Hawk Migration

Migration is a phenomena in which birds (and other animals) move from one geographic location or habitat to another due to biological needs such as resources or reproduction habits. Not every species migrates; some have adapted to live in the same general region for their entire lifespan. And some species, such as vultures and red-tailed hawks, have both residential and migratory populations that pass through Stokes.

In North America, birds migrate in north-south routes called flyways. There are several such routes in the continent, including the Atlantic Flyway, which spans a path from northeastern Canada through the east coast of the United States across the Gulf of Mexico and the western Caribbean and finally into South America.

Stokes State Forest falls within the Atlantic Flyway. It includes part of the Kittatinny Ridge within the Appalachian Mountain range. These mountains have been used as a visual guide by migrating birds for thousands of years. The habitats surrounding the mountains are equally vital, as they offer food, water, and shelter in which birds can rest during storms. Many species of birds follow this route, but it is the migration of hawks that are most easily viewed along the ridgeline in Stokes.

Most of us know that migratory birds in NJ head south in the fall and north in the spring; hawks also follow this pattern. Hawks do not like to cross large open bodies of water and prefer instead to follow land routes such as coastlines and ridgelines. Hawks rely on the updrafts created by the sun warming the land to assist them in their migration; these rising air currents are called “thermals”. Since hawks can be lifted to great heights by the thermals, the best way to view their migration is from the ridge where there is a wide, clear view.

There are several places along the ridges in NJ where hawks can be viewed as they migrate; Sunrise Mountain in Stokes is one of them. NJ Audubon staff and other volunteers keep counts of migrating hawks that are used to study migration patterns over time. You may encounter one of the volunteers at Sunrise Mountain during the migration season. If you do, be prepared to learn, as these folks are friendly and willing to point out how they identify each species.

Hawks and other birds of prey that can be seen from Sunrise Mountain vary from month to month. Each species has a peak period of migration through the area; the exact timing is affected by weather patterns. One of the best times to hawk watch is the day after a storm. Generally, viewing is best in the morning hours while the ridge is warmed and the birds are still flying close to the ridge. As the afternoon progresses, hawks will be soaring very high and are difficult to see, let alone identify, even with binoculars.

Common migratory hawks and raptors seen at Sunrise Mountain include:

Osprey; Bald and Golden Eagles; Black and Turkey Vultures; Northern Harrier; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Cooper’s Hawk; Northern Goshawk; Red-shouldered Hawk; Broad-winged Hawk; Red-tailed Hawk; Rough-legged Hawk; American Kestrel; Merlin; Peregrine Falcon

Hawks seen very infrequently in Stokes include Swainson’s Hawk, Gyrfalcon, Mississippi Kite, and Swallowtail Kite.

Contributed by Marianne Ofenloch

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