In certain places where land meets water or where mountain ridges create geographic funnels, migrating raptors gather in huge numbers every autumn. Many birds of prey look for thermals, which are rising columns of air that form when the sun heats the earth, to help them soar as high as 3,000 feet. “Riding the thermals helps raptors conserve energy as they head south for the winter,” says Step Wilson, Hawkwatch program manager at the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory in San Francisco. Bird-watchers and scientists observe hawk migration in the U.S. from late August to mid-December, with species numbers and types changing as the season progresses. At hot spots across the country, researchers safely capture and band hawks, and volunteers perform daylong counts as the birds fly over. Here are a few places to witness high-flying migrants.
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An annual hawk watch occurs daily at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a 2,600-acre scenic preserve, from Aug. 15 to Dec. 15. Check out North Lookout, only a mile from the visitor center, where an average of 18,000 hawks, eagles and falcons are counted each season.
Highlights include large numbers of broad-winged hawks in September. Plus, spotters have seen more than 1,000 sharp-shinned hawks in a single day in October and more than 1,000 red-tailed hawks a day in late October and early November.
Hawk Mountain was the first refuge for birds of prey in the world. It was protected in 1934 in order to stop the hunting of birds of prey for sport and opened to the public the following year so that people could observe these amazing birds. This site is now one of the most popular hawk watch location in the eastern U.S.
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2. Smith Point Hawk Watch, Texas
At some hawk watches, raptors are too high for beginners to identify, but at Smith Point Hawk Watch, visitors take spectacular photos and get close looks as birds fly over a tower set up for counting.
Raptors congregate when they reach Galveston Bay and must decide whether to cross it or choose another route. Some 50,000 to 100,000 individuals, such as broad-winged hawks, Mississippi kites and sharp-shinned hawks, pass through each season, along with black and turkey vultures.
About an hour from Smith Point, the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and HawkWatch International conduct a watch at the Candy Abshier Wildlife Management Area in Port Arthur, Texas, where up to 19 hawk species show up at different times during the season.
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3. Corpus Christi HawkWatch, Texas
More than 1 million migratory raptors were counted in a single season along the Nueces River by Corpus Christi HawkWatch. Researchers and visitors see broad-winged hawks and sharp-shinned hawks as well as Mississippi kites, turkey vultures and some rare finds, including zone-tailed hawks and swallow-tailed kites. It’s one of the best places in the U.S. to view the largest concentration of migrating raptors each fall.
Visit early August through November and join researchers at the covered platform on a bluff at Hazel Bazemore County Park.
4. Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Minnesota
Hawk Ridge attracts visitors from more than 40 countries to witness raptor migration. Owned by the city of Duluth and managed by the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, the site features a main overlook on Skyline Parkway at the western tip of Lake Superior.
Most raptors avoid large bodies of water, so when they reach Lake Superior, they congregate along the lakeshore and outlying bluffs. As the birds of prey come around the lake, they fly right past Hawk Ridge, making this an ideal location for a hawk watch. Like many of the hawk watches in the eastern US, this site gets an incredible number of broad-winged hawks! Researchers count an average of 76,000 birds of prey each season and band about 3,000 of them annually.
Twenty species, including owls, are spotted here during autumn. Sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks come through in September. Red-tailed hawks, rough-legged hawks and bald eagles, sometimes hundreds in one day, are present into December. Visitors might see barred, long-eared and other owls in small numbers. The best time to visit is Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. Naturalists are also on hand to answer questions and present live bird demonstrations.
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5. Cape May Bird Observatory, New Jersey
Cape May, a peninsula bordered by Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, serves as a natural funnel for migrating raptors. An average of 17 species are counted here from September through November. After a cold front passes, spotters may see large flights of sharp-shinned hawks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds to thousands. Other stars here include red-tailed hawks, peregrine falcons, osprey and northern harriers.
Scientists have counted birds here for 40 years. Researchers and visitors congregate at the hawk migration watch platform near the parking lot at Cape May Point State Park from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 to observe the spectacle. A festival sponsored by New Jersey Audubon takes place in late October.
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6. Golden Gate Raptor Observatory, California
Researchers have been spotting hawk migration at various vantage points here from mid-August until mid-December for 33 years. Some birds come quite close, and 800 or more sharp-shinned hawks might fly by in one day. Specialties include large numbers of turkey vultures and different morphs of red-tailed hawks, all the way from typical pale birds to dark morph individuals that look almost black.
The best and most accessible place for viewing is Hawk Hill, along Conzelman Road in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. From September through November, visitors can view up to 19 species of raptors while enjoying views of the Pacific Ocean, Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands.
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7. Florida Keys, Florida
This hawk migration hotspot is a little different than the others in this list. Most birds of prey avoid going over large bodies of water, but a few species such as peregrine falcon and osprey don’t seem to mind. In 2012, this location set the world record for the total number of peregrine falcons (3,836) during a single migration season. Learn more on the hawk watch’s official blog.
8. Detroit River, Michigan
The Detroit River Hawk Watch is located on the west end of Lake Erie and thousands of broad-winged hawks pass over this spot. Be sure to visit during the middle of September to have the best chance to see a huge movement of birds of prey. Learn more on the Detroit River Hawk Watch website.
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