Raptors Are All Around Us
They are all around us, even in cities, although most people don’t notice them, let alone appreciate them. Yet raptors or diurnal birds of prey — eagles, ospreys, harriers, hawks, falcons and vultures — are among the most charismatic, dramatic and ecologically important members of wildlife communities.
Let’s look at these majestic birds, and where and when we can see them as we go about our lives. It’s a fascinating story worth exploring.
The most common type of hawk-watching is autumn raptor-watching, done from hundreds of raptor migration watch sites scattered throughout the United States — Cape May Point in New Jersey, Bake Oven Knob, Hawk Mountain and Waggoner’s Gap along the famous Kittatinny Ridge in Pennsylvania; Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve in Duluth, Minnesota; and the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory overlooking the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, California. Collectively, tens of thousands of people annually visit these watch sites to enjoy the experience of watching and recording, often at close range, birds of some 16 raptor species flying on their migratory journeys.
But there are also other enjoyable types of hawk-watching. One is by the roadside, especially during winter when deciduous trees shed their leaves and exposed branches provide perches for Red-tailed Hawks, American Kestrels and other raptors. Just drive slowly along a lightly used rural road to see raptors aloft or perched on tree limbs, utility poles or wires, or other elevated objects adjacent to old fields and roadsides. Roadside raptor watchers also scan fields for Northern Harriers beating over fields looking for rodents.
Black Vultures or Turkey Vultures are also sometimes seen circling low over dead animals on roads and highways, serving as nature’s sanitation corps. In some southern states, such as Florida, dozens of vultures gather along interstates and other busy highways, feasting on carrion.
Sometimes it’s also possible to observe Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels while driving. Red-tails typically perch on trees along the sides of highways or on light standards at exit ramps, patiently searching for rodents. American Kestrels sometimes are also seen perched on highways signs. Highway departments sometimes install kestrel nest boxes on the backs of larger signs, and the little falcons readily adopt them as nest sites.
Opportunities for observing gatherings of Bald Eagles, America’s national bird, during winter also occur at some locations, such as along the upper Mississippi River, where dozens or even hundreds of eagles gather to feed in warm pools of water at power plants. Where roads pass close to these sites, excellent views can be had from the comfort of one’s vehicle without disturbing the eagles.
Along some coastal and bay areas during spring and early summer, ospreys nest on dead cedar or other trees and poles in salt marshes. Sometimes it’s possible to watch from a vehicle for majestic ospreys at nests or returning with a fish clutched in its talons.
It’s also possible to observe raptors in some large cities. Peregrine Falcons — among the fastest birds in the world — use tall buildings or large bridges as nest sites from which they venture over city skies to feed on feral pigeons. Thus urban residents have surprising opportunities to see falcons, among the most perfectly evolved and adapted birds in the world. Increasing numbers of Red-tailed Hawks are also becoming urban raptors and live in parks where they feed on rodents, squirrels, and rabbits.
The most famous of urban Red-tails is a hawk named Pale Male who lives in and adjacent to Central Park in New York City — and who is now more than 20 years old (extremely old for a wild hawk). Over the years, with a succession of mates, he nested successfully on the ledges of apartment buildings across from the park, and developed a devoted following of amateur bird watchers who continue to spy on the famous hawk’s every move and report on his activities. Pale Male has produced numerous offspring, although this senior citizen of the hawk world likely won’t live too many more years.
Several other Red-tailed Hawk pairs also nest in and around Central Park. Indeed, hawk watchers know of at least 32 Red-tailed Hawk nests scattered throughout various parts of the city, a virtual population explosion of urban raptors. In addition, other species of migratory raptors, including Sharp-shinned Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks, stop over in parks and college campuses within New York City, notably Riverside Park and Columbia University’s main campus.
So whether you live in a rural, suburban or urban location, you can expect opportunities to watch and enjoy one or more species of raptors at various seasons of the year. Indeed, during spring and autumn migration seasons, it’s sometimes possible to spot some of the less frequently seen raptors even in Duluth, Minnesota and San Francisco, California — cities with important raptor migration watch sites.
In a very real sense, we are surrounded by raptors. So remain alert, and venture out and look for them. Seeing majestic raptors is enjoyable, and adds zest to birding and life.
Sidebar 1 – Basic Equipment
For successful raptor-watching in the United States, you need binoculars, a notebook and pen or pencil for writing down your observations, and a field guide to bird identification such as Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America (or its western North American companion) or David Allen Sibley’s The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America (or its western North American companion).
To learn more about raptors and hawk-watching, read William S. Clark’s and Brian K. Wheeler’s A Field Guide to the Hawks of North America, and Donald S. Heintzelman’s Guide to Hawk Watching in North America and Hawks and Owls of Eastern North Americas. For detailed information about raptor migrations read Donald S. Heintzelman’s Autumn Hawk Flights: The Migrations in Eastern North America and The Migrations of Hawks, and Maurice Broun’s Hawks Aloft: The Story of Hawk Mountain.
About the author
Donald S. Heintzelman is the author of 22 published books and booklets about birds and other wildlife and is an authority on hawk migrations and hawk-watching. He lives in the rural southeastern Pennsylvania countryside where he occupies an eyrie in an old farmhouse.