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Hawk Migration and the Blue Ridge Parkway

From early September through November, hawks and other birds of prey from the northern section of the United States begin a migration to the southern latitudes for winter—to Mexico, Central America, and South America.

The birds use the mountain ridges that make up the Appalachian range for their avian highway. This highway includes the Blue Ridge and, to a smaller extent, the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia to the west.

The mountain updrafts permit the soaring hawks to travel long distances with little effort. The late naturalist Edwin Way Teale once rented a plane to fly with the migrating hawks. He was astonished to find that the birds use the updrafts so efficiently that they occasionally travel hundreds of miles without a single wing beat.

"Hawk" migration is a bit of a misnomer. Eagles, kestrels, vultures, ospreys, and peregrine falcons also join the exodus, but the bulk of the migration is made up of buteos (broad-winged, red-tailed, and red-shouldered hawks) and the more slender, agile accipiters such as Cooper's and sharp-shinned hawks.

How many migrators come pouring down the crest of Virginia's mountains each fall? No one is sure, but the numbers are staggering. Virginia has about 10 established hawk lookouts where volunteers sit all day and attempt to count the birds going by in September and October. Most lookouts are in the mountains where ridges run northeast to southwest, the direction the birds are headed.

One day in 1985, a motherlode of hawks came by Rockfish Gap at milepost 0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Watchers estimated that 10,000 broad-winged hawks passed by the mountain gap that memorable September 15. At another favorite spot—Linden Fire Tower in northern Virginia—birders counted more than 17,000 broad-wings on a single day during the third week of September.

Visitors can hawk-watch from almost any overlook along the two mountain highways—the Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway—that follow the spine of the Blue Ridge range. A certain amount of luck is involved in choosing a day when hundreds of birds pass by.

Hawks often travel in "kettles," or spiraling columns of birds, that tower so high the birds may appear little more than windblown specks. Seven-power binoculars will aid in identification. The best time to spot hawks is 10 a.m. to noon and 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.—after the sun warms the air currents, with a respite in the middle of the day. The week of September 15 is normally the peak of the migration, with the week of October 1 offering the most variety. A volunteer organization called the Hawk Migration Association of North America keeps records on migrations and publishes a newsletter.

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