Hawk Heaven

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.

Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) are in a group of hawks called accipiters. Their short, rounded wings and long tails are adaptations for darting through forests and catching birds, their primary prey. Cooper’s hawks can be told from similar Sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus) by having a larger head and a longer, round-tipped tail. Photo by Dominic Sherony / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0).

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.

Ospreys can be told from other hawks in flight by having “crooked” wings and dark “wrists.” The majority of ospreys fly through our area earlier in the migration, mostly during September. Photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region / Public domain.

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.

Red-shouldered hawks (Buteo linneatus) are in a group of hawks called buteos. Their wide, rounded wings and fan-shaped tails are great adaptations for soaring. Red-shouldered hawks can be told in flight from larger Red-tailed Hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) by their quicker, choppier wing beats and translucent, white, crescent-shaped patches on the primary feathers, seen here on the left wing of this bird. Photo by Andy Morffew from Itchen Abbas, Hampshire, UK / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0).

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.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

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