On the Wing
As the days grow shorter and cooler, the skies fill with birds migrating to warmer, more temperate climates for the winter. The Chesapeake Bay watershed lies within a major migration path known as the Atlantic Flyway. Mountain chains to the west and coastal shorelines channel millions of migrating birds through the Bay region. Among these travelers are hawks and falcons, commonly known as raptors.
Raptors begin their annual southward migration just prior to the fall foliage color change. The earlier migrants are generally not noticed. Juvenile birds lead the way, beginning to move in September. Adults generally wait until late November to join the southbound flight
As they approach the Chesapeake Bay, the land formation changes, causing some migrants to funnel along the coast while the others are steered along the mountains.
Mountain ridges are great spots to see raptors. The best days are when a cold front pushes a north, northwest or westerly wind eastward against the face of the mountain ridge. The combination of cooler air and strong wind allows the bird an effortless “ride” southward.
The most common group of hawks noticed on the ridge are the accipiters. Characterized by their long tails and short rounded wings, accipiters such as the sharp-shinned hawk, northern goshawk and Cooper’s hawk can be seen gliding along the mountain tree tops. These hawks dominate the sky during most of the month of October.
The buteos, or soaring hawks, include species such as the broad-winged hawk, red-shouldered hawk and red-tailed hawk. Broad-winged hawks congregate in groups of 100 birds or more called “kettles”, migrating in September. The rest of the buteos peak during the month of November at the coldest part of the season. Red-tailed hawks are the most common migrants during this period. These large robust hawks are seen hesitating along the ridge, making sudden stops into the trees as they attempt to capture squirrels.
On occasion, a golden eagle will make a showing, usually during the late October following a strong cold front. Wind conditions that peak at 25 miles per hour will increase your chances of witnessing such an event. To observe the hawk flights along a mountain passage, travel toward the Appalachian or Blue Ridge mountain ranges. The west-facing ridges in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and Virginia provide excellent opportunities to see the southbound migration.
The coastal migration route is even more unique than the ridge. As the land mass narrows toward the end of the New Jersey peninsula, raptors begin to congregate at the southern end of Cape May. The uncertainty of crossing a large body of water turns the raptors northward until they feel secure that conditions are just right.
Falcons are one group of raptors that migrate along the coastline. These birds are characterized by long, pointed wings and long, narrow tails. The American kestrel, merlin and peregrine falcon favor the wide open spaces of the coast. The northern harrier, also known as the marsh hawk, can also be seen along the coastline. The coast is extremely important for migration, due to the tremendous quantity of bird life found along its salt marshes, fields and forest edges, many of which serve as a critical food source to these migrant hawks and falcons.
The migration is nearing the end when adult species begin to join in the southbound flight, usually occurring near the end of November. Locations to observe a coastal fall flight can be found along the southern end of peninsulas such as Cape May, N.J.; Cape Henlopen, Del.; the barrier islands of Assateague, Md. and Chincoteague, Va.; and all points south along the beaches to Cape Charles, Va.