From ashes to eagles on Peters Mountain
Raptor watchers have an observation tower atop Peters Mountain
Bill Cochran | The Roanoke Times
On a peak day, birders at Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory can view hundreds of migrating hawks.
- On the way to Hanging Rock Tower
- New Castle: It's always worth the time and effort to drive through this mountain town, to see the Greek Revival courthouse, the sheriff's house, the historic hotel and late-19th century commercial structures. Information on other attractions in the region is listed in the "Marketing Guide to Craig County, Virginia," a brochure available from the County Administrator's Office.
- A Different Rock: Potts Mountain Road veers off Virginia 311 atop Potts Mountain in Craig County. A 3.5-mile drive out this gravel road takes you to Hanging Rock Valley Trailhead. This is a different Hanging Rock, and a short hike from the marked trailhead offers views into the Shawvers Run Wilderness area and all the way to McAfee Knob in Roanoke County.
- Paint Bank Hatchery: Many of the brooks, browns and rainbows stocked in trout streams from Craig County to Henry County come from this facility. Visitors are welcome to gawk into raceways that are black with fish. Visitor hours are 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
- The Store: The Paint Bank General Store, at the junction of Virginia 311 and 600, offers the feel of a country store, because that is what it is. You even can buy buffalo meat.
- Buffalo Farm: The buffalo roam along Virginia 600, behind the fences of Hollow Hill Farm. There are places you can pull over for close-up viewing of these big creatures and other exotics. The annual Buffalo Festival is planned for Saturday. Virginia 600 becomes West Virginia 17 at the Virginia-West Virginia line. It is one of the flattest routes you will find in a mountainous region, a fact bikers should keep in mind.
Marguerite and George Flouer are avid bird-watchers who have spent countless pleasant hours viewing the skies, but on Feb. 10, 1996, what they saw high in the nighttime horizon brought horror, not joy.
That cold, snowy night, the Flouers watched from their house, just across the Craig County line near Union, W.Va., as flames consumed the Hanging Rock Lookout Tower on Peters Mountain.
It wasn't just a historic fire tower going up in smoke, the work of arsonists; the lookout, which dated to the Civilian Conservation Corps days of the late 1930s, hadn't been used for fire prevention since 1972.
The structure had become the Hanging Rock Raptor Observatory - the "Hawk Tower." It was a place where the Flouers, and others in the secluded foothills of Peters Mountain and up and down the East Coast, went each fall to watch the parade of migrating raptors - hawks, eagles, falcons - as they funneled along the mountain.
"That was my second home up there," said Jerry Davis, a birder from Lewisburg, W.Va. "The fire hit me pretty hard. I had quite a few calls all up and down the East Coast."
The calls came from birders who felt they had been violated.
"It hurt," said George Hurley of Fairfax.
The original tower of the 1930s had been replaced in 1956 with a larger residence-cabin-lookout. Even before that, Hurley had been using the rocky perch that held the tower as a birding platform to watch, transfixed, as raptors glided by. He and other birders refurbished the tower in the early 1970s when vandals hit it after foresters turned to more modern techniques to detect forest fires.
"About six of us did the repairs," he said. The West Virginia Non Game Fund provided some of the money. The labor of love made the February 1996 burning all the more crushing, Hurley said.
There was no money in the budget of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to replace the tower after the fire, but foresters thought it was important to come up with the $70,000 necessary to do the job, said Dave Olson, a forest spokesman.
"This tower had significant cultural value to the local residents and was a truly tragic loss of a historic and valued building located in an extraordinary location," he said.
The rebuilding was completed in May, and the raptor-watchers were back in September, observing the annual migration from the new 14-by-14-foot cedar structure. In reality, they never vacated the spot. This past autumn, they scrambled up the rocks amid the ashes of the old building and watched the skies.
Hurley and Davis were there Sept. 19 when 16 bald eagles were spotted, a record for the spot. At age 85, George Flouer doesn't make the climb very often, but he takes joy in the reports coming from the tower.
"I saw every one of them," Davis said of the eagles. "It was unreal. We had three that kettled right over top of us. I bet they weren't 50 feet over us. The day before we had 43 osprey."
The best count this season occurred Sept.21, when 906 raptors were recorded. Most of the birds - 862 - were broad-winged hawks.
Warm air currents, called thermals, had projected them skyward, as if they were on invisible elevators, and they had set their wings on the updraft above the mountain that provides an ancient raptor pathway in the sky.
"They start in Canada and go all the way to South America," Davis said. "They hang around there for a few months, then come back. We see them come by pretty fast sometimes."
Skill is needed to put a name to a bird that may be little more than a wind-blown speck. It takes experience, said Davis, who has been at it since 1985. At 3,812 feet, the Hanging Rock tower gives birders a giant boost into the world of raptors. On occasions, there are eye-level views, but other times the birds may be another 3,000 feet above the observation platform.
Although the Hanging Rock regulars will count raptors into late November, the big push is over and the numbers are beginning to dwindle as the migration ebbs. In the meantime, the beauty of the area is at a peak as autumn paints the distant mountains and valleys with streaks and splashes of vivid color.
"The view is fantastic," Hurley said. "It would be worth the 30-minute hike for that alone."
"It is a nice scenic drive from Roanoke and a relatively short hike," Olson said. "The replica of a historic fire tower is something fun for the kids to be able to climb on. There are outstanding scenic views when you are there. It is absolutely perfect for a fall-type activity."