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Watching Migration Hawks

Each fall, hundreds of thousands of hawks eagles, ospreys and falcons withdraw from their breeding grounds across North America and move to their wintering grounds, some as far away as southern South America.


Some species, such as this Cooper’s Hawk, remain in North America and stake out backyard bird feeders in hopes of making a meal out of an unwary bird. This individual has captured a Mourning Dove.

Cooper’s Hawk with Mourning Dove
Figure 1 - Cooper’s Hawk with Mourning Dove


Migration Routes
Figure 2 - Migration Routes

Migrating hawks follow well defined routes as they move to their southern homes. Most hawks are soaring birds that depend on updrafts to help them travel. They do not like to cross large bodies of water where there are no updrafts. Instead, they will follow a land routes and shorelines to navigate around large bodies of water. For this reason, certain geographical locations become concentration spots where hawks gather prior to crossing a narrow stretch of water. Such locations are excellent places to observe migrating hawks.


In North America, there are many excellent places to observe concentrations of migrating hawks. One place is Holiday Beach, Ontario, on the northwestern corner of Lake Erie. Here, migrating hawks, eagles and songbirds that have followed the north shore of Lake Erie looking for a narrow place to cross the lake concentrate prior to crossing the Detroit River and moving south.


Holiday Beach, southern Ontario
Figure 3 - Holiday Beach, southern Ontario

View from the tower at Holiday Beach
Figure 4 - View from the tower at Holiday Beach

An observation tower erected at Holiday Beach is used each fall to observe and count the numbers of raptors and other birds that pass this location on their southward journey. Tens of thousands of migrating hawks and songbirds may pass this point in a single day.


Another world famous place to observe fall migrants is Cape May, New Jersey. Here again, thousands of migrating hawks and millions of songbirds concentrate while they wait for the right weather conditions to cross Delaware Bay.

 Cape May, New Jersey
Figure 5 - Cape May, New Jersey


 Cape May, New Jersey
Figure 6 - Cape May, New Jersey


Thousands of bird watchers also visit Cape May and other sites across America to observe this annual migration spectacle.

Raptor counts are tallied each day at Cape may and at many other locations across North America during the migration season to keep track of population trends.

Fall Hawk Count
Figure 7 - Fall Hawk Count


Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
Figure 8 - Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania


One of the more scenic places to watch migrating raptors is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary just north of Reading in east central Pennsylvania.

Even on slow migration days, this place is worth the visit just to enjoy the fall scenery across Pennsylvania. Here, on the mountain ridge, one can observe migrating raptors as they take advantage of the updrafts created when northerly winds hit the northern facing slopes. On clear days, distant features such as the Pocono Mountains and the Delaware Water Gap can be seen.


Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania
Figure 9 - Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, Pennsylvania

Turkey Vulture at Hawk Mountain
Figure 10 - Turkey Vulture at Hawk Mountain

Hawks, eagles, ospreys, vultures and falcons can be observed eyeball to eyeball as they pass along the mountain ridges. These ridges stretch more than 300 miles along the Appalachian Mountain chain. The Native Americans in this region named one of these ridges Kittatinny, their word for "the greatest mountain."


Looking across the mountain ranges, some idea of the distances are indicated by the steam plume from a power plant more than 40 miles away.

Looking North from Hawk Mountain
Figure 11 - Looking North from Hawk Mountain


Migration Timing
Figure 12 - Migration Timing

Data accumulated over years of hawk watching reveal that different species of raptors migrate according to different schedules. The movement of Broad-winged Hawks, for example, peaks in September. Red-tailed Hawks, on the other hand, reach their peak migration in November.


Hawk watching during the migration season is just one of the many enjoyable ways to study the lives of these fascinating creatures. To learn more about hawk watching activities in your area, contact you local Audubon Society, or write to the Hawk Migration Society of North America, 377 Loomis St., Southwick, MA 01077.

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