Winging It: Hawks, their migration, and the nuts who watch them

In late September I was lucky enough to take part in one of my favorite activities, hawk watching. Every year, tens of thousands of raptors move south across America in a brilliant display of endurance and grace. People from all over the world congregate in areas called hawkwatches to share in some small part of this experience.

Now you may be wondering how people know where to go to watch hawks, and that’s a very good question indeed. As hawks, and birds in general, migrate they are using certain landmarks to guide their journey. The two biggest geographical features used are coastlines and mountain ridges. The birds use long connections of ridge lines to travel huge distances without flapping. As the wind hits the side of a ridge it creates an updraft of air that allows the birds to glide along with hardly any effort. Some ridgelines and coastal areas work as funnel systems, and this is where we place hawkwatches.

Now you may be wondering why anyone would want to watch hawks. That’s another great question. From a scientific point of view we watch hawks to monitor populations. Raptors have had a rough road in the United States. Their troubles began in the 1900s with people killing them en masse because they were seen as predators to livestock. In fact, many of the hawkwatches today, like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, began as popular sites to shoot raptors for sport. In the 1960s, fish eating raptors like Bald Eagles and Osprey were affected by DDT. Today, possible effects of climate change and habitat destruction are causing more problems for our birds of prey.

Hawks killed at Hawk Mountain
Hawks killed at Hawk Mountain (photo: HawkMountain.org)

The second reason to watch hawks is for the sheer joy of it. When I went hawk watching here in Oregon, I spent all day on an exposed ridge above Upper Klamath Lake with binoculars held to my face until my arms ached. I came home dehydrated, sunburned, and not regretting a single moment of that day. Hawks in flight are some of the most beautiful animals you’ll ever see. From the tiny but beautifully colored male American Kestrels, the Turkey Vultures wobbling in the sky as they try to find a rising current of hot air, and the large Golden Eagles who soar by like WWII bombers, every bird is a thrill. On this particular outing we were lucky enough to see a Peregrine Falcon with lunch held in its talons. It would seem as though this bird’s mother never taught it not to play with its food.  We watched as the falcon flew up high and dropped the prey item, only to catch it again mid-air in its talons. It’s those moments that make hawk watching, and bird watching in general, so compelling. For some people it becomes almost like an addiction. They can never get enough of it.

So join us, I say! The migration season isn’t over yet, and you don’t have to spend all day on a ridge to see hawks. Birds also use interstates as migratory pathways. So on your way to work, school, or wherever you happen to be, keep your eyes open because you never know what you’ll see. Who knows, you may just wind up on a ridge with me next year as we both try to get a fix for our bird addiction.

header photo: redtail hawk over Grizzly Peak, by Chaney Swiney

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