As the days grow shorter and cooler, the skies fill with birds migrating to warmer climates for the winter. Among these travelers are eagles, hawks and falcons, commonly known as raptors

Mountain chains to the west and coastal shorelines to the east channel millions of migrating birds through the Bay region.

Raptors begin their southward flights prior to the fall foliage color change. By September the raptor migration is in full force with juvenile birds leading the way. Adults generally wait until late November to join the southbound flight.

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 gives birds an effortless "ride" southward.

Accipiters, a group of raptors characterized by their long tails and short rounded wings, can be seen gliding along the mountain tree tops. Sharp-shinned hawks, northern goshawks and Cooper's hawks dominate the sky during October.

Another group, the butoes or soaring hawks, often congregate in groups called kettles. Soaring hawks like broad-winged, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks peak during November at the coldest part of the season

On occasion, a golden eagle will make a showing, usually in late October following a strong cold front. The west-facing ridges in Pennsylvania , western Maryland and Virginia provide excellent opportunities to see migrating hawks.

Along the Coast

The coastal migration route is even more unique. As the land mass narrows toward the end of the New Jersey peninsula, raptors begin to congregate at 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 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. Harriers are slender hawks with owl-like faces. The Northern harrier, also known as the marsh hawk, can also be seen along the coastline.

Cape May, NJ, Cape Henlopen, DE, the barrier islands of Assateague, MD, Chincoteague, VA, and all points south along the beaches to Cape Charles, VA are excellent spots to catch the coastal fall flight.


Red-tailed hawk, USFWS photo.
Red-tailed hawk
U.S. Fish & Wildlife photo

Atlantic flyway
Atlantic flyway

USFWS