Raptor Fall Migration: What to Look for, Where, and When

We’re in the middle of birds’ fall migration, a great season for bird watching and for teaching kids about how birds live and travel.

Among the many types of birds that migrate to warmer climes each fall are raptors, birds of prey that hunt for food while in flight (the term “raptor” comes from the Latin word raptare, which means to seize and carry off). From late August through mid-November, tens of thousands of raptors wing their way through the Northeast on their journey south, often traveling along mountains and ridgelines where updrafts make flying easier. Unlike other birds, which may be more interesting for you and your kids to observe on land or water, hawks and other raptors are particularly impressive to watch as they soar overhead.

Peak Viewing Times
The peak migration period for broad-winged hawks (around September 15) has already ended, but the migration of red-tailed hawks peaks in mid-October and early November. You may also spot sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, peregrine falcons, and bald and golden eagles migrating now. Some of these birds are traveling as far as the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

The best weather conditions for viewing raptors in migration are found on the day of and up to two days after the arrival of a high-pressure system or cold front. This weather pattern can create thermals, columns of warm air that help the birds soar to high altitude with scarcely a wingbeat. The raptors can then glide for miles, gradually descending, until they catch another thermal to rise again.

Prime Locations
Dedicated bird watchers often travel to specific mountains and ridges to see raptors. A few suggestions for such destinations follow, but you may find a good site closer to home—and that may be a more realistic outing if you or your children aren’t committed bird watchers yet. Look for a mountain, hill, or ridge with a view to the north and try scanning the sky with your binoculars. Bring friends (including other kids), warm clothes, snacks, and drinks, and of course some field guides to help you identify what you see.

My colleague, blogger Matt Heid, compiled the following list of seven sites in the Northeast that are ideal for watching raptors migrate. Read his longer descriptions for more detail.

Learn More

Read about additional New England sites for viewing hawks.

Find more about Massachusetts sites for viewing raptor migration.

Photo of soaring red-tailed hawk by Istock.

Great Kids, Great Outdoors is an Appalachian Mountain Club blog written by Heather Stephenson.

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