Audubon Guide to Hawk Watching
Ten awesome places to catch one of nature's greatest spectacles.
1. Hawk Mountain
A beautiful setting and a rich history make this a must-visit destination for raptor fans. When northwest winds strike the Kittatinny Ridge, they create updrafts. Migrating raptors in fall can ride these cushions of rising air for miles, gliding effortlessly toward the south-southwest, then connecting to other ridges along the Appalachian chain as they continue their journeys. The exposed knobs of Hawk Mountain once served as a vantage point for shooters, but in 1934 this became a refuge for birds of prey, and binoculars and notebooks replaced the guns. Today the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary Association offers year-round nature education and coordinates global research and conservation projects. Click here for more information.
2. Cape May
Southern New Jersey points south between Delaware Bay and the Atlantic like an angular wedge. In fall, migrating birds of all kinds funnel down to the tip at Cape May Point, presenting some of the best autumn birding in North America. On days when northwest winds follow a cold front, hundreds or even thousands of southbound raptors may pass overhead. Sharp-shinned hawks are the most numerous, but the point is also famous for ospreys, merlins, peregrine falcons, and others. The big hawkwatch platform at Cape May Point State Park, where the New Jersey Audubon Society conducts the official count, provides one of the most popular places to witness migration, learn raptor ID, and catch up on the latest bird sightings. Click here for more information.
3. Holiday Beach Migration Observatory
Detroit River Hawk Watch
Spanning hundreds of miles along the Canadian border, the Great Lakes represent a barrier for migrating hawks, most of which avoid traveling over open water when they can. Bottlenecks form where the raptors go around or between the lakes. One such point is in far southern Ontario, where raptors move along Lake Erie's north shore until they cross the border into Michigan and turn southward again. These two hawkwatch sites, a few miles apart on either side of the international border, provide different lookouts for seeing the same raptors streaming by. Tens of thousands of hawks and falcons fly past every fall, highlighted by big flights of broad-wings in September. This spectacle is readily accessible to urbanites in Detroit, Toledo, and Windsor. Click here for more information on Ontario's hawk watch, and here for more info on the Detroit River Hawk Watch.
4. Florida Keys Hawk Watch
Curry Hammock State Park, Florida
Because the Florida Keys comprise a string of islands that essentially dead-ends at Key West, the discovery of such a major hawk migration here was something of a surprise, but this destination is now known for good flights each fall. Some stars of the show include raptors that do not hesitate to cross open water, including peregrine falcons (with some of the largest flights ever recorded anywhere) and ospreys (averaging more than a thousand each autumn). However, the watch also records surprising numbers of other species, such as sharp-shinned hawks and broad-winged hawks. You might have the chance to see some subtropical raptors, including swallow-tailed kites and short-tailed hawks. For anyone who tires of watching hawks, the beach is only a few steps away. Click here for more information.
5. Hawk Ridge
Raptors coming out of Canada, hitting Lake Superior's long north shore, mostly follow it toward the west-southwest. At the lake's western end, the high ridge above Duluth is the perfect spot to see the raptors parade past before they turn the corner and fan out toward the south. Shooters dominated the site until the precursor of the Duluth Audubon Society led the effort to gain protection for the land and the birds. Today thousands of people come to Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve to watch the raptors and partake in educational programs. In late fall this is one of the best places on the continent to see numbers of northern goshawks. Click here for more information.
6. Hazel Bazemore County Park
Corpus Christi, Texas
Though many small songbirds will fly across the Gulf of Mexico in migration, the overwhelming majority of raptors opt for detouring around it. Vast numbers of hawks from eastern North America, headed for tropical destinations, shift westward to bypass the Gulf via the Texas coastal plain. A low bluff above the Nueces River at this county park affords a good platform for scanning the skies, and HawkWatch International has done regular full-season counts here since 1997. Broad-winged hawks make up the bulk of the flight, but records show more than two dozen other raptor species wing through. This hawkwatch is credited with the largest known migration tallies north of the Mexican border. Click here for more information.
7. Goshute Mountains
Many top hawkwatch locations are established where migrating raptor populations merge along coastlines or lakeshores. In the arid western interior, few good places for a hawkwatch were known until the early 1980s, when researcher Steve Hoffman hiked up into the Goshute Mountains to see if raptors might be following the north-south ridge system there. They were, and this became one of the first study sites of the newly formed HawkWatch International. It is still a wilderness area, requiring a considerable hike from the nearest parking lot, but the view from the top is worth it. Watchers in the Goshutes see notable numbers of sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper's hawks, and red-tailed hawks, plus classic western birds like golden eagles and prairie falcons. Click here for more information.
8. Golden Gate Raptor Observatory
Though the West is fine raptor country, the region's geography does not lend itself to the migration densities of the East. Flights along the Pacific coastal plain went largely unnoticed until the 1970s, when Laurence Binford found that hawks were concentrating on the immediate shoreline before crossing the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Red-tailed hawks, turkey vultures, and sharp-shinned hawks are the most prolific migrants, but considerable numbers of more than a dozen other species use this route. The Marin Headlands, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, now hosts counts and research, and a prime hawkwatch is easily accessible from the San Francisco Bay area. Click here for more information.
9. River of Raptors (Cardel and Chichicaxtle)
In central Veracruz the mountains slope down almost to the sea, pinching eastern Mexico's broad, flat coastal plain into a strip only a few miles wide. Raptors from two-thirds of North America channel through the resulting narrow gap, staging one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles. Some four million to six million raptors--including nearly the entire world populations of broad-winged hawks, Swainson's hawks, and Mississippi kites, plus more than a dozen other species of birds of prey--funnel through. On some days in late September and October, hundreds of thousands of raptors swirl overhead. The official count sites are easy to reach. Climb the steps to the roof of Hotel Bienvenidos in Cardel, or park the car next to the soccer field in Chichicaxtle. Click here for more information.
10. Panama Canal
If they're avoiding expanses of open water, birds migrating from North America to South America thread the needle of Panama's narrow isthmus. Only a few raptor species make these long-distance migrations, but spectacular numbers of individuals squeeze through the thin corridor in spring and especially in fall. You can see Mississippi kites, Swainson's hawks, turkey vultures, and broad-winged hawks crossing the Panama Canal Zone during the autumn months. The Panama Audubon Society coordinates a program, called Raptors Ocean to Ocean, to make simultaneous counts from multiple locations within the region during peak migration. At some of these places, such as Ancon Hill, it is possible to see more than a million raptors. Click here for more information.