HAWK WATCH: Hundreds of Migrating Raptors Soar Over Grandfather Mountain in September

Published Monday, September 14, 2015 at 1:23 pm
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Binoculars and cameras aid in viewing migrating raptors from Grandfather Mountain, but most birds are visible with the naked eye. Photo courtesy of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.

Hundreds or even thousands of raptors will soar over Grandfather Mountain this September, as the birds of prey make their annual southward migrations.

Throughout the month, visitors can join trained staff and volunteers at Linville Peak as Grandfather Mountain participates in the official Hawk Watch for the fourth consecutive year.

Each day, trained counters will record the number and type of raptors that pass above the mountain, including bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, merlins and vultures.

Grandfather Mountain guests can watch the official counters at work and talk with volunteers about the process, or they can purchase illustrated bird guides from the Nature Museum gift shop and conduct their own unofficial counts.

“The hawk migration is one of those natural phenomena that occur every year without many people noticing,” Grandfather Mountain chief naturalist Mickey Shortt said. “Grandfather Mountain provides an opportunity to witness the migration if you wait patiently.”

Perhaps the most astounding display is the broad-winged hawk, which migrates in groups of hundreds or thousands called kettles. Those sightings are most common around the second to third week of September.

“The broad-wings are the real show,” said Jesse Pope, executive director of the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, the nonprofit organization that oversees the popular attraction. “It’s like a tornado of hawks.”

Each fall, thousands of raptors migrate from Canada and the eastern seaboard along the Appalachian Mountains to Central and South America. The birds use thermal air columns to gain lift and glide above the peaks toward their warmer destinations.

Grandfather Mountain is a prime spot for viewing, because it sits along the eastern escarpment of the Appalachian Mountains, and its rocky peaks generate strong thermals and allow prime visibility.

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A kettle of broad-winged hawks soars above Grandfather Mountain during 2014’s Hawk Watch. The 2015 watch is currently under way. Photo by Jesse Pope/Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation

Grandfather Mountain is one of more than 275 Hawk Watch sites officially designated by the Hawk Migration Association of North America.

In fall 2014, staff and volunteers counted 4,616 raptors in 158.25 hours of observation at Grandfather Mountain. The vast majority were broad-winged hawks, with 4,410 counted, although 33 bald eagles and 45 ospreys were also spotted. All in all, a total of 12 species were counted during that time.

Aside from offering a visual spectacle, the Hawk Watch serves an important purpose. The annual counts from Grandfather Mountain and other locations help track hawk populations and migration routes over time and provide important data to inform land management decisions.

Counts will be conducted every day that weather permits — the hawks don’t typically fly in fog or storms — and will be posted daily at HawkCount.org.

Hawk Watch typically peaks from Sept. 15 to 25, which Pope said is the ideal time for visitors to witness the spectacle.

Experienced hawk spotters may contact Shortt at [email protected], or call (828) 733-2013 to volunteer with the Hawk Watch.

The not-for-profit Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation strives to inspire conservation of the natural world by helping guests explore, understand and value the wonders of Grandfather Mountain. For more information, call (800) 468-7325, or visit www.grandfather.com to plan a trip.

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