Delmarva Hawk Watching

by Jim Rapp

Naturalist Jim Rapp will tell us about the fall raptor season on Delmarva.

As the long, sunny days of summer get shorter and fade into the cool nights of early autumn, thousands of migrating raptors will travel south through Delmarva on their way to their wintering grounds in the Caribbean and Central and South America. This is the time of year for fans of these charismatic birds of prey to pack their binoculars and spotting scopes and head to one of the region's famous Hawk Watch platforms.

Raptors are the group of birds that includes hawks, falcons, eagles, and ospreys, and are known for hunting and feeding on other animals. Vultures, known more for eating carrion, are also included in this group. The term "raptor" is derived from the Latin word rapere, meaning to seize or take by force. Strong grasping feet equipped with sharp talons, a hooked upper beak, and excellent binocular vision characterize these avian predators.

Hawk Watch Hill, located at an elevation of 260 feet at the Ashland Nature Center in Hockessin, Delaware, just north of Newark and Wilmington, is an ideal place to watch raptors as they soar over the rolling hills on this eastern edge of the Piedmont, down to the valley floor of Red Clay Creek. Hawk Watch Hill is in the center of the Red Clay Audubon Important Bird Area, designated by the National Audubon Society

At the Hawk Watch, visitors are welcome to watch the raptor spectacle from early September until the end of November. Birders can help the full-time hawk watcher and trained volunteers look for the 5,000 to 10,000 raptors that fly over the hill during the months of autumn.

The Ashland Nature Center serves as the headquarters for the Delaware Nature Society, one of Delmarva's leading conservation and environmental education organizations. Founded in 1964, the Delaware Nature Society works to improve the environment through conservation, advocacy, and education. They manage more than 2,000 acres of prime Delmarva wildlife habitat, including four nature preserves and three nature centers.

In addition to the Hawk Watch, a trip to the Ashland Nature Center in the fall offers 130 acres with nature trails to explore forest, meadow, marsh, and the Red Clay Creek. Ashland is open year-round, and features family education programs, a picnic area, and a lodge for overnight youth groups.

Most of Delmarva spreads south far below the Ashland Nature Center, but many of the raptors that cruise over Hawk Watch Hill use the Peninsula as a migratory superhighway. Between the eastern Delaware Bay and the barrier islands along the Atlantic coast and the broad expanse of Chesapeake marshes to the west, the Peninsula narrows dramatically as you approach the southern tip at Cape Charles, Virginia.

As the Peninsula narrows, Delmarva becomes a funnel for huge numbers of migrating raptors and other birds. Exhausted migratory birds don't like flying over the open water, and many will rest up and feed before crossing the Chesapeake on their way towards the Carolinas.

Another great spot for hawk watching is located at Kiptopeke State Park near Cape Charles on Virginia's Eastern Shore. It is one the best places in the world to view migrating Peregrine Falcons and Merlins, with records of more than 350 birds in a single day. Kiptopeke also features a raptor and songbird banding station managed by the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory. Hundreds of birds are caught, examined, fitted with a leg band, and released each season.

The Peninsula funnel effect also drives birds south from the tip of Cape May, New Jersey, to the Hawk Watch located across the Delaware Bay at Cape Henlopen State Park near Lewes, Delaware. This oceanside Hawk Watch is found on an elevated platform sitting on top of a World War II bunker. Some of the raptors counted here include several species of hawks, including Red-Tailed, Red-Shouldered, Broad-Winged, Cooper's, and Sharp-Shinned Hawks; Bald and Golden Eagles, Turkey and Black Vultures, Kestrels, Merlins and Peregrine Falcons. Now and then, Mississippi Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites fly over.

Hawk Watch totals from Ashland, Kiptopeke and Cape Henlopen are reported to the Hawk Migration Association of North America, a national group that collects raptor count data from almost two hundred hawk watch sites throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Hawk Watch data is critical to understanding raptor migration, and assessing their needs so that vulnerable populations can be protected.

The best time to visit one of Delmarva's Hawk Watches is early to mid-morning after a cold front has passed through. The northwest winds provide a strong tailwind for migrating raptors, and drive many birds towards the Delmarva coast. Young birds appear on the coast more than seasoned adults because their orientation is much less precise. The percentage of young birds tallied or banded at our coastal Hawk Watches is much higher than at stations further inland.

Before migrating, raptors need to bulk up by adding up to 20 percent of their body weight in fat, which becomes high-powered migration fuel. Larger species with broad wings, such as eagles, vultures and large hawks, conserve energy by taking advantage of updrafts and thermals when migrating up to 300 miles each day. They are rarely seen flapping their wings when they appear over Delmarva's Hawk Watch sites. A group of these raptors is referred to as a "kettle" when they ascend quickly to thousands of feet in the air, and then glide down in the direction of their destination. Smaller hawks, falcons, and ospreys migrate by soaring and employing more active, flapping flight during migration. These species will hunt in the early morning or late afternoon to fuel their journey south.

At the Ashland Hawk Watch, other species of wildlife can be viewed throughout the season. On a beautiful day in early autumn, hundreds of migrating Monarch Butterflies fly past Hawk Watch Hill. In October, thousands of Tree Swallows form large swarms over the meadows. As the temperatures cool in November, Canada Geese, Snow Geese, and Tundra Swans can be seen migrating south by the thousands.

Plan your trip this fall to the Ashland Nature Center, or head south to Cape Henlopen or Kiptopeke State Park, or visit all three to experience the spectacle of raptor migration on Delmarva.

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