Hawk Migrations in MA
Hawkwatching is a unique form of birdwatching. Most birds are best observed, identified, and appreciated when they are resting on the ground, vegetation, or water. Hawks seem to provide the most pleasure and excitement when they are in the air, soaring, gliding, flapping, and stooping in awesome displays of flying skill.
Hawks are usually best seen, and seen in the greatest numbers, during migration. Although the spring hawk migration is substantial and exciting to watch, the fall migration provides the best views and largest numbers of hawks. Then the thousands of birds that breed to our north and northeast, and their young of the year, move through Massachusetts in significant concentrations.
Although fall migration starts in August with small number of migrating hawks, the best time for watching is the month of September. Most numerous is the Broad-winged Hawk, which at times can be seen in flocks, or kettles, of hundreds, occasionally thousands of birds, "boiling" high into the sky. The next most commonly seen September migrants are the feisty Sharp-shinned Hawk, American Kestrel, Osprey, Northern Harrier (Marsh Hawk), and Turkey Vulture.
The total number of migrant hawks ebbs but the variety improves in late September and early October when you are likely to see more of the larger, less common raptors. These include the Cooper's, Red-tailed, and Red-shouldered hawks; Golden and Bald eagles, Peregrine Falcon, and Merlin.
The fall migration continues through October and into November, with good opportunities to see goshawk, redtail, red-shoulder, and eagles, along with the Rough-legged Hawk, the beautiful male Northern Harrier, and rarely, a Gyrfalcon. These late migrants are often found wintering in Massachusetts.
Many of the larger, less common hawks that migrate south in October and November return north during late February, March, and early April. Early April also brings substantial numbers of American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, and Osprey, which continue migrating throughout the month. The latter species are also seen in May. The last weeks of April and early May produce Broad-winged and Sharp-shinned hawks in peak numbers, along with Peregrine Falcon and Merlin. In spring, the greatest number of hawks move through our region between mid-April and mid-May, but the migration dribbles well into June.
Fewer migrant hawks are generally seen in spring than fall, in part because their numbers have been reduced by attrition on two long migrations and on their wintering grounds. Evidence also suggests that the location of their wintering grounds, topography, and weather tend to concentrate many spring migrants west of Massachusetts.
Spring hawkwatching is nonetheless rewarding. At many coastal sites, the eye-level views of Sharp-shinned Hawks, Northern Harriers, Merlins, and American Kestrels are indescribably exciting. Inland, spring is a particularly good time to observe Turkey Vulture, and it is easier to see more species of hawks in one day inland in April than at any other time of year. Celebrated vagrants, such as Black Vulture, Mississippi Kite, and Swallow-tailed Kite, are most often seen in spring.
There are two rules for successful hawkwatching. First, hawkwatch as often as possible. The more often you get out, especially during September and October, the more likely you are to see lots of hawks and become familiar with their field marks. The second, is to hawkwatch under the conditions most favorable to hawk migration at your watch site.
In the fall, the best migration conditions can occur the day of and up to two days after the arrival of a high-pressure system or cold front. The cold, clear air riding over the warm earth on a sunny day facilitates the formation of thermals, or columns of warm air that rise high above the ground. With scarcely a wingbeat, a few hawks - or hundreds - might circle together in the warm air, soaring up and up to a point where the thermal has dissipated (often marked by puffy cumulus clouds). These kettles of hawks, especially broadwings, often seem to "boil" to the limits of vision. The hawks then use the altitude gained in this leisurely manner to glide serenely towards their destination. When they "peel off" from the top of a high thermal, their gradual descent can cover miles before the birds seek another thermal to ride aloft.
Moderate to weak winds, generally under 20 mph, blowing anywhere out of the north, from northwest to northeast, are best for good thermal - and hawk - activity inland. The best coastal flights seem to be on strong northwest winds. If the sky is overcast, but the wind is favorable though rather stiff, watch sites on ridges tend to be more productive than those on isolated hills or monadnocks.
Don't be misled into hawkwatching only when the winds are clearly from the north. When poor weather has held up migrants, they will fly under less than ideal conditions. In 1980, the biggest flights seen throughout New England occurred on weak southeast winds! (Upper atmospheric winds were more favorable, but this was not easily perceived from the ground.)
We know much less about favorable spring migration conditions. The arrival of a weak low-pressure system is thought to be best, producing southwest winds and warm air to carry the hawks northeast with good lift. However, coastal sites have had their best spring flights on moderate to strong northwest winds, and the biggest spring flights ever recorded inland in New England have been on northwest winds as well. The best rule to follow in spring is to go out on days when the wind is anywhere out of the west quadrant. Winds from the east quadrant almost guarantee hawkless skies.
TIME OF DAY
What time of day should you hawkwatch? On good days hawks can be moving at sunrise, if not earlier. Inland, you tend not to see as many birds in the early hours as you would later in the morning, but the birds you see might be closer and afford better views. Prime time is probably 8, perhaps 9, a.m. to 4 p.m. (EST), but good numbers (and good birds) can be seen before or after those hours.
Finally, where should you go hawkwatching? Massachusetts birders are fortunate in having many excellent sites from which to chose. Massachusetts' two premier hawkwatching sites, Mt. Tom and Mt. Wachusett, are discussed in detail below. You need not go to these two mountains to see a good flight, especially in September. Massachusetts has many excellent but lesser known and less well-covered hawkwatch sites spread across the state, also described below.
To see as many hawks as possible, however, it is important to hawkwatch as often as possible, and that is easier to do if you have a hawkwatch site close to your home. If one of the sites described below is not close to your home, explore for hawkwatching sites near you. The abundant Broad-winged Hawk, perhaps the raptor easiest to see in migration, tends to move on a broad front, so that during September, and to a lesser extent mid-April to mid-May, good flights can be discovered almost anywhere in the state except the islands. (Cape Cod in spring only.)
In the fall, look for a site, preferably a mountain, hill, ridge, open field, or sand dune, with a view to the north quadrant, stretching from the northwest to the northeast. Explore under favorable weather conditions during peak season, to give the site a fair test. Scan the sky regularly with good binoculars. Don't be disappointed if your site isn't productive the first day, or the first several times. Hawk flight paths are apparently determined by a combination of weather and geography over thousand of miles, so they are irregular.
It is more difficult to see good flights inland during the spring, but look for a comparable location with a view to the south and west. Coastal sites, which usually are best in spring, should afford as wide a view to the east, south, and west as possible.
When you go hawkwatching, please take clothing more than adequate to keep you warm. It can turn quite cold on windy, exposed hawkwatch sites. Also take adequate food and drink. If the hawks are flying, you won't want to leave the site in pursuit of physical sustenance. It's also advisable to take binoculars, a compass, a notebook, and one or more friends with you. The more eyes the better. The compass will help you find the site and evaluate the view as well as determine flight directions. The notebook is for recording the numbers you count, the time you see each bird or kettle, and what you observe about the hawks, including questions you have about the birds you can't identify. Using your binoculars, you should regularly scan the sky in all directions, including directly overhead and behind you. It's amazing how many hawks can pass by unnoticed, only to be seen flying away from you! Finally, you should take several field guides with you, so you can look up those "questionable" birds.
With time, patience, good judgement, and a bit of luck, you can discover the unique rewards of hawkwatching. Good hawking.
POPULAR HAWK-WATCHING SITES
(S, F indicate whether Spring or Fall site)
MT. TOM STATE RESERVATION, Easthampton S, F
At 1202 feet, Mt. Tom offers beautiful views of the Connecticut River Valley, and is one of the most consistently productive sites in New England. Buteos comprise the vast majority of the flight, but all species can be seen here. In the fall, Goat's Peak Tower is the best observation point. It is essential to use the tower, and that is one of the drawbacks to Mt. Tom. On weekends, when a good flight is anticipated, the tower can be very crowded. Fewer hawks are seen on Mt. Tom in the spring, when Bray's Tower, looking to the southwest, is best.
Directions: Take I-91 north from the Mass. Pike. Take Exit 17w onto Rte. 141, continuing 1.7 miles to the reservation entrance, Christopher Clark Road, to the east. Take Clark Rd. 2.9 miles. Not far beyond the park headquarters, you'll see a large parking lot to your right. Park here and walk up the surfaced road that climbs the hill at the rear of the lot. A fairly steep 10-minute hike will take you to Goat's Peak Tower. To reach Bray Tower, take Clark road to the headquarters, where you turn left onto Reservation Road. Bray Tower is just a few yards down this road.
WACHUSETT MOUNTAIN STATE RESERVATION, Princeton S, F
The second best-known site in Massachusetts is Wachusett Mountain in Princeton. Wachusett (2004 ft), a monadnock offering excellent views in all. The primary advantages of Wachusett are its proximity to many eastern Massachusetts birders - it's only an hour's drive west of Boston - and the fact you can drive to the summit (the road opens at 9A.M. mid-April through October). The summit also accommodates many more people more comfortably than can Mt. Tom, which can be both an asset and a liability on weekends when foliage is at peak.
In fall, the best observation site is from the summit parking lot, scanning the sky from Gardner in the northeast to Boston in the east. A second lookout only several dozen yards away, from the right side of the firetower, provides a good view to the west and northwest. Wachusett is good for all hawks with the exception of Peregrine Falcon and Merlin. In spring, the best site is the "Ledges," a small parking lot or overlook on the "up" road, only a hundred yards from the summit. The Ledges provide an excellent view to the south and southwest. When a southwesterly or westerly wind sweeps up the Ledges in April or May, it often brings hawks in for long, close looks, especially before 11 a.m. The summit from the south (left) side of the firetower is also a good spring site.
Directions: Take Route 2 to Route 140 (south) in Westminster. Take Route 140 south several miles to Wachusett Lake, where you turn right onto Mile Hill Road, following the signs to the Wachusett Mountain Ski Area. Drive past the ski area to the park entrance partially up the moutain on your right. Immediately inside the reservation, turn right again onto the all-weather road to the summit.
MT. WATATIC, Ashburnham S, F
Mt. Watatic (1832 ft) has good spring and fall potential, but it requires a very steep climb to reach the exposed hawkwatch site. Directions: From Route 12 in Ashburnham, take Route 101 north to Route 119. Turn left and drive approximately 0.7 miles west on Route 119. On the right, you'll see the Wapack trail, marked by yellow blazes, following power lines up the steep, rocky southern slope. This is a very steep rocky quarter-mile hike straight up the mountain. Allow at least half an hour for the hike. The summit is quite exposed to strong winds; pack adequate clothing. No water or restrooms available.
ROUND TOP CONSERVATION AREA, Athol F
From Athol center take Main Street east to Athol Memorial Hospital on your right. Turn left onto Bearsden Road at Athol Conservation Area sign. After about one mile, take the right fork, following the signs to the conservation area. Park where paved road ends and walk short distance along road to "Round Top Path" sign on your right. Take leisurely 1/2 mile hike along well-marked trail to low, exposed summit. No water or restrooms.
QUABBIN TOWER, Quabbin Reservoir S, F
Take Mass. Pike to Palmer (Exit 8), and follow signs to Route 181. Take Route 181 north to Route 9. (A cutoff marked on your right will reduce the distance to Rte. 9). Turn east (right ) onto Route 9, which will bring you to the well-marked entrance to the Quabbin Reservation on your left. Follow signs to the summit of Quabbin Hill and the lookout tower. Maps, water, and restrooms available at headquarters near Windsor Dam.
BLUEBERRY HILL, West Granville F
Take Mass. Pike to Westfield (Exit 3). Turn south onto Routes 10 & 202 to Southwick. Take Route 57 west to North Lane #2, a right turn approximately 3 miles west from Granville center. Take North Lane #2 about a mile north to Blueberry Hill, obvious on your right. Park at base and walk 1/4 mile to summit. No water or restrooms.
FOBES HILL, Windsor F
Take Route 8A north from junction of Routes 9 & 8A in Windsor. Continue about 1 mile and park at burned house and farm buildings. A 1/4 mile hike up Fobes Hill, to the east of the road, is required. No water or restrooms. Caution: this area is very busy during hunting season, when hawkwatching is best confined to Sundays.
MT. GREYLOCK STATE RESERVATION, Adams F
From Route 2 in North Adams, take Notch Road south, following signs to Mt. Greylock. (Notch road is about a mile west of North Adams center.) Continue on Notch Road to summit of Greylock. From Route 7 in Lanesboro, take Rockwell Road, well-marked, north to summit. Water and restrooms available at summit lodge.
MT. EVERETT STATE RESERVATION, Egremont F
Follow signs to state reservation out of Egremont. From junctions of Routes 23 & 41, proceed south a short distance to a right turn marked by sign "Mt. Everett 8, Jug End Resort." Turn right onto this road. At first crossroad, continue straight ahead for 2.8 miles to a fork marked by a sign to Bash Bish Falls. Take the left fork, towards Bash Bish Falls. Take the left for, towards Bash Bish Falls, 3 miles to the entrance of Mt. Everett State Reservation. Continue about 2 miles on the reservation road to a parking lot. Park here and walk short distance to summit. No water; restrooms below summit.
PARKER RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Plum Island S, F
The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island is another excellent spring location. Most of the ocean side of the refuge is closed during the spring to protect Piping Plovers, but Parking Lot #1 is open and can be very productive in a northwest wind. American Kestrels, sharpshins, harriers, and Merlins comprise most of the spring flight here. Fall flights have not been observed to be as consistent or large. Directions: In Newburyport, follow Plum Island Turnpike over the bridge and take your first right, following the signs to the refuge. Water and restrooms at Parking Lot #1 in season. Restrooms at Parking Lot #4 in all seasons.
WEST NEWBURY F
If a sea breeze develops on Plum Island in the spring, abandon the island for Newbury and West Newbury, both of which provide good spring and fall hawkwatching. The Common Pastures off Scotland Road (east of Rte. 95), Pike's Bridge off Turkey Hill Road, and Indian Hill in West Newbury are several of the good spring sites in this area, especially from mid-April to mid-May. On fall weekends, try the Page School on the north side of Route 113. Many more hawks move through this general area in spring and fall than have been reported.
Cape Cod is not known for hawkwatching, but it has great potential. The best hawking seems to be in spring, especially from mid-April to mid-May. Cape hawkers can enjoy a special phenomenon, the Cape effect, which appears most obvious in spring. Hawks often migrate up the ocean side of the Cape, moving north until they reach Provincetown. Here they discover they can't go farther north without flying some distance over the ocean. As many species are reluctant to fly long distances over water, they mill about over Provincetown, turn around, and fly back down the Cape to the mainland. Thus it is possible to sit on a Cape dune watching hawks flying north on one side of you while another stream heads south on the other side. It can pay to scan in all directions with binoculars at every Cape site. (Kettles of broadwings have been seen milling over Provincetown as late as early June!).
FORT HILL, Eastham S, F
Take Route 6 north from the rotary in Orleans. After approximately 1 1/2 miles, turn right, following the signs to the parking lot overlooking Nauset Marsh. Scan in all directions. Open year round. No water or restrooms available.
SALT POND, Eastham S, F
From Route 6 in Eastham center, follow signs to Cape Cod National Seashore Visitors' Center at Salt Pond, visible just east of the highway. Few reports have been received from here, but the site has good potential. Water and restrooms are available in the center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
MARCONI STATION, South Wellfleet S, F
Take Route 6 to about one mile north of the Massachusetts Audubon Wellfleet Bay Sanctuary. Turn east at light, following signs to Marconi Station. Walk to bluff near Marconi Wireless display. No water or restrooms.
CAPE COD LIGHT, North Truro S, F
From Route 6 turn east onto Highland Road. Follow road to end, on bluff, and scan in all directions. No water or restrooms.
BEECH FOREST, Provincetown S
From Route 6 turn north onto Race Point Road. The Beech Forest Trail parking lot is about 1/2 mile down, on your left. From the parking lot, take the trail leading west past the restrooms. When you reach a section of split rail fence on the south side of the trail, you'll see and should follow a sandy trail leading through the scrub pines to the top of High Dune, which provides excellent views in all directions. Hawks, especially vultures and buteos, tend to mill about here as they decide to fly back down the Cape. Good numbers seen occasionally into early June. One of the best sites for accidental species. Water and restrooms at parking lot in season.
PROVINCE LANDS VISITORS' CENTER, Provincetown S
From Route 6, take Race Point Road north, driving past Beech Forest. Visitors' Center is obvious on dunes to your right. Follow signs. From the observation deck you have good views in all directions, although many birds might be backlit by sun. Water and restrooms in season.
by Paul M. Roberts
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