Tag Archives: migration

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.

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.

Great Bird Migration Spots

Yellow WarblerIt’s the event that bird watchers around the state have been waiting for: spring migration, the time of year when birds leave their winter grounds and head north. Typically, spring migration in Massachusetts lasts from early March to early June, with the peak usually falling sometime around Mother’s Day for many species.

So where do in-the-know birders go to best enjoy this annual occurrence? In addition to our many and varied sanctuaries statewide, listed below are a few of Mass Audubon’s favorite birding spots.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge and Watertown

Why Mt. Auburn, on the border of Cambridge and Watertown, is a “migrant trap” – a sizable area of greenery within a highly-developed urbanized area. The many trees, water features, and ornamental shrubs in the cemetery offers a safe place for birds to rest, find food, and prepare for  the next leg of their migratory journey.

What Songbirds, especially vireos, warblers, thrushes, and sparrows.

How This is such a popular spot that many Mass Audubon wildlife sanctuaries offer walks through Mt. Auburn during spring migration.

Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, Newbury and Newburyport

Why The extensive and varied habitats of this strategically located barrier island offer ideal stopover conditions for migrants along the coast, a pathway that many migrating birds follow in both spring and fall. The combination of salt, brackish, and freshwater wetlands as well as extensive coastal thickets attracts a wide variety of species. Birders like the area because many species are relatively easy to observe on the refuge.

What Parker River National Wildlife Refuge is attractive to a wide variety of species, but especially waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, and warblers in late spring and early fall.

How Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center in Newburyport runs Wednesday and Saturday morning birding programs through Parker River National Wildlife Refuge as well as other great area locations.

Daniel Webster Wildlife Sanctuary, Marshfield

Why In a state where forests grow up so quickly, and developments grow quicker still, areas of extensive grassland habitat are fairly rare especially in eastern Massachusetts. This makes Daniel Webster an important place for many grassland birds to stop during migration and also nest. It’s one of the largest regularly-maintained open grasslands in Mass Audubon’s habitat portfolio and is a popular birding destination at all times of year.

What Daniel Webster offers a fine chance to see various wetland species including waterfowl, herons, shorebirds, and swallows. Mixed flocks of blackbirds (i.e., grackles, cowbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and even the occasional rusty blackbird) as well as grassland specialties like bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks are possibilities. It’s also a favorite spot for raptors, especially open-country species like northern harriers and American kestrels.

How Explore the wildlife sanctuary on your own, or join a program offered through Mass Audubon’s North River Wildlife Sanctuary, also in Marshfield.

Scusset Beach State Reservation, Sandwich

Why The Cape Cod shoreline is often one of the first land masses that migratory birds encounter as they are moving north over the open ocean. These birds often follow the Cape Cod Bay shoreline directly to Scusset Beach State Reservation (a Department of Conservation and Recreation property), where they sometimes pause in the thickets there before turning north and continuing their migration.

What In addition to the songbirds that sometimes collect in the shrubby thickets behind the beach, seabirds like northern gannets, and sea ducks including scoters, eiders, and long-tailed ducks are regularly seen from the jetty near the mouth of the Cape Cod Canal.

How Stop by on your way to or from the Cape. Afterwards, hop back on Route 6 toward Barnstable to visit Mass Audubon’s Long Pasture Wildlife Sanctuary.

Canoe Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary, Pittsfield

Why Canoe Meadows borders the Housatonic River, a natural migration pathway, and it’s part of the Upper Housatonic Important Bird Area (IBA). The wildlife sanctuary includes a variety of habitat types including hayfields, beaver wetlands, riparian woodland, old field, and mixed woodland. Three miles of marked trails traverse these habitats.

What A wide variety of birds from waterfowl and raptors to flycatchers, warblers, and sparrows can be seen. Be on the lookout for red-breasted nuthatches, blue-gray gnatcatchers, blackburnian warblers, northern waterthrushes, and bobolinks.

How Join one of the regular Friday bird walks during April and May at Canoe Meadows, run by Mass Audubon’s Pleasant Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

And do share in the comments: What’s your favorite spots to go birding during spring migration?

Five Great Things About Fall

The air in Massachusetts is feeling crisp, and the leaves are beginning to turn, just in time for the autumnal equinox (when the day and night are of equal length), which falls on Saturday, September 22 this year. I love the first cool breeze, always eager to wrap myself in a cozy sweater, sip a hot cup of tea with honey, and wander through the woods.

Then again, what’s not to love about autumn? With so many incredible things taking place in nature, I savor every day before the first snow. Here are just a few things to look forward to.

1. Topping my list of fall favorites is New England’s famous foliage, a painter’s palette of lingering green, bursts of yellow, red, purple, orange, and deep brown. From the peak of a hill or a mountain, looking out at an expanse of color is a stunning reminder of just how amazing nature is. Mass Audubon is offering some especially fun canoe trips throughout the season, a great way to see the color change.

2. Some of the most delicious vegetables and fruits are ready for harvesting in autumn including apples. Many orchards offer pick-your-own, which is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon outdoors with friends, family, or simply with the quiet calm of nature. Other autumn crops are pumpkins, corn, and root vegetables such as carrots, beets, potatoes, and turnips. Grab a cup of hot apple cider, and head to your nearest farm or wildlife sanctuary, carve a pumpkin (Moose Hill and Oak Knoll sanctuaries are hosting pumpkin carving activities!), and pick-your-own pumpkins or potatoes!

3. We’re not the only ones enjoying a fantastic harvest this year. We’re seeing an abundant acorn crop, which means that chipmunks, mice, rabbits, and squirrels are busy harvesting as many acorns as possible before the winter. If the little guys are well fed, the winter will be a good season for predators such as owls, red-tailed hawks, foxes, and coyotes, too

4. Some of the best creature-watching takes place in the fall, especially as the trees shed their leaves. One of my favorite fall migrants is the common nighthawk. Not actually a hawk at all, the nighthawk can be seen migrating in flocks at dawn and dusk, typically through the beginning of October. Look to the sky just after sunset and you may see some flying overhead (hint: they’re shaped like bats earning them the nickname bull-bat). September and October are also great times to observe monarch butterfly migration, as these milkweed butterflies head south to Mexico. Throughout the season, you can enjoy great bird-watching as many different species pass through.

5. Finally, the clear night sky is best in autumn. On September 29, Uranus will be at opposition, meaning that the planet will be at its closest to the Earth, with its face fully illuminated by the sun. It will appear as a beautiful blue-green dot. Don’t forget to look out for the harvest moon, which is the first full moon of the season, on September 30. On October 20 and 21, we can look forward to the Orionids meteor shower, producing an average of 20 meteors per hour at its peak. Join a program and turn an eye to the sky this autumn!

What’s your favorite thing about fall? Tell us in the comments.

Photo © Debbie Stone Text by Emma Evans

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