Classic For the Birds: Fall is for hawk watches

Photo by Chris Bosak An Osprey soars over the Norwalk River on Monday, Sept. 1, 2014.
Photo by Chris Bosak
An Osprey soars over the Norwalk River on Monday, Sept. 1, 2014.

Here is a For the Birds column from circa 2003 …

Birdwatchers are used to looking up. Most of the birds we see are flitting among the trees, perched on branches, flying overhead, or otherwise above eye level. (Ducks and other water birds are an obvious exception.)

Now is the time many birdwatchers really look up, as in look to the sky. High, high in the sky where, literally, the eagles soar. But it’s not only eagles birdwatchers look for in the fall. It’s vultures, osprey, falcons and about a dozen types of hawks that pass through New England on their way south for the winter.

It’s hawk watch time — the time when birders flock to mountains, coastal areas and other open places that afford sweeping views of the sky. The hawk migration actually started in early September and will continue into November.

The peak season depends on your perspective. Broad-winged hawks pass through en masse in mid-September when birders can see groups (kettles) of more than a hundred at a time pass overhead. Kestrels, osprey and some bald eagles also tend to get an early start. 

As the season progresses into October, the variety of birds that may be seen on any given day increases. Red-tailed hawks, northern harriers and sharp-shinned hawks are the common October migrants. Red-shouldered hawks, northern goshawks and golden eagles tend to be late migrants.

Of course, a certain number of raptors stay with us here in New England throughout the winter, but the vast majority of these magnificent birds of prey continue to points south. Some bald eagles, for instance, will remain in New England along waterways that do not freeze. Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks, from the family known as accipiters, are also seen frequently in the winter, often raiding people’s backyard birdfeeders.

Pick the right day and hawk watches are truly exhilarating. To see hundreds, even thousands, of hawks flying overhead is an amazing spectacle. Forget about photographing the display, however, as the birds often appear as tiny dots in the sky. 

Pick the wrong day and hawk watches, while perhaps not exhilarating, are still a lot of fun. Unlike most types of birdwatching, hawk watches are done by arriving at a destination and standing still — no walking necessary. What makes it fun is that you’re rarely alone. Most popular hawk watch sites are visited on a daily basis by many other birdwatchers. An expert or two is usually on hand, too, to do the hard part of identifying the miles-away birds.

So what is the right day? Perhaps more than any other type of birdwatching, hawk watches are predictable by keeping a careful eye on the weather conditions. Days following a cold front with a north or northwest wind are ideal. Hawks perform their annual long-distance migration by soaring and allowing the winds to push them south. Imagine a bird trying to make it all the way to South America with a stiff wind in its face. Avoid the days with a southernly wind.

If you’re a fan of our large birds, the fall hawk watch season is the best time of year for you.

A complete list of hawk watch sites in the region may be found at http://www.hmana.org, the official site of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Be warned, this site has so much information about hawk watches and hawk migration that you could easy spend hours on the site. It has hawk watch locations, up-to-date count totals, historical data and information on each of the species one might see on a hawk watch.

More great sites are http://www.battaly.com (NorthEast Hawk Watch) and http://www.hawkmountain.org. The latter is the site for a popular spot in Pennsylvania, but the running daily species totals and general information about hawks and hawk migration make the Web site invaluable. If you still crave more, simply do a Google search for “hawk watch New England” and you can keep yourself entertained for weeks.

I would suggest doing the Internet research at night. Use the days to leave the virtual world behind and go see the hawks in the real world.

Note: The 21st Annual Fall Festival and Hawk Watch at the Audubon Center in Greenwich will be held from 12:30 to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15. For more information, visit: https://greenwich.audubon.org/fall-festival-and-hawk-watch

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