It’s fall. It’s hawk-watching season.
About a year ago, I stopped by the Detroit River Hawk Watch, in Brownstown, Michigan, on the western edge of Lake Erie. On that day, official hawk counters tallied 58 turkey vultures, 7 bald eagles, 42 northern harriers, 271 sharp-shins, 14 red-tails, 37 kestrels, and umpteen thousand broad-wings. Although I was there for only an hour or so, I saw a fair chunk of that spectacle.
In addition to the professional counter (who was too busy to chat), several dozen other birders—volunteers— were there,
some ensconced in lawn chairs, binoculars in active use; others standing, staring through spotting scopes pointed north, from where the birds seemed to be pouring. “Raft of hawks above downtown,” someone would yell, as heads and optics simultaneously turned to the northwest. Or, “Bird over the lake! Looks like an eagle!” And all heads and optics simultaneously turned to the northeast. It was exciting and fun! Sometimes the bird was immediately identifiable by its size or shape or flight pattern, but some spotters noticed specks on the far horizon, and
we all strained our eyes to figure where they were looking.
As the late morning sun warmed and created thermals, hawk activity picked up. Sometimes distant rafts of hawks rode skyward in slow spirals, swirls, drifting toward us, but higher and higher. When they leisurely reached us, directly above, they looked like a handful of black pepper against the bright blue sky. They were so high they were nearly invisible to the naked eye, but with bins or scopes, the underwing, belly, and undertail plumage was strikingly clear.
Those were broad-wings, hundreds of them. I tried counting by tens as they drifted and swirled, but this was beyond my quantitative abilities. Raft after raft. So many. The official tally was 16,055 broad-wings for the day.
A week later, the count at Detroit River was 20,145 broad-wings in one day, and a total of 72,205 for September 2015.
Sadly, I didn’t have a good reason to be in the Detroit area this September. But I did have a good reason to be in southwestern Pennsylvania last weekend: my high school reunion in Johnstown. The Allegheny Front Hawk Watch, near Central City, is only a few minutes out of my usual route home to Marietta, Ohio.
The Allegheny Front is where, on October 24, 2015, 74 golden eagles thrilled hawk counters, and set a one-day record in the East, where golden eagles are rare.
Late September is too early to expect even one golden eagle in southwestern Pennsylvania, but it is within the realm of possibility, and other migrating raptors have started to head south. I arrived around 11:30 on a cool but sunny morning. The ridge-top site faces due east, down a steep slope and across a rural valley, toward another Allegheny ridge a few miles away. From this clearing, the view to the northeast must be ten miles or more. I expected hawks would soar above the valley, distant specks coming toward us from the left.
But the lawn chairs of the dozen or so visitors all faced due north, towards the nearby woods, just 30 to 50 feet away. Strange, I thought. Why stare at the woods when the view is so amazing just 90 degrees to the right. Then it happened. “Bird!” someone shouted, as the crowd gasped. Just above the tree line in front of us: it was a bald eagle, an immature, mostly dark, with some splotchy white in the face and underwing. It was massive, and one of my closest encounters with bald eagles—ever. (I have seen hundreds of bald eagles in my 35-plus years of bird watching.) Wow! Palpitations!!
I chatted with the official counter, Brian Wargo, who, coincidentally, submitted a story about hawk watching to Bird Watcher’s Digest (of which I am managing editor). It’s slated to run in 2017. (Watch for it!) And then, “Bird!” Whoa! Another bald eagle, this one an adult—white head and tail—had popped up low above the tree line—spittin’ distance! This crowd of humans so close seemed to startle it as much as it surprised and thrilled us!
I regret that I’m not a bird photographer; I don’t have the camera, patience, or quick reaction time for that hobby. Others, there, though, no doubt got shots of the eyelashes of that bird.
If there’s a hawk watch site near you—or even if there isn’t—I recommend visiting one soon—between now and mid-November. How can you tell whether there’s a hawk watch site near you? Go to hmana.org/hawk-watch-sites and click your state or province on the map. Zoom in for specific sites, and click on a red pointer for more information on a specific site. The data here is fun, fascinating, and helpful with the decision of when to visit. Check out the Detroit River Hawk Watch data for September 2015, or the Allegheny Front Hawk Watch for October 2015. Check out the hawk watch closest to your home for this year’s data to see what’s passing by right now. Then, go.
About the Author
Dawn Hewitt is the managing editor for Bird Watcher's Digest and Watching Backyard Birds. She has been watching birds since 1978, and wrote a weekly birding column for The Herald Times, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Indiana, for 11 years.