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Sep 9, 2014 9:48 PM

How to ID Migrating Hawks, Migration Is Now!

Broad-winged Hawk, adult. Has thick, black-and-white tail bands.

The hawks are coming! The hawks are coming! We're entering prime hawk migration time for birders in the northern and eastern half of the U.S. Some hawks, such as Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks, Merlins and American Kestrels, will move by flapping, but Broad-winged Hawks, an abundant migrant, travel by using rising thermals. Weather conditions of clear and sunny, with mild north or northwest winds, should produce ideal conditions for Broad-winged Hawk migration. The Hawk Migration Association of North America runs a large website where all the dates and numbers of migrating hawks are recorded. Go there to keep track of migration or to find a hawkwatch site in your area. Most of the Northeast hawkwatch sites will seen many Broad-winged Hawks this fall as well as many other raptors.

Here are some tips for watching hawks:

1. Prime Broad-winged Hawk migration in the North is Sept. 11 to 25, in the South (TX) it is Sept. 25th to Oct. 10.

2. Prime Sharp-shinned Hawk migration in the Northeast is Sept. 1 to Oct. 10, in the Mid-Atlantic States it is Sept. 10 to Oct. 20, in the West it is Sept. 11 to Oct. 31.

3. Hawks usually move most under sunny skies with mild northwest, north or northeast winds. Broad-winged Hawks require thermals to move.

4. Go hawk-watching at one of the many "official" hawk-watch sites here. Or find your own by going to a hill, mountain, or tall structure available to you that has good views to the north, because that is the direction the hawks are coming from.

5. Bring binoculars that are at 8 power, or even 10 power if you have them. Scan slowly back and forth across the sky at different heights to find the hawks. Most hawks will be fairly far away and some may look like specs. Learn hawk shapes at a distance to identify them. Many hawkwatchers also use spotting scopes to locate hawks.

6. Here's a brief look at the most common hawks you will see:

Broad-winged Hawk, adult

Broad-winged Hawk, juvenile

* Broad-winged Hawks. These are medium-sized hawks, 16" long, with broad wings, and soar together in groups. Look for the broad black-and-white tail bands seen on the adults, usually visible even at a distance. Juvenile Broad-winged Hawks have thin tail bands and dark streaking that is usually heaviest on the sides of the breast.

* Sharp-shinned Hawks. These are small, about Blue Jay-sized, 12" long, hawks in the accipiter group. They migrate mostly singly with flap-flap-flap glide flight and have short rounded wings and a somewhat long tail that has a squared end.

* Cooper's Hawks. These are extremely similar to Sharp-shinned Hawks, and are a tricky ID challenge, but are somewhat larger, 17" long, with a longer, rounded tail and larger, longer head and similar flight pattern.

* American Kestrels. These are a type of falcon. They are smaller than a Sharp-shinned Hawk, about 10 1/2" long, with pointed wings and a long tail and fly mainly with continuous flapping.

* Merlins. Very similar to a Kestrel but darker and larger, about 12" long. Has broad, pointed wings and a somewhat shorter tail than a Kestrel. Flies swiftly and strongly. See yesterday's blog entry for details on Merlin vs. Kestrel ID.

* Turkey Vultures. Very large, about 27" long, all black birds that constantly soar with their wings held in a V.

7. Keep track of your numbers and turn them in to your local bird or hawk-watching organization.

8. For more complete information on identifying hawks see our all new national photographic guide, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It has 3,400 images and is the most complete photo guide available.


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