Beginner's Guide to Hawkwatching
A great drama in the sky will unfold this year, as it does every
spring and fall. Though visible at untold sites across North America,
it will be seen, enjoyed and care- fully recorded by only a few
hundred volunteer observers. They are hawkwatchers.
drama is the spectacle of our magnificent hawks, eagles, ospreys,
falcons, kites and vultures in migration. These different species
of hawk-like birds are familiarly called hawks. Twice each
year many thousands of them make long and sometimes perilous journeys.
Individuals of some species cross two continents, traveling from
Canada to Peru and Argentina. In autumn they move southward to
wintering grounds where food supplies are more reliable than in
the frozen north. In spring they return to their northern nesting
sites. Observers station themselves at selected vantage points,
hoping to witness some of these flights.
find a special joy in watching some of our largest birds do what
they do so superbly - fly! Those who watch also find great satisfaction
in recording what they see, taking part in gathering information
that might help unravel the mysteries surrounding these migratory
you been missing this adventure? There are still opportunities
for discovery. You could be the discoverer of new, useful information
about how hawks fly over that .part of North America you know
best - the vicinity of your home. Won't you join us?
to Look for Hawk Flights
is recommended as the most promising season for a new hawkwatcher
to begin. Almost anywhere you are, you are likely to see more
hawks in autumn than in spring. Only in Upper Michigan, northern
Ohio, northwestern Pennsylvania and northwestern New York are
more hawks seen in spring than fall. Fewer birds make the northbound
journey because their numbers have been reduced by attrition on
the wintering grounds and the hazards of migration.
fall migration season extends from August to December. September,
when most species are beginning migration, and October are the
most active months. In the east, our Bald Eagles are on their
way south by late August or early September, as are 3 species
of falcons - American Kestrels, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons.
Exciting big days at eastern lookouts and around the Great Lakes
as far west as Minnesota occur the last 3 weeks in September with
the pas- sage of the Broad winged Hawks, our most numerous eastern
species. Flights of Sharp-shinned Hawks are seen during September
and October. Flights of Cooper's Hawks, Ospreys and Northern Harriers
also extend into October. The colder winds of late fall bring
splendid Red-tailed and Red-shouldered Hawks in greater numbers.
Add to that the thrill of an occasional Goshawk, or the grandeur
of a Golden Eagle.
Utah and Nevada, Golden Eagle flights may begin in August and
continue through November. At San Francisco, Swainson's Hawks
and Prairie Falcons are seen as early migrants with average dates
in September. Look for the Ferruginous Hawk in October. Hawkwatchers
in the west, where little study of hawk migration has been done,
have wide-open opportunities to contribute significantly to our
knowledge of western hawks.
the spring, a watcher on the Texas border might see his first
spring migrants in late January or February. In Maine or Canada
the last spring migrant can arrive as late as July. In the east,
mid- to late April brings your best chance to see northbound flights
of the most species in the largest numbers. Whether hawks follow
the same routes in spring that they use in fall is a question
that amateur hawkwatchers (perhaps you!) might one day help to
Hawk Flights - Mystery and Majesty
hawks, we believe, follow flight paths that allow them to use
the least energy. They tend to use prevailing northerly winds
in fall and southerly winds in spring. In addition, hawks make
excellent use of thermals, columns of warm air rising high above
the ground. With scarcely a wing beat, a few hawks - or hundreds
- might circle together in the warm air of a thermal, soaring
up and up to a point where the thermal has dissipated. Then the
hawks use the altitude gained to glide serenely away on a gradual
descent that can easily cover a mile or two before the birds find
another thermal to ride aloft. The hawks develop brisk speeds
in these glides, as much as 40 mph.
species also use updrafts to good advantage. Updrafts are
deflected air currents, created when wind strikes the side of
a hill, mountain or other obstruction in the terrain. On the windward
side of a long ridge on a breezy day, a bird might find sufficient
1ift to sail for many miles. Lee waves, also created by the air
flow over mountains, are another means of lift. Sea breezes along
our coastlines are used by hawks - opportunists all - to ease
the migratory journey.
believe that many migrating hawks converge along landmarks such
as ridges, river valleys, lake shores and coast- lines. These
features are "leading lines" that tend to draw the migrants into
something like a "flight corridor." These concentrations of birds
moving across the skies together provide a super-spectacle that
can make even a casual observer a hawkwatcher for life.
flight conditions along the leading lines become less favorable
due to changes in weather and terrain, indications are that the
hawks disperse widely. Where do they go? Do they just strike out
across country, depending on thermal lifts here and there or other
wind phenomena to boost them along?
Sometimes hawks have been observed backtracking, flying back in
the general direction from which they came. We don't know why.
Satisfactory answers have not yet been found for many questions
about the habits and behavior of hawks in migration. Research
will help us find ways to protect and preserve these beautiful
birds; but that is only part of it. You may not be a scientist,
but as a hawkwatcher you can contribute to our understanding of
the ways of nature. How do topography and seasonal changes in
weather affect hawk flights? You can become a 1ocal expert in
these matters. The data you collect can be useful to scientists
for years to come. You can have a stake in this research. We need
more eyes watch1ng the sky in all parts of the country.
best way to learn birds in the field, most people agree, is with
the help of an experienced birder. Most veteran hawkwatchers enjoy
sharing their knowledge with beginners, and will encourage you
to get involved. They are a friendly group, eager to meet new
people and talk about hawks.
trip to an established lookout is well worth the effort. You can
pick up tips on all aspects of the watch, get help with your hawk
identifications and absorb the feel and excitement of what is
going on. Even a day with few hawks sighted can be exhilarating.
suppose you have no opportunity to visit an established lookout
and must go it alone. Over much of the west and south you are
likely to be a pioneer hawkwatcher. Try it! Every lookout in the
country was discovered by someone!
for a Lookout
has been done from the tops of buildings, backyards, and office
and sickroom windows. It can be tried anywhere. But you might
start this way: Look over the topographic maps of your area and
pick out any geographical feature within a reasonable distance
of your home that might serve as a leading line. (Topographic
maps may be ordered from Distribution Section, U. S. Geological
Survey, 1200 So. Eads St., Arlington, VA 22202. or inquire at
your local library.)
along your leading line, look for a ridge, a rocky bluff, a river
bed, a wind gap, a lake shore. A fire watch tower is a real find.
When you have something promising in mind, drive out and have
about the view. If it is less than 360 degrees, it should be wide
open in the direction from which migrating hawks might be expected
to appear. For example, in fall an eastern lookout might be best
oriented toward the north and east; a western lookout toward the
north and west.
about accessibility. The more difficult it is to get there, the
less often you will go.
uplands, your lookout should ideally be on a ridge, well-separated
from other ridges and rising steeply from the valley below, its
length oriented roughly in a north-south direction. In valleys
or flat lands look for a wide view not obstructed by buildings
or trees. In built-up areas, some productive lookouts are on the
flat roofs of tall buildings. Whatever site you select, begin
by getting any permissions that might be required for your use
of the spot.
best weather for finding hawks is probably on a day of good visibility
with a pleasant, steady breeze (not heavy wind) from a northerly
direction in fall, from the south in spring. However, migrating
hawks, sometimes lots of them, will fly in almost any weather
except a heavy downpour. The best hawkwatching conditions do not
always conform to one standard. In autumn you are likely to see
more hawks a day or two after a cold front has passed. The best
flights in spring often coincide with warm air drifting from the
to select a day with blue skies, puffy white clouds and little
or no haze. Clouds give the observer a depth of field and points
of reference, making it easier to spot birds. But don't wait for
optimal conditions to coincide with your free day. If the weather
is reasonably decent and you have the time, by all means go hawkwatching!
is a key part of hawkwatching. HMANA has developed a standard
report form along with a set of instructions full of the information
you will need. Study the instructions sheet, with a standard report
form in front of you, for line-by-line guidance in completing
the report. At first glance it may seem complicated, but it all
smoothes out as you become familiar with the routine.
of our knowledge of wildlife depends on field records carefully
kept. Your records will help advance our understanding
of hawks - and make you a participant, not a bystander,
in the study of their migrations.
to Take With You
items to take with you: watch, pocket notebook and pencils, field
guide, thermometer, compass, binoculars. In addition to lunch
and drinking water, some comfort items help sustain a longer watch
if transporting them is not a problem - hat, extra jacket, sunscreen
lotion, insect repellent, blanket, aluminum lawn chair, additional
The exposed situation of a hawkwatch lookout intensifies the effect
of a hot sun or cold wind. Temperatures can vary 30 degrees or
more between early morning and afternoon. Dressing in layers will
prepare you to meet either chill or warmth.
to bring a friend. Extra pairs of eyes are useful, so call
on anyone who is willing to share the adventure and stay put for
often, more hawks are seen after the morning sun begins to warm
the earth and create thermal activity. It is a good idea to arrive
at your lookout early enough to settle in before the hawks start
moving. Set your thermometer where it will be screened from the
sun but air can circulate around it. Get your wind speed and direction
and other data required by the report form. Write down the time.
(If your watch is set to daylight time, subtract an hour for standard
time.) Write down your weather data at the beginning of each hour.
With your binoculars, scan the sky. Make sure that birds are not
already slipping past behind you. Then you can concentrate more
closely on watching that sector of the sky where you can reasonably
expect your migrants to appear.
a bird just above that long white cloud! It might come closer
but you can't count on that, so work rapidly with what you can
the shape of the bird. Tail long or short? Wings long or short,
round or pointed? Head prominent or small? Watch the manner of
flight. Is it simply powering along in flapping flight? Kiting
about? Sailing straight through on set wings, or circling to gain
altitude? If it passes close enough, check plumage patterns of
contrast, light or dark. Call out what you are observing as you
see it. That allows any companions to compare views; and makes
it easier to pick up the thread of recall when the excitement
your first watch progresses, you will begin to under- stand that
identification of hawks can be difficult. With experience, you
will learn to start with a general feeling for the attitude of
the bird in question. It is rather like recognizing an old friend
or acquaintance a block or two away. But many times a passing
hawk simply cannot be identified. So don't be hesitant to write
down as unidentified the birds you can't call with confidence.
the sky with your binoculars is important. Face the direction
from which you expect your hawks to appear. In early morning most
hawks will be flying low, so pay more attention to the horizon.
Later in the day, hawks may soar hundreds or even thousands of
feet overhead. Scan from the horizon up, overhead, and then behind
experts suggest that the hawks you are most likely to miss
are those flying far out on either side of your flight line; or
those so high they are in view only momentarily as they pass directly
above you. To catch these, it pays to scan across your flight line
from time to time. With your binoculars on distant focus, sweep
slowly across the sky from your extreme left, to directly overhead,
and on across to your extreme right. Horizon to horizon. This
will require several sweeps each time. Your luck may surprise
Migrants vs. Local Hawks
most lookouts resident birds are often seen wheeling about the
area as they hunt. Sometimes a hawk will sail past just like a
migrant, but if you keep watching you may well see it turn away
from the line of flight, begin to hunt, or even head back the
other way. Study these birds and you will soon become acquainted,
and find your own answer to the question of how to tell migrating
hawks from local birds.
A parade of hawks. Here they come...
the parade continues in stately procession across the sky, it
will be a matter of identifying and counting. You can handle that.
If the parade stalls, and the birds begin to kettle (i.e. , mill
about in a slow whirlpool of hawks circling and gaining altitude)
you may feel a sense of confusion adding to your excitement. How
will you ever manage to count them?
try to get a quick estimate of the size of the problem. Is it
a matter of a dozen or so birds? Or fifty, a hundred, several
hundred, thousands? Watch the top of the kettle. If the flock
is not huge, it will not be too difficult to count the birds after
they reach the top of the thermal. Count them as they "peel off"
to glide away in a smooth exit that will leave you breathless.
suppose you are faced with an enormous throng of birds. You are
on your own to give it your best effort! Some experts suggest
that while the mass of birds is kettling you should try to estimate
the number of hawks in just one sector of the circling mass -say
a fourth or a sixth of the whole - to arrive at a rough approximation
of the number of birds in the picture. But keep your eye on the
top of the kettle. Be prepared to tick off the first birds gliding
out of the therma1, perhaps streaming out several birds abreast.
You wil1 be supremely busy for a while; but supremely triumphant
when it is over. Exhausted, too.
is the usual experience. But at times kettling hawks circle so
high they are out of your sight before they peel off. Then you
have only your estimate to work with. Be sure it is as accurate
as possible and include in your notes a comment about what happened.
a large number of hawks travel together in migration, the flocks
are often of a single species, such as Broad-winged Hawks in the
east or Swainson's Hawks in the west. But not all. A careful hawkwatcher
will scan through each group with this in mind. Or, one person
might count all the hawks while another identifies and
counts only those hawks that are not the predominant species.
often happens that a hawkless morning is followed by a hawk-filled
afternoon, or a blank day by a great one. If after a fair test
you are convinced that your lookout is no good, then look for
a better spot.
negative data is valuable and should be reported. You are the
world's foremost authority on the hawkwatching spots you try.
Your daily report should duly record that on this date, under
weather conditions as described, no hawks were observed at your
publications contain much valuable information that is not available
elsewhere. All members receive the HMANA Newsletter twice each
year, containing reviews of the spring and fall migration seasons
and advice for sharpening your hawkwatching skills. Members are
offered special prices on other HMANA publications (The Proceedings,
The Journal) and beautiful art prints. All members receive the
HMANA decal. HMANA maintains a collection of slides of hawks for
rent to bird clubs and other groups.
need the support of a growing membership to help us maintain our
migration data collection and expand our educational services.
We want you!