Tag Archives: hawks

Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm

Fall Hawk Migration is in the Air

Hawks, falcons, and vultures are among the few groups of birds that migrate during the day.

Unlike songbirds and waterfowl, which migrate under cover of night, raptors are actually visible as they make their long journeys across continents.

Although hawks pass by some sites by the hundreds or thousands, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can see them from any site on any day of the season. To find your best day and destination, you have to think like a hawk.

Red-tailed Hawk copyright George Brehm
Red-tailed Hawk © George Brehm

Riding the Airwaves

Raptors have one goal when migrating: use as little energy as possible to make it to their destination. So, they seek out rising air currents to help them gain altitude without flapping. 

Air rises as it is heated by the warmth of the ground (a “thermal”), or pushed upwards by passing over a hill or mountain (an “updraft”). Raptors circle inside these columns of rising air as it carries them upwards. As the air cools and stops rising, raptors exit and glide for miles, slowly losing altitude until they find another column (or start flapping).

Hawks often end up riding the same air current together, forming a rising spiral of birds, or a “kettle.” Kettling isn’t actually a social behavior, even if it looks like the hawks are flying together. Thermal-surfing raptors are simply taking advantage of the most efficient route, like drivers on a highway.

Cool Weather, Hot Hawkwatching

Thermals are strongest when the ground is much warmer than the air. Hawkwatching can be excellent when a cold front moves through, bringing cold air over the (temporarily) much warmer ground and sending thermals spiraling upwards.

Cold fronts are often accompanied by winds from the north, which are conducive to southbound raptors in the fall. When clear, cold air moves in from the north after many days of poor migration conditions (either rain or strong winds from the south), unusually high numbers of restless raptors can be seen migrating at once.

Timing is Everything

Mid-September is prime season for viewing Massachusetts’ most numerous and conspicuous raptors, like Broad-winged Hawks and Ospreys, as well as less common species like American Kestrels and Sharp-shinned Hawks. As the season cools, the mix shifts a little, but the hawkwatching often stays good until late October and tapers off into November.

If you want to plan a trip to see migrating raptors this season, check out our list of hawkwatching sites as well as resources from the Eastern Massachusetts Hawk Watch club.

Red-shouldered Hawk © Brian Rusnica

Take 5: Red-shouldered Hawks

Throughout September, birders and raptor-lovers have kept a careful eye on the sky on warm days, looking for “kettles” of hawks, climbing slowly upward in a spiral pattern on rising thermals (warm air pockets). September is prime season for fall hawk-watching, particularly for the Broad-winged Hawk, which is so numerous at times that hundreds or even thousands of birds have been reported in a day, but if you haven’t had a chance to get out there yet, there’s still time!

Although the total number of migrating hawks begins to decline after mid-September,  the variety improves by late September and early October when more of the larger, less common raptors are moving. These include the Cooper’s, Red-tailed, and today’s featured raptor, Red-shouldered Hawks.

These distinctively marked beauties are typically smaller than a Red-tailed Hawk but larger than a Broad-winged Hawk. Adults have reddish banding on their breasts and black-and-white banding on their tails.

These five photos have all been submitted in the past to our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest. Today is the last day to enter the 2019 contest, so submit your photos now! You can also learn more about fall hawk-watching, including how to gauge the best time of day and weather conditions, on our website.

Red-shouldered Hawk © Lee Millet
Red-shouldered Hawk © Lee Millet
Red-shouldered Hawk © Richard Alvarnaz
Red-shouldered Hawk © Richard Alvarnaz
Red-shouldered Hawk © Sandra Taylor
Red-shouldered Hawk © Sandra Taylor
Red-shouldered Hawk © George Brehm
Red-shouldered Hawk © George Brehm
Red-shouldered Hawk © Brian Rusnica
Red-shouldered Hawk © Brian Rusnica
Red-tailed Hawk © Nathan Goshgarian

Take 5: High-Flying Hawks

‘Tis the season…the season of fall hawk migration, that is! Each year in late summer and early fall, thousands of hawks and their young move through the state from northern breeding grounds to wintering areas often far to the south. While the majority of broad-wing hawks depart by late September, now’s your chance to see the best variety of migrating hawks, as well as several species of falcons and late-moving ospreys, eagles, and northern harriers.

Enjoy these five fantastic photographs of hawks from past years of our annual Picture This: Your Great Outdoors photo contest and check out our How to Hawk Watch guide—then get out there and hawk watch like pro!

This year’s photo contest closes on September 30, so be sure to enter your nature photographs today!

Red-tailed Hawk © Nathan Goshgarian

Red-tailed Hawk © Nathan Goshgarian

Cooper's Hawk © Lee Fortier

Cooper’s Hawk © Lee Fortier

Red-shouldered Hawk © Richard Alvarnaz

Red-shouldered Hawk © Richard Alvarnaz

Broad-winged Hawk © Joseph Cavanaugh

Broad-winged Hawk © Joseph Cavanaugh

Cooper's Hawk © Mary Anne Doyle

Cooper’s Hawk © Mary Anne Doyle

Know Your Hawks

Hawk watch season is just around the corner! Every fall, birders gather at ridge tops, sand dunes, and other open spaces to take in the spectacle of hawks flying south, sometimes in huge numbers. In a previous post we gave you a primer on this phenomenon. Here we’ll share a few tips for distinguishing some of the species you may see.

Sharp-shinned Hawk vs Cooper’s Hawk

Eugene Beckes/Flickr user corvidaceous (left), Maggie Smith/Flickr user slomaggie (right)

Eugene Beckes/Flickr corvidaceous (left), Maggie Smith/Flickr slomaggie (right)

Both of these hawks belong to a reclusive group called the accipiters. They use their short, rounded wings and long tails to weave through trees while chasing small birds. Watch for them flying in their flap-flap-flap-glide pattern in September and October.

The sharp-shinned hawk (affectionately known as a “sharpie”) and the Cooper’s hawk are fairly similar in color. Adults are slate-gray above and red-brown below, and young are brown above with brown streaks below. A few distinguishing characteristics:

  • Size. The sharpie is generally smaller (10”-14”), whereas the Cooper’s is larger (14”-20’). Be careful, though, because females of both species are noticeably larger than males.
  • Tail. The sharpie’s tail is square-ended, whereas the Cooper’s is rounded (think C for Cooper’s).
  • Habitat. The sharpie prefers to nest in forests, and the Cooper’s will also breed in suburbs.

Broad-winged Hawk vs Red-tailed Hawk

Bob LaPlant (left), Ronald Ciejka (right)

Bob LaPlant (left), Ronald Ciejka (right)

Both birds belong to a group called buteos that have broad wings and fan-shaped tails and often soar high overhead. Some strategies for telling them apart:

  • Size. The broad-winged hawk is crow-sized (about 15”), whereas the red-tailed hawk is much larger (18”-26”).
  • Tail. The broad-wing has a white band across the tail (not present in young birds), and the red-tail has a reddish tail (brown in juveniles) and a white chest with a dark band.
  • Habitat. The broad-wing prefers deep forests. The red-tail will breed in urban areas.
  • Time of year. The peak period for the broad-wing migration is approaching: look for huge flocks in mid-September. The red-tail migrates later, with numbers peaking in mid-October to early November, and some birds sticking around all winter.

American Kestrel vs Peregrine Falcon

Flickr user nebirdsplus (left), Richard Johnson (right)

Flickr nebirdsplus (left), Richard Johnson (right)

These are both falcons, with pointy wings and relatively long, slender tails. They both have dark markings on their faces. Sadly, the American kestrel is declining as a breeding species in Massachusetts, and you can help by reporting your kestrel sightings. The peregrine is doing much better: a program to reestablish this species in Massachusetts has been highly successful. Tips for telling them apart:

  • Size. The American kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America, at about 7”-8” long, while the peregrine ranges from 13”-23”.
  • Color. The kestrel has a rusty tail. Males have blue-gray wings, while the females’ wings are more reddish. The adult peregrine is blue-grey on top, and the juvenile is brown.
  • Habitat. Kestrels prefer fields and farmlands. Peregrines nest on cliffs and even on tall buildings in urban areas.
  • Time of year. Most American kestrels migrate in September. Peregrines tend to be especially numerous in early October.

Don’t miss this year’s migration: join one of our upcoming hawk watch programs.

It’s Prime Hawk Watching Time

Although many birds migrate during the fall, hawks are especially impressive to watch. In fact, fall migration potentially offers the best opportunity to view a variety of hawk species in greater numbers than any other time of year as the birds make their way across the skies of Massachusetts on their way south for the winter.

Fall migration technically starts in August when small numbers of hawks begin to migrate, but the best time for see large numbers is in September. Most numerous is the broad-winged hawk, which under the right conditions can sometime be seen in flocks, or “kettles,” containing hundreds, or occasionally even thousands of birds. Among some of the other commonly seen migrants are the sharp-shinned hawk, American kestrel, osprey, northern harrier (formerly called marsh hawk), and turkey vulture.

The total number of migrant hawks diminishes somewhat by early October, but you are more likely to see some of the larger, less common species. These include the cooper’s, red-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks; golden (rare) and bald eagles; peregrine falcons; and merlins.

The fall migration continues through October and into November, with northern harriers, northern goshawks, increased numbers of red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks, and rough-legged hawks bringing up the rear. Some of these late migrants are also found wintering in Massachusetts.

Photo © Brooks Mathewson