They come in waves to the Southern Appalachians each fall, riding the updrafts and gliding over the mountains.
They’re broad-winged hawks migrating south from Canada and the Northeast. Their rite of passage draws another kind of migrant: Hawk watchers like Rhonda Weiss of Burlington, who drive to the Blue Ridge Parkway to scan the sky at overlooks such as Mahogany Rock, with vistas looking north and south.
Last Saturday, Weiss scoured the nearly cloudless sky with binoculars. “Whatcha got?” she called out after hearing excited shouts. “Where is it? Where is it? Still see it?”
“Yeah, we’ve got a Mississippi kite,” another birder called back. The kite circled a small ridge to the east of the 3,420-foot-high overlook, snatching also-migrating dragonflies. While not a hawk, the kite provided a welcomed sighting of a bird normally seen in the Deep South.
Late September usually marks the peak of broad-winged migration at Mahogany Rock Overlook. But last weekend relatively few had shown up. Jim Keighton of Sparta, who’s been counting hawks at the site since 1986, said birders elsewhere are seeing large numbers of broad-wings.
For example, Rockfish Gap (near Waynesboro, Va.) recorded 8,387 on Sept. 22. Grandfather Mountain logged 1,136 and Pilot Mountain State Park, 695, on Sept. 23.
By day’s end Saturday, Keighton and others had spotted 42 broad-wings for an overall total of 473 since Sept. 1, when counting began.
So far this year, Keighton said, numbers have been “very, very low. We would normally have 1,000 birds at least, 2,000 by this time.”
Keighton said broad-wings hitch rides on rising columns of air created by updrafts against the mountains. They spiral upward thousands of feet in the thermals, forming “kettles” of birds that can number in the hundreds. Then they glide to the next thermal, saving energy on their long journey to Central and South America for the winter.
“They could be going anywhere,” said Keighton, noting that it’s difficult to pick out birds often miles high above in a brilliant sky.
Keighton said broad-wings hawks begin to move south when chilly weather hits the north and their primary food, cold-blooded creatures such as bugs, frogs and snakes, become inactive. But this year’s extended hot weather has delayed migration. “It’s still summer up there.”
A retired school teacher, Keighton makes daily tallies not only of broad-wings but also other hawks as well as eagles, osprey, vultures, peregrine falcons and other raptors. He’s a volunteer for the nationwide “Hawk Count,” a project of the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Keighton and others post daily counts on www.hawkcount.org.
The best count ever for broad-wings? On a fall day in 1994, 8,000 passed over Mahogany Rock Overlook in a continuous twirling mass of birds. “We’ve never had anything close to that,” he said.
Broad-wings may have been scarce Saturday but visitors got a closeup of a captive-bred Harris’s hawk owned by Eric Harrold of North Wilkesboro. The three-year-old hawk, named “Joe Cool,” was tethered to Harrold’s gloved arm. As visitors warmed to Joe Cool, Harrold passed along educational information about birds of prey.
For Weiss, the Burlington birder, it was her first trip this season to Mahogany Rock Overlook. The overlook creates a natural observatory. “It’s just such a nice place because you’ve got both sides (of the parkway) you can look at,” she said.
In the early afternoon, Weiss glimpsed five raptors at once. “There were five broad-wings and an osprey. They would converge together in a kettle.”
She started birding three years ago and already has shot 20,000 images of birds and butterflies. “I’m hooked,” she said.
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”
Want to go?
Mahogany Rock Overlook is at milepost 235 on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Hawk watcher Jim Keighton said best time for seeing hawks, weather permitting, is 10 a.m.-1 p.m. The migration of raptors continues to mid-October. Birders also count hawks at Pilot Mountain State Park northwest of Winston-Salem.