Fall Raptors Are On The Move

An adult Broad-winged Hawk glides in search of a thermal.

It’s that time of year. The start of a 4-month period in which the wind’s direction and velocity dictate almost everything I do. Whether birding, photographing or hunting, the wind is often the most important factor.  Migrating birds use the wind in their favor so if there’s a north wind (coming from the north) it’s best to be at some favorite migration hotspot along the Great Lakes. One of the most incredible migration events in the world takes place over the lower Detroit River each fall. Hundreds of thousands of birds, butterflies and dragonflies stream across the relatively narrow river as they work their way south through the Great Lakes region. Many raptors in particular are hesitant to cross large expanses of open water like Lake Erie. Soaring birds such as Broad-winged Hawks depend on the lift created by thermals, which are rising columns of warm air forming over the land. The air over the cool lake provides no lift so the birds work their way along the shore. This means big concentrations at times when cold fronts, sun and wind create the perfect conditions. Whirling masses of thousands of hawks gain altitude in a thermal and then glide effortlessly across the river. Broad-wings use this efficient flight method all of the way to northern South America. Bird counts are conducted September through November at Holiday Beach Migration Observatory in Ontario and the Detroit River Hawk Watch at Lake Erie Metropark in Michigan.  These are great places for beginning birders to learn from seasoned hawk counters.  Hawk festivals are at both of these sites September 21-22.  A couple other good Lake Erie locations are the tip area at Point Pelee National Park and Hawk Cliff, Ontario.

A kettle of Broad-wings at Holiday Beach.

The bulk of the Broad-wings pass through our area between September 12-20.   A big flight took place on Monday, Sept. 16. and north winds are likely sometime during Sept. 21-23 so there will probably be more coming this weekend. Once the Broad-wings are gone, hawk watchers can stop worrying about missing the big day and relax. From now until early December thousands more hawks, falcons, ospreys, eagles and vultures will funnel through this flyway. Late September brings Peregrines. In October Sharp-shinned Hawks are joined by Cooper’s and increasing numbers of Red-shouldered Hawks. Many thousands of Turkey Vultures give way to later migrants like Red-tailed Hawks and Golden Eagles by late October. The cold days of November are time for Rough-legged hawks and adult male Northern Harriers.

Hawk map with arrows
The flow of fall raptor migration in the Great Lakes region.


Bald eagles are present on most days.

The 40 ft. observation tower at Holiday Beach.

Holiday Beach, Ontario is where I cut my teeth as a raptor fanatic. Back in the 80’s before there was a tower, I was begging my parents to drive me over there. It’s a beautiful place and there’s always something to see even on the slow raptor days. In late September huge flocks of Blue Jays pass by and the marsh is loaded with waterfowl, herons and egrets.


Hawk counters on a November day.

A Red-tailed Hawk rests in a cottonwood.

Hawk watching is pretty easy birding. Most birds aren’t on the move until late morning and if the wind is right, many birds come fairly close. Plunk down in one spot for the day and relax. As the birds gain altitude it’s nice to have a spotting scope set up for distant identification.

Northern Harriers are seen from early September through late November.

Just a few Northern Goshawks are seen at the Lake Erie sites. Most are immatures.

Hope to see you out there. I’ll be talking more about raptors and other birds next month at my “River of Birds” presentation for Genesee Audubon.


~ by David Stimac on September 19, 2013.

5 Responses to “Fall Raptors Are On The Move”

  1. Wonderful story, information and images! I look forward to this event every year in the fall! We have had huge “kettles” of Broad-wings here during the past couple of weeks. They are always a welcome sight! I had a Harrier over in the grasslands just a mile from the house!

  2. This is a great primer for my visit to Lake Erie Metropark and their annual HawkFest. Thanks Dave.

  3. Well. You know me and hawks.. thanks for the vicarious thrill. It’ll have to do for now.

    I found your migration map informative– so they don’t cross the straits in fall? I ask because I’ve had several reports of hawk kettles in HuCo in fall.

  4. Thanks! Monica, I’m sure plenty of birds cross the straits. They sure do in the spring! I wonder if anyone watches there in the fall?

  5. David, as usual your post is as informative as your pictures are intriguing and beautiful. It’s a busy time of the year for me but I’ll have to find the time to experience an event like this soon.

    Great post!

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