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Journey North Hawk Watcher's Primer

One 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!


The Basic Hawk Groups

Where to Look for Migrating Hawks

How to Count Hawks

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.

(Click on image to enlarge)
Size is NOT a useful characteristic when identifying flying hawks, especially when they're flying alone. Much more important is the shape of the bird. Are the wings long or short, thick or slender? Is the tail long or short? See if you can match your hawk's shape with one of the silhouettes.

Hawks may migrate alone or in groups. Most of them beat their wings fairly slowly, and they take advantage of rising air masses to conserve energy.

Two kinds of air currents hold hawks aloft. One is called a thermal. We get thermals when warm air floats above surrounding cooler air. You can actually see a thermal form on a car on a sunny day; the warmer air wiggles as it rises. The other kind of rising air mass is called an updraft, caused by wind hitting a hard surface. A good breeze that hits a mountain range or a building can't go through and can't go down into the ground, so it goes up. Hawks spread their wings wide and let the rising air carry them higher and higher without needing to flap, so they conserve energy. When the air stops rising, hawks set their wings and hold them back so their body is shaped more like an arrow. Then they cruise as far as they can without flapping, slowly but steadily losing altitude until they find another thermal or updraft. On a good day, there can be so many thermals that hawks can stay aloft with very little flapping for many miles.

When one migrating hawk notices another hawk floating in a spiral pattern, it knows there is a thermal or updraft there, and the hawk often flies over to ride on the same air mass. On a good migrating day, there can be hundreds of hawks swirling upward at the same time, looking like an avian tornado. A collection of hawks spiraling upward like this is called a kettle. Usually most or all of the hawks in a kettle belong to a basic hawk group called the Buteo group, but sometimes other hawks join them.

The Basic Hawk Groups


Sharp-Shinned Hawk
Accipiters are bird-hunting hawks. Three species are found in North America. The smallest and most abundant is the Sharp-shinned Hawk.

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.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Buteos 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.

The Red-tailed Hawk is a large Buteo that successfully hunts for a wide variety of food, from grasshoppers and tiny mice to Great Blue Herons. Adult Red-tails do have a red tail, but immatures don't. To recognize the young ones, look for smudges on the belly feathers that give the appearance of a wide, low belt, and a dark line on the leading edge of the wing right next to the body on each side. (This is called the "patagium" mark.)

Broad-Winged Hawk
The Broad-winged Hawk lives in woods, and is especially good at hunting for snakes, salamanders, frogs, and other reptiles and amphibians. There are few or no thermals and updrafts in the middle of a forest, so Broad-wings hunt from a perch, patiently waiting for their prey to come into view and then dropping down to seize it. They mainly use their long, wide wings during migration. Adult Broad-wings have a black and white banded tail. Adults and young have noticeable black wing-tips, as if they'd been outlined with a black crayon.

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.

Bald Eagle
Eagles are the largest and heaviest true birds of prey. An adult Bald Eagle is easy to recognize, but it takes 4-6 years to grow those conspicuous white head and tail feathers. Before that, eagles are dark and splotchy, like overgrown hawks. From a distance their long, flat wings give them the appearance of a flying board.

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.

How to Count Hawks
When hawks are spiraling upward in a huge kettle, it's impossible to count that swirling mass. But when the rising air peters out, they stream forward in more of a line, and then it's pretty easy to count them if you race through the numbers quickly. Along the Texas and Mexican coast, and in Panama, people have counted over 100,000 hawks in a single day!
Hawk Tally Marks
On a slow day, it's easy to keep track of migrating hawks. Hawk watchers looking at distant birds would keep crossing their eyes if they had to keep track of them using the little line hatch marks that non-birders use for tallying. Hawk numbers are recorded with dots and lines.

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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