When you mention hawk-watching to most birders it conjures up visions of cool days spent in the northeast of the country, perched atop a windswept ridge line; a vision completed by the luxurious reds and golds of fall. Perhaps this is because Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania, with its incredible history and outreach, has become almost synonymous with hawk-watching itself. What many birders don’t realize is that prime hawk-watching sites (called ‘hawkwatches’) span the length and breadth of the country from frigid Alaskan tundra to the steaming tropical reaches of Texas and Florida.
Though they are not quite as numerous as their fall colleagues, spring hawkwatches offer equally incredible opportunities to see the spectacle of migration and to hone your flight identification skills, both of the passing hawks and of the host of other diurnally migrating birds that can be seen along with them. Most people are amazed at the scale of hawk movements at these spring sites. In Western New York I’ve witnessed a one-hour flight that dwarfed many a seasons’ tally at Hawk Mountain and days that have surpassed the totals produced over three months at Cape May.
As with many aspects of birding, getting the most out of hawk-watching is often about timing and weather. Though each site will have its own intricacies during spring migration, you are mainly looking for southerly winds (i.e., from the south) that escort the birds to your region. That’s the best thing about spring hawk-watching, the nice days are probably the ones where you are going to get some action.
The best way to monitor hawk movements throughout North America is the Hawkcount website, which is sponsored by The Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA). Choose your favorite site under the Hawkwatch Profile tab, then follow seasonal peaks and valleys of hawk movements checking the Migration Timing tab. As the season progresses, many sites’ counters will forecast what the flight might be like the following day in their daily report (see here for one example).
So which are among the most exciting to visit?
Braddock Bay, NY
Call me biased, but having counted here for three years, there’s no way a dispassionate observer would not include Braddock Bay in their list of best spring hawk-watching sites. Based right on the shores of Lake Ontario near Rochester, NY, it boasts a season average of over 50,000 raptors, with the bulk being made up of Turkey Vultures and Broad-winged Hawks. The site also regularly clocks impressive flights of Sharp-shinned and Red-tailed Hawks as well as numbers of sought-after species like Golden Eagle and Rough-legged Hawk.
The most diverse flights usually occur in early April (which is why HMANA will hold its Raptor ID Workshop and conference there this spring). Peak flights happen between mid-to late-April and a late flights of mainly juvenile Bald Eagles and juvenile Broad-winged Hawks can be impressive and coincide nicely with what can be spectacular numbers and diversity of neotropical migrants. You can find out more about the site here.
Gunsight Mountain, AK
For raptor aficionados there is much to recommend Gunsight pass. One of the most abundant diurnal raptors on the continent, Red-tailed Hawks are a diverse and fascinating species that take on a wide array of plumages ranging from the stunning white-tailed and headed adult Krider’s subspecies to the sometimes almost pitch black Harlan’s. At Gunsight the majority of the flight is made up of Red-tailed Hawks in all shapes, sizes and flavors, but is heavy on both light and dark Harlan’s Hawks, a bird distinctive enough that it was once considered a full species. Throw in some Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks, and the fact that it is about the only place you are likely to add Swainson’s Hawk to your Alaska list, and you can start to see some of its appeal.
Another big draw is that the sun reflects off the surrounding snowfields and throws fantastic light on overhead passage birds, which makes this site superb for photographers. Though probably one of the least accessible, it is becoming one of the most intriguing hawk-watching sites on the continent for die-hard raptor fans and I’m guessing the only site where you might stumble on a few migrant White-tailed Ptarmigan passing overhead! For more information, go here.
Santa Anna NWR or Bentsen–Rio Grande Valley SP, TX
If you have ever looked at a HMANA datasheet you know that amongst the boxes to tally your flight of Sharp-shinned Hawks and Bald Eagles are a set of boxes for birds that are little more than dreams across most of the continent: White-tailed Hawk, Harris’s Hawk, Crested Caracara. At these two sites though, these dreams can become a reality. As well as the plentiful migrants there are also the incredible local raptor specialties like Gray Hawk and, if lucky, Hook-billed Kite.
Add to this the flashy Green Jays, stunning Great Kiskadees and a wealth of other bird species that are almost solely found, in the US, in this little corner of Texas. It’s easy to understand why the Rio Grande Valley is at the top of most US birders’ bucket lists. Though there is little to choose between the two, the Bentsen site has the benefit of having perhaps the most beautifully designed and ADA-friendly hawkwatch platform that I have personally seen and perhaps is worth a visit just for that feature alone. For more information on Bentsen, see here; for more information on Santa Ana, go here.
Derby Hill, NY
Though Braddock Bay and Derby Hill have always had something of a friendly rivalry it would be hard for me, even as a dyed-in-the-wool Braddock fan, not to expound on the qualities of Derby Hill. Where Braddock’s flight is usually larger during peak season, Derby specializes in early flights of northern specialties. March brings nice movements of Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles and Northern Goshawks as they retreat from their southern wintering grounds. This site also tends to boast better flights of winter finches: waxwings, crossbills, redpolls, etc.
Derby has an advantage over Braddock in that the overhead flights are much closer to the viewing platform. Close views tend to be a real boon for those feeling their way through the process of IDing birds in flight. And just to show that you never know what might show up in a flight at these watches, Derby boasts a record of White-tailed Eagle, that, though rejected by the state rarities committee, has been considered robust enough to be included in many publications. More details can be found here.
Whitefish Point, MI
If you like northern specialties like Golden Eagles, Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Goshawks, and let’s face it who doesn’t, then Whitefish Point is for you. Among a nice mixed flight they always seem to tally healthy numbers of these three species. Plus there is always the chance of a western wanderer in the shape of a Swainson’s Hawk. Situated just a stone’s throw from Lake Superior, here one can enjoy a wealth of other excellent birding opportunities and bird programs hosted by Whitefish Point Bird Observatory, such as the waterbird count and owl banding project. As well as the northern diurnal raptors, owls such as Great Gray, Northern Hawk or Boreal are always possible. These fabulous raptors, plus not knowing when the next Short-tailed Hawk or Inca Dove might show up (both have been recorded at Whitefish) makes Whitefish Point an incredible draw. Learn more about Whitefish Point here.
Article by Luke Tiller. Photos by Luke Tiller and Catherine Hamilton.
Originally from London, England, Luke Tiller transplanted to Wilton, Connecticut in 2003 and newly surrounded by wildlife he found his love of birds reignited. He is employed as a professional hawkwatcher at Braddock Bay, NY and is a writer about all things raptor related. His passion and knowledge recently saw him invited to join the board of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. He is also a natural history tour guide for HMANA and for Sunrise Birding. Find Luke’s blog at www.underclearskies.com.