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.)

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