Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hawk Migration Into The Adirondacks

On a warm spring day we may look out over some open field with a mountainous backdrop, and while admiring the simple beauty of it all we might perchance see a hawk flying over the field in great spiraling flights as it rides a column of warm air from the valley below.

We learn, as we watch its flight pattern, that this hawk is hunting the fields in search of mice or other small mammals. We wonder how this bird has spent the winters because we never see it during the cold months in the Adirondacks.

Many species of hawk are migratory. Some spend several of our winter months in the warmer climes of Mexico, Central America, and even South America. But it was not until recent times that we discovered this phenomena of hawk, and falcon migration in Eastern North America.

Readers might be familiar with the broad-winged hawk. They are common throughout the lower elevations of the Adirondacks and can often be seen in hardwood forests or around open spaces.

But let’s take a look at the arduous journey this species and other hawk species have to make in order to reach the nesting grounds of our Adirondack woodlands.

Broad-wings can be found deep in Central America during our winter but by May they have completed a huge migratory pathway along the Appalachian Mts and end up nesting in our woodlands.

For the most part, broad-wings will follow the mountains along the east coast because they provide a “highway” of warm air thermals(air rising up from the valley floors) and these thermals are what the hawks soar on as they fly north. Soaring expends less energy than constantly flapping wings.

After safely negotiating the mountains and strong winds, the hawks then face another obstacle in their way. Water! Most hawks do not like to fly over large bodies of water. In our case those bodies of water are the Great Lakes.

The two eastern-most lakes, being Erie and Ontario, have become home to some of the best known spring hawkwatching areas in the United States. Hawks, while migrating, will encounter the open lakes and suddenly slam on the brakes and re-configure their flight direction….around the water.

As they adjust, they find the shoreline of these lakes more to their liking. So any wide open viewing areas along the shoreline can yield views of these hawks streaming along the shoreline on their northward march.

Places like Derby Hill, and Braddock Bay along southern Lake Ontario offer phenomenal viewing opportunities. A bit closer to home one can find some good viewing along Lake Champlain on top of Coon Mountain, just north of Westport in Essex County.

What a pleasure it is to watch these majestic raptors as they cruise their way over valleys and mountains to finally settle into quite forests, and raise a family all in the shelter of these Adirondacks.

Photo: Red-tailed hawk-Brian McAllister

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