Every fall thousands and thousands of raptors in North America migrate south for the winter as their food supplies begin to wane. Here are some basic facts about raptors and where to find them as we enter into the northern hemisphere’s autumn.
Also known as birds of prey, raptors include many different species. Some more commonly known raptors are: eagles, ospreys, kites, hawks, vultures, falcons, and owls.
Not all raptors migrate. It depends on how cold the winters get, if there is enough available prey. We are fortunate in Northern California to see many raptor species in all seasons.
Other parts of the country, however, have consistently cold winter weather and, consequently, raptor migration every autumn.
Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.
With their sturdy wings and broad wing-spans, they utilize upward air currents, i.e. thermals, to assist with their long flights. The migrating populations concentrate along mountain ridge lines, coast lines, and other topographical features to take advantage of the updrafts.
See the map below for raptor migration pathways in North America.
There are numerous predictable spots for hawkwatching in North America, where anyone can observe migrating raptors, especially hawks.
Two popular U.S. hawkwatch stations I have visited are Cape May, NJ on the east coast; and Hawk Hill outside San Francisco on the west coast. Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania is the most famous hawkwatch station in the U.S.
Because migrating hawks fly high over land masses, the birds are usually far away from us ground-dwellers. Raptor migration birding, therefore, engages in a different kind of bird-observing technique. There are no bird sounds or calls, and no close-up views for bird identification. Instead, birders systematically scan the sky with binoculars or scopes; and identify the species by silhouette, profile, size, plumage, and flight behavior.
Many times I have stood beside hawkwatchers with my own high-powered binoculars looking at what they look at, as they call out their sightings. Usually, to the bare eye, the hawk is the size of a rice grain.
Data is recorded and posted daily. The information gleaned from it is paramount in raptor conservation.
Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.
If you are interested in finding a Hawkwatch venue in North America, hawkcount.org provides links to approximately one hundred sites.
For folks who just enjoy seeing a powerful bird soaring overhead, now is a good time of year to keep your eyes open and your neck craned.
Written by Jet Eliot
Photos by Athena Alexander, all North American raptors
PS – For my friends–you’ll be happy to know Athena and I are moving home tomorrow, after 11.5 months displacement following the October 2017 Wine Country fires. This is our ninth and final move in the post-fire event. Our own migration.