Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Time for hawk migration

            It’s bird migration season, a time when billions of birds undertake the most dangerous time of their lives – the long journey south to avoid the unpleasant winter weather in the north. Many of them travel several thousand miles to Central America, South America or the Caribbean, often completing the exhausting journey in just a few days.
            As exciting as the migration season is for nature lovers, it isn’t something that’s easy to observe. Almost all of the songbirds migrate high in the sky in the middle of the night, so all we can do is note the appearance or disappearance of species on the ground as they come and go. We can’t actually watch them migrating.
            But that’s not true of hawks, eagles and falcons. They migrate during the daylight hours
A kettle of hawks in migration (bvg23 via Flicker CC)
and are large enough to be seen relatively well – at least through binoculars – as they traverse our area. And now is the time to watch for them.
            Most raptors soar southward on thermals of rising warm air that keep them aloft with little need to flap their wings. And on days when the weather patterns are just right – winds from the north after the passage of a cold front – hawks from throughout the region could all be on the move at the same time.
            The first time I ever went in search of migrating hawks was one of those ideal days. The weather was perfect at Mt. Tom in central Massachusetts, and raptors of a dozen varieties – bald eagles, red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, and more – put on a parade like no other. We must have seen several thousand hawks that day, and it was enough to convince me to make a point to spend time every fall watching for hawks.
            The most spectacular of the birds to observe were the broad-winged hawks, a species that migrates in huge numbers through the Northeast in aggregations called kettles, which can sometimes contain as many as a thousand birds. And that day we saw numerous kettles pass over us one right after another.
            Imagine a couple hundred broad-winged hawks high in the sky circling ever higher on rising currents of warm air, never flapping their wings even once. And when they get so high that the warm air begins to cool, they shoot off one by one in a southerly direction until they find another thermal that carries them upward again. Repeat the process a few dozen times in a day, and the birds will have traveled several hundred miles toward their winter residences.
            The best places to watch migrating hawks are along mountain ridges, but since Rhode Island has no mountains, the best bet is to try an open hillside in the western part of the state. Or, since most hawks don’t like to migrate over open water where there are no thermals, they follow the coastline, so they can sometimes be seen in good numbers almost anywhere along the south coast of the state. Napatree Point in Westerly can be an especially good spot when the weather is right.
Although I’ve never had as good a day of hawk watching as that first time, I always have my eyes to the sky at this time of year. If you catch it just right, it’s an impressive spectacle to enjoy.

This article first appeared in The Independent on Sept. 20, 2019.

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