Journey North Hawk Watcher's Primer
of the most spectacular and exciting events in the natural world is hawk
migration. A single hawk flying overhead, winging its way to distant lands,
is a thrilling sight. Imagine how breathtaking 49,615 passing over in
a single day must be! How do you see and identify migrating hawks? How
do you find places where you can see a lot of them? And how can someone
possibly count 49,615 hawks in a single day? This primer will get you
hawk watchers started!
Long ago, in Shakespeare's play Hamlet, the main character said, "I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." Some people say "handsaw" may be a misprint for an old word for harriers (a special kind of hawk) or herons, and other people say the line was meant to show how confused Hamlet was. A few people think he didn't mean "hawk" at all, but was instead talking about a hacksaw. No matter how you look at it, Hamlet could probably have used some hawk identification skills.
When you see a hawk, the first step is to decide what basic group it belongs to. Since migrating hawks are up in the sky, we need to identify them in flight. This can be tricky, but in many ways it's easier than identifying them when perched.
Accipiters must spend their days on the wing whether migrating or not, so they hunt as they travel. When hunting, accipiters fly in a "flap, flap, flap, soar" pattern. But after they've eaten, migrating accipiters often spread their wings and join other hawks in a kettle. Even in a huge kettle, you can pick out the Sharp-shinned Hawks by their relatively tiny size and short, round wings. Although its tail normally looks long and slender, an accipiter often spreads the tail wide while riding on a thermal.
have long, fat wings and a short, fat tail. These features are ideal for
soaring on thermals and updrafts. Some Buteos specialize on rodents, others
on reptiles and amphibians; some can hunt just about anything equal to
their weight or smaller. Most Buteos live in open country.
Their long, slender wings with pointed tips and long, narrow tail make falcons built for high speed chases. Although this group mainly hunts for birds, they also take dragonflies, flying grasshoppers, bats, and other flying creatures. Some individuals learn how to take even more items; once some birders in Duluth, Minnesota, watched a medium-sized falcon called a Merlin snatch and eat a small fish out of Lake Superior!
Harriers have long, slender wings with round wingtips, and a long, narrow tail. They also have a conspicuous white rump patch that helps identify them from a long distance. They often beat their wings in a floppy, butterfly-like pattern. Harriers eat a huge variety of critters they catch in their wetland habitat.
Vultures are not really related to hawks. Ornithologists now classify them closer to storks! This seems strange since vultures are considered fearful omens of death while storks are joyful symbols of birth. But both vultures and storks have bare heads and soar on thermals.
Vultures have long, wide wings, a short, wide tail, and a very tiny head--at least it appears tiny because it's bald. The food they eat is not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead. That's why vultures don't need protective head feathers, nor require the sturdy neck muscles of hawks that tear apart fresher meat.
Turkey Vultures carry their wings in a shallow 'V' as they ride on thermals, sometimes for many minutes without flapping.
Osprey have long, crooked wings that they hold like a shallow letter "M." This interesting shape allows them to pull their wingtips out of the water when they catch a fish. Their wings are very long relative to their bodies and tail. Sometimes you can spot their white forehead a long distance away.
Where to Look for Migrating Hawks
There are often thermals and updrafts along the edge of rivers and streams, and also near ridges and mountain ranges. Contact your local bird club or Audubon Society to find out if you live near a major hawk concentration area. Even if you don't, you might still see migrating hawks from your own backyard!
When these birds are on the move, it's possible to see them just about anywhere. Some birders have even spotted kettles of more than 500 hawks circling over busy highways! But you won't see any hawks unless you get in the habit of looking up at the sky now and then.
to Count Hawks
When hawks are flying fast and furious, it's hard work to count them. Frank Nicoletti, the hawk counter at Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth, Minnesota, uses a mechanical clicker to count the Sharp-shinned Hawks that wing past--he clicks it every time one passes, and every hour he writes the number down on his hawk count sheet. He uses the dot and line system to count most of the other hawks. But on days when Broad-winged Hawks are migrating, he counts huge numbers of them as they top out of thermals and cruise by in a line. Frank may count hundreds or even thousands of birds in a single group, so to keep track of them, he writes down the actual number of each group on his count sheet, to add up at the end of the day. The total can be a huge number. On September 18, 1993, Frank counted a total of 49,615 hawks, and fully 47,922 of them were Broad-winged Hawks. After Frank counts each group, other birders helping him will keep track of the new kettles they form so he won't count them twice.
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