Whether it’s an eagle soaring majestically among the clouds or a falcon tearing through canyons with lightning speed, birds of prey excite the imaginations of all who gaze skyward.
Fifteen species of raptors ply the heavens in North Carolina, red-tailed, red-shouldered, and broad-winged hawks, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, osprey, Northern harriers, black vultures and turkey vultures, Mississippi kites, three falcons: peregrines, merlins, and American kestrels, bald eagles and, rarely, golden eagles, each adapted to its own niche.
Some have evolved to live through the winters of North America, and others face the travails of long-distance migration, covering thousands of miles twice a year — southward and northward.
Many birds of prey exhibit strong fidelity to both mate and nest site during the breeding season, but not so the rest of the year. Pairs tend to return to the same nesting area and mate with the same birds year after year. But, osprey pairs, for example, do not migrate together and they don’t spend the winter months together. Females migrate as much as a month before males in the fall, and males precede females in spring.
Each year at this time, volunteers from Audubon Society of Forsyth County and T. Gilbert Pearson Audubon in Greensboro stand watch at Pilot Mountain State Park’s Little Pinnacle. Always a place with spectacular views of Big Pinnacle and Hanging Rock’s Moore’s Wall, in September it’s the best place in this area to see a variety of raptors — sometimes in thrilling numbers.
Even the most mundane of raptors such as turkey vultures and black vultures sometimes bask in the sun just a few feet below a hawk watcher’s vantage point. These birds are commonly seen soaring far overhead. To see them from above when they are gliding by or even perched close at hand gives the observer a different perspective.
Vultures, red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks are seen nearly every day of the Hawk Watch. These year-round residents are usually joined by one or more Cooper’s or sharp-shinned hawks. Both osprey and bald eagles, while not common, are seen more and more often now that DDT — the cause of their declines in the 1970s — has largely dissipated from the environment.
But the most anticipated event is the passage of broad-winged hawks. This is the only raptor species in eastern North America that migrates in groups — sometimes very large groups.
Broad-winged hawks breed throughout the eastern US and across the Canadian provinces, and winter in Central and South America.
As they migrate, they travel in groups, called kettles, of a few individual birds to thousands. En route, they conserve energy by riding thermals, or updrafts. As the sun warms east-facing slopes, as along the Appalachian escarpment, rising columns of air lift the birds which then glide to the next thermal, and the next and so on, thereby traveling many miles without using much energy.
They further optimize migratory efficiency by traveling on days with favorable tailwinds, and avoid cloudy, rainy days.
Last year’s biggest day was September 29th when 1330 broad-winged hawks were counted by Pilot Mountain watchers.
But there was an even larger number of hawks sighted in 1993. Twenty-six years ago, Pilot Mountain Hawk Watch observers on counted 11,000 broad-winged hawks in one day.
You chances of witnessing a spectacle of this magnitude would entail many hours of patient watching, or extraordinary luck, or both.
But if you are willing to spend a few hours at Little Pinnacle, you may just experience exciting looks at a few of our most dynamic birds, or at the very least, enjoy splendid scenery from atop Pilot Mountain.
This year’s Hawk Watch is taking place at the Little Pinnacle overlook at Pilot Mountain from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM each day from September 15 through the 30th, and visitors are welcome.
Armchair birders can see the results of hawk watches across the country at Hawkcount.org, the website for the Hawk Migration Association of North America.