Our sometimes-incredible fall hawk migration not long ago surged through Massachusetts like clockwork between September 12 and September 20 every year. In a span of 10 days, 90% of the entire North American population of broad-winged hawks typically would begin evacuating the continent on their spectacular journey to South America. But the last five years have been strangely different.
Rod Chase, Site Coordinator for the Eastern Mass Hawk Watch, monitors the migration beginning early in August, well before any dramatic action. On those first, quiet and sometimes taxing days, Rod is totally focused with binoculars and telescope. Then from September 6-21, he's there with other members of our state's hawk watching team seven days a week at the observation deck of Mt. Wachusett's Summit Tower. Hardly a bird is ever missed in the count. Eagle-eyed observers routinely identify with accuracy a raptor literally from a mile away.
Each evening during the migration, Rod doesn't go to bed before writing up his daily report. As of September 14, a mere 586 broad-wingeds had passed over Mt. Wachusett since counting began in August. At Mt. Watatic, official counter Brian Rusnica reported just 694 over the same period. Official counter John Weeks reported 478 broad-wingeds over Blueberry Hill in Granby. A cooler September 15 was a bit better.
Paul Roberts reported 364 broad-winged hawks, along with 13 sharp-shinned hawks, 5 osprey, 3 Cooper's hawks, 3 northern harriers and 3 bald eagles. For the entire season, Tuesday's additions added up to only 950 broad-wingeds -- and just 1,353 hawks of all species. There has been a total of 9 peregrine falcons, 21 merlins, 86 kestrels, 59 bald eagles and 69 osprey in the mix. The hope was that a huge surge would fly over our region during the next few days. September 15 thankfully proved much more productive.
The good news came from Clarry Hill in Alma, Maine, where 2,423 broad-wingeds in large kettles migrated through. Pack Monadnock in New Hampshire had almost 900, and Putney Vermont's observers counted almost 1,200. The figures so far, according to Roberts, strongly suggest that the hawks are moving farther west of us, later, and that predominant wind directions are changing with our climate.
All too often, observers are at the mercy of heartless winds that pitilessly carry the majestic raptors far beyond our horizon. Roberts shares that the broad-winged migration appears to be very late this year because of few cold fronts from the north.
Broad-winged counts in the entire U.S -- including at Corpus Christi, Texas, the most productive site in America -- have been below average for the past five years. Somewhat comfortingly, though, Vera Cruz, Mexico, where all of the world's broad-wingeds have to fly over, has continued to have average flights during this same period of decline in the states. We may be seeing here how yet another species is adapting to significant climate change.
Nevertheless, dyed-in-the-feather hawk-watchers annually take the gamble that they'll experience the great flights. Every brisk morning with strong, cold, northwest winds might provide the drama of a lifetime. I once saw 10,000 raptors fly over my head one glorious September morning on Mt. Wachusett. That incomparably exciting experience addicted me and many others to hawk-watching.
While every serious sportsman and naturalist can recognize our most abundant raptor, the red-tailed hawk, most are unfamiliar with our smaller broad-winged. Both rise on thermals, circling prominently to gain altitude. Their different, fan-shaped tails quickly give away their identity. Our red-tailed hawks have, well, red tails. Broad-wingeds' tails have obvious, wide, black and white bands underneath.
While our red-tailed hawks often build big, highly-visible nests in the open in places like powerlines, broad-wingeds are much more secretive, choosing the greater safety of the forest. Being a smaller raptor, it needs to be more cautious, especially with raccoons, crows, porcupines, red-tails, and great horned owls ready to kill and eat it if given a chance.
Broad-wingeds commonly breed in secrecy from Worcester County across our state's more western forests. The majority is found in the forests across Canada. When the first big chill hits the far north, they're all triggered to fly south as if an alarm clock went off.
Their flight will last about 70 days, averaging a little over 60 miles each day, taking some of them on an epic journey of nearly 4,000 miles. Many will cross Panama into South America as far as southern Brazil. Serious hawk-watchers religiously check weather forecasts to be ready for that first big cold spell to initiate the great flight.
Until recently, they were one species that had increased over the last hundred years. Farm failures helped previously cultivated land revert to mature forest, which broad-wingeds require for nesting. However, current populations are beginning to decline again because of forest fragmentation in various parts of their breeding range.
When broad-wingeds return here in spring, the vast majority settle in or pass through punctually between April 20-30. They come here to provide their babies with abundant protein from our chipmunks, mice, voles, shrews, snakes, frogs and occasionally even insects and a few nesting birds. They're ambush hunters, hiding on low branches, keenly waiting for the opportunity to descend opportunistically on any small prey that reveal themselves and can be subdued by their talons.
Excellent parents, they typically will skin frogs and snakes and pluck birds' feathers before feeding their young. Initially, the mother will rip the meat off into tiny bites for the young. Very small rodents are typically just swallowed whole when the young are a few weeks old.
Because broad-wingeds are so secretive, few sportsmen and naturalists recognize their springtime vocalizations, which are really very easy to distinguish. You'll hear a very high-pitched kee-ee! that sounds very much like a shrill whistle. If you scare a broad-winged, it will typically vocalize its alarm, which can easily be identified by its distinctive stuttering and squealing whistles.
Equally missed by most observers in spring is the broad-winged's courtship display. The male will dive and do cartwheels. If attractive enough, he'll succeed in meeting her mid-air, intimately locking talons and excitedly spirally down together before releasing their grip on each other and ascending again to repeat their bonding.
After mating, both will build their stick-and-twig nest, hidden in a deciduous tree. The female, though, will afterwards provide most of the parental care, with the male making only brief and irregular visits with food for both his mate and his offspring.
While the largest number of broad-wingeds ever recorded on a spring day was 1,300 over Mt. Tom on April 27, 1944, an astounding 19,912 were recorded from Mt. Wachusett on September 13, 1983. The 10,086 broad-wingeds that I was privileged to stand beneath in awe flew over Mt. Wachusett on September 13, 1978. Hawk historians like Bailey, Roberts, Forster, Kellogg, Heil, Bagg, Elkins and Dave Brown have led so many raptor lovers to rapturous ecstasy.
If you see a broad-winged hawk flying now, the adults will be readily distinguishable from the immatures by their breast patterns. Breeding-age birds are horizontally barred below, while first-year birds have vertical, broken streaks.
If nature cooks up the right conditions, we should be able to see kettles of broad-wingeds circling ever high over rising air -- achieving altitudes that often are above our view. In that manner, they'll effortlessly rise without burning a calorie – and just as efficiently soar southward, descending long distances without a flap.
How different they are from our accipiter hawks, like sharp-shinneds and Coopers, which must constantly flap-flap and glide, burning up so much more energy in their migration. The benefit for us, of course, is that they consequently fly much lower -- sometimes just above the tree tops.
As with most raptors, females are larger than males. The very largest specimens will weigh just over a pound. Their increased mass helps them better defend their nests, incubate and insulate their eggs. Their short but broad/wide wings help them soar and glide more effortlessly.
If you'd like to see broad-winged hawks migrating this weekend -- and the best eyes in our state pointing them out from as far away as a mile -- drive up to the peak of Mt. Wachusett early mornings this weekend through Wednesday. The winds look good. Hike the short distance to the plateau platform. With the help of nationally respected experts like Roberts, Jack Miano, Brown, Bill Rasku, Ted Mara, and Brian Rusnica, skilled hawkers who can also astoundingly identify a raptor from as much as a mile away,
You just might see, as I once did, kettling hawks soaring upwards in a tornado-shaped spiral and climatically gliding down and away in numbers that you never thought possible here. You just might hit the year's big migration day -- and be addicted forever, like so many of us hawk-watchers.
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