The Great Raptor Migration

Fall is the time for raptor migration. For a few days after a cold front, when the wind comes from the west or north, hawks, eagles and falcons pass overhead in large numbers. It could be that cooler temperatures stimulate a response that makes the birds move. 

Places to visit: Fort Smallwood Park, Pasadena; Sandy Point State Park, Annapolis.

Classes and field trips to see and identify hawks: The Audubon Naturalist Society,

Books: Hawks in Flight by Sibley, Sutton and Dunn.

If cooler temps make the birds feel like flying, it is the western winds that push those birds to the east. They go along for the ride until they reach coastal areas. There the birds resist the eastward drift. Farther south is their general destination, and hawks of every kind avoid traveling over water. So the Chesapeake’s western shore is a good place to see the great raptor migration.

Some days when the timing is right and the prevailing winds cooperate, large numbers of birds fly along the western shore. Sandy Point State Park and Fort Smallwood Park are two of the best-known spots in the mid-Bay region to witness the phenomena. But any place along the Bay shore might do just as well if the conditions are good.

I can’t write about raptor migration in the Mid-Atlantic without mentioning Cape May, New Jersey. No other place comes close. South Jersey and the waters that border it create a funnel that concentrates the birds as they fly south. You might think that Point Look Out, at the tip of St. Mary’s County, should be just as hot for hawks, but it isn’t so.

On the Atlantic shore, a northeasterly wind will bring a good number of falcons. The falcons — peregrines, merlins and kestrels — are superb flyers, so they are not shy about migrating over large bodies of water.

The first day after the front has passed brings large numbers of smaller hawks, accipiters such as sharp-shinned hawks and the slightly larger Cooper’s hawks along with the diminutive kestrel falcon. Accipiter is the name of a group of small hawks with short wings and long tails; they have adapted to maneuver quickly through tight spaces in the forest to pursue songbirds.

If the western winds persist, days two and three after the cold front usher in the soaring hawks, buteos such as red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks as well as bald eagles and the occasional golden eagle. Buteos are large hawks with long, broad wings that allow them to soar on the wind and ride thermals (columns of warm air) to great heights. Buteos feed mainly on rodents and reptiles.

Red-tailed hawks are frequently seen along roadsides especially during the winter. They perch on high and scan the open areas for signs of prey. Red-shouldered hawks are most common near rivers, swamps and streams.

Generally, the population numbers for the hawks mentioned here are stable throughout the year, except during the spring and fall migration periods when the numbers rise. For the most part, the birds that breed in the northern part of their range are responsible for the migration phenomena. The hawks that breed here tend to stay put.