Every spring and fall, raptors make grand migrations that follow routine paths. Taking advantage of wind patterns, the soaring predators tend to track mountain ridges and coastlines as they wind their way to and from breeding and wintering grounds. Hundreds or thousands of birds from many different species travel together, creating unmatched opportunities for birders to also convene to view the spectacle.
At the very best places to view hawks, ornithologists and hobbyists have founded hawkwatches—semi-permanent sites where every year or season people gather to enjoy hawks together. Some are scientific affairs, where raptors passing overhead have been rigorously surveyed for decades; others are more casual, where groups of friends and enthusiasts joyfully take in the sight.
The United States' first hawkwatch, founded in 1934, is Hawk Mountain Sanctuary located on the Kittatinny Ridge, a major hawk migration corridor that stretches some 185 miles through central and eastern Pennsylvania. Over the past 35 years, Laurie Goodrich, Hawk Mountain's director of conservation science, hasn't missed the fall raptor migration. Audubon spoke with her to learn why she thinks every birder should experience a hawkwatch and why they still excite her today.
Audubon: What makes hawkwatching different from other kinds of birding?
Goodrich: It’s an opportunity to see raptors up close and fully in their element in flight. It’s exciting to stand on top of a mountain or coastline and see these birds, typically rare creatures on our landscape, gliding past in big numbers. It’s not just raptors: We get hundreds of Blue Jays going by, Barn Swallows, goldfinches. Lots of us try to get up early for the songbird flight and stay the rest of the day for the raptors.
A: How do you identify raptors flying so high up in the sky?
G: It is a different way of identifying birds. When you’re watching birds at a feeder, you’re often looking at colors or field marks. At a hawkwatch, it’s about body proportions, shape, and flight behavior. That’s the first thing a novice hawkwatcher needs to get their mind around. There are lots of really good field guides, but the best way is to sit with an experienced observer, watch what they’re watching, and ask them: Why is it that?
A: What advice would you give to a newcomer?
G: At these hawkwatches there are groups of people who have been doing this together for a long time. Don’t be intimidated! Plan to be there for a couple hours at least. Then situate yourself near some of the experienced hawkwatchers, and dive in and join the group. If you see something you don’t understand, ask a question—or just listen if that feels better. It might seem intimidating, but all of us love to share our excitement and knowledge.
A: What’s your most memorable hawkwatch experience?
G: Fortunately, over 35 years I’ve had a lot of great days. Years ago I remember waking up in the middle of the night; the shutters on the house were banging because the winds were so powerful. Most of the big flights, particularly in the eastern U.S., are associated with cold fronts, which concentrate hawks along corridors. So when there’s a northwest wind, I know it is going to be a good day. I got up early and went to the lookout. By sunrise, the birds were already moving. Sharp-shinned Hawks and kestrels zipping by, every other second there was a bird. I froze. I was surrounded by these birds. They were flying by at knee-level and dipping into the woods around me. I was amazed! Coming out of the woods and directly into the migration has always stuck with me.
A: You’ve been hawkwatching for so many decades. What keeps you coming back?
G: When you’re in a hawkwatch you’re connecting with birds’ wildness. You get to see these amazing sights that you can’t see at other locations: Huge flocks of Broad-winged Hawks swirling overhead, or other smaller raptors zipping by at eye level. You’re immersing yourself in this phenomenon of migration. It’s a cool feeling to be part of this annual cycle. You know that there’s a cadence to the year for these birds and you can feel it yourself.
Interview has been edited and condensed.
To discover sites near you, visit HawkCount.org and use the Find a Hawkwatch tool. Read through site profiles, which offer intel about migration timing, ideal weather for sighting raptors, and wheelchair access. For a social experience, look for details about hawkwatching groups or educational programming.
Packing a few key items helps guarantee a successful day observing raptors on the wing.
Forget the scope—binoculars more easily track raptors on the move. Maven’s B1.2 ($900) is a fantastic update to a beloved optic: Excellent clarity and ease of focus, and a whopping three ounces lighter than its predecessor.
Watch hawks cross a bright sky with polarized shades, which cut glare and sharpen images. Frames in Costa’s Untangled Collection ($199-$269) look good and do good: They’re made from recycled fishing nets.
Shade is scarce at most sites, so bring your own. We adore Bird Collective’s American Kestrel Washed Hat ($28), whose sale supports bird conservation.
To hawkwatch in comfort, carry in a cushion or camping chair. For an even more luxe experience, try Nemo’s Stargaze chair ($220), which reclines—helping you avoid neck strain, too. —Alisa Opar