Raptors in Autumn

Barred Owl, Texas

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.

Osprey in Mangroves

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.


Snail Kite


Although raptor migration lasts roughly between August and November, late September is the prime time for watching these grand birds.


Bald Eagle, California. This raptor almost went extinct.

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.

Merlin, Sacramento NWR, California

American Kestrel, California

Turkey vulture pair on fence, drying wings; Calif. coast


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.

Red-tailed Hawk in rain, California


Cooper’s Hawk, California


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.


Osprey, Florida


Red-tailed hawk with chick, California


California Condor, Calif. — another raptor we almost lost to extinction


Great Horned Owlet, California


Raptors are important birds for providing our planet with a healthy ecosystem.


Raptor Conservation Wikipedia


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.


Hawk Mountain Raptor Migration Path Map

North American Raptor Migration Pathways. Courtesy hawkmountain.org


94 thoughts on “Raptors in Autumn

  1. I love this narrative today. This summer I was camping on the California Central Coast near San Simeon. We saw several turkey vultures just a few feet from us. It was an amazing sight and also to see them take off in flight.

    • I enjoyed hearing about your turkey vulture experience, Sharon. I love when they are that close because you can see how magnificently large they are, and then to witness take-off too is a great treat. So glad you enjoyed the narrative today, many thanks.

  2. The map is fascinating Jet. I can barely fathom how birds, no matter their size can make such distant locations in their migration. We drove from Saskatchewan to Alberta yesterday and we saw thousands of geese on their migrating journey. It seems they were having a smorgasbord in the now harvested grain fields before heading on. An astounding thing to see.

    • How very delightful for you to have owls nearby, Anneli. There is a mnemonic that we birders use for identifying the call of a great horned owl. If you hear hoots that sound, cadence-wise, like the following words, you have a great horned owl in your midst. One owl hoots what sounds like “Who’s awake?” And the other answers, “Me too.” Enjoy! And many thanks. 🙂

  3. As always…I so love the photos and the information you provide, Jet! I love watching raptors soar high above…their majestic wing spans as they glide on the air currents!! Thanks for sharing! Hope all is well with you both and the house situation is???

    • Thanks so much, Kirt, glad you enjoyed the raptor post today. The house situation is that tomorrow we move back home — yay. We have moved eight times in the past 11.5 months since the fire, and tomorrow’s move will be our, ahh, final move. It is a charred and desolate vista and there is an enormous amount of work to be done, but we have running water and electricity now and a new roof over our heads, so we move onward to a new phase. Many thanks–

  4. Very pleased to here you’re getting home at last. From your first list on this post the vultures are the only raptors we don’t have in the UK. I have seen a Golden Eagle or two over the years in Scotland but the Red Kite is the success story of Wales where we live. There are so many of them now it is fantastic- we regularly see and hear them hovering above our and our neighbours’ gardens and they are wonderful to watch. I love all Athena’s photos, in particular the one of the hawk in the rain and the condor. Wonderful – thanks Jet 😊

    • Hi Alastair, I really enjoyed hearing about the success of the Red Kite in Wales. I looked it up on Wikipedia and saw that in the 1930s the red kite population in Wales was down to two pair. yikes. And now it has recovered so much that the govt is bringing 100 birds from Wales to Ireland, where they have gone extinct, in an effort to repopulate Ireland. They are such an elegant bird, thanks for the info and the great news.

  5. Thanks for the great post! Informative with rhose beautiful shots. Easy to be transfixed by any raptor and I love to see them in a wilder areas, especially. But I often walk in a large wooded city park, keeping an eye out for creatures. I have seen an owl being harassed by a growing group of crows (“a murder of crows”, perhaps appropriate!), quite a spectacle. But what was surprising in the past year is that what I suspected might be ospreys from their calls…I am such an amateur–as I couldn’t clearly see them without binoculars. Turned out to be a couple of Coopers hawk according to the park employee. I enjoy hearing them and did catch them flying, finally!

  6. So glad to hear that you are returning home at last – bet you two are so relieved to have this sad saga behind you.
    Great post, per usual. I’ve been seen a lot of birds passing overhead on the few good days we’ve had (opposite of CA, it seems to pour rain every other day lately). Turkey vultures, red-tails and merlins, mostly. I read a Cornell post that estimates overall 4.5 BILLION birds migrate south in fall, but only 3.5 billion return in spring. That’s about a 25% loss, every year. If we humans saw losses like this, there’d be an uproar. Sadly, BAU carries on.

  7. I’m so glad you’re finally getting to settle into your home. May you be there as long as you want, with no more untimely interruptions!

    As for the migrating raptors, the event is a big deal on the Texas coast, particularly around Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi. We’re in a migration path, and it’s not uncommon to witness great flocks of birds kettling up into the sky. In my area, the Smith Point Hawk Watch is the place to be. Today’s total: 3,925 birds!

    Our winter residents are just beginning to show up. In the past three days, osprey calls have been echoing; I saw one group of about a dozen circling in over Galveston Bay. I’ve not yet seen any kestrels, but hawk numbers are up.

    Thanks for reminding me that it really is time to get out and do some watching. We’ve had weeks of rain, but the weather finally is settling, and we’re in line for a real front in about a week or so. Then, our huge flocks of hummingbirds will head off across the Gulf, and the raptors will move in. It’s exciting to see.

    • Oh how I loved hearing about the present Gulf Shore migration activities, Linda. You live in one of the most prolific birding migration areas of the country, so fortunate for you. And that video is astounding! I gasped. Thanks so much, and have fun, you lucky duck. 🙂

  8. Delighted to read that you and Athena are returning home after a tough year house-hopping and rebuilding. Can’t have been easy and I know there’s a lot still to do, but you’ll be under your own (new) roof.
    Great post once again, and it was fun learning about the wide variety of raptors out there, and some of the success stories in your text and in the comments where raptor populations are recovering.
    We hope you both have a wonderful weekend!

    • Dear pc, thanks so much for your comment and visit, I always enjoy what you have to say. Glad you enjoyed hearing about the raptor migration, and I hope you get to see some in your weekend outdoor activities. In fact, I remember you saw a bald eagle on last week’s post. Thanks, too, for both you and Mrs. PC’s warm wishes for our homecoming. We’re glad this moving phase is finally over, as you know. Cheers and thanks–

    • You’re exactly right about the snail kite’s bill, Dina. They have adapted in particular to the apple snail, and it is glorious to watch the kite feast. And yes, it is an astonishing adaption. Many thanks.

    • It’s really fun and fascinating too, and you’re right, Sherry, after you hang out with the hawkwatchers for a day or so, you get good at the distance spotting. Really glad to hear of your experiences at the hawk watches.

    • Ah, I am happy to know you have visited Hawk Mountain, Michael Stephen. I hope to go there some day, maybe when it’s not a big people scene, though. I’m sure there are great views (I’ve seen photos) and the sightings must be very exciting.

  9. Wonderful post, Jet, right down my alley 🙂 Great information and pictures. The Condor is unique to you in California, great to see number 90 in flight! So happy that species was saved by human efforts.

    • Oh yes, you know raptors well, Helen, with all your friends at the salt marsh. I thought of all your spectacular osprey experiences and photos when I wrote this post. We are lucky in this country to still have so many raptors, and I, too, am happy the condors didn’t die out on us.

  10. What truly amazing photographs, Jet!! WOW!! A friend of mine is right now hunting for those migrating raptors and has asked me to come along. I’m saying …. no. Time for me to relax with landscapes. I’ll let him do the capturing. LOL Again, THANK YOU for sharing this incredible post!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

  11. 11.5 months is a long time. So many were stricken by the disasters of last year. I love raptors, even the “buzzards” as we call them out west. Beautiful on the wing. I’ve been hearing the twittering of screech owls some mornings before the sun rises. At least I assume that’s what it was. Never can find the tiny buggers in the dark.

    • Great to hear you love the raptors, Craig. They are, as you say, beautiful on the wing. Screech owls are a little tricky to spot because yes, they’re hard to find in the dark, and also because they have many sounds. Nice to have that twittering, nonetheless. And yes, 11.5 months is a long time, we are weary; but home at last. Many thanks.

  12. I was enjoying this post with the great information and absolutely fabulous photos, especially the shots of the owls and american kestrel, and then I read the best part about your return home. Nine moves over 11 months is quite the migration and I was so glad to read that you and Athena have made it safely back home and I’m sure you’re celebrating your return and that all of your backyard visitors are thrilled to have you back. Thanks for sharing the wonderful news and raptors and I haven’t had a chance to get there yet, but the Detroit River is on the path of raptor migration and last week they estimated 13,000 raptors were seen over a few days.

    • Thanks so much for your warm and happy message, ACI. Glad you liked the raptor post, the owls and kestrel. And I’m really glad you have know about the raptor migration in your area. I hope you get a chance to spend a few hours down at the Detroit River — 13,000 raptors is quite a spectacle! Thank you for your kind homecoming message. It is good to be home and yes, our backyard visitors are indeed thrilled, human neighbors have been welcoming too. 🙂

    • Yes, we are so very lucky to have the bald eagles back after their near-extinction. Lots of people and organizations to thank for that. Thanks for your visit and comment, Dave, much appreciated.

  13. What a great shot of the Kestrel! I always seem to get those cute little ones backlit. Great job, Athena! Three cheers and a hearty YAY to your return home! It’s been a very long time coming, I bet.

    • Glad you like the kestrel shot, Gunta. We were birding in Bodega Bay when she captured it. And thanks so much for the three cheers and yay homecoming. I am an avid cook, but being gone from our kitchen so long, and having been in so many other kitchens since then, I forgot how to turn on my oven! It’s all coming back, though, and it’s great to be home. Great thanks.

    • My thanks for your kind message here, Eddie. And yes, I am happy to be home after this long time away. The quotes you post have been grounding and comforting during this upheaval, thank you my friend.

    • …and the migrations are happening in spite of the burned out forest, I am happy to report. Here in northern California there is a songbird called the Junco that comes down from the Pacific NW to join the other resident juncos for the winter. Both sub-species are all here now, enjoying the feeders. Many thanks, dear Nan, or I should say, Danke.

      • Juncos were one of Grandma Hertha’s favorite birds. Ours, too, here in the Midwest. I love watching them hop around on the snow. Very industrious. Little Germans, maybe!

    • Ah, David, that is an excellent point. Fierce they are, those raptors, good to be a full-size human. Thanks, too, for the happy words of homecoming. It is great to be back. Always a delight, my friend — thank you. You brought a smile to my face. 🙂

  14. How wonderful to see a condor. I’m interested in the way they tag them so visibly – I realise why of course, but it’s an original solution to tracking a huge rare bird in a simple way, when leg bands wouldn’t really work. Best of luck with the migration to a safer habitat, Jet. RH

    • The condor tagging was interesting to me, too, RH. These tags correspond to a website that tells the life history of each individual condor–when and where they were born, their parents, etc. For three years we went to condor areas with no luck in finding them, then finally we spotted two over us on a highway on a cliffside at the Pacific Ocean. Quite an amazing story, the California condor revival. Always, I thank you for your great visit.

      • Oh they are the cutest 🙂 Our family owns a rescued kestrel for years. He lives in the back yard, but doesn’t mind staying inside in winter. He just sits on his favorite basket handle looking important 🙂 Outside, he lives in an enclosure, but only for his own safety because a neighbor’s cat is harassing him. Sometimes a wild kestrel comes over for a chat, but there has never been a fight.

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