Riding the Airwaves
You wake before sunrise, grab a thermos of coffee, your backpack, and binoculars, and navigate your way up to your favorite summit. The morning air feels cool, and a light northwest wind is rustling leaves in a nearby tree.
And then the birds begin to appear—several sharp-shinned hawks first, followed by one or two Cooper’s hawks, then a red-shouldered hawk. And on a distant horizon, a group of four to five red-tailed hawks struggles to catch a thermal, each bird soaring at its own altitude.
Welcome to the season of fall hawk migration, a time of year when thousands of hawks and their young annually move through the state from northern breeding grounds to wintering areas often far to the south. While the majority of broad-wing hawks has already departed by late September, now’s your chance to see the best variety of migrating hawks, as well as several species of falcons and late-moving ospreys, eagles, and northern harriers.
Before you head for the hills, read on for hawk watching tips and tricks.
How to Hawk Watch
Check the Weather
The best fall migration conditions typically occur on the heels of the passage of a high-pressure system (a cold front) along with accompanying northwesterly winds. When this happens, the cold, clear air from the high pressure system rides over the warmer ground temperatures. On a sunny day, this creates thermals—columns of warm air that rise high above the ground and provide the lift that allows hawks to soar easily.
Get Out Your Map
Look for a site—a mountain, hill, ridge, open field, or sand dune—with a view to the north or northwest. Check out our list of tried-and-true hawk watching locations.
Watch the Clock
On favorable days for migration, hawks often begin moving shortly after sunrise. Prime time is between 8 am and 4 pm.
Hawk-watching sites can get cold, so bundle up. And don’t forget to pack snacks and water, binoculars, a field guide, and a compass and map.
Know Your Hawks
The term “hawk” has been applied to many birds of prey, some related, some not. Knowing the basic species in Massachusetts can help you better identify these birds.
Massachusetts hosts three Accipiter species: sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk (pictured above), and northern goshawk. These bird-eating hawks are long-tailed and have relatively short, rounded wings. Since they’re often very similar in appearance, they can be tricky to identify.
Buteos are stockier in build than the accipiters. Their preferred food often comprises small mammals, but they will also feed on birds, reptiles, and even insects. Buteos include the rough-legged hawk, red-tailed hawk, broad-winged hawk, and red-shouldered hawk (pictured above).
American kestrel, peregrine falcon, and merlin (pictured above) are all considered falcons, which rely on their speed and agility to capture their prey. Scientists used to classify falcons among the hawks, but have recently determined that these birds are more closely related to woodpeckers!
Several other birds of prey—ospreys, eagles (bald eagle pictured above), vultures, northern harriers—often get lumped in with hawks, but they’re not all as closely related to the other hawk species mentioned at left, at least from a scientific perspective.
This article is was featured in the Fall 2016 issue of Explore, Mass Audubon's quarterly member newsletter.