The Thrill of Hawk Watching

Each Fall, 21 species of raptors fly southward across North America, as food supplies diminish in synch with the oncoming winter season. These hawks, eagles, falcons, vultures, and kites migrate along well-established flyways in great numbers – diversified in relation to the populations of each species at the northern end of each flyway.

Scientists, technicians, and volunteers have been monitoring raptor migrations for decades, first with paper and pencil, and now often by sophisticated electronic means. Every year, new flyways are identified, volunteer training is improved, and observation dates are tweaked, in order to maximize the accuracy of the annual raptor count.

Golden Eagle

The Hazel Basemore Hawk Watch, 17 miles west of Corpus Christi, TX, records an additional 7 species that are not seen at other North American Hawk Watches. The HBHW, coordinated by Hawkwatch International, also records the highest number of migrating raptors, often exceeding 1 million birds per year – primarily Broad-winged Hawks.

In the Fall of 2007, WIN Chairman, Dan Casey, identified a new flyway in the Columbia Mountain Range bordering the Flathead Valley to the East. Selecting a reasonably accessible observation point on a ridge at 7,000’, Casey established the Jewel Basin Hawk Watch in 2008. A key benefit of this Hawk Watch site is that the raptors often make very close passes at eye-level. During the following decade, enthusiastic technicians and volunteers have spent ten weeks each Fall recording an average of 3000 passing raptors, representing 17 species.

left: Red-tailed Hawk, right: Prairie Falcon

WIN members Dan Casey, Craig Hohenberger, Barbara Summer, Lisa Bate, BJ Worth, and Joshua Covill serve as technicians throughout each migration. The season starts in late August with temperatures in the ’70’s and ends when the snow is too deep to safely reach the observation site. The early season birds include more than 1000 Accipiters, primarily Sharp-shinned Hawks. Later in the season, Golden Eagles are the most common migrants gracing the sky.

For the first seven years, the American Bird Conservancy supported the Jewel Basin monitoring efforts, until Flathead Audubon took up the cause in 2015. The annual migration data is submitted to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, where it is compiled with the data from dozens of other hawk watches.

Thoughts from WIN founder BJ Worth:

Raptors have been migrating north and south along established North American flyways long before humans populated the Americas 16,000 years ago. Migration timing, routes, and destinations have evolved over time, species by species – affected by climate, terrain, bodies of water, and the availability of prey and nesting sites.

Are migrating birds of prey coming or going? This perspective tends to be in the eyes (and mind) of the observer, and is largely dependent on the location of the observer. For those living in northern climes, raptors “go south for the winter.” For those living in southerly regions, raptors “go north for the summer.” From the birds’ perspective, they are simply following a perpetual cycle of migration movements that maximize sustainability for their species’ population.

As man’s knowledge expanded during the past century via science, education, and communication, human persecution of raptors has been reduced. Consequently, raptor migration hotspots have morphed from being collection sites to counting sites. There are more than 100 hawk watch sites spanning North America, with new ones being identified and manned each year.

Data on the number and date of each migrating raptor species from these sites is recorded and submitted to the Hawk Migration Association of North America and/or Hawkwatch International. When compiled, the collective data indicates population trends in each raptor species over time across continental regions.

What is so interesting about watching hawks? Each hawk watch site has its own special attractions. In eastern and southern North America, the sheer numbers of migrating hawks is mesmerizing, with tens of thousands of birds passing by certain sites each day during migration. In the West, the numbers are not as large, but the species diversity is much greater, and the viewing distance between observers and raptors can be stunningly close.

It is hard to put into words the thrill of hearing a Peregrine Falcon screaming a warning as it approaches a hawk watch decoy – flying at 100+ miles per hour, then flaring and slowly passing 10 feet away. It is breath-taking to see a huge Golden Eagle fly a few meters overhead, and look right through your eyes. The optics of a 10-thousand bird kettle of Broad-winged Hawks circling and moving south en masse is truly a sight to behold.

Learning to identify passing raptors is as fun as it is challenging. For birds passing high overhead, laterally distant, or ones that are backlit, their identification relies largely on silhouette recognition and species flying style. When birds pass closer and provide a good view, the species’ gender, age, and color morph can usually be determined – with practice.

While it may not be a sport per se, hawk watching certainly becomes a passion for many observers. Even hardened biologists are often seen reveling in delight while spending the day at a hawk watch site. Often, members of the viewing public become birding enthusiasts due to their experiences at hawk watches. Some enthusiasts even advance to become citizen scientists while serving as hawk watch technicians.

Has your interest in hawk watching been piqued? Hope so. As a die-hard hawk watch technician for years, I can’t wait for the next season to start. Anyone with a sense of adventure and an appreciation for the majestic nature of birds of prey is highly encouraged to visit a hawk watch site during migration. The experience will elicit great memories for years, although the activity may become a bit addictive.

~ bj


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