Raptor Migration

On a grander scale, the hawk migration that takes place every spring and fall in North America is one of the greatest spectacles on earth! Raptor migration is a phenomenon that is partly understood, but part mystique. We know that most birds migrate to warmer climates for the winter, but we still don't have a full understanding of how they know where to go, or why they choose certain places as a wintering ground. Another mystery is how they know their way back to their summer grounds. Do they have some sort of internal GPS system as some suggest? Ornithologists have answered parts of these questions, but the remaining mysteries still entertain us. Regardless, witnessing raptor migration, especially on a day when hawks are passing by in the hundreds or thousands, is exhilarating. A "fallout" of any kind, such as a massive flock of robins, blackbirds, or dragonflies in a single day is special to witness, but watching a stream of hawks on migration is absolutely mesmerizing! Another dynamic of watching hawks that birders enjoy is the social aspect. Many bird migration sites are favorite "hang outs" where birders congregate on a regular basis throughout the migration season, and where close-knit birding communities have formed.

Migrating raptors can be seen almost anywhere in North America, but certain sites along the shorelines of the Great Lakes, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the Gulf of Mexico, and along mountains ranges throughout North America are places where hawks concentrate in significant numbers. These congregations are due either to negative 'barriers', such as large bodies of water that hawks are reluctant to cross over, or an advantageous mountain ridge that offers updrafts, which birds gain lift from, assisting them in a more energy-efficient journey. Hawk migration counts are conducted at many locations where raptors are known to be abundant. The Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) lists over 1,000 hawk migration sites in North America, and there are websites for many of them where birders can view information on the count totals, weather conditions, site history, and directions to the site.

HawkWatch International monitors several migration sites throughout the western U.S. via hawk migration counts and hawk banding operations. But, why do we monitor raptor migration? For one, these sites are excellent places for visitors to learn about natural history, biology, and identification of raptors from our trained crew. The sites are also unique in that visitors have an opportunity to see a hawk up close and personal, which can be the thrill of a lifetime or the spark that ignites a lifelong passion for raptors! Another reason is to maintain a long-term database of hawk count totals to be analyzed periodically for population trends of the birds that migrate past each specific site. The item most helpful in facilitating a day of hawk watching is a pair of binoculars. Binoculars are not always necessary, but are extremely helpful most days. They are considered the "tool of the trade". And it never hurts to have some clouds (a.k.a. a hawk watcher's "happy little helpers") in the sky for picking out high-flying birds. However, with or without clouds, it is a good idea to bring along sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, food & water, and warm clothes on the colder days.

Go hawk watching at a migration site and experience the wonder.

More in this category: Raptor Types