Hawk Watching Tips and Facts About Raptor Migration

Learn how to spot and identify hawks during fall raptor migration.

Cooper's hawkCourtesy Charlene Denise Maples
Juvenile Cooper’s hawk

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.

Facts About 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.

Learn how to identify Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks.

Hawk Watching Tips

Hawk Watching During Raptor MigrationJohann Schumacher Design
Sharp-shinned hawk

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. Don’t miss these 6 must-visit hawk migration hotspots.

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.

Here’s how to tell the difference between bald eagles and golden eagles.

David Mizejewski
David Mizejewski is a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation.