Late Fall Hawk Migration in Cape May
By Paul Kerlinger
Balmy, warm November days may be nice for walking on the beach, but if a brisk northwest wind brings tears to your eyes, you probably should be hawkwatching.
Late season hawkwatching in Cape May has an entirely different feel to it than early season hawk watching, including a different suite of migrants.
The late fall hawk migration season commences sometime around October 15 and lasts into December. Generally, you'll see fewer, but larger hawks.
Red-tailed Hawks become far more numerous, as do Red-shouldered Hawks, Golden Eagles, Bald Eagles, Northern Harriers, along with Northern Goshawk, Rough-legged Hawk, and even Swainson's Hawk.
Not only are the late fall hawk migrants larger in size, they also tend to migrate shorter distances than the early season hawks.
For example, early season migrants like Broad-winged Hawks, Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and Ospreys that peak in numbers in Cape May prior to October 15, mostly are flying to Central and South America.
For the most part, late season migrants like Red-tailed Hawks and Golden Eagles do not fly as far south. Some of these late season migrants even end their migration in South Jersey or Cape May.
Unlike early season migrants, later season birds tend to not fly as early in the day. Not only does the sun come up later, but the thermal air currents that these birds depend on to soar are restricted more to the middle of the day when the sun is higher in the sky.
Nevertheless, start your hawkwatching early to increase your probability of seeing hawks hunting.
Species like Northern Harriers, Northern Goshawk, and others frequently start hunting just after sunrise. Because these birds sometimes linger, they can offer spectacular views as they pursue or look for prey.
Red-tailed Hawks are the most common of these late season species and generally make up a good portion of individuals seen during the late migration season.
The peak season for Red-tailed Hawks occurs between October 25 and November 12, or thereabouts. The same seems to be the case for Red-shouldered Hawks.
The rarest of the late season migrants are the Rough-legged Hawks and Northern Goshawks, which seldom fly as far south as Cape May.
For these birds, most individuals winter north of Cape May and only a handful of each species is seen annually in Cape May . The best time to see them is in November.
Similarly, Golden Eagles are relatively rare, with only a couple of dozen generally being observed each fall in Cape May. My hawkwatching goal each fall is to see at least one Golden Eagle. I don’t consider the season complete until I’ve seen one of these immense and fairly rare birds.
Early Season Stragglers
An added bonus for late fall hawk watchers is a smattering of early season migrants. You will definitely see good numbers of Sharp-shinned Hawks, American Kestrels, Cooper's Hawks, and even some Ospreys.
Though not as numerous as before mid-October, these species add to the fun while looking for Golden Eagles, Red-shouldered Hawks, and the other less numerous raptors.
Where to go
The best place to see late season hawk migrants is the hawkwatch platform in Cape May Point State Park. From the hawkwatch in late November and December, you will also see scads of bluebirds, Yellow-rumped Warblers, White-throated Sparrows, and other landbirds. Seaducks (mostly scoters) and loons can be seen from the top of the dune adjacent to the hawkwatch platform. In addition, the pond in front of the hawkwatch often hosts dabbling ducks, Pied-billed Grebes, and on occasion, American Bitterns.
Many people prefer to observe at the Beanery on Bayshore Road. The grassy pulloff and parking area for the Beanery is obvious, immediately to the north of some large farm equipment and a concrete ramp. Just park and start watching. Some say it is better for seeing Golden Eagles and some other hawks than the hawkwatch platform.
When to go
Just as with early fall hawk migration, the day or two following a cold front produces the best migration viewing in Cape May, especially with north to west winds.
The hawkwatching is not likely to be as good on warm, blue-sky days. Those are the days for taking an autumn walk on the beach.
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