Hawk Watch: Where to See Fall's Migrating Raptors

Cameron Walker
for National Geographic News
October 4, 2004
While autumn leaves tumble from trees this fall, another natural wonder is soaring overhead. Hawks across North and South America are taking to the air as part of their seasonal migration.

Some species will journey thousands of miles. For bird-watchers in the United States, a day trip can take them to an ideal spot to catch the raptors in flight.

"You get to see these wild birds, which are normally kind of secretive and build nests in places you couldn't find," said Laurie Goodrich, a senior monitoring biologist at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Kempton, Pennsylvania. Up to 20,000 raptors cruise by the nature preserve between September and December.

Hawk Hot Spots

At the sanctuary a rocky outcrop known as the North Lookout offers a 200-degree view of Kittatinny Ridge and valleys below, providing a perfect human perch to view incoming hawks. "You can watch birds come in from very far away," Goodrich said.

Shouldering the easternmost ridge of the central Appalachians, Hawk Mountain's rugged topography provides ideal wind conditions for migrating birds looking to rest their wings. "When there's a windy day, there are lots of updrafts that raptors like to use," the biologist said.

On the other side of the U.S., a spot called Hawk Hill—just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in the National Park Service's Marin Headlands—draws hordes of raptors. The birds make use of updrafts to coast during their fall migration.

"It saves their energy," said Allen Fish, executive director of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. "They want to hold on to their body weight to survive the winter," he noted.

Fish's organization provides charts to help bird-watchers predict the best viewing time for various raptor species, from the golden eagle to the merlin.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, the edges of the Great Lakes offer hawk-watching opportunities this fall.

Four years ago longtime bird-watcher Vic Berardi started a hawk-counting program at Illinois Beach State Park, along the shores of Lake Michigan. (Bird-watchers in Chicago can drive to the spot in just over an hour.)

Berardi is the treasurer of the Hawk Migration Association of North America, an organization that monitors raptor populations across North America through migration population counts.

The most intense raptor rapture, however, lies outside the United States. Veracruz, Mexico, draws four to eight million raptors in the end of September and beginning of October. "You're watching tens of thousands of hawks milling around in the sky," said Fish, of the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. "It hits you right in your gut, in your heart."

But many hawk hot spots across the U.S. offer birders a chance to view raptor migrations. "Anywhere on the continent, you're not too far away," said Goodrich, the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary biologist.

The Hawk Migration Association of North America provides a list of hawk-count sites around the country, with sites in 41 states.

Prime viewing spots include coastlines and mountain ranges, which provide the birds updrafts for easy soaring. (Hawks appear to avoid crossing large bodies of water, preferring, for example, to avoid the Great Lakes by flying through small passageways around the lakes.)

In the San Francisco Bay area, hawks may hew to the coast more out of an urge to conserve energy using the wind, rather than a fear of the open bay, Fish said.

Some hawks travel thousands of miles on their southward journey. The peregrine falcon can fly all the way from the Alaska tundra to the prairies of central Argentina.

Other hawks make shorter treks. Red-tailed hawks spotted near San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, for example, may have flown from British Columbia, Fish said. Or they could be local hawks moving within the area to search for a sport with better prey or fewer competitors.

"The trouble is that you can't look up at a red-tail and see its travel visa," Fish said.

How to Hawk-Count

Hooking up with an experienced hawk-watcher is often the best advice for fledgling birders who want to learn identify the raptors.

Berardi recalled his first hawk-counting experience a decade ago in Duluth, Minnesota, another hawk hot spot. The first day out, he saw about 50 birds. The hawk-counter next to him spotted 500. "The next day, I started watching him instead of the sky," Berardi said.

Many hawk-count sites offer lectures, how-to talks, and docents who answer raptor questions during the fall migration. Such sites also rely on volunteers to assist during seasonal hawk counts.

Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, for example, has been recording hawk numbers since 1934. It is one of the longest-running count programs in the world.

The data can be used to gauge everything from a species' well-being to learning about range and change within a population.

Hawk counts can also be used to conserve damaged species. In her classic environmental book Silent Spring, naturalist Rachel Carson used counts of bald eagles from Hawk Mountain to show the affect of DDT on eagle populations.

More recently, hawk counts have shown population changes in sharp-shinned hawks over the last few decades.

Today, Hawk Mountain is working with the Hawk Migration Association of North American and HawkWatch International, a Salt Lake City, Utah-based conservation group, to pool data from hawk watch sites across the continent.

"If we can pull together three or four sites from the same flyway, we'll have a better idea of what's happening with these species," Goodrich said.

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