Take Me Outside: Sept. 1 marks beginning of official hawk migration season
In this file photo from last year, Robert Vallieres gets ready to release a young coopers hawk from the observation stand at Carter Hill Apple Orchard. During the fall migration season, the New Hampshire Audobon welcomes visitors to learn about raptor identification and migration. Additionally, the NH Audobon staff tally birds as a part of an international effort to monitor raptor trends.
(Andrea Morales/Monitor file)
The young coopers hawk that was released on September 16, 2012 at the Carter Hill Apple Orchard spent the summer undergoing rehabilitation after it was found near Dover. It was taken to Wings of Dawn in Henniker, a wildlife rehabilitation center and bird sanctuary. During the fall migration season, the New Hampshire Audubon welcomes visitors to learn about raptor identification and migration. Additionally, the NH Audubon staff tally birds as a part of an international effort to monitor raptor trends.
(Andrea Morales/Monitor file)
In this file photo from last year, about 150 people watch the release of a rehabilitated young coopers hawk from the Audubon observation deck at Carter Hill Orchard on September 16, 2012. The event was organized by the New Hampshire Audubon and other hawk and bird groups and happens once a year at the Carter Hill location or at the raptor observatory in Peterborough. During the fall migration season, the New Hampshire Audubon welcomes visitors to learn about raptor identification and migration. Additionally, the NH Audubon staff tally birds as a part of an international effort to monitor raptor trends.
(Andrea Morales/Monitor file)
For some people, the start of September means it’s back-to-school time. For others, it’s a reminder of how short summers are in New Hampshire. Yet for those of us who love spectacular natural phenomena, Today marks the beginning of the official hawk migration season.
Birds of prey eat a wide variety of animals, ranging in size from grasshoppers to deer carcasses. Some of those animals become hard to find in the winter. Insects are dormant in one of their metamorphic stages. Small rodents hide in tunnels under the snow. Weasels and snowshoe hare turn white and vanish against the snowy backdrop of winter. Fish live safely in their watery home protected by a roof of ice. So the raptors that feed on these creatures must go to warmer places where food is still abundant.
Unlike many songbirds, which make their southbound journey at night, hawks fly when we can easily watch them. They follow predictable routes, using noticeable weather patterns, and they often gather in large numbers. All of these elements make hawk watching something that beginners and experts alike can get excited about this time of year.
One thing that makes hawk watching accessible is that raptors are relatively large (although they can look like specks when they are extremely high up), and there are only about a dozen species that are likely to be seen in our area. So learning to identify them is not as hard as with some other avian groups.
Hawks are classified into three major categories, each with its own characteristic shape and behaviors.
∎ Accipiters are woodland hawks with short wings and a long tail.
∎ Buteos are true soaring hawks of open country. They have wide wings and shorter fan-shaped tails.
∎ Falcons have narrow tails and pointy wings that help them move fast in pursuit of other birds.
Additional plumage variations and size distinguish the three or four species within these groups. Eagles, ospreys, vultures and northern harriers offer interesting additions to the list of birds on the move.
Timing can also provide tips for identification as species move according to different schedules. The broad-winged hawks are most often seen during the middle of September. Ospreys are more common later in the month and early October. Northern goshawks bring up the rear and move during the second half of October. Sharp-shinned hawks, however, can be reliably seen throughout the fall.
Identifying and counting individuals and groups of birds is something that is done at prominent locations throughout autumn. Many of these inventories are sent to the Hawk Migration Association of North America and combined with sightings from across the continent. The accumulated information provides a valuable picture of how these birds are doing over time and space. So, not only is hawk watching fun, it provides important data.
Not everyone gets excited about tallying dozens of tiny flying specks on a chilly fall day. But something that could excite even the most electronically focused couch potato is witnessing a swirling “kettle” of hundreds of broad-winged hawks as they rise into the sky on columns of warm air called thermals. Like ascending on an elevator, the “broadwings” conserve energy and let the thermals take them up and nearly out of sight. Then they peel off the top of the thermal and soar in a southerly direction, descending as they go and aiming for another thermal so they can repeat the behavior. Using this technique they can travel great distances without ever flapping a wing. When the conditions are right – a clear day after a spell of rain, with a gentle southerly breeze and warming temperatures, a hawk watcher could spot more than a thousand hawks in one day.
For anyone who would like to learn more about hawk migration and witness this fall ritual, New Hampshire Audubon Raptor Observatory at Carter Hill Orchard in Concord opens today. Volunteers and Audubon staff will be on hand throughout the season to help visitors learn about the birds, what to look for and how to identify the species. If migration gets slow, there are always apples to pick and purchase from the orchard. For information about hawk identification, the observatory schedule and special events, visit nhaudubon.org/locations/raptor-observatories.