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From the August 2013 Conservationist

A rough-legged hawk takes off from the tip of a branch

Flight of the Raptors

By Barbara Allen Loucks

The sky was brilliant cobalt, full of cumulus clouds. It was unusually warm, one of those late September days that makes you nostalgic about the passing of summer. We were walking up a steep, sandy trail to the top of a bluff overlooking the ocean, when someone ahead shouted, "Peregrine!" I ran up the hill as fast as I could with a backpack on, and reached the top in time to see the dark form flying quickly and steadily towards us, over the beach, almost at eye level. Before we had a chance to catch our breath, the bird passed in front of us, and then moved swiftly, determinedly down the beach. In a minute it was out of sight. It was my first peregrine-an endangered species.

A red-tailed hawk sitting in a tree
Red-tailed hawk (Photo: Gordon Ellmers)

Although this took place many years ago on a college birding trip to Block Island, scenes like this one occur regularly in New York during the often spectacular autumn hawk flights. At some locations, thousands of hawks stream past, heading south on their way to wintering grounds in Central and South America. Other places are excellent for spring viewing as the birds return to their breeding grounds in the boreal forests and tundra to the north.

On the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) website, you can find descriptions and count data for hundreds of hawk watch locations and events across the country, including 25 in New York. Visitors at these watches are often rewarded with sightings of a variety of hawk species that are normally scattered across our landscape and some of which spend much of their time hidden in the forest. Sometimes there are great numbers of hawks, and visitors have the potential to spot more birds of prey in one visit than many people see in their lifetime. In addition, certain sites have special educational events for school groups and the public.

A large group of bird watchers with binoculars and cameras
In addtion to viewing, hawk watches
offer excellent photographic opportunities
(Photo: Delaware Otsego Audubon Society)

The best places to spot hawks are along mountain ridges, shorelines and peninsulas, where these raptors tend to concentrate. Crosswinds deflected over mountain ranges provide lift for the hawks, reducing the amount of energy required for flight and aiding them in their journey. In other areas, bubbles or columns of rising warm air called thermals form and help provide lift to soaring birds that glide from one thermal to the next. Some hawks are reluctant to fly over large bodies of water and so concentrate along shorelines or peninsulas.

Weather conditions-wind direction and speed, amount of cloud cover, air temperature, barometric pressure and visibility-will affect hawk flights. In the fall, "tail winds" from the northwest generally mean large numbers of migrants heading south. In spring, strong southerly winds generally create the best conditions for good flights. Sometimes the presence of a low pressure area, followed by a cold front, leads to big fall flights at mountain lookouts; while a low preceded by a warm front can lead to good spring flights.

Going to a hawk watch is a great way to see raptors up close, at times even at eye level or just overhead. Seasoned watchers and official counters are happy to help rookies sort out species. Experienced observers will amaze you with their ability to identify mere specks in the sky. They can show you how to identify birds by looking at silhouettes, markings, proportions, the way the wings are held, style of flight, behavior, and whether a bird is migrating singly or in a group. It won't be long before you become the expert.

A Cooper's hawk perched on a tree branch
Cooper's hawk (Gordon Ellmers)

By checking hawk watch records, you can maximize your chances of seeing certain species. For example, in fall, the species that migrate the farthest will move through first. That means you'll likely spot broad-wings before redtails or golden eagles. In the spring, it's the shorter-distance migrants that move through first. Other factors, like food supply, may also affect the timing of migration. Immatures of most species often migrate earlier in the fall than the adults, and some may migrate along different routes.

Despite the seasonal patterns, there is always an element of unpredictability that adds to the excitement. You never know what is coming next from over a ridge, or what may emerge from a cloud. Occasionally, hawk watchers are rewarded with sightings of rare visitors to New York, including Swainson's hawks common in the western United States, swallow-tailed kites from the deep south, and even gyrfalcons of the high arctic.

A rough-legged hawk in flight seen from below
rough-legged hawk (dark form) (Photo:
Gordon Ellmers)

If you want to go raptor watching this fall, you might want to check out Franklin Mountain near Oneonta. It is one of the few places in New York where you can reliably spot a golden eagle (an endangered species in NY and a rare bird in the eastern U.S.). Observers have reported seeing as many as 200 in a season; the eleven-year average is 179. Other good spots for autumn viewing include: Hook Mountain, overlooking the Hudson River in southeastern NY; and the Long Island beaches at Fire Island, Jones Beach and Democrat Point. Falcons in particular like to migrate along the coasts.

In the spring, from March through May, numerous watchers head to Derby Hill on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario and Braddock Bay on the lake's southern shore to observe thousands of raptors migrating through on their northern treks. For some species, such as bald eagles from Florida, movements continue well into June and early July. At Derby Hill, up to 16,000 broad-winged hawks have been observed in a single day! Broad-wings often form large soaring groups called "kettles," made up of hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of individual hawks. At Braddock Bay, recorders have documented more than 100,000 hawks in a season; 42,235 hawks were seen in a single day in late April 2011-the highest ever at the hawk watch and a HMANA single-day spring record for the U.S. and Canada!

A group of bird watchers in the field
Experienced watchers are happy to
help rookies identify raptor species.
(Photo: Jim Clayton)

When you participate in a hawk watch, you join people around the world contributing to scientific knowledge on raptor population trends and migration routes. Official counters record information that is fed into long-term databases. Organizations like HMANA compile and compare results from the U.S., Canada and Mexico to help monitor populations and identify trends. They share summaries online and in publications, and encourage raptor research and appreciation. Many hawk-watch coordinators send email forecast alerts to help people plan their visit, and to solicit volunteer counters.

But the best reason to go hawk watching is to enjoy time outside and to get a good look at some pretty incredible birds. Sometimes you will see hawks interacting with each other, playfully or aggressively. Watchers also get to see a myriad of other migrating birds, as well as Monarch butterflies. You'll be amazed at what you can see!

So dress in layers, bring a pair of binoculars, a bird guidebook, and prepare to watch in wonder as birds of prey flap, glide and soar their way to other states and countries on their seasonal pilgrimage.

Barbara Allen Loucks recently retired as DEC's raptor specialist.