Fall migration is one of the best times of year for birding. Local birds leave town, and those from northern areas pass through. Migrating geese and songbirds that won’t be spotted in the backyard again until spring come to mind, but there’s another group of birds that also engage in these cross-continental seasonal journeys: raptors. Many species of hawks, eagles, falcons and owls migrate, which makes autumn ideal for getting outside to try hawk watching.
Characteristics of Raptor Migration
Raptors migrate for food sources, just like your favorite songbirds. In the fall they head south, where more food is available; in the spring they head back north to their breeding grounds. You don’t have to live in a certain area to see these raptors, either. They’re everywhere!
Broad-winged raptors like hawks and eagles use warm air currents rising from the ground, called thermals, and updrafts off ridges to aid in migration. Both thermals and updrafts allow the birds to soar on the wind and minimize flapping, which conserves energy. Often these raptors engage in a behavior called kettling: slowly riding thermals high into the sky, swirling in a circular pattern to stay within the column of rising air. Falcons have narrower wings that make them less able to take advantage of currents, so they flap more. Sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks and harriers use a combination of soaring and flapping.
Hawk Watching Tips
Head to the ridgeline or river nearest you to increase your chances of spotting migratory raptors. Don’t forget binoculars: You’ll need them to catch glimpses of raptors in the air.
Look for congregations of circling birds high in the sky. Thermals don’t start rising upward until midmorning, when the ground heats up, so don’t bother heading out before dawn. Pay attention to whether a bird is constantly flapping its wings or soaring to help you identify which species you’re seeing. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot some amazing migratory raptors on your hawk watching adventures.
6 AMAZING HAWK WATCHING HOT SPOTS
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Kempton, Pennsylvania
Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, Sausalito, California
Hazel Bazemore County Park, Corpus Christi, Texas
Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Duluth, Minnesota
Florida Keys Hawkwatch, Curry Hammock State Park, Marathon, Florida
Cape May Hawk Watch, Cape May Point, New Jersey
Photo: Steve Byland