Citizen Science

You Could See Thousands of Hawks in One Day

October 20, 2015

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Sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus). Photo © Zak Pohlen/Flickr

One of North America’s greatest natural spectacles is happening right now, all around you: the annual fall raptor migration.

Major hawk migration routes have become popular birding destinations. But chances are, there’s a migrating raptor near you, too. And your observations can help citizen science.

So, gather around the kettle. No, not a kettle on the stove: a kettle of raptors in the sky.

“Broad-winged Hawks can form kettles (birds that are circling on a warm air thermal that it looks like steam spiraling up from a kettle) of hundreds of birds to tens of thousands of birds on the mega days,” says Jason Bojczyk, Lead Hawk Counter for the Schoodic Institute’s Hawk Watch. “It truly is one of nature’s greatest spectacles.”

What is a Hawk Watch?

Every year people across North America gather to watch the fall hawk migration and record information about the raptors that they see.

One great example is at the Schoodic Institute’s Cadillac Mountain site in Maine’s Acadia National Park, where citizen scientists can see 5 species of raptor year-round and an additional 9 species of migratory raptors.

“The Sharp-shinned Hawk, is one of the most abundant species at most hawk counts throughout the country,” Bojczyk remarks. “You can see hundreds to thousands of these birds on a good day.”

The event is held on a mountain so that people have a better view of high-flying hawks and, with the aid of binoculars, identify them by their unique markings.

Data are collected and submitted Raptor Population Index, a collaboration between the Hawk Migration Association of North America (HMANA) and Bird Studies Canada to graph trends in North American raptor populations over time.

The RPI serves as an important baseline for raptor populations.

“By monitoring raptors over the long-term, trends can be attained as to whether a species is declining, stable, or increasing,” Bojczyk explains. “These trends become more powerful when other hawk counting sites in the region/state have these same trends established. For species that are declining we can focus on why this is happening and what is there that can be done about it.”

Why Is It Important?

Hawks, raptors and other predators play an important role in ecosystem health.

“Hawks help keep small mammal populations under control and vultures clean up the leftovers,” Bojczyk notes.

Swainson's hawks form a kettle in Anza-Borrego State Park, CA. Photo © Trish Gussler/Flickr
Swainson’s hawks form a kettle in Anza-Borrego State Park, CA. Photo © Trish Gussler/Flickr

Raptors are also important indicators of ecosystem health because many species require large areas to forage and are sensitive to changes in the environment including human disturbance and environmental toxins.

“Raptors are fascinating for so many reasons, from the spectacle of migration itself, to raptors chasing each other, to Cooper’s Hawks displaying,” Bojczyk says. “There really are unlimited, amazing things about this facet of nature.”

And raptors face many threats. The American Kestrel is in decline for reasons that are still poorly understood, the Peregrine Falcon is now recovering from DDT poisoning that harmed many birds, and climate change could play a role in future population dynamics.

“For example, Red-tailed Hawks used to migrate in much larger numbers in the east than they currently do, but are now staying further north through the winter, as they can find enough food,” Bojczyk explains.

Wind turbines also have an impact on raptors. And, though shooting raptors has become less common in the US in recent years, it remains a risk factor.

How Can You Get Involved?

Find a Hawk Watch site in your area. The season is nearing an end, so start looking today or make plans to attend next year.

American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Photo © Parry/Flickr
American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Photo © Parry/Flickr

For the Schoodic Institute’s Hawk Watch, you can show up at Cadillac Mountain any day from August 18 to October 31 between 9 AM and 2 PM.

If you want to get a head start, hone your identification skills by checking out HMANA’s hawk ID materials.

But there’s no need to prepare in advance, the experienced hawk watchers are there to help.

“Hawk watches are often in areas where “non-hawk-watchers” visit,” Bojczyk says. “If there’s a day with a steady migration, these “non-hawk-watchers” quickly fall for the activity and return for years to come, along with the desire to protect these birds.”

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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50 comments

  1. Don’t forget to watch the weather! Typically the best hawk watching is when a cold front has just passed through and the winds shift in a favorable direction to allow the birds to migrate.

  2. For those interested in reading about bird migration (including raptor migration), an absolute must is Scott Weidensaul’s book – Living on the wind. It is a beautifully written (Pulitzer nominated) account of the complexity and global nature of bird migration. The book has been described as “a magisterial work of nature writing.”

  3. we lodge in Holland county and observed nature already for quite a set of years. Hawks are rare in Holland though for the Netherlands in a holistic view like the hawk desreves we cannot figure well out how the birding goes and left traces. Though in here the Hertenduin domain we see other birds telling me birds formate a sort of family spectrum – I see here the black-blue big craw as connected on the same or alike field of enterprising like hawks do – but my landscape is mainly an accultured little very last place of origin symbiotic elements and the interaction of nature’s richess and spiritually meant man – one time in october some years ago all the birds here had flown away – this brought a rather derealising emotion in my self-observant looking at birds and their behaviour of biodynamic consciousness – my position is such that ‘he is augur’ reflects my view – to be continued//thanks for giving me a place to share my research results about the birds in – the place can easily be called by Dizzyland ‘Ducktown’ //hi// try a gift-ask in a Dis-ney cie file at your choice – big fun – the Enterprise sometimes need a goodmeant insert demand and may be you’re so friendly only to add CC*5 for my signact of the day//last but not least: for all birds counts gayness to be normal//

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  5. Oakdale, LI , NY, on Oct 25 a large gathering of Blackbirds (Zugunruhe) was harassed by a migrating Broad winged hawk . Nov 2 female Sharp shinned hawk was flushed off of his perch during my walk through the neighborhood.

  6. You left out the two other major partners in the Raptor Population Index (www.rpi-project.org), HawkWatch International and Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. Also, http://www.hawkcount.org is a good resource for finding established hawk watches and submitting data.

      1. Oops, sorry. You did have a link to HMANA’s Hawkcount site. My mistake….and great resource!

  7. This morning, driving on 93 in the Canton area, just after The Ponkapoag trail exit, I saw a large hawk alight on top of a tree.

  8. I believe that our local hawks here in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California, are all Coopers, while our local hills are host to Red Tailed. Our large picture window has taken the life of a few of them, but one time, I heard the ominous “thunk” and found a youngster down on it’s back and in shock. So, I stayed with it and comforted it with soft, encouraging talk as it slowly recovered. Eventually, it allowed me to it turn over, and later to hold it in order to allow it to stand up. My first efforts to encourage it to fly were unsuccessful, but after awhile, I decided to lift it with both hands, and continue to encourage it. No success! Finally, I decided to gamble on it’s natural reaction, and, with encouraging words, launched it into the air, which did the trick! It spread it’s wings and flew away. We have regular family of Coopers hawks fly over our rural neighborhood, and I always wonder if one of them is the one I saved.

  9. Other options for experiencing raptor migration include the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory north of San Francisco and Hawk Ridge in Duluth, Minnesota.

  10. We have live here in southern New Mexico for four years and during all that time we have had here on our property a single female hawk that remains her all year long. In the spring she is joined by a male. They raise a single young. In the fall the male and young evidently migrate. I think they are Swanson Hawks.

  11. I live in the middle of downtown Chicago on the 67th floor of a condo tower overlooking Lake Michigan. A block away is the 100-story John Hancock building. There seems to be a colony of Ospreys living in the superstructure of the Hancock building, year-round. We have never seen more than two at any one time. The Hancock could be a nesting site because it has a distinctive design of external diagonal bracing the creates lots of angles. However, if the ospreys are nesting on the building, it must be on the other side, because we don’t see any nests. But it is a great joy to be sitting in our apartment and see the hawks soaring by us at 800 feet.

  12. Where can I join such an organization. I
    live just south of Chicago, Il near
    Kankakee, Ill.

  13. This is a bit late as you have noted as our ‘migration’ has come and gone here in Central Oregon. However we do Winter Raptor Routes all over Oregon from November to March to count the birds who have in-migrated and like it so much they stay all winter. My wife and I do two routes, one around Culver and a longer one around Madras. Near Culver there is one road of about one and a half miles we call the ‘magic mile’. We have had as many as 43 raptors on that road which makes it really hard to be sure we are not counting any of them twice (or three times). We have tallied as many as 14 species of raptors in one day on these routes. Fun times!!

    Kevin & Kei Smith

    1. Yes, I tried to make it to Bonney Butte this year, but got a bit lost along the way and missed the tail end of the season for the northern states. Thank you for sharing the info about the ‘magic mile’ – I will check it out.

  14. When in the San Francisco area, please join us at Hawk Hill in Marin County, just at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. GGRO counts migration raptors, from kestels to bald eagles, daily from late August through Dcember 6.

  15. I’m too far from Borrego, the nearest site you mention. But I’ve noticed, in the rural area where I live, the power line poles that lead to my house, where I usually see one hawk perched, watching me as I drive up the road, there were four hawks gazing down at me, two perched together and another two on subsequent poles. Not far from my house is a hawk’s nest, maybe 600 feet away, visible closely with a scope. Three years ago, two chicks were hatched! It was wonderful watching the activity. In the last two years I’ve noticed the parents flying around the nest, about December I think, but they never set up housekeeping. With the severe drought we’ve had here, possibly there wasn’t enough food to support raising chicks. I’m hoping this year will be different.

  16. I live in Tucson Az. I live in an area where there many birds, all indegineos. For
    The past month or so my usual birds have disappeared. Supposedly there is a
    Cooper’s hawk nesting nearby. Iam pretty sure the hawk is pursuing my and my
    Neighbors commen birds. I really miss my birds. For this reason I don’t have much affinity for these Hawks.

  17. A good place to view hawks is out my kitchen window. Although you won’t see “kettles” of raptors, you’ll almost always see one of the pairs of hawks that patrol this particular region in central Oklahoma. You can tell when they are circling in pursuit of prey by one of the four crows that often hang around my place. They have a distinct cry to warn other birds when hawks are aloft. Just last week one of the hawks dove straight done and killed a fat dove by my backyard bird feeder. Bastard.

  18. I live in Dewey, AZ, 86327. I have seen several Cooper’s Hawks in the area. I drive on Hwy 69 5 days a week back and forth to work. There are small canyons and dry washes along the way. I have seen two Cooper’s Hawks keeping watch from the power lines on the North side of the highway almost everyday. I look forward to seeing them. I think they stay year round.

  19. I have frequent, Falcon, Shin, perhaps Cooper Hawk, having feeders.

    I view these visits, how can I say, road kill, hmm, not so much natural is available.

    It is sad, but what is natural even for them, is not natural anymore.

    They go where the food is now.
    yes

  20. I see many hawks around our backyard. Especially because of so many nests of birds in the areas in our backyard. I have seen hawks, fly down and pick up pigeons and fly away with them. I also see many of them, when driving in the highways, and in the outdoors. Beautiful.

  21. Was working on a job in our neighborhood, Pflugerville Texas, and noticed a dog barking at a large bird on the ground. Upon investigating– thought it was an injured falcon– took off my t-shirt and threw it over him to get it home and safe. Set him up at home with raw tuna, chicken and steak and contacted my daughter at TAMUCC because she is a marine biology student and volunteers at the sealife center on north padre island and we knew they had areas for birds of prey as well as a bird of prey specialist in-house. They told us to bring him on down when we could if he could not return to flight on his own. (we tried in our area to get him rehab– however all the austin locations do NOT want you to bother birds of prey– just leave them alone is all they suggest– we were not about to leave this beauty on the ground defenseless. ) Gave him a couple of weeks to rehab and get strength back, but he was not able to return to flight– drove him down to SeaLife Center — the are awesome– and we found out he is not a falcon– but a Sharp Shinned Hawk and very young– just needs about 6 monthes of rehab to grow new set of feathers out and will be able to release–! Super cool experience and wonderful bird.

  22. I can’t participate in a hawk watch, but I do have a red shouldered hawk who comes down to my birdbaths for water occasionally. I don’t think he migrates; he seems to be here all year. Sometimes I see a pair of hawks circling above, so perhaps he has found a mate. His call sounds like, “Kir, kir, kir,” on a falling tone. It makes me think he wants an aperitif.

  23. We have a “resident” red-tailed hawk. He(she) sits in our trees, on birdhouses, and deck railings. We watched him hunt a rabbit and eat a small part. He went on his way, leaving a great deal on the ground. The next morning it was gone. Maybe he returned or some other critter enjoyed a meal. We had many rabbits around in the spring; they have disappeared. We live in Avon.

  24. Love seeing Red Tail Hawks on my wood post fence or in the trees
    Park City Utah , near Swaner Preserve

  25. I live in Chesapeake Beach Md and we have a red tailed hawk that comes to my yard every Fall (late) and stays through early Spring! He/she is beautiful but hangs around my bird feeder I have out for songbirds in the Winter! The hawk is a gorgeous bird. I watch and make sure my 2 mini dachshunds are in whenever he’s about!

  26. Where and when are the raptor (hawk/eagle/etc.) watches in New York City and the surrounding areas?

  27. I spent many days about 50 years ago sitting on the boulder field at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. There was always a spotter there who would identify the black specks off in the distance and call out where the birds were and what they were. A good day could bring up to hundreds of sightings of Broad Wing hawks just riding the thermals between the two mt. ridges. Many other varieties of hawks were also seen during the peak days in mid October. It was a wonderful way to spend a fall day, enjoying the company of other birders surrounded by all the beauty of fall .

  28. In Denver co. we have a wildlife refuge at the Reclaimed Rky Mtn. Arsenal.Inside the vistors center ,are two of the most awesome bird displays of a Hawk and a Meadow Lark ..both appear to be mountings ,How ever they are not stuffed birds but are carvings ….The person that did these ,is truly blessed,as an artist …The Refuge is a true gift to the people ..When in Denver make it a point of going out to the Arsenal refuge ..The Black footed Ferrett was recently introduced to this area ,it was thought extinct ,until recently ,when they were discovered in Wyoming ..Tours of the park are provided at no charge ,an a bus tour is on Saturdays ..Come visit The Phone # is 303 289 0930…

  29. On Wednesday afternoon this week one of my easily distracted first grade students caught a glimpse of 3 “really big birds” in the tree across from our school. Though I didn’t have my binoculars handy, I’m sure they were raptors of some sort! Binoculars are now in place and ready should any more of these great birds pass our way in the days ahead! No doubt, you will have raptor watchers among a new group in the future! So wonderful to see their enthusiasm for nature and entertain their questions about what they see! One of the many joys of teaching young ones about our precious environment!

    Ann Vonder Meulen, OSF

  30. I live in Vienna , West Virginia. I have two family groups of Hawks that live near us. Size of groups ranging from 5 to 10 depending on the year. They hunt for Birds and small game near our house. We live near 10 acres of woods. My Mother lives in Parkersburg, West Virginia and she lives in a similar type of area. We both see the Hawks daily this time of year in a tree or bush waiting on the birds and squirrels to come out and eat. We have large populations of Hawks in these two towns. Love to watch them. I see catch and kill their prey every now and then. I love Hawks…

  31. This is an intriguing article that made me want to know more about getting involved. I clicked on the “Hawk Watch” link (find a Hawk Watch in your area). the link took me to a map of WA state (where I live).
    the map has two markers along with a chart with same 2 map locations listed. I clicked on one of the locations and kind of came to a dead end. The page is ambiguous – with no data to date. There is little to no information about what I was expecting to find – such as:
    WHEN? is a similar hawk watch day in my area as described in your article. Has it ever been done here?
    WHAT ? Doing what and what are the steps to take to get involved? and specifics about what to expect. # of ways to get involved? What kinds of hawks have been counted in the past.
    WHO_ who organizes, leads, who else is doing this, org partners – or do they even need people?
    WHERE – specifics about where to go, or meet, or when.
    HOW? All I see is an email address for “more Q” and a generic “account” link that brings up a long form to fill out for an account – however, I do not even know what having an account means to me and no further info.
    While I could write an email to the address, it seems absurd to ask people to do so for basic or introductory info, since what are web sites for? I am writing to you to let you know that your hard work ends up being compromised and negated if the follow-up links from your article feel like a dead end (or just a big hassle to find out basic info). Sort of kills any enthusiasm you may have generated, and Hawk Watch in this area anyway, is unlikely to be cultivating many new volunteers or members – which I can only assume was part of the reason for writing article in first place.

    1. Hi Andee,

      Thank you for commenting. I am sorry that the page you ended up on was short on information – I have found that the pages vary a great deal depending on location. I emailed for more info about the only site near me and found the organizer very responsive. I do agree that the more complete site pages are more likely to attract new hawk watchers.

      Cheers,
      Lisa

  32. I live in Crockett ,Ca there are many types of raptors here. Hawks, I see Osprey, Eagles, Owls, Bats, foxes coyotes and Kites all of the time. We wake to the calls of Hawks and see the smaller birds chasing them away from their nests. We are on the Carquinez Strait which is full of many different types of fish and I have read that we are on a migratory path. It is where the C &H sugar refinery is and there are also many many rodents for all to hunt. It is one of the greatest places I have ever lived to watch, hear and enjoy nature.

  33. We live next to a wooded park in Wichita, Ks. We have several red-tailed hawks and a few coopers hawks that stay around here year round. I have a video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jp4jCe_PdpE that was taken 3 weeks ago in my backyard. It was the first time I’ve seen one of our mallards taken by a hawk.
    Stan

  34. On 11/5/2015 about 1:30 p.m. observed a red tail hawk swoop down and try to take a squirrel at Housekeeping area in Yosemite National Park./Users/LLM/Desktop/_DSC5069.jpg Also, saw a bobcat on the hunt. /Users/LLM/Desktop/_DSC5065.jpg Not the best pictures, but I was lucky to have a camera handy.

  35. We had four baby American kestrel Falcons nesting in our barn this year. I managed to get a picture a baby male. They are beautiful birds. Alas they caused the blue birds to leave which i have been coaxing to nest here for many years making it a bitter sweet situation. Once the young falcons took to flight and moved on the blue bird eventually returned. I recall several times when they flew round about me as though they were saying look at me I can fly I can fly. Then they would perch on the electrical wire side by side. Sadly i found a mature American Kestrel male dead after a bad storm in my front yard. An immature eagle perched on the TV tower took flight as i approached the dead Kestrel. I could hear the sound of the eagles wings as he dropped downward and then rose upward. Come late Summer the sky was void of any Falcons.
    Yesterday I noted a red tail hawk picking up prey near the shed. I feel so blessed by all the different birds i have had the fortune to see.
    One year a green back heron nested in the pine trees by the barn. We called back and forth to each other. I enjoyed watching the young birds learning to fly from one bunch of pines to the north of the house to another row of pines to the south. I could not believe how close they flew to me but then i could mimic their call.

  36. While I have not seen a hawk in over one and one-half years, I used to have one in the tall trees on my property in Bethel Park, PA, every year. I have two homes so I may not have been in residence when the hawks were present in the most recent past. I hope to be around this autumn fall when I usually see them. My back yard is a treasure trove of food for them: baby rabbits, mice, chipmunks and moles–my cat has been very active this year in getting to these food sources BEFORE the hawks or raccoons! In the past two weeks she has “presented” the following to me: a baby rabbit, two mice, one chipmunk and one mole! Unfortunately, my cat wants to go out after midnight (and she drives me crazy if I make her stay in) so she is in direct competition with the hawks and eagles who have also been seen in my yard. I have 3/4th’s of an acre that used to be near lost of woods. However, the woods are now a housing developed in the 1980’s but we still have deer, raccoons, moles, rabbits, groundhogs, hawks in abundance in my yard! The gas pipeline also runs through nearby my property (since the early 1950’s) so that is also a great highway for easy access of wildlife to our property. I have lots of cover for wildlife and so am blessed with every type, including wild turkeys who come for my birdfeeder droppings right outside my back door. I can watch them within five feet of me out my back door!!!! And, yes, I feed the raccoons nightly with the dregs of my cat’s food. In the spring, Mom came with her babies to feed at night. It’s hard to see them without turning on the porch light but I know by my cat’s behaviour when they’re about! I hope to put in a beehive as soon as I can find someone to help me put it in as I am allergic to bee stings!!!! But I need the bees for my gardens!!! Hope the hawks and eagles return this fall. mep

  37. Last night as a big storm front moved in, we saw as many as 200 hawks gather together in the sky and fly into the front as it was approaching. They seemed to be feeding. It was a variety of hawks and some other birds as well. What was going on? This was in the San Luis Valley in Colorado. It was AWESOME!

    1. Hi Tim, Thank you for reporting this! It does sound counterintuitive. I will see if I can find out and get back to you.

  38. I witnessed kettles of what appeared to be Swainson’s over this past weekend in the Central Valley town of Firebaugh on the San Joaquin River. The kettles and grouping in an alfalfa field numbered in the hundreds, if not thousands. Never seen anything like it. Is this common?

  39. We live outside of Russell, Kansas on a large cattle ranch. We’re in the fly way for many migrating birds so it’s common to see many woodpeckers, blue birds, geese and cranes etc.
    This year, driving be a freshly cut field I noticed hawks, many hawks. There we’re at least a hundred, if not more. They were very statuesque, very still, and spaced equally apart as far as I could see. It was around the first of October. Sadly I didn’t get a picture, I do know that they didn’t have a particular coloring that stood out.
    No one I’ve spoken with has experienced this. If you have any insites I would appreciate it! Thanks!

    1. Hi Angela, That sounds amazing! I’m not well-versed enough in the hawks that might go through that area to answer this question. I recommend checking with HawkWatch International: https://hawkwatch.org/
      Or, checking eBird to see if anyone else reported seeing the hawks in that area around the same time: http://ebird.org/ebird/explore
      Thank you!