Early Fall Hawk Migration in Cape May
by Paul Kerlinger
CAPE MAY, N.J. – As summer’s heat and humidity finally fades, the first waves of migrating hawks appear over Cape May.
Thousands of southbound hawks sail in on fall's first cool breezes.
Cape May is THE place in North America to watch hawks. From late August into December, birders from all over the world congregate here as 50,000 hawks of more than 15 species pass through.
Hawk migration in Cape May can actually be divided into early and late seasons, each with its own distinctive weather and types of hawks.
Early Hawk Migration: Sharpies
The early fall hawk migration season lasts from late August until about October 10-15.
For the best early hawk watching, try the last week of September and the first week of October. During this period Sharp-shinned Hawks predominate with thousands passing overhead.
A good flight consists of several hundred to several thousand of these scrappy bird eaters. Many of these small wonders pass at eye-level and come within a few yards of the hawk watch.
Along with Sharp-shins there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of Cooper’s Hawks, Ospreys, Northern Harriers, American Kestrels, Merlins, and Peregrine Falcons during this period. Bald Eagles can also be seen, along with an occasional Swainson’s Hawk and good numbers of vultures.
Peregrine Falcons, Merlins, and Ospreys occur in numbers larger than just about anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere and maybe the world.
I’ve witnessed flights of more than 50 Peregrine Falcons in a little over an hour. Most of the Peregrines that pass Cape May are coming from the arctic and are going to Central and South America.
Some simply pass Cape May quickly, either over the land or out over the water. Others will make a pass at a shorebird or a Laughing Gull before continuing their journeys or perching on one of the towers or dead snags nearby.
Whereas in most of North America, Ospreys are not all that common during migration, they are almost always present somewhere in the skies over Cape May.
These fish eaters are frequently seen looking for prey over nearby Lily Lake as well as out over the ocean, and a few actually carry fish as they fly overhead.
My favorite time for hawk watching is late afternoons during the peak season when Merlins regularly make their presence known.
Pete Dunne, coauthor with Clay Sutton and David Sibley of Hawks in Flight (Houghton Mifflin) has called Cape May the “Merlin Mainline.”
After stopping their migration after 2-3 pm, Merlins commence terrorizing songbirds and the other small birds that they prey upon. This phenomenon has been called “Merlin Madness” because it is so exciting.
Watching for Cold Fronts
Some of the best hawk watching during this period occurs one-two days after a cold-front passes, when the temperature drops and winds are from the west to north.
Hawks can be seen moving from first light until the sun sets, although early to mid-morning often proves best for most species.
Cape May Hawk Watch
The Hawk Watch Platform in Cape May Point State Park is undoubtedly the best place to see migrating hawks during the early fall migration season.
The Hawk Watch is not only elevated, so one can see above the nearby vegetation, but there are also observers and volunteers from the Cape May Bird Observatory to help the novice and more experienced birder see and identify hawks as they pass.
The sightings board at the Hawk Watch Platform maintains a record of hawks sighted on previous days, the current season, and the previous year, helping the visitor understand what has been seen.
Other reasons for Cape May’s claim as the best place to watch hawks includes nearby bathrooms with running water, a comfortable place to sit, picnic pavilions with tables, and expert hawk watchers to help locate and identify hawks.
The Hawk Watch Platform and trails of the Cape May Point State Park are also handicapped accessible.
In addition, the nearby beaches, marshes, forests, and ocean offer great diversions and additional birding options after seeing too many hawks (if one ever gets bored).
What to bring: Binoculars, layers of clothing (for cooler days – sweaters and wind breakers), a hat, sunscreen, spotting scope.
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