Chapter Seventeen: Hawk Watch

NOTE: "Semi-Rough: A North Country Journal," is now available as a complete book, that includes these on-line essays and more. If you'd like a free pdf to download to your computer, send me a note at and I'll email you a copy.

9 Oct 1983 - "Hawk watch 1300-1530 yielded 72 raptors - sharp-shinned hawk 31, red-tailed hawk 33, osprey 1, kestrel 2, and 5 unidentified."

Obviously, I was being objective and scientific when I wrote down those facts at the end of that fall day in 1983. But on the actual day, while I was living that ninth day of October, I remember clearly that it was a spectacular day. Like my bout with "bottle fever" (Chapter Thirteen, link above), my first big hawk watch had me a little deranged.

Major hawk flights are not uncommon; they happen every fall in many parts of the world, as a variety of raptors - not just hawks, but eagles, falcons, ospreys, vultures - leave their northern breeding areas and head for southerly wintering grounds. They happen again in the spring as the birds move back north (although the spring movements are often more drawn out and not so spectacular). Some mountain tops have become famous for "hawk watching" - spots like Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where in an hour or so on a "big day" you might see hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of the passing migrants. Scientists have studied the movements, and they know that the broad-winged hawks start migrating in August and are mostly gone from New England by mid-September. By October, the broad-wings are replaced by many red-tailed hawks and "accipiters" [sharp-shinned and Cooper's hawks, the slaty-gray medium-sized hawks that hang around your bird feeders in the winter, trying to nab the chickadees that are nabbing your sunflower seeds]. By mid-October, only stragglers are still passing by. I'm a scientist - I knew about hawk migrations, and had seen small flights of migrant hawks passing over the mountains in the western United States - but seeing my first major migration in my own front yard was entirely unexpected, and all the more amazing because of the surprise.


How does "hawk watch fever" build? Here's one scenario. You walk out of your cabin, and you glance up at the sky. Your eye catches a slight movement. [It's not easy. These birds are not at tree top level; in fact, they are higher than you would usually be looking for anything, so are often mere specks. They are moving fast, too, on a steady course in our area from the northeast to the southwest. If it is a deep blue, cloudless sky, you probably won't see them, at all. You need a paler sky so the dark, moving dots are more visible, or you need some scattered clouds so you can catch sight of the birds as they pass from blue to white.] Anyway, your eye catches a slight movement. You crane your neck, and try to locate it again. There it is - wait, there's another one. You dash for the house because you don't have your binoculars with you. You rush back outside and frantically scan the skies with your binoculars, trying to re-locate the two specks. Well, those two are probably gone by now, but you find another. Yes, it's a hawk. It circles, gaining a little altitude on a updraft of air before gliding off to the southwest. While you're watching that hawk, another crosses your line of sight. You scan around, and discover a whole "kettle" of hawks - a group of five or six milling in semi-formation against a nice white cloud. If you're an experienced birder, you see that they are red-tailed hawks. While they circle, a small shape with pointed, swept-back wings darts below them - a kestrel. You lose track of the red-tails when the kestrel diverts your attention, but then you pick up two medium-sized birds with narrow rounded wings and long thin tails - sharp-shins or Cooper's hawks.

How many is that? Your neck hurts from craning it so long. Wait, there's something different. That's big! A bald eagle? No, it's an osprey - and there's another. Your back is killing you, but you don't want to lose count. You lay down in the field, and scan some more [thankfully, most of the blackflies are finally gone, and the grass is reasonably dry]. For a moment, you don't see any birds, and you take the opportunity to get your notebook out of your shirt pocket, so you can record what you've seen before you lose count. [Why? Because you're a scientist, and it might be important, some day.] You glance up, and see a whole wave of birds going over very high and fast. They look like red-tails, but who knows? [In your notebook, you write "15 unidentified," then "probably red-tails."] Your count is up to about 35 birds, and it's only been about ten minutes.

In the next hour, you see another 75 hawks - and finally one eagle. You haven't taken your eyes off the sky for more than a few seconds at a time, just time enough to jot numbers in your notebook. Some time during that hour, you have gotten back on your feet and walked up the hill a little way, to where you have a better view north up the field. You stretch your aching back. Suddenly, you realize that you haven't seen a bird in five minutes or so. You scan with the binoculars to the north, then back to the south. Nothing. Ten more minutes go by. You're hungry. But what if another wave comes through? Finally, the combination of hunger, stiff neck, sore back, a chilly wind, and no more hawks for another five minutes convinces you that the movement is over for the day. You're suddenly tired, but you're also exhilarated. What an afternoon.

* * *

My first big hawk day pretty much fit the description above: 72 raptors in 2 1/2 hours. Our field isn't the best place to see a big flight, because the only direction you can look is straight up, so you can't see the birds coming toward you. I scanned the skies from Camp many days after that first time, but only saw one other big flight: 214 raptors of six species in six hours of on and off watching. Pretty good.

My only other significant raptor watch day was - except for the excitement of the first time - the best, I think. It was a lovely mid-September day, and Sally and I had driven a few miles north of Camp, then hiked to the summit of Signal Mountain. At 2,600 feet elevation, it was just 1,000 feet higher than our field. There wasn't much view to the south, but north - the direction most hawks would appear - was wide open, and many of the birds were likely to be seen only slightly above eye level, rather than straight overhead. We sat down to eat lunch below the abandoned fire tower, without any particular expectation of a big day. Between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., we counted 85 hawks, mostly broad-wings and over half of them in one big, swirling "kettle." The fun seemed to be over, so we started down the mountain. From a clearing about a half-mile below the summit, we were suddenly confronted with another swirl of hawks, 19 broad-wings and one goshawk. A 10-minute stop increased the count to 25, making our Signal Mountain hike a 110 bird day.

* * *

I think one of the fascinating things about hawk watching is that it is a silent spectacle, and one that you can miss entirely if you don't know it's going on. The secrecy of it makes it even more remarkable because so many people are fascinated by the birds of prey - either to love them for their wild boldness, or to hate them because they eat your chickens - so you wouldn't think something of the proportions of even the small [relatively speaking] hawk flight over Dummer Hill would go unnoticed. Yet I, a trained birder - and as my record of only three big days attests - missed it many times, even after I knew about it. I casually mentioned "hawk watching" to friends who live nearby, who are quite aware of wildlife and who spend almost every waking hour outdoors. They seemed amazed that such a movement of birds could be going right over their house and fields without their knowledge. I can understand their amazement.

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