American kestrel. Photo by Dave Menke
On the Wings of Raptors
As the days grow shorter and cooler, the skies fill with birds migrating to warmer, climates for the winter. The Chesapeake Bay watershed lies within a major migration path known as the Atlantic Flyway. Among these travelers are eagles, hawks and falcons, commonly known as raptors.
Juvenile raptors lead the way beginning to move in September. Adults generally wait until later in the fall to join the southbound flight. As they from the north, the land changes, causing some birds to funnel along the coast while the others are steered along the mountains.
Following 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 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 migrant during this period. These large robust hawks are seen hesitating along the ridge, making sudden stops into the trees attempting to capture squirrels.
On occasion, a golden eagle will make a showing, usually during the month of late October following a strong cold front. To observe the hawk flights, 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.
Along the Coast
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.
Top: Juvenile red-shouldered hawk. Photo by Dave Menke
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 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, New Jersey; Cape Henlopen, Delaware; the barrier islands of Assateague, Maryland and Chincoteague, Virginia; and all points south along the beaches to Cape Charles, Virginia.