MENDOTA, Va. (WJHL) – Thousands of broad-winged hawks are on the move through the region, and you should be able to spot some if you take up Hawk Watching.
With the Mendota, Virginia Heritage and Hawk Festival coming up on Saturday, News Channel 11 took a look at what exactly hawk watching is, and why our region seems to provide such a good venue.
Why do hawks come here?
“The birds go north for breeding season, and they’re all over Canada and the northern United States,” said Larry McDaniel, the president of the Bristol Bird Club. “And when they decide to start going south they start going pretty much all at about one time. So that’s why you see such large numbers of them at migration points.”
When they leave the north, the birds are destined for Mexico to live out the winter in the warmth. That gives them a roughly southwestern bearing, which takes them straight through our region.
Flying thousands of miles on muscle power alone is tiring work, and migrating birds are always looking for ways to save some energy along the way. For hawks, the mountains of Appalachia represent a golden opportunity.
When wind hits the region’s mountains, some is deflected upwards, which makes an updraft that lets hawks soar higher and farther than they would otherwise. When looking at Clinch Mountain, the roughly 150-mile ridge that runs NE to SW, migrating hawks see a superhighway.
“They can fly [long ways] in a day without hardly flapping at all, Broad-wings are masters at it,” McDaniel said.
Hawks are not social creatures, meaning that they don’t need to spend time around other members of their species. Thousands gathering together is a rare sight, though completely natural.
“It’s not their desire to be together, they’re not called gregarious,” McDaniel said. “That is them taking advantage of the same opportunities. They’re all wanting to go to the same place, and they’re all taking advantage of the same conditions.”
But when they’re migrating, hawks are much more interested in what their peers are doing.
“If they see other birds taking advantage of an updraft,” McDaniel said. “They might be drawn to that. That’s why a lot of times you’ll be looking out at a group of hawks and more and more just start joining that group.”
McDaniel said hawk numbers have been relatively healthy this year, but have been on a slight decline since peak periods in the 80s and 90s.
What is Hawk Watching?
While keeping an eye on the sky is relatively simple, hawk watching is a more specific hobby than birdwatching. Hawk watchers are part scientist, part hobbyist and part interpretive ranger.
McDaniel said the average hawk watching day runs from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and involves the documentation of each animal that flies overhead. Volunteers can see ospreys, eagles and many more species during their shift.
Broad-winged hawks make up the vast majority of the region’s guests, and thousands can be seen concentrating around Mendota, Virginia as they make their way south for the season. As of Tuesday’s count, nearly 4,000 were spotted by volunteer hawk watchers.
The numbers gathered by hawk watchers in the region are an invaluable resource to the scientific community, and provide crucial insight into population health and behavior.
How can I Hawk Watch?
McDaniel said the best way to become an expert hawk watcher is to start from the beginning. Find a vantage point, preferably one with a clear view to the northeast along a ridge or mountain and spend some time watching the sky with binoculars. Peak hours run from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Some hawks can soar so high that they’re just specks in the air, while others may swoop much closer while they gain altitude.
“It’s hard work, actually,” McDaniel said. “Staring at the sky trying to find these specks through the day.”
Hawk watching is slowly becoming an endangered hobby as many of the region’s avid hawk watchers become too old to tackle certain hikes. This year, the watching season had to be shortened significantly to make sure volunteers had complete coverage in Mendota.
“That’s another number that’s declined in recent years,” McDaniel said. “And we’re trying very hard to get that picked up again because it takes quite a bit and it’s hard for one or two people to do most of the work.”
To help out, McDaniel said anyone with an interest in birds and biology should reach out to him at Larrymcd@hotmail.com or visit their local birding club to get involved. On Saturday, Mendota hawk watchers, some of which are with McDaniel’s club, will be out for the public to quiz on their raptor knowledge.