One early morning in mid-October, a group of birders gathered on a wooden observation platform in Cape May Point State Park in New Jersey. Many held binoculars and had cameras slung over their shoulders. Everyone was watching the sky.
“There is a sharp-shinned hawk coming our way,” announced William Kaselow, a naturalist with the Cape May Bird Observatory. Eyepieces and lenses turned to the bird of prey soaring overhead. “Here it comes, right in front. Ooh, a tree swallow is giving it a hard time.”
The sharp-shinned hawk is one of more than a dozen raptor species that fly south for the winter. The meat-eating birds, which include vultures, eagles, hawks and falcons, seek a warmer climate where they can more easily find their favorite food, such as mice, dragonflies, lizards and fish.
Many of the raptors coming from Canada will end their journey in the Mid-Atlantic region or farther south in Florida or Texas. Others will rack up even more air miles by crossing into Central America and South America. From September through November, the migratory birds use one of four major flyways — basically highways for winged travelers — in North America. On the East Coast, they cruise down the Atlantic Flyway, which passes over Maine and New Hampshire and continues down to Florida.
During migration season, human hawk-watchers meet at parks, mountain ridges, shorelines and other sites across the country. There, they can witness anywhere from a few raptors to an aerial invasion of talons and hooked beaks.
“To see a dozen species of raptors in a day is amazing,” said Chad Witko, outreach biologist with the National Audubon Society’s Migratory Bird Initiative, “but seeing a thousand raptors is even more special.”
Last season, Witko worked as an official raptor counter at the Pack Monadnock Raptor Observatory in New Hampshire. (Experts use these numbers for scientific studies and conservation efforts.) He used color-coded clickers to keep track of the different species. On Sept. 22, his thumbs got a workout clicking to count 1,054 raptors.
Witko and other hawk-watchers look for certain features when identifying raptors. They consider size (bald eagles and vultures are the biggest birds in the bunch), wing and tail shapes (sharp-shinned hawks have rounded wings and longer tails; red-tailed hawks have broad wings and fanned tails) and behavior. For example, when vultures fly, their wings form a “V” shape and their bodies wobble back and forth like Weebles. Their necks and heads are bald, so their meal won’t get stuck in their feathers.
If you see raptors swirling up, as if they are riding in a glass elevator, they are getting a lift from a thermal, or pocket of warm air. If a peregrine falcon dives at 200 miles per hour, you can safely assume the bird is air-bombing for dinner. If you notice an American kestrel or merlin chasing a monarch butterfly, they are not playing a friendly game of tag. The birds are hunting for an insect snack.
“It’s like watching a nature documentary,” Witko said.
The best time to look for raptors is between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Your odds improve during or directly after a cold front(when a cold air mass replaces a warm air mass). But Witko encourages birders to always keep an eye on the sky. You might spot a raptor or two — or a thousand.