Hawk watching is a unique form of birdwatching. Most birds are best observed, identified, and appreciated when they are resting on the ground, water, or perched in vegetation. On the other hand, hawks seem to provide the most pleasure and excitement when they are in the air, soaring, gliding, flapping, or stooping in awesome aerial displays.
Hawks are often best seen and in the greatest numbers during spring and fall migration. Although spring hawk migration is substantial and exciting to watch, it is fall migration that provides the best views and the largest numbers of hawks.
Although fall migration starts in August with small numbers of migrating hawks already on the move, September is usually the best month for fall hawk watching. Thousands of hawks that breed north of Massachusetts, along with the young of the year, move through Massachusetts in significant concentrations every fall.
Most numerous of these species is the broad-winged hawk, which at times can be seen in flocks, of hundreds or occasionally even thousands of birds, soaring high into the sky in groups called “kettles." The next most commonly seen September migrants are sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels, ospreys, northern harriers (a.k.a. marsh hawks), and turkey vultures.
Fewer hawks are generally seen during spring migration than in the fall, in large part because their numbers are usually reduced by mortality sustained during their long migrations to and from their wintering grounds. In addition the locations of their wintering grounds, geographical topography, and weather patterns in spring tend to concentrate many migrating hawks west of Massachusetts.
Spring hawkwatching can nonetheless be rewarding. At many coastal sites in spring, exciting eye-level views of sharp-shinned hawks, northern harriers, merlins, and American kestrels can often be obtained.
Enhance Your Hawkwatching Experience
When you go hawkwatching, you want to be prepared. Essential items to bring with you include:
- Warm clothing since it can often be quite cold or windy at exposed hawkwatch sites.
- Adequate food and drink, so you don’t have to leave the site to get food if the hawks are flying.
- A compass to help you find the site and evaluate the view, as well as to determine flight directions.
- A notebook for recording the numbers of hawks you count, the time you see each bird or each kettle, and whatever other observations you might make about the hawks, including questions you might have about the identity of the hawks you see.
- Binoculars so you can regularly scan the sky in all directions, including directly overhead.
- Field guides to help you look up and identify any "questionable" birds that you might see.
Hawk Watching Locations
While Massachusetts' three premier hawkwatching sites are Mt. Wachusett, Mt. Watatic, and Mt. Tom, you need not go to these somewhat disparate sites to see a good flight, especially in September. To see as many hawks as possible, however, it may be necessary to hawkwatch as often as possible, so this is easier to do if you have a hawkwatch site close to your home.
Take a Hawk Watching Program
In spring and September, many of Mass Audubon's wildlife sanctuaries host hawk watching programs.
Get to Know Your Hawks
The term “hawk” has been applied to many birds of prey, including some that aren’t closely related to each other. These include the slender, round-winged accipiters, the stocky buteos, the speedy falcons, and many others. Here are the species you’re likely to see in Massachusetts.