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 just need to look, to do a little research, and visit a hawkwatch site near you.
If you’re new to hawkwatching 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.
Find A Hawkwatch Site Near You To Look For Hawks During Migration
- 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 count during both migrations.
- Go to HawkCount.org and select a site near you from the national or state map. HawkCount contains basic information about most hawkwatch sites, including contacts for more information.
Weather & Hawk Migration
- Weather is always a major factor affecting what you see at any hawkwatch 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 cold day, so dress in layers!
- In spring a good flight day is likely to be one with winds with a southerly component.
- A few hawkwatches do better on easterly or westerly winds, so check to find out if the site you will visit is one of those!
- Each hawkwatch has a particular set of weather conditions that produces the best flights at that site.
- The species you will see are affected also 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 strong winds but prefer a good tailwind to speed them along.
What should I take to a hawkwatch?
When visiting a hawkwatch, be prepared! Take:
- Binoculars and a spotting scope if you have one
- Chair or cushion – While you can park near where you will watch hawks at many areas, some require a hike so carrying a chair is difficult. Check the website or the HawkCount site profile of the site you will be visiting to see what will work best.
- 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 hawkwatchers 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 required or which trail is recommended. (This can be particularly important in the west.)
- Some sites have their lookout on 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.
- Brimmed hat
- Rain jacket, gloves, extra layer for warmth
What else to consider. Research and Plan Accordingly Before You Go.
- Some hawkwatches are at state parks or other areas that charge an entrance fee.
- A few sites are gated and open and close at set times in the morning and evening.
- Some watch sites have limited parking.
- Some are just off major highways and some are very rural, with detailed driving directions essential.
- Many hawkwatches have portable restrooms or restrooms nearby. Others do not.
- Always dress in layers, taking more layers than you think you will need. Sitting atop an exposed area in wind will feel much colder than you’d expect.
- Cell phone service can be spotty at some hawkwatches.
Optics: Equipment to Help You See Hawks Better
- Bring binoculars. If need be borrow binoculars so everyone in your group has a pair. (A few sites have “loaners” for visitors.)
- Binoculars enhance your views of hawks, which can be fairly distant, and sometimes only “pepper specks” in the sky.
- On good days, hawks fly close, affording views you’ll remember for a lifetime.
- Viewing quality varies considerably from site to site, day to day, and by the quality of your optical equipment.
- Binoculars that are best for hawkwatching are sized 8×35, 8×40, 10×40 and 10×50.
- Cheaper binoculars generally do not offer as sharp and clear a magnified image as more expensive binoculars, but moderately priced binoculars can provide excellent views.
- Don’t buy binoculars just to go hawkwatching for the first time. Borrow them if you can.
- Most hawkwatchers are happy to let you look through their binoculars, so you can learn what kind you’d like to buy and how much they cost.
What Can I See At A Hawkwatch Site? When Should I Go?
- Different hawk species migrate at different 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 biggest numbers of hawks? The best variety? A specific species? Check HawkCount.org for the site you will visit.
- Most sites have a Migration Timing tab on their HawkCount.org 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.org for details)
- Migration Timing gives you a good view of what you can hope to see when, 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 U.S., you should go looking for them in September. If you wait until October, you’ll likely miss them.
- At HawkCount.org 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 hawkwatch depends on which hawkwatch 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 different species on any given day.
- At most hawkwatch sites when you are seeing few raptors 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. That happens on those slow migration days, and it’s an important part of what makes looking for migrating hawks so special.
What Time Of Day Should I Go Hawkwatching ?
- What you see depends on where and when you go hawkwatching, including the week of the migration season), the weather and the time of day.
- Typically most birds are seen between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. 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.
Learn to Identify Hawks
It takes a while to learn hawk identification. Even experienced hawkwatchers are always trying to improve their identification skills. It is helpful to learn hawk ID with experienced hawkwatchers in the field. There are a number of other aids available to help you.
HMANA’s Hawk ID Materials page, 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 a number of excellent commercial field guides to hawks available. Among the best are the following, any of which you should find very helpful. 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.
- Field Guide to Hawks of North America by William S. Clark and Brian K. Wheeler, Houghton Mifflin, Second Edition (2001)
- Hawks from Every Angle: How to Identify Raptors in Flight by Jerry Liguori, Princeton University Press (2005)
- Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, Houghton Mifflin (2012)
- A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors by Brian K. Wheeler and William S. Clark, Academic Press (1995)
- The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors by Richard Crossely, Jerry Liguori, and Brian Sullivan, Princeton University Press (2013)
What is HawkCount?
- HMANA maintains the HawkCount.org website. Roughly 200 active hawkwatch sites report their daily counts online to HawkCount, so hawkwatchers 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.
- Some sites are operated by small numbers of hawkwatchers, others by bird or nature clubs, so the level of organization and coverage varies.
How To Use HawkCount
HawkCount.org has a wealth of information to help you plan your trip to a hawkwatch.
- 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 hawkwatches are located there.
- You can click on a red pin or select from the list of hawkwatches below the map. Either choice takes you to the hawkwatch’s 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 site.
- 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 scientific analysis of individual species.
- The Migration Timing tab shows you
- The raptor species seen at the site
- The average, maximum and minimum season counts 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.
o Choose your parameters. Below the resulting table, in the top line of the Abbreviation Key, you see two links:
o The Previous [Month] Comparison will show totals for all hawk species seen in prior years for your selected month.
o 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.
What Do The Raptor Abbreviations On HawkCount Mean?
BV – Black Vulture
TV – Turkey Vulture
OS – Osprey
BE – Bald Eagle
NH – Northern Harrier
SS – Sharp-shinned Hawk
CH – Cooper’s Hawk
NG – Northern Goshawk
BH – Common Black Hawk (Southwestern)
RS – Red-shouldered Hawk
BW – Broad-winged Hawk
SW – Swainson’s Hawk (primarily Western)
FH – Ferruginous Hawk (Western)
WT – White-tailed Hawk (TX)
HH – Harris’s Hawk (Southwestern)
ZT – Zone-tailed Hawk (Southwestern)
RT – Red-tailed Hawk
RL – Rough-legged Hawk
GE – Golden Eagle
AK – American Kestrel
ML – Merlin
PG – Peregrine Falcon
PR – Prairie Falcon (Western)
CC – Crested Caracara (TX, AZ & FL)
MK – Mississippi Kite
SK – Swallow-tailed Kite (Southeastern, TX)
WK – White-tailed Kite (FL, LA, TX, AZ, CA, OR)
What Can I Do?
- Volunteer to help at a watch site. Learn to help as a volunteer spotter or counter, or 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.
The majority of HMANA’s reporting sites are in the eastern North America, so we are constantly looking to develop new sites in Canada, the American Midwest, South and West.
- In 2017, exploration in Montana discovered one of the best sites in the world for Golden Eagle migration! If you are interested in exploring for and establishing a new watch site, go to www.hmana.org/faqs
- Search for and establish new watch sites.
There are MANY ways you can make a difference to raptor conservation.
How Can I Help Support Raptors?
- Please help us continue this important work by visiting a hawkwatch and learning why raptors are so important to the health of our planet.
- 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 always advancing our knowledge of these special birds.
- HMANA consists of a number of 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, but 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 sites 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, but recording numbers of migrating and reporting them into a large international database lets us document migration and helps determine population trends. While data from one site is of limited use, data from across the continent over years is one of the best means of determining 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.
Learn More About Migration
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 actually 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 are migrating south already in July or as late as January. Spring migration is smaller 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 fledged that year, so more birds are migrating then 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 largest hawk flights in the U.S. and southern Canada. In most other areas, however, spring hawkwatches 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, while 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 open ocean
Broad-winged and Red-tailed Hawks generally avoid flying long distances over water because they rely primarily on 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 large numbers of 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 U.P and lower Michigan to avoid the Great Lakes, or swing east around Lakes Erie and Ontario, so very large 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, and often push up against the coasts as they search for prey and migration routes, and avoid flying over water. Mature sharpshins tends to migrate a little later than the young of the year, and they have a much better idea of where they are migrating to, so their routes are typically shorter and more direct. Thus you might well see more sharpies (largely juveniles) at Cape May along the southern Jersey shore, and largely 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 open ocean in the middle of hurricane season, a risky proposition. Their more conservative elders tend to fly along or over the East Coast land mass where they are able to sit down for the night, feed easily, and wait out storms, crossing water only when necessary in the Caribbean.
Overall, each species tends to have its own 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 U.S., 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 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 different prey. Juveniles are usually driven to “settle” for winter territories or ranges not “defended” by an adult.
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 hawkwatchers and to read counts and reports from elsewhere.
One final note on migration: Hawkwatchers like to see and talk about the really big days. The large flights they’ll never forget. At most sites “really large 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 hawkwatchers 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.
The Raptor Population Index Project
HMANA is a partner of The Raptor Population Index (RPI) project, along with three other leading hawkwatch and migration research organizations: Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (HMS), HawkWatch International (HWI) and Bird Studies Canada (BSC).
Accurate information about raptor population status and its change is fundamental for bird conservation. RPI partners contribute to effective conservation of migratory raptors with ongoing continent-wide monitoring of raptor migration. Every other year RPI produces scientifically sound assessments of 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 in the near future.
What Does The Hawk Migration Association Of North America (HMANA) Do?
- HMANA supports raptor conservation first by providing a database of all birds of prey reported at North American hawkwatches 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 hawkwatches.
- 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 for them based on nesting surveys. Gathering data during their migrations is the best way to monitor their numbers and populations.