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Migrating raptors easy to see on Blue Ridge Parkway

Last Sunday I joined nine members of Mecklenburg Audubon for some hawk watching at Milepost 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Mahogany Rock Overlook). The site is one of many in the eastern United States where migrating raptors are counted to gain insight on their movement and population trends. The site is manned every day from September to November when the conditions are right. Our group was a fraction of the dozens of birders watching from the sight well into the afternoon.

The third week of September is traditionally the peak time for viewing flocks of migrating broad-winged hawks. This species depends on rising thermals of air to speed them on their way to Central and South America. Thousands of broad-winged hawks can potentially be seen on a day with good moving conditions. Other raptor species can be seen too, but not in the same numbers. Still, large numbers of accipiters, falcons, ospreys, and eagles can be seen into November.

We arrived at 8:30 a.m. with favorable brisk northerly winds blowing through the gap. Small warblers, tanagers and vireos zipped overhead, not even slowing down as they dove into the shrubs around the overlook. It wasn’t long before the first broad-winged hawk passed low over our heads. In the next three hours we counted 95 broad-winged hawks, two osprey, three sharp-shinned hawks and two American kestrels. After lunchtime the winds died, and so did much of the raptor movement. I expected even larger numbers; several hawk-watching sites to the north had recorded more than 5,000 birds the previous day. I hoped that most of those birds were still to the north and perhaps would pass through within our view, but it wasn’t to be that day.

You may see similar groups of birders scanning for migrating hawks if you are traveling the Blue Ridge Parkway around Mahogany Rock or Mount Pisgah, or if you are in the area of the Peaks of Otter and Afton Mountain in Virginia, or at Caesar’s Head in South Carolina. Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina is also a popular viewing location. There should be experts at each site to introduce you to hawk watching.