Look up! It’s happening right now, right over your head. It’s the autumnal migration of raptors—hawks in particular. And it is one of nature’s most impressive animal migrations.
When I was a child, I asked my mom to take me to Hawk Mountain. It was a two-hour drive from where we lived in northern New Jersey to Kempton, Pennsylvania, but she was determined to help fuel my passion for nature and off we went. It was a sunny early November day when we arrived at the North Lookout. Just as we got there a Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) flew by us at eye level. The sun lit its seven foot wingspan as if it was on fire. I’ve been hooked on hawks ever since. Every year I watch for them as they pass through our area.
Hawks, falcons, ospreys and vultures can be seen migrating here from the end of August through mid-December, although the greatest diversity of species can be seen now through the end of the month. The birds take advantage of warm, spiraling air currents called thermals, which allow them to rise thousands of feet. They “hop scotch” south, gliding from one thermal to the next. There are two migration paths or flyways these raptors tend to follow in Connecticut. They catch updrafts and thermals along the Northwest Hills and use thermals to follow the coastline. Some Ospreys (Pandion haliaetus) and Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus) bypass the land routes south and fly across the Atlantic instead. These birds are heading to the northern South American coast.
Weather can really influence raptor flight on any given day. The best conditions occur on certain kinds of days, such as after a cold front passes through, and on days with northwesterly winds. On a windy day they fly from dawn to dusk.
Although in good conditions you might see hawks overhead anywhere, there are some great viewing hotspots in Connecticut. One of the best is Lighthouse Point Park in New Haven. Quaker Ridge Hawk Watch at Greenwich Audubon is another great site. Other places to watch are included here.
Many of North America’s fall raptor migratory routes converge at Veracruz, Mexico. There a small section of coastal plain is constricted between the mountains of the Sierra Madre and the Gulf of Mexico. At two raptor watching sites counts can top 100,000 birds in one day! It is the greatest raptor flyway in the world.
There are various tricks to identifying hawks, falcons, ospreys, and vultures in flight. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology’s All About Birds is a great site for identification. To test your knowledge, you can try a quiz.
Now’s the time to see this amazing wildlife spectacle. The next time a cold front passes through or winds blow from the northwest, grab your binoculars and look up.