In certain places where land meets water or where mountain ridges create geographic funnels, migrating raptors gather in huge numbers every autumn. Many birds of prey look for thermals, which are rising columns of air that form when the sun heats the earth, to help them soar as high as 3,000 feet. “Riding the thermals helps raptors conserve energy as they head south for the winter,” says Step Wilson, Hawkwatch program manager at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in San Francisco. (Read more: Raptors: Amazing Birds of Prey)
Bird-watchers and scientists observe raptor migration in the U.S. from late August to mid-December, with species numbers and types changing as the season progresses. At hot spots across the country, researchers safely capture and band hawks, and volunteers perform daylong counts as the birds fly over. Here are a few places to witness high-flying migrants. (Read more: Hawk Watching During Raptor Migration)
How to Be a Hawk-Watcher
Follow these tips when you set off to find soaring birds.
- When To Go: A sunny day with some clouds and northwest winds about 15-20 mph is best for raptor watching. Hawks typically fly from about 10 a.m. to late afternoon.
- What To Bring: Pack layers of clothing, water, binoculars and snacks. Don’t forget to wear sturdy hiking boots.
- What To Expect: Be prepared for an uphill climb at some observatories. Hawk-watching requires a little patience, but expect the unexpected.
- photo credit: Johann Schumacher Design
1. Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
An annual hawk watch occurs daily at this 2,600-acre scenic preserve from Aug. 15 to Dec. 15. Check out North Lookout, only a mile from the visitor center, where an average of 18,000 hawks, eagles and falcons are counted each season.
Highlights include large numbers of broad-winged hawks in September. Plus, spotters have seen more than 1,000 sharp-shinned hawks in a single day in October and more than 1,000 red-tailed hawks a day in late October and early November.
More info here: http://www.hawkmountain.org/
photo caption: Early October is your best opportunity to see Cooper’s Hawks at North Lookout.
- photo credit: Joseph Kennedy
2. Smith Point Hawk Watch, Texas
At some hawk watches, raptors are too high for beginners to identify, but at Smith Point Hawk Watch, visitors take spectacular photos and get close looks as birds fly over a tower set up for counting.
Raptors congregate when they reach Galveston Bay and must decide whether to cross it or choose another route. Some 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, such as broad-winged hawks, Mississippi kites and sharp-shinned hawks, pass through each season, along with black and turkey vultures.
About an hour from Smith Point, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and HawkWatch International conduct a watch at the Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas, where up to 19 hawk species show up at different times during the season.
photo caption: A tower at Smith Point Hawk Watch brings visitors closer to the action.
- photo credit: Anthony Mercieca
3. Corpus Christi HawkWatch, Texas
More than 1 million migratory raptors were counted in a single season along the Nueces River by Corpus Christi HawkWatch. Researchers and visitors see broad-winged hawks and sharp-shinned hawks as well as Mississippi kites, turkey vultures and some rare finds, including zone-tailed hawks and swallow-tailed kites. It’s one of the best places in the U.S. to view the largest concentration of migrating raptors each fall.
Visit early August through November and join researchers at the covered platform on a bluff at Hazel Bazemore County Park.
More info here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/134197465934/
Photo caption: Large numbers of Mississippi kites soar through Texas on their way to their wintering grounds in central South America.
4. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Minnesota
Hawk Ridge attracts visitors from more than 40 countries to witness raptor migration. Owned by the city of Duluth and managed by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the site features a main overlook on Skyline Parkway at the western tip of Lake Superior.
Most raptors avoid large bodies of water, so when they reach Lake Superior, they congregate along the lakeshore and outlying bluffs. Researchers count an average of 76,000 birds of prey each season and band about 3,000 of them annually.
Twenty species, including owls, are spotted here during autumn. Sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks come through in September. Red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and bald eagles, sometimes hundreds in one day, are present into December. Visitors might see barred, long-eared and other owls in small numbers. The best time to visit is Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. Naturalists are also on hand to answer questions and present live bird demonstrations. (Read more: 7 Cool Facts About Bald Eagles)
More info here: https://www.hawkridge.org/
photo credit: Bald eagles soar through Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.
- photo credit: Bob Kothenbeutel
5. Cape May Bird Observatory, New Jersey
Cape May, a peninsula bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, serves as a natural funnel for migrating raptors. An average of 17 species are counted here from September through November. After a cold front passes, spotters may see large flights of sharp-shinned hawks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Other stars here include red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, osprey and northern harriers.
Scientists have counted birds here for 40 years. Researchers and visitors congregate at the hawk watch platform near the parking lot at Cape May Point State Park from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 to observe the spectacle. A festival sponsored by New Jersey Audubon takes place in late October.
photo caption: Northern harriers are seen regularly at Cape May Bird Observatory.
- photo credit: George Eade
6. Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, California
Researchers have been spotting hawks at various vantage points here from mid-August until mid-December for 33 years. Some birds come quite close, and 800 or more sharp-shinned hawks might fly by in one day. Specialties include large numbers of turkey vultures and different morphs of red-tailed hawks, all the way from typical pale birds to dark morph individuals that look almost black.
The best and most accessible place for viewing is Hawk Hill, along Conzelman Road in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From September through November, visitors can view up to 19 species of raptors while enjoying views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.
More info here: http://www.ggro.org/index.html
photo caption: A red-tailed hawk takes off at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory.
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