You can see dozens, hundreds, and some days thousands of hawks migrating past you right near where you live if you follow these few simple guidelines.
Migration is an incredible spectacle going on around you every spring and fall. You need to look, do a little research, and visit a hawk watch site near you.
If you’re new to hawk watching or have never gone to a watch site before, watching migrating hawks can be exhilarating and maybe seem a little daunting. Use these guidelines to help you decide where and when to go to see migrating hawks, what to take with you, and what to expect for your trip.
Hawk migration occurs primarily from March through May and September through mid-November. Some sites are fall only, some are spring only, and a few counts during both migrations.
Go to HawkCount and select a site near you from the national or state map. HawkCount contains basic information about most hawk watch sites, including contacts for more details.
Weather is always a significant factor affecting what you see at any hawk watch site.
In the fall, typically, a good flight day is the day of and day after a cold front passes, bringing with it winds with a northerly component. This can also be a hard day, so dress in layers!
In spring, a good flight day is likely to be one with winds with a southerly component.
A few hawk watches do better on easterly or westerly winds, so check to find out if the site you visit is one of those!
Each hawk watch has a particular set of weather conditions that produce the best flights at that site.
The species you will see are also affected by the speed (strength) of the wind.
Broad-winged Hawks prefer light tailwinds to help them travel 200-300+ miles in a single day. Winds over 15-20 mph can be too strong for them, and they will not move in large numbers then.
Peregrine Falcons use powered flight and will often fly INTO adverse winds.
Eagles seem unfazed by solid winds but prefer an excellent tailwind to speed them along.
When visiting a hawk watch, be prepared! Take:
Many sites, such as Rockfish Gap in Virginia or Lighthouse Point in Connecticut, have lots of open space with great views next to or in parking lots, so hawk watchers often bring lawn chairs to observe comfortably.
Hawk Mountain or Waggoner’s Gap in Pennsylvania are ridge sites that require hikes of varying length, so check to see what kind of hike might be necessary or which trail is recommended. (This can be particularly important in the west.)
Some sites have their lookout for exposed rock piles, where lawn chairs are not feasible. Bring a blanket or cushion to provide some comfort if you want to sit part of the time.
What else to consider. Research and Plan Accordingly Before You Go.
Optics: Equipment to Help You See Hawks Better.
Different hawk species migrate at various times during the fall (and spring!) Some species fly early in the season, some late and in cold weather. Do you want to see the most significant numbers of hawks? The best variety? A specific species? Check HawkCount for the site you will visit.
Most sites have a Migration Timing tab on their HawkCount Site Profile that takes you to a bar graph showing the weeks and months when each species is most commonly seen. (See How to Use HawkCount for details)
Migration Timing gives you a good view of what you can hope to see whenever you visit the site. For example, if you want to see Broad-winged Hawks, which can migrate together in dozens, hundreds, or even thousands at a time in one day, you’ll see that in most of Canada and the US, you should go looking for them in September. If you wait until October, you’ll likely miss them.
At HawkCount, you can also check the previous seasons to see what weeks are likely to be best for your goals.
The number of species seen at a hawk watch depends on which hawk watch you go to. A typical season’s count for many sites is about 16 different species, though these are spread out over the entire season. It’s not uncommon to see 6-7 other species on any given day.
When you see few raptors at most hawk watch sites, you’ll meet and get to know other people with an interest in and a love of raptors, and you’ll make new friends, some for a lifetime. You can learn from them and help them learn. What happens on those slow migration days? And it’s an integral part of what makes looking for migrating hawks so special.
What you see depends on where and when you go hawk watching, including the week of the migration season), the weather, and the time of day.
Typically most birds are seen between 9 am and 3 pm standard time. This is the period of peak thermal activity inland, which provides “free lift” and speed to migrating hawks.
Coastal land traps such as Lighthouse Point CT and Cape May, NJ are more likely to see numbers of hawks moving very early and even late in the day. ,
You might see good numbers of hawks at any time of day, but you are more likely to see the best numbers later in the morning and early in the afternoon.
Birds are usually lower and closer early, and late in the day, so great views can compensate for seeing fewer hawks then.
It takes a while to learn hawk identification. Even experienced hawk watchers are always trying to improve their identification skills. It is helpful to know hawk ID with professional hawk watchers in the field. There are several other aids available to help you.
HMANA’s Raptor Identification Resources is where you can find a free HMANA silhouette guide, a free guide to Eastern Raptor Migrants, and an Eastern Hawk ID program. There are also several excellent commercial field guides to hawks available. Among the best are the following, any of which you should find accommodating. It might help to see them and how they vary before buying one or to read reviews to find the book best for you to begin with.
HMANA maintains the HawkCount website. Roughly 200 active hawk watch sites report their daily counts online to HawkCount, so hawk watchers can see what is going on around North America that day or season. You can view daily, monthly and annual summaries of all migrants reported.
Each hawk site is independent, though many are also members of HMANA.
Small numbers of hawk watchers operate some sites, others by bird or nature clubs, so the level of organization and coverage varies.
HawkCount has a wealth of information to help you plan your trip to a hawk watch.
Clicking on either Find a Hawkwatch or Get Started takes you to a map of North America. Here, you may Select a Hawkwatch by Name or click the map on the state, province, or country you choose.
Clicking on the map brings up that state, province, or country and shows where hawk watches are located.
You can click on a red pin or select from the list of hawk watches below the map. Either choice takes you to the hawk watches Site Profile.
From the Site Profile, you can access four tabs: General, Data Inventory, Migration Timing, and RPI Analysis.
The General tab lists basic information about the site, including site contacts, its count season dates, history, topography, and directions to the location.
The Data Inventory tab indicates the years the site has submitted data to HawkCount.
The RPI Analysis tab is only at sites with enough data to be included in the scientific analysis of individual species.
The Migration Timing tab shows you.
The raptor species were seen at the site.
The average, maximum, and minimum season count for each species.
The three largest daily counts (and dates of) for each species.
A graph showing you the average weekly relative abundance of each species at the site during their migration season(s).
Another area where you can find detailed information at a site profile is to click on the Latest Count Data link above the row of tabs. Then click on Data Summaries on the left menu bar. Here, you can see hawk count summaries for that site by year, month and day.
Choose your parameters. Below the resulting table, in the top line of the Abbreviation Key, you see two links:
The Previous [Month] Comparison will show totals for all hawk species seen in prior years for your selected month.
The Previous Season Comparison shows the season totals by species for all years of count data. This is one of the most valuable overview tables provided on HawkCount, along with the migration timing page.
Volunteer to help at a watch site. Learn to help as a volunteer spotter or counter, help greet or educate visitors, or develop publicity for the site.
Donate to HMANA to further raptor research and conservation.
Volunteer to help HMANA.
Search for and establish new watch sites.
Most HMANA’s reporting sites are in eastern North America, so we are constantly looking to develop new locations in Canada, the American Midwest, the South, and the West.
In 2017, Montana discovered one of the best sites in the world for Golden Eagle migration! If you are interested in exploring and establishing a new watch site, go to Raptor Resources + FAQ.
There are many ways you can make a difference to raptor conservation.
Please help us continue this vital work by visiting a hawk watch and learning why raptors are crucial to our planet’s health.
Consider supporting us financially to maintain servers and help fund our research and education programs.
We’d also love to have you join our organization and become a part of our researchers and citizen scientists who are continually advancing our knowledge of these unique birds.
HMANA consists of several individuals and organizations— amateurs, wildlife professionals, and scientific researchers from around North America – with a passion for hawks who work for raptor conservation in many different ways.
Our roughly 200 contributing watch sites are independently run by volunteers, many of whom are HMANA members and donors, who have organized and maintain the watches and submit their counts to HawkCount.
Some sites hire professional counters to cover each season. Still, all the sites need volunteers to help organize and maintain the watch site, help with the count or scheduling observers, maintain the site’s web presence, or welcome and educate visitors.
Some areas maintain exciting public education programs and hold migration festivals, all of which depend on enthusiastic volunteers.
People watch hawks because it is fun and exciting. Still, recording numbers of migrating and reporting them into an extensive international database lets us document migration and help determine population trends. While data from one site is of limited use, data from across the continent over the years is one of the best means of assessing the health of raptor populations. Conducting counts and supporting HMANA are ways anyone who loves raptors can help make a difference in their future.
HMANA also provides scientifically-reasoned opinions on issues of importance to raptors to government at all levels. We also allow scientists and research organizations to use our data to develop policies affecting raptor populations, such as the siting of wind turbines or changing species on “endangered” or “threatened” lists.
Hawk migration is an incredibly complex phenomenon. Unlike many songbirds, most hawks migrate exclusively during daylight hours, offering people one of the best opportunities to see them migrating. Quoting liberally from James J. Brett in his excellent The Mountain and the Migration (1991), “Generally, bird migration takes place on a broad front like that of a weather system, rather than along distinct corridors. But en route, migrants may encounter topographic features in the form of coasts or mountain ridges that concentrate and direct the birds; biologists call these barriers leading lines. Some species, including some raptors, readily fly across large lakes or bays, even open ocean. But for the most part, birds of prey tend to migrate over land, where mountain ridges serve as important leading lines. The air currents associated with mountain ridges allow migrating hawks to conserve energy during flight, and hawks will follow these ridges as long as they point in the general direction of migration.”
Not all hawks migrate. Some primarily southern species do not. Many species are partial migrants, with northern populations migrating relatively short distances within North America and southern populations remaining sedentary. Some migratory species now live year-round in many cities.
While most fall migrations occur in September and October, a few raptors migrate south already in July or as late as January. Spring migration is more minor because of the perils of the long migrations and wintering deaths, especially for birds hatched the previous summer. Spring migration primarily in April and May but can begin in January and end in June.
The fall migration includes the young hawks that fled that year, so more birds are migrating than in the spring. Some spring sites along the south shores of the Great Lakes have exceptional flights where you can see some of the most significant hawk flights in the US and southern Canada. However, in most other areas, spring hawk watches are notably fewer than in the fall, and spring flights are far smaller.
Some species leave their northern breeding grounds and make long migrations into Central and South America. These include the Broad-winged Hawk, one of our most abundant raptors; the Osprey, one of our most iconic raptors; and the Rough-legged Hawk.
Other species have even more complex strategies, such as the Peregrine Falcon, some of which migrate thousands of miles to southern South America. In contrast, others Peregrines migrate much shorter distances or do not migrate at all. Some Peregrines and several other species, such as Osprey, might migrate long distances over the open ocean.
Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks generally avoid flying long distances over water because they rely primarily on a thermal lift to help reduce their energy expenditure. (Thermals are created by columns of warm air rising from the heated earth when the surrounding air mass is cooler. These thermals allow birds to soar high with little effort). So in fall, large numbers of buteos concentrate along the west side of Lake Superior or use the Ontario “isthmus” to avoid flying over the Great Lakes, where the water inhibits the development of good thermals. As a result, large numbers of hawks are seen at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Hawk Cliff and Holiday Beach, Ontario, and Detroit Lakes Hawkwatch each fall.
In eastern North America, hawks converge along the Appalachian mountain ridges that run northeast-southwest, so many hawks are seen at many ridge sites such as Hawk Mountain and Waggoner’s Gap.
In the spring, northbound buteos and others such as Turkey Vulture fly up the UPUP and lower Michigan to avoid the Great Lakes or swing east around Lakes Erie and Ontario, so vast numbers are seen at Braddock Bay and Derby Hill, New York, on the southern shore of Lake Ontario. Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks also tend to avoid long flights over water, but they and the smaller falcons are often seen in large numbers along the northern shores of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast in the fall and the southern shores of the eastern Great Lakes in spring.
Reflecting the complexity of migration, each gender or age class in a species usually migrates at a slightly different time than other classes of the same species. In Sharp-shinned Hawks, juveniles tend to migrate first, often push up against the coasts as they search for prey and migration routes, and avoid flying over water. Mature sharp shins tend to migrate a little later than the young of the year, and they have a much better idea of where they are relocating to, so their routes are typically shorter and more direct. Thus you might well see more sharpies (predominantly juveniles) at Cape May along the southern Jersey shore and primarily adult birds in the smaller sharpie flight at Hawk Mountain, inland on a mountain ridge.
In the east, juvenile Ospreys tend to make long southbound flights over the open ocean in the middle of hurricane season, a risky proposition. Their more conservative elders tend to fly along or over the East Coast landmass where they can sit down for the night, feed readily, and wait out storms, crossing water only when necessary in the Caribbean.
Overall, each species tends to have its calendar of migration and “flight paths,” determined by “leading lines” that enable or inhibit soaring migration. Thus almost all Broad-winged Hawks of all ages and gender vacate Canada and the United States during September. If you are looking for Rough-legged Hawks, they migrate south primarily in October-December, and winter primarily in the southern Canadian provinces and the northern US, and are much less abundant than the Broad-winged or Red-tailed Hawk. Because of the elevations and colder temperatures involved, raptors in western North America tend to migrate a bit earlier than in the east.
Migration is always a challenge, whether to survive hurricanes, poor weather, snow, cold, and lack of prey. Adult birds will migrate to the same wintering area where they wintered the year before. Many juvenile hawks migrate on their own and need to find a wintering area, or they wander over large territories, looking for adequate prey, compatriots, better weather, etc. Because Larger adult females and smaller adult males often elect to winter in slightly different habitats and focus on other prey. Juveniles are usually driven to “settle” for winter territories or ranges not “defended” by adults.
Spring migration is generally quicker as adult birds are pressed to return to their breeding grounds, build a nest, and find their previous or a new mate. Many juveniles do not breed in their second calendar year, so they tend to migrate back a bit later than the adults and might not return to their natal area.
Anyone interested in migration is always learning something new, so it is exciting to talk with other hawk watchers and read counts and reports from elsewhere.
One final note on migration: Hawkwatchers like to see and talk about the massive days. The large flights they’ll never forget. At most sites, “extensive flights” might occur only several times each year. You’ll never forget the first day you see 100 hawks, 1,000, 10,000, or even 100,000. Each is possible at multiple locations in North America.
While we count hoping to see and report as many hawks as possible, large numbers are not essential to a great day. In April 2017, 20 hawk watchers at Plum Island, Mass. had “only” 72 hawks, somewhat less than the hundreds they had been hoping for, but those 72 were so close for so long and seen so well the day was unforgettable.
HMANA is a partner of The Raptor Population Index (RPI) project, along with three other leading hawk watch and migration research organizations: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS), HawkWatch International (HWI), and Bird Studies Canada (BSC).
Accurate information about the raptor population status and its change is fundamental for bird conservation. RPI partners contribute to the adequate protection of migratory raptors with ongoing continent-wide monitoring of raptor migration. Every other year RPI produces scientifically sound assessments of the population’s status.
Professional researchers and citizen scientists have published many research papers and articles on hawk population trends using HMANA data from HawkCount and RPI population assessments.
The groundbreaking State of North America’s Birds of Prey, written by HMANA and RPI researchers, was published in 2008 and set the baseline for population assessments based on migration counts. In 2011, RPI began publishing a new biennial population trend analysis available free on its website. The analysis based on data through 2016 should be posted soon.
HMANA supports raptor conservation by providing a database of all birds of prey reported at North American hawk watches as they migrate in fall and spring.
HMANA analyzes these raptor counts to determine population trends. Migration counts are a proven science-based way of examining continent-wide raptor populations.
Raptors often breed in remote northern areas and winter in Central and South America, so migration counts are the best way to monitor their populations.
HMANA promotes public education and enjoyment of these magnificent birds at all our hawk watches.
HMANA is committed to raptor conservation, the primary reason for our existence.
Because many raptors nest in remote areas, it is difficult for scientists to track raptor population trends based on nesting surveys. Gathering data during their migrations is the best way to monitor their numbers and populations.
© Jerry Ligouri
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