By Margo D. Beller


In September the days get shorter, the leaves start to turn color, the winds come from the north and the hawks start heading south.

"Hawks" covers a lot of different types of raptors. There are Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures. There are the Buteos - Red-tailed, Red-shouldered and Broad-winged hawks - and Accipiters including Sharp-shinned, Cooper's and Northern Goshawks. There are Bald Eagles and the much less common Golden Eagles. There are also the birds in a class by themselves - Ospreys and Northern Harriers.

Cooper's Hawk

So there will be people standing on the Scherman Hoffman hawk observation platform to await these raptors, including Pete Dunne, New Jersey Audubon’s Birding Ambassador, who will be there from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. this coming Saturday, Sept. 16. He will also be signing his newest book, “Birds Of Prey.”

Others will be at viewing areas all over New Jersey, looking up and to the north to see these raptors. Different types of raptors travel at different times. Some travel rather late in the season, which is generally from September through November.

Hawks need warm winds, called thermals, that rise off mountains and help keep them aloft as they travel. So many hawk watches are on mountains or ridges such as the hawk platforms at Racoon Ridge, Chimney Rock, Scott's Mountain and in Montclair.

Experienced hawk watchers will be able to see specks in the sky and know what they are seeing. How will mere mortals such as you and me know these birds?

When you can't see field marks, even with binoculars, you look for distinct habits. When Pete Dunne was at the Scherman Hoffman platform a few years ago he said a Turkey Vulture looks like a man walking a tightrope, his arms wide. Accipiters, particularly Sharp-shinned hawks, tend to flap several times and then soar on the wind. He said to look beneath clouds to see Broad-wingeds, which are bulky like the more familiar and larger Red-tails. Clouds are a hawk watcher's best friend. A clear, blue sky may make for a great beach day but it makes it that much harder to see those specks heading south.

Most hawk watches have fliers with information about the birds and show their silhouettes, since this will most likely be what you see unless you are lucky enough to see a mature Bald Eagle with the sun shining off its white head. Take the flyer.

Every mid-September, New Jersey Audubon hosts a field trip to the Montclair Hawk Watch's eaglecropopen house. That is when the Broad-winged hawks can be expected to fly through in large numbers. (This year’s Montclair visit is on Thursday, Sept. 21, from 9 a.m. to noon.) These raptors will swirl on the mourtain's warm winds in circles to gain speed and altitude, known as kettling, before streaming off. It is not impossible to see over 1,000 hawks on the right day. It is quite a sight seeing even a dozen of these raptors floating on the wind.  

What if you see a raptor? How will you tell others what you are seeing? The hawk watcher's other best friend is landmarks. It makes it easier for you to call out the location of the speck you are seeing so others with average eyesight can hope to find them. At the Scott's Mountain hawk watch , for instance, there are such landmarks as Notch 1, 2, 3 and 4, the "Fat Christmas Tree" and the "Vee Notch."

Many raptors follow New Jersey's Palisades down the Hudson River, then hug the coastline. The hawk platforms at Sandy Hook and Cape May in New Jersey and the Cape Henlopen platform across Delaware Bay in Delaware are prime spots for southbound migrants and very easy to access, just up a small flight of steps. Some areas are more difficult to access, such as the rugged climb to the top of Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where you sit on rocks but the hawks seem closer to view.

At Montclair, you walk up a very tall flight of wooden stairs to a metal ladder drilled into the rocks. Once you hoist yourself up and get up the last, stone incline, the platform is large, flat and there are chairs. These go fast, but if you are like me you'll be on your feet most of the time, looking every which way at all the birds.

redtail (2)

Hawks won't be the only birds flying south, of course. All the warblers you saw in their bright, colorful, breeding plumage heading north will be much duller in color heading south. In New Jersey and across this country, birds head south to find food - insects, seeds, fruits. So they must leave.

Not all will travel far, however. The Rough-legged Hawk will stay in the northern tundra unless there is a crash in the population of its main food source, Lemmings. Then these hawks come south to places like New Jersey in the winter, hunting rodents at airports and over fields that mimic the tundra.

There are hawk platforms all over this country and there are many more types of raptors and other, smaller birds I have yet to see. There are plenty of places to see these majestic birds closer to home in New Jersey. Keep your eyes to the skies.