Watch you like a hawk
Published: September 17, 2015
by Don Hendershot writing for Smoky Mountain Living Magazine
Each September, the skies over Southern Appalachia set the stage for one of nature’s most beautiful and spectacular dances—the migration of the raptors.
These birds of prey fill the skies by the millions as they pirouette, cartwheel, circle, climb high in thermals, and soar on updrafts en route to their winter homes in Central and South America.
Caesars Head State Park in Upstate South Carolina makes one of the region’s best spots for glimpsing hawks on the move. Located where the Blue Ridge Escarpment rises abruptly from the South Carolina Piedmont, the park provides the perfect storm of flying conditions to attract migrating hawks. Jutting into the air some 2,000 feet, the rugged granite promontory of Caesars Head offers wildlife lovers a front-row platform to catch nature’s annual aerial ballet.
Migration 101: The primary migrant in the East is the broad-winged hawk. About two million broad-wings nest throughout North America, the majority from the Appalachians to southern Canada. Northern birds begin to trickle southward in early August, picking up fellow pilgrims along the way. By the end of October, few broad-wing hawks remain in North America.
Boiling Over: Migrating raptors are experts in energy conservation. Soarers that they are, the birds look for thermals—aka rising currents of warm air—as well as updrafts, which are caused when prevailing winds collide with hills or mountains. It is believed that broad-wings can see a thermal six miles away, so a thermal could sweep up hawks along a 12-mile corridor. Other hawks see the action and join in, and the thermal quickly fills with birds. Birds in a thermal are called a kettle because they appear to boil or bubble upwards until they reach the top of the thermal and spill out. This spilling out is called streaming, during which the birds set their wings and glide southward like guided missiles looking for their next lift. Thermals can reach three miles in height, allowing the hawks to stream for miles using little energy.
Head Count: More than 14,000 raptors were counted at Caesars Head last year, with some 90 percent of the broad-winged hawks passing over Caesars Head from mid-September through early October. It’s common for several thousand of them to sail through on a single day. Last year, 9,943 of Caesars Head’s 12,044 documented broad-wings were recorded on two days: 3,683 on September 20 and 6,260 the following day.
More spots to watch: Hawks can also be spotted during migration at Pilot Mountain State Park near Pinnacle, North Carolina; the Mount Pisgah Hawk Watch at Mills River Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 404); and Mahogany Rock in Alleghany County, also along the Blue Ridge Parkway (milepost 235).