Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Large numbers of hawks on the move
September 22, 2007
Steve Grinley

     September is the month to look skyward as hawks begin their flight south. Tens, hundreds and sometimes thousands of hawks can be seen migrating overhead on a crisp fall day in New England when the winds turn out of the northwest. On cooler autumn days, as the sun warms the earth, warm air rises into thermals which hawks use to glide their way south. River valleys and ridges of hills and mountains provide thermal paths along which hawks migrate. If you can find a high vantage point with a clear view of the northern sky, you may catch “kettles” of hawks traveling south in the midday thermals.

     Over the past couple of weeks, I have been reading the Hawkwatch reports from peaks in central and western Massachusetts. I drooled with envy on the days when observers counted 500 to 1,000 broad-winged hawks going over in kettles of 30, 50 or 80 birds or more. These reports come from Mt. Wachusett, Mt. Watatic, Mt. Tom and from Pack Manadnock near Peterborough, N.H.

     In this area, the Merrimack Valley provides good thermals for migrating raptors. Behind the Page School in West Newbury is one of the more popular spots for hawk watchers in this area. It provides a panoramic view of the Merrimack Valley and you can watch hawks as they approach from the north.

     Not wanting to travel far this past weekend, we thought that we would try to watch hawks from the Page School last Sunday. The winds were from the northwest, seemingly ideal for a good movement of hawks. When we arrived behind the school around the noon hour, there were already a couple of hawk watchers there. Their initial report was disappointing. A couple of red-tails and turkey vultures. Nothing more thus far, and they had been there over an hour. We searched the northern skies with our binoculars. We spotted one red-tailed hawk, flying rather low east to west. This was obviously a local bird out for a midday hunt and not a migrant. Several turkey vultures were moving the same way, east to west and then, sometimes, west to east. They weren’t migrating either.

     Ed Mair from Plum Island joined us, and he spotted an osprey high in the clouds. We watched this bird for more than 15 minutes as it circled high into the clouds and eventually disappeared. By then, the wind had shifted and was now coming in from the east, off the ocean. The onshore breeze had made its way to West Newbury and helped explain why there was such a dearth of hawks flying over us. They were surely taking a more inland route and we suspected that the counters on Mt. Wachusett and Mt. Watatic would be reporting high numbers.

     Well, we were right. The numbers from central Massachusetts that day were staggering. Mount Wachusett counted 1,607 hawks including 1,516 broadwings! Mount Watatic was even more spectacular with 5,122 hawks going overhead, including 5,092 broadwings! But, alas, not even a single broad-winged hawk made its way over West Newbury in the two hours that we stayed!

     We did have one consolation prize, however. Shortly before we left, I did spot a large raptor flying east to west, above the Merrimack. At first I thought it was just another vulture, taking the same path as before. But there was something about the way this bird soared and then flapped its heavy wings briefly in-between that made me study it longer. It soared on flat wings with slightly upturned “fingers” or feathers at the end of the wings. It was an immature bald eagle! It was likely the bird that fledged earlier this summer further up river in West Newbury. Despite the absence of other raptors, it is always a great day when you see an eagle.

Steve Grinley
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