some slow, some quiet, some loud. Jim said that in the last 10 years, motorcycles have taken over the parkway. Years ago, hawk watching at Mahogany Rock was less frequently interrupted by passing vehicles.

Jim attributes his interest in hawks to two men—his father, who had Jim hooked on hawks by the time he was 8, and a seventh-grade science teacher who involved his students in real experiments. At 72 years old, hawk watching is now Jim’s favorite retirement activity.

I asked the hawkers if they had seen “The Big Year,” a recent movie about “listers” and birding competition starring Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin. None had seen it, but they thought they might. They didn’t seem to have much respect for “listers,” the birders who keep detailed lists of what they see. Listers are too intrusive, sometimes using recordings to attract birds, harassing them and potentially interfering with their feeding and reproduction.

Jim’s swivel chair

The Birds

Counting hawks isn’t as easy as it might seem—often the birds are far away, too far to see details of coloring or size. Instead, Jim relies on shape, flying patterns, and other behavior. For example, merlins, a species of falcon, may attack other raptors. Vultures fly with their wings tilted upward, forming a shallow V, while eagles look like a flying board—straight across from wingtip to wingtip.

The volunteers count about 16 separate species of raptors, including vultures, ospreys, eagles, hawks, and falcons, and Jim is the final authority on identification. The data are accumulated at hawkcount.org and eventually used by the Hawk Migration Assocation of North America for research on raptor population trends.

At Mahogany Rock, the numbers of ospreys, bald eagles, and peregrines have been increasing, while northern harriers and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as red-tailed Hawks have declined at Mahogany Ridge. Yet resident red-tails and nearby flatland populations are large.

For Jim, Bill, and Alice, much of retirement is devoted to outdoor interests and birding. Jim especially is dedicated to keeping the hawk counting going at Mahogany Rock. He sees it as a commitment to help preserve raptors. In good weather and bad, Jim or a substitute comes to Mahogany Rock and lives that commitment for almost three months every fall. Jim is a good reminder of so many retirees who live always with at least one eye to being useful in a venture larger than the individual.