Tag Archives: kestrel

Raptor Migration and Hawk Watching

When we think about spring and fall in the northeast, we often dwell on the extraordinary changes that occur to our trees and other plants. In the spring, we yearn for green to replace the barren gray and white of winter; in fall we marvel at the warm oranges, reds, and yellows that are on display as our trees prepare for winter. But there is an equally amazing change that is occurring at the same time, one we often fail to realize because we simply don’t look up: the mass migration of raptors. Whether it is the sheer majesty of a bald eagle, the raw power of a northern goshawk, the pure speed of the peregrine falcon, or the extinct-ness of the Velociraptor, raptors have captured the minds and imaginations of people and cultures for generations. Raptors, also called “birds of prey,” include eagles, falcons, hawks, vultures, ospreys, harriers, and owls.

Raptor-watching, normally referred to as “hawk watching,” is a great way to spend a spring or autumn afternoon and can be enjoyed in many of our State Parks. Hawk watching is a draw for both veteran and novice bird watchers alike. Raptors are highly visible during their migration as they soar through the skies, unlike songbirds who hide in dense shrubs and tree tops. If you go to popular hawk watching sites during migrations (www.hawkcount.org), you will often find other observers and official hawk counters. These fellow birding enthusiasts are always eager to help you identify the shapes and flight patterns of certain groups and species. With a bit of practice, you’ll be a veteran in no time!

Migration

Migration is no joke and (as you can imagine) can be exhausting. Some species, such as broad-winged hawks, travel over 4,500 miles in about 9 weeks. Why do these birds go through all this trouble, anyways? Your first guess might be that the birds are escaping the cold. However, if so, then why don’t they stay closer to the equator, where it is always warm? The suggestion that temperature triggers migration is a very common misconception and is often connected to human behavior. Many northerners head south for warmer climates to escape the winter chill. Those who spend their entire winters in the south are even given the name “snowbirds.” With bird migrations, they aren’t escaping the cold; they are often migrating due to the lack of food availability in the winter.

Picture this (shouldn’t be hard for us Northeasterners)… the sun starts setting lower in the sky, the days grow shorter, and the frigid air from the north starts blowing. Plants go through an amazing transition. Annual plants who have dropped their seeds have reached the end of their life, while perennial plants drop their leaves, transferring their energy into their roots and stems to outlast the winter. The world feels a bit barren with the browns and whites of winter. Those plants provide food for insects and many small mammals. When the plants retreat, these small animals follow suit with either long slumbers or feeding off their stockpile of nuts and seeds in their winter dens. Even our ponds and streams can’t provide a bounty, for water denizens are sealed under a thick layer of ice. If you were a raptor, would you stay around and risk not finding food, or would you soar south where food is still plentiful? That said… not all raptors leave. Driving along major highways, you’ll often see red-tailed hawks perched high above, waiting for a mouse or rabbit to make the mistake of exposing themselves. Food is still around, it is just harder to come by. Raptors who do fly south must compete with southern resident birds for food and roosting sites. This added competition is OK though, for the adult raptors only need to worry about feeding themselves. However, when the desire for mating and offspring arises, these southern retreats don’t provide enough food to feed hungry young bellies. So, adults return to their summer breeding grounds… right when their unsuspecting prey emerges from their long winter retreat.

Like humans, raptors concentrate along specific routes while traveling long distances. So, just like you would find more people driving cars on highways than backroads, you’ll find more raptors along flyways. Here in the Northeast, we are part of the Atlantic flyway. Raptor flyways are normally found over level terrain. Mountains, large lakes, and oceans create obstacles that raptors cannot easily cross. Mountains do have a very important role to play, besides being simple barriers. In North America our mountain ranges run north-south. When cross winds hit these ridge an updraft is created, which raptors then use to help them soar and stay aloft. These updrafts mean raptors need to flap their wings less, conserving an enormous amount of energy for their long trip.

flyways
Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Updrafts are extremely helpful… when the wind actually blows. So, what do raptors do in early fall, when the sun is still high in the sky and the winds relatively calm? Physics, my friend. Even if you aren’t an avid hawk watcher, you have probably noticed vultures or hawks flying in large circles with their wings wide and high in the sky. This trick is called soaring flight and it is raptors mastering flight on thermal air currents. Thermal air currents, or thermals, are created when air heated by the sun rises from the ground into the sky. Thermals are often formed along the slopes of hills, but can also form over flat ground. As this warm air rises it cools and condenses, forming puffy, beautiful clouds. If you have a sunny, warm day with puffy clouds, it is also probably a good day for thermals and a good day for raptors to soar overhead.

updraft-thermal
Image courtesy of Hawk Mountain

Thermals typically do not form over open water; water releases heat evenly and slowly. Without any type of thermal or updraft most raptors must resort to flapping their wings, which uses an extraordinary amount of energy. If raptors decide to migrate over large bodies of water and need to flap the entire way, they are taking a huge risk: if they run out of energy, they will most likely drown. So, when raptors come across a large body of water while migrating, they typically hug the shoreline until they find a short way to cross. These short crossings often form bottlenecks where thousands of raptors pass through every year. One of the largest bottlenecks in the world happens to be in Veracruz, Mexico, where tens to hundreds of thousands of raptors migrating from central and eastern North America pass through, trying to skirt between the Gulf of Mexico and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range.

Identification

The identification of raptors hundreds of feet in the air, where you can often only see a silhouette against a cloud, can seem… daunting. Luckily, with a bit a practice it might be easier than you feared. Hawk watchers often utilize an identification protocol called the SPASMATIC method:

Shape Relative sizes and proportions of wings, tail, and head
Pattern/plumage Contrasting patterns of dark and light
Actions How does the bird fly or what is it doing?
Size How big is the bird in comparison to other birds?
Multiple
Attributes
Use as many of the above characteristics as possible
Trust
In the
Concept
Believe in your ability to judge these characteristics

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Shape and size are often the key characteristics you need to focus on and can be used to identify or narrow down most raptors in flight in the Northeast. Raptors (excluding owls) are broken down into 7 main shape groups: accipiters, falcons, eagles, buteos, vultures, osprey, and harriers. Each group has distinctive characteristics to help you with your identification venture.

Hawk_silhouettes2
Hawk silhouettes, image from Learn.org

Accipiters (sharp-shinned hawk, cooper’s hawk, northern goshawk) typically chase and feed on songbirds in woodlands with closely spaced trees, so when in flight they have short, rounded wings and long narrow tails.

1024px-Sharp-shinned_Hawk_(Accipiter_striatus)
Sharp-shinned hawk, note the long tail and rounded wings. By Steve Berardi, accessed from Flicker

Buteos (red-tailed, broad-winged, red-shouldered, and rough-legged hawks) have broad-shaped wings for soaring and perching on high branches.

Red-tailed_hawk_(16381245001)
Red-tailed hawk, note the dark band of feathers across the belly. This can be seen in all birds, photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Falcons (American kestrel, merlin, peregrine falcon) often catch prey in mid-flight in open spaces and depend on speed to capture swift prey, so when in flight you can see that they have pointed wings.

An american kestrel ( perched on a wooden post.
American kestrel

Harriers have broad, strong wings held in the distinctive v-shape (or dihedral shape), which allows them to fly low and slow at ground level, typically around grasslands and marshes. Northern harriers are the only harriers found in our region.

Northern_harrier_(12344138524)
Northern harrier, photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

Vultures (turkey and black vultures) have long and broad wings, which aids in soaring over fields and woods while searching for carrion. Turkey vultures hold their wings in the v-shape, but black vultures lack the v-shape almost entirely.

iStock_000049109130_Medium
Turkey vulture, note the difference in feather color between the top and the bottom of the wings,

Osprey distinctively look like large gulls in both body and wing shape. Their wings help them hover over water where they dive feet first into the water to capture fish.

Osprey_in_flight_(11820598024)
Osprey in flight, note the distinctive coloration of the feather, photo by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Northeast Region

Eagles (bald eagle and golden eagle) have large wingspans to soar high in the air; this also aids them in capturing food in large open spaces on the ground or over water.

1024px-Golden_Eagle_1
Golden eagle in flight, note the large, long wings, photo by Juan Lacruz

Get out and Hawk watch!

New York has multiple premier Hawk watch locations, with many of them having designated hawk counters. HawkCount gives you the ability to find hawk  watch locations across North America, contacts of designated hawk counters or coordinators, and new and historical data that has been collected at these locations.

We hope you enjoy your next hawk watching adventure. Why not make your next hawk watching experience at a designated hawk watching site in a New York State Park? Here are a few to check out!

Happy birding!

To learn more about hawk watching and to find great resources, visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website.

Robert Moses State Park on Long Island

Out on the south shore of Long Island is a barrier beach called Fire Island, where the First Island Hawkwatch can be found at the east end of Robert Moses State Park. This all-volunteer watch provides coverage from September to November and has access to a hawk watch platform.

To get to the hawk watch platform, proceed south on Robert Moses Parkway and cross the bridge to Robert Moses State Park. From the water tower circle, proceed East to parking lot #5. Park here and walk east toward the lighthouse.

John Boyd Thacher State Park outside Albany

The Helderberg Escarpment Hawk Watch is found just outside Albany, NY at John Boyd Thacher State Park. At the overlook parking lot, hawk watchers can view thousands of broad-winged hawks and other migrating raptors during the park’s annual mid-September Hawkwatch Festival.

To get to overlook parking lot take I-90 to Exit 4 onto Rt 85 west. Follow Rt. 85 for about 11 miles and make a right onto Thacher Road (Rt. 157). “The Overlook” parking area is about 2 miles up the escarpment.

Braddock Bay Park outside Rochester

The great Braddock Bay area outside of Rochester, NY, is one of the top hawk watching sites in New York and is considered a migration “hot spot.” Millions of birds migrate through the area every spring as they head to breeding grounds farther north. In 1996 over 140,000 raptors were counted migrating through the area, and on April 27, 2011 they tallied 42,235 hawks: the biggest spring flight day recorded in the U.S. and Canada. The official hawk count is conducted only in the spring season between March and May. Viewers can use the hawk watch platform found in Braddock Bay Park, which is owned by State Parks and operated by the Town of Greece. The Braddock Bay Raptor Research (BBRR) has conducted the hawk watch since 1986.

To get to Braddock Bay take the Lake Ontario State Parkway until the East Manitou Road/Braddock Bay Park exit. Turn north onto East Manitou Road and turn left into Braddock Bay Park. When you come to a T in the road turn right and continue until you see the hawk watch platform on your left.

Betty and Wilbur Davis State Park

The site is adjacent to parking lot at the crest of the road through Betty & Wilbur Davis State Park. It has excellent views to the west over and across the Cherry Valley Creek Valley, and south and southeast. The view to the north is good. The hill obstructs the views northeast and due east.

Check out our 2016 blog post about Golden Eagle migration surveys by Delaware Otsego Audubon Society.

By Matt Brincka, State Parks

Juvenile bald eagle featured image by Matt Brincka, State Parks