For me, one of the highlights of fall migration is the southbound migration of hawks, falcons, and other raptors, which is starting up now and really starts to peak in mid-September through November in most places.
It may be because the first organized birding event that I attended was a fall hawk migration workshop given by the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, an experience which really got me "hooked" on birding. But it's probably just as much because the raptors moving past are so iconic, powerful, and majestic. You might find yourself staring at a Bald Eagle soaring overhead one moment, and then being buzzed by a Peregrine Falcon the next. Sometimes it's simply the sheer numbers of a particular species, like Sharp-shinned Hawk, even if the bird itself is fairly common and might not garner a second look if you saw a single bird over a nearby field.
As a bonus, hawk watching can be a social event, especially on slower days. Unlike warbler migration when birders and the birds are constantly on the move, or shorebird migration where most of the time is spent puzzling over the fall plumage of "peeps", hawk watching has a fairly steady ebb and flow to it, not unlike a good baseball game. Unless, of course, you happen to be at the hawk watch during a "good flight", in which case your head will be spinning at the sheer number and variety of birds.
The websites of the following hawk watches have a wealth of information about the logistics and ideal timing of visits and the differing mixes of raptors you'll see at any given point during the fall. Even if you don’t go to one of the ones listed, a lot of the information will come in handy with any spot you might pick.
Cape May, New Jersey. Cape May bills itself as the "Raptor Capitol of America”, and it hosts a very active and very “birdy” hawk watch each fall. Different from many hawk watches that have a geologic advantage (usually a mountain or ridge to concentrate the thermals on which raptors rise and soar), Cape May has a geographic advantage at the end of the state, which helps concentrate the southbound hawks when they confront the vast expanse of Delaware Bay. And, yes, they still do offer the hawk migration workshop (see the online calendar for details).
Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania. The official count at Hawk Mountain started in the 1930s, and it’s a particularly well-established hawk watch with miles of trails (check out the great Trails entry by David Meiser), several lookouts, and a visitor center. Hawks here move past you at eye level or even below you, giving you a much different perspective than at places like Cape May. It’s also an important spot in the history of bird conservation: the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was established to help stop the slaughter of the hawks and other raptors that enthusiasts now gather there to enjoy.
Hawk Ridge, Duluth, Minnesota. Taking advantage of a ridge along Skyline Parkway outside of Duluth, which helps to concentrate the "thermals" on which raptors soar, Hawk Ridge is one of the major hawk watching spots in the Midwest and has been conducting its official count since 1974. The Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory staffs the hawk watch with interpretative staff during the peak months of September and October, and they host a hawk weekend scheduled for mid-September.
Veracruz, Mexico. Each year, up to 2 million Broad-winged Hawks and 1 million Swainson’s Hawks funnel through Veracruz on their way to wintering grounds in Central and South America, giving the phenomenon the apt nickname of "River of Raptors" (so well described by Rob Bierregaard on his website). It's become a very popular destination for birders who want to admire the spectacle while enjoying some great overall birding in the area. The American Birding Association is organizing a conference there this fall, timed to coincide with the River of Raptors.
Hawk Hill, Marin County, California. Located in the Marin Headlands, just over the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, Hawk Hill combines the “funnel” aspect of a place like Cape May (with the birds confronted with San Francisco Bay) and the elevation of some of the other hawk watches. In addition to organizing one of the more prominent hawk watches on the West Coast, Golden Gate Raptor Observatory has a very active banding and tracking project to gather invaluable data about long-term trends and the migration routes that the birds take.
OK, now that you’ve figured out where you want to go, there are many resources to help with raptor identification. For simple ID guides to get you started or to stuff in your pocket for a trip out into the field, be sure to check out those on the websites of the Hawk Migration Association of North America and the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. The Hawk Mountain website has a great resource page with a bunch of information and ID guides, including a coloring book!
For more in-depth coverage, a couple of my favorite books are Hawks in Flight by Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, and The Photographic Guide to North American Raptors by Brian Wheeler and William Clark.
Even if you don’t have time to study up beforehand, many of the organized hawk watches have interpretative staff or volunteers to help visitors spot and identify the birds, so don’t let your lack of experience keep you away from your local hawk watch. Trust me, the excitement is infectious: you will learn a lot on your first trip while having an amazingly fun time!
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Birding Phil started birding in Cape May, N.J. and Central Park in New York City more than 10 years ago. Since then, his birding adventures (with his wife, Mimi Calter) have included trips to Alaska, Belize, and mainland Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, along with a bunch of other hotspots in the continental U.S., including Florida, Texas, and Arizona). Phil was included in Chris Santella's book "Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die: Birding Experts Share the World's Greatest Destinations," in which Phil talked about Pt. Reyes, CA. Birdwatchers -- head on over and join the Birdwatchers group on Trails.