Scan The Skies This September

If Vic Laubach doesn’t have to work and the rain holds off, he is probably at Rockfish Gap, Milepost 0 on the Blue Ridge Parkway counting birds of prey.

“When raptors migrate,” explains Laubach, Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch Coordinator, “they all follow common paths, and we can get good population counts.”

The same mountain ridges that give us big views act as “leading lines” for migration, providing raptors, like hawks, eagles, vultures, and falcons, the weather conditions needed for long-distance travel. If you’re a bird traveling all the way to South America, says Laubach, “you don’t want to flap your wings the whole time.” Instead, many raptors “kettle” in mesmerizing circles of invisible columns of rising hot air called thermals or soar along slopes when northwesterly winds collide with northeast-southwest ridgelines.

August begins with a trickle of birds. Numbers peak for two weeks in September, when thousands of broad-winged hawks can pass in one day. Diversity peaks in October and November, with high numbers of vultures, eagles, sharp-shinned hawks and red-tailed hawks. All that data is compiled with the Hawk Migration Association of North America alongside the data from hundreds of other volunteer hawk watch locations.

“We hope it’s [data] being used by scientists,” says Laubach. The reality, he continues, is that data shows downtrending raptor populations resulting from “loss of habitat and food sources,” and those issues will likely be further impacted by climate change. Some changes, however, are more interesting than concerning, like rebounding bald eagle populations and more Mississippi kite sightings.

There’s certainly no shortage of places to sit back and watch the skies, but here are five places, north to south, where every fall is hawkwatch season.

Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Kempton, PA

A cornerstone of raptor conservation, Hawk Mountain Sanctuary was actually once a hawk hunting ground. Today, the North Lookout at the 2,600-acre preserve is a well-known (read: crowded) hawk watch, so hike to East Rocks instead. Start at the Visitor Center, making a 4-mile loop using the Lookout, Skyline, River of Rocks, and Golden Eagle trails.

Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch

Afton, VA

Located at the Inn at Afton along Blue Ridge Parkway, Laubach sees Rockfish Gap as an accessible option. “Anyone can drive up and look up” to see passing raptors, and volunteers are regularly available to share spotting scopes and information. Laubach enjoys October when diversity means “you could see anything” and the weather starts to cool.

Hanging Rock Tower Raptor

Observatory, Union, WV

Hanging Rock Tower, the only official hawk watch site in West Virginia, is high atop Peters Mountains (elevation 4,073’) along the almost-finished, 330-mile Allegheny Trail. The 2-mile round trip hike from Limestone Hill Road to the tower is steep, but you’ll be rewarded with 360-degree views and a small, dedicated group of hawkwatchers. Post hawkwatch, stay for the sunset.

Mahogany Rock Overlook

Sparta, NC

No hike necessary at Mahogany Rock Overlook (Milepost 235) where the Blue Ridge Birders set up in the grassy pull off with an almost 360-degree view. Thanks to a few dedicated volunteers, this site became North Carolina’s first official hawk watch in 1986. It’s still a great place to stop and learn a little from regulars.

Caesars Head State Park

Cleveland, SC

The “Wing Nuts” of the Greenville County Bird Club spend fall hawkwatching at 3,226-foot Caesars Head and its 180-degree view into the South Carolina Piedmont. The Main Overlook is accessible by a short walk from the parking area, where Tim Lee, Naturalist at South Carolina’s Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area, recommends looking north back over the ridge to track raptors as they pass over.