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Hawks Migrate Through Chincoteague Wildlife Refuge, Chincoteague, Virginia

October 6, 1997

Peregrine Falcon
Photo by Skip Ambrose

They're soaring overhead--large birds weighing up to 9 pounds, with wing spans of up to 7 feet. These birds of prey, or raptors, include eagles, hawks, falcons, osprey, kites and other species. Thousands are migrating throughout North America right now. Yet, they will fly by unnoticed by most people.

Hotspots for Hawk Watching
Is there a hotspot near you?
Click here for the names of these major raptor migration sites.

Why Here?
With the help of a physical map of North America, can you figure out which geographic feature(s) might concentrate raptors at each of these sites? Why do you think so?
For a larger image, click on face of map.

Today's report brings news from Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, one of the hawk migration hotspots along the Atlantic seaboard. However, this is not the only route Raptors take on their journey south. This map shows some of the best places in North America for watching raptor migration during the fall. For the viewer, these sites work like a magnifying glass, concentrating the hawks and bringing them into view. In most other locations, the birds are spread out over great distances and are harder to see. Many raptors follow lake shores, mountain chains and ridges during migration. Depending on the weather, hawk traffic varies at these sites from day to day and from year to year.

A Peregrine Falcon's Route from Canada to Mexico
This fall, a peregrine was tracked by satllite telemetry from Alberta, Canada to Veracruz, Mexico. What route did it take?

Hawk Migration
Along the Atlantic Coast
As shown on this map, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge is located on the eastern shore of Virginia, between 2 major peninsulas. Why do you think so many raptors fly through this area?

At Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, our fifth stop on our national wildlife refuge tour, wildlife biologist Irvin Ailes cranes his binoculars to the sky. "To the naked eye, all you can see are hundreds of tiny dots, souring and circling overhead. It takes high powered binoculars to even make out who's who and which species are coming through the refuge."

Irvin has been observing and counting raptors at Chincoteague refuge for over 12 years. On a typical day during raptor migration, Irvin will count an average of 30 hawks, eagles, and falcons coming through the refuge per hour!

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, is located on the eastern shore of Virginia, just south of Cape May, New Jersey. Why do you think so many raptors fly through this particular area?

A hint lies in the geography of the region. As explained in the September 15 Monarch Migration Update, Cape May serves as a funnel for migratory butterflies as well as for raptors, songbirds, shorebirds, and some waterfowl. Prevailing winds, which move in a northwest to southeast direction, tend to concentrate the migrants along the eastern seaboard. Then, they funnel into the Cape May peninsula and follow the coastline south--through Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge and on to another funnel at Kiktopeake Point--en route to wintering grounds in the southeastern United States and Latin America.

A Predictable Parade

Bald Eagle
Photo by Peter Nye

Over the years in which Irvin Ailes has been watching raptors at Chincoteague, he has also observed a distinct pattern in the arrival of the different species to the refuge. "First the Sharp Shinned Hawks and the American Kestrels come through, then the osprey, eagles, Coppers and Merlin hawks, Peregrine Falcons and Northern Harriers come. Why do you think raptors come in stages following this general pattern?

The following facts about raptors might give us some clues. First, remember that raptors are predatory birds. They live high on the food chain.. As fall advances, the food supply on their nesting grounds decreases forcing many to migrate.. In addition, because migration is hard work and requires food for fuel, the raptor must find food along the entire migratory route. What types of food are raptors eating during migration?

Food for the Road

American Kestrel
Photo credit: USFWS

Few researchers have investigated the relationship between predator and prey during migration. However, Frank Nicoletti of the Duluth Audubon Society, has made some fascinating observations while monitoring migration at Hawk Ridge in Minnesota. He has focused his research on the American Kestrel, a small raptor, as it migrates along the shore of Lake Superior.

Frank watched the Kestrels catching large numbers of dragonflies in mid-flight while both the Kestrels and the dragonflies were migrating along Lake Superior. While Kestrels also eat other insects, Frank thinks Kestrels might be timing their migration in sequence with the migration of dragonflies. His hypothesis is that, not only Kestrels, but other species of raptors too, might follow the prey most useful for fueling its migration.

Let's go back to Chincoteague to find out what the raptors are eating as they migrate through. Click Here to see a chart showing the prey each finds there. How might the availability of this prey change with the seasons? On the nesting grounds? Along the migratory trail?

Good Habitat Means Good Eating
The habitat at the refuge is managed with migrants in mind. For example, a fragrant coastal shrub called myrtle is planted and maintained to attract insects--food for warblers, swallows, and other songbirds. In turn, these small birds provide an important source of food for the medium-sized raptors such as Sharp-shinned and Coopers Hawks.

Photo credit: USFWS

This weekend, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, along with Kiktopeake State Park, will celebrate the peak of raptor migration during the Eastern Shore Birding Festival October 10, 11, and 12th. Thousands of people will come to festival to watch the powerful raptors as they ride the thermals on their southward journey through the area. But, you don't have to come all the way to Virginia's eastern shore to see raptors. Many states have raptor viewing sites as well as raptor rehabilitation centers which provide education programs You can contact your state's department of fish and wildlife to learn more about good raptor viewing sites and raptor education programs in your state.

The Next Journey South Update Will be Posted on October 13, 1997.